Within the Shinigami’s stomach is hell; this much is known even to mere mortals.
Those who are doomed to reside there are said to be condemned to agony, to be pitted against their victims for all time, or until some enterprising soul bearing agendas unknown saw fit to wear the Shinigami’s Mask and free them. A task that first requires knowledge of any of these forbidden topics beyond fear and rumors.
Knowing this intellectually offered not even the slightest buffer to the reality.
The reality was so much more.
There were horrors uncounted within the Shinigami’s stomach. Such horrors as a human mind can only shy from, shivering, eyes rolling, hell the merest but sanest word for it.
Such horrors as only a human mind can contrive.
It took a special kind of determination to feed a foe to the Reaper’s maw, the kind that might disguise itself as desperation, or cruelty, or some sense of justice. A determination that calls down a punishment the likes of which there is no escape from, no mercy to be had.
No begging allowed.
Not in here.
Tobirama never gave thought to the matter before, his cousin Clan’s most frightening jutsu. He was never curious — no, say rather, his interests lay in wresting others from the Shinigami’s grasp, not condemning them to it any further.
Limping away from his latest battle — some Kumo shinobi he doesn’t recognize, killed by one of his many bomb-laden Edo Tensei puppets — trailing blood behind in drips and splatters and footsteps, he kind of wishes he had put some thought into it. Some idle speculation that might have prepared him for it if only in the least of infinitesimal ways, some inkling as to what to expect on the merest possibility he’d end up here.
Is it to his credit that the Dead Demon Consuming Seal has never been among his sins?
He doesn’t know why he even bothers wandering around this hellscape anymore. His ‘victims’ will find him wherever he is. They come, singly and in droves, to lash out with weapons, and words, and an omnipresent fury that practically reverberates in the air like a foul miasma he can’t escape.
If he wins, he leaves. If they win, he suffers.
Then he resurrects, and leaves.
The landscape is dry and barren, dull, grayish, dotted here and there with the odd, withered, blackened tree. Even the rock is lifeless, no dust to stir, disdaining to drink the blood that follows him wherever he goes.
He avoids the trees.
He’s been strung up in them a time too many to want to be near them. The phantom feel of rope follows him as faithfully as blood now, cinched around his throat, and wrists, and ankles.
Tobirama has long lost track of how long he’s been here. Not the number of times he’s died, no — that, he is certain, is etched into him beyond forgetting. But there has been no rest, no sustenance, no rising and falling of light to mark the time to be had. Time is never more apparently a mortal construct useless before gods.
He would mark the time between deaths but. He never knows how long it takes to wake up again.
He wonders if — when — he’ll see Izuna.
It’ll be good to see his old rival. Nostalgic even, to cross blades and spill blood with him. Who knows, maybe they’ll even the scales and Tobirama will die at his hand this time.
He’s almost looking forward to it.
A scream of rage sounds in the distance. It’s no one he recognizes. It sounds again, closer, and he closes his eyes, takes a breath he doesn’t need, and turns to face them with a sword drawn at the ready.
The unready die in the shinigami’s stomach.
No one stays that way for long.
Tobirama shudders out of undeath, the last bubbles of blood dribbling down his chin from lungs no longer flooded. His mind is reeling, not quite aware. There is floor under him that doesn’t feel of rock, or much of anything he recognizes, its smooth and coldnotcold and the softest thing he’s felt in who knows how long.
He wants to lay there forever.
He wants for whoever is staring at him to get it over with already and let him rest in oblivion.
But they don’t so he drags himself up, drags his still bloody self into the chair, and slumps gracelessly at the table.
The Shinigami watches, silent. Inscrutable behind a face that might be a mask, or a mask that has become a face. It’s hard to tell. There isn’t even a feel to him— it— them, whatever pronoun a personification of entropy even goes by, not that Tobirama can feel anyone in this place. Usually they announce themselves long before he has to find them.
There’s no burning need to break the silence, so Tobirama doesn’t. He rests his forehead on the table instead, smearing it with blood leftover from a head wound he doesn’t remember. There’s no burning need to do anything right now, too tired to speak, to investigate his surroundings, to even care about what a god may do with him in its sights.
He has question upon question churning in the back of his mind but none are more important than this precious moment of rest.
The table is so nice and cool against his burning skin. Why he has the capacity to feel physical sensation when, as far as he knows, he doesn’t have a body with nerves with which to feel anything is yet another question that can wait. Maybe physical sensation is so ingrained in his mind that it’s become psychosomatic? But no, he can still bleed which shouldn’t be the case in a purely spiritual form unless bleeding is psychosomatic too.
Unless, being a purely spiritual form the ability to feel and bleed at all is some kind of self-induced genjustu to makes sense of his own existence in a plane entirely beyond mortal comprehension.
Now the question becomes; does he dare cancel it if indeed a genjutsu it is?
“Curious, the way your thoughts bounce.” A voice... floats overhead, and Tobirama stills. Unnerved. Twists to look upon the god of death with one eye. “Souls who stop fighting tend to also stop thinking and yet, your mind is lively.”
Right now, all Tobirama can think is how skin crawling it is, the way the Shinigami’s voice seems to come from it— them— him, and yet not truly come from his mouth. The lips moved but the sound was off. Sort of, floating into existence as a mere caricature of a human talking.
Oh, also the part where the Shinigami can read minds but honestly, that’s old hat.
What even merited the Shinigami’s personal attention? What detail caught its— his— their attention insistently enough that they pulled him to this...private room, for lack of a better description? Were souls grown apathetic to their own pain boring? Interesting? Worthy of a reprieve?
It takes blinking out of a zone out to notice he’s been quiet a bit too long. He open his mouth, then closes it hesitantly, unsure if that even merited a response. But the silence is getting awkward, or maybe it’s just him so he says, voice rough. “My...apologies.” He has to cough to get the rest out. “It’s been...a while since I saw the use in—” speaking aloud, “talking to others.”
Truth. The screaming, maddened figures who hunt him never respond to his own attempts to communicate. They say their piece, fling their accusations, but otherwise act like he’s just a training dummy for all the regard they give him.
The Shinigami is bowed forward over the table, intimidatingly giant, utterly still. Like a puppet slumped on its strings, abandoned. They don’t even drool around the handle of the tanto shoved in their mouth. They’re so alien. “Not unusual. I have seen many like you in this state come to this room quiet. Still other I’ve seen raving. Denying. Weeping. Begging me to tell them all is but a finite nightmare with an end in sight. Do you too think this a dream?”
“Impossible,” Tobirama rasped. “The faces. Impossible.”
It takes a moment to scrape his focus together.
“Yes. The human mind cannot make up faces it doesn’t recognize. Subconscious memory stores every face it remembers, even if only seen in passing, and the brain cobbles them together to populate dreams. I saw faces I don’t recognize. Faces I couldn’t recognize. Ergo, I’m not dreaming. This is real.”
“What if you didn’t recognize them because they’d been cobbled together?”
“Then I would see repetition in patterns, which I have not.” Tobirama countered. “I’m still working on the hypothesis of genjutsu being involved; at the very least, the people aren’t my illusion.”
“Curious,” the Shinigami repeated. “You think the people aren’t real?”
“I—” Tobirama paused, unsure, before offering a question of his own. “What are the parameters to determine who my ‘victims’ are? Is it people I’ve killed? How much does it differentiate between direct harm, or indirect harm? Do I have to have done something to them or is it sufficient for them to believe me to be at fault? If so, what force, or being, knows the ripples of my actions well enough to pick out those who believe themselves my victims?”
“And what have you observed so far?”
Tobirama considered that for a long time, by his reckoning.
“There have only been combatants,” He starts slowly. “I’ve killed many civilians for the sake of a job over my lifetime, yet none have confronted me so far. Of those I do see, two I know for a fact I tortured but left alive; prisoners of war from the warring era. I’ve seen those I killed up close and personal, and those I’ve killed from afar. Which once again leads me to there being an element of blame somewhere, some unconscious disquiet on my end or, or a sense of revenge on theirs perhaps. Only...I don’t feel myself the victim of those who killed me so I’m having trouble conceptualizing the emotions involved.”
“How fascinating,” the Shinigami mouthed out of synch. “I rarely hear such insight into mine own realm. Not on the first visit, that is. Nothing quite like falling into despair and then getting over yourself to induce a sense for the philosophical.”
“I will have to take your word for it.” Tobirama jerked an arm under his head, unable to ignore the burning in the bend of his spine anymore. “This of course leads to more dangerous questions, like; how connected is your stomach to the afterlife? Afterlives? Whichever is applicable. This would help determine the realness of the other people. Seems strange to condemn so many people at once when you only mean to punish one. Do they even get a choice about being here or are they yanked here unknowingly?”
“Dangerous questions indeed. The kind that would break a mortal mind to understand.” Horrifyingly, the Shinigami began to laugh. Hoarse convulsions more air than sound, shaking the table. “Answers I don’t think even you are ready for, Senju Tobirama, not while you still believe some part of this isn’t real.”
His name falling— floating— coming into being from that cursed mouth sent a wretched shudder down his spine, like something clawed stroked over something deeper than skin and viscera. He doesn’t register sitting up so much as the room flickering in both eyes, the lack of a skin-warmed surface pressed to his cheek.
There is a yawning abyss beyond these facsimiles of walls and it hungers.
“Somehow,” he says faintly, “I have trouble believing all that I’ve seen in here is literal truth.”
“Literal truth?” The Shinigami rasped that disturbing laugh. “How very like you, to be so arrogant as to assume you can handle truth that is literal.”
“So you’re saying some part of this is false.”
The Shinigami does not move, its eyes don’t dart with the micro-movements that characterize a living thing, and yet, there is an impression of focus that wasn’t there before. A tangible press. A weight sinking behind Tobirama’s eyes. A claustrophobia that is all the soul’s own, and not the closeness of the walls.
Tobirama regrets nothing.
What’s to regret after plucking a secret from a god?
“Ah.” That monstrous regard deepens. “Truly, a lively mind.”
Tobirama didn’t get a chance to comprehend movement before that tanto was thrust through his throat and he was drowning in blood.
By now it was achingly familiar.
New certainty lends him strength to stand, to move, to fight and win and survive again. The pain is real, the people are real — or based on real people — but something about it all is false. Tobirama knows that for sure now.
There is something to strive for after all in this hellscape of the exiled dead.
Where did everybody go?
No one comes for him. No hunter screaming their vengeance to the void above, no sound of running feet on hard rock, not even the over eager panting of someone already waiting for him. Only the sound of his own breathing, his own footsteps, his own thoughts.
Tobirama is alone and he doesn’t know what to make of it.
It’s..fine. At first. A chance for more rest, gather his thoughts. Enjoy the quiet for a change. He can’t sleep but sprawling on his back and staring blankly at the void is close enough for his purposes. He thinks about how the variables changed once he made known he’d observed them, how the Shinigami didn’t actually say anything either way about his supposition.
He doubts the confirmation of his tentative thesis. Damn it.
When zoning out becomes boring and unattainable he spends a while meditating for real, gets himself in order. Tries to ignore how the puddle of blood grows around him. Fails. Gets up and moves out of sight of it. Meditates until the blood becomes unignorable. Rinse and repeat until the repetition drives him spare.
It’s quiet now.
For lack of other distractions he takes to wandering around, moving for the sake of moving. Getting the, heh, blood moving. He doesn’t like that last thought, actually. Too hysterical humor for his tastes. Hysteria is the mind killer, right up there with panic and the first kiss of fear gracing shadowy hands over the back of your neck.
It’s too quiet.
He ends up walking in circles, spirals, loops, going back over his original hypothesis once more.
There...is an element of illusion here, it seems undeniable even now. The variables changed under observation. More, trying to categorize the variables caused their change. Trying to categorize the variables to the Shinigami, the holder and creator of this space for banished souls, caused their change. So. This world— dimension— liminal space was under the control of the Shinigami’s will; truth. The inhabitants saw what the Shinigami willed them to see; truth. What is seen is of questionable reality… Truth? Pending.
Tobirama is in the stomach of a god yet he is also in a long dead plain — plane? — full of long dead trees still reaching withered, blackened hands to the endless void that pretends to be a sky. Or, maybe they’re not dead, they’re merely as they’ve always been since their creation and Tobirama merely perceives them as dead because they do not fit his notion of living.
Time continues to be an illusion and yet, he is more exhausted than ever.
How long has he been zoned out now? Long enough to grow a sizable puddle, it seems. He’s given up trying to determine the source of the bleeding, he can never find it.
The quiet has grown so loud.
It occurs to him, vaguely, like an intrusive thought weakly struggling through the barrier of his subconscious mind into the forefront of his conscious mind, that this lassitude is unnatural. That he should not be so given to malaise. That he was motivated, nay, invigorated, by the lack of interruptions to calculate a way out of this dimension. Prepared to write it out in blood on dead stone if he had to.
This thought, like all his other thoughts, are drowned out by the pervasive quiet settling like a thick morass over everything.
He blinks out of another zone out, flat on his back. The void is...as it is. Why did he think it was somehow different? The taste of copper is thick in his mouth. His wrist is clamped between his teeth. It takes a solid effort to unclench his jaw, his teeth sliding out of his flesh with an unpleasant noise. This is new.
He sits up and goes to spit out the blood but his throat seizes, scraped raw and painful, making his eyes water. Had he been...screaming?
Or it would be if the quiet weren’t smothering his thoughts. Maybe screaming was a good idea.
Curiously, the usual puddle is absent. Instead, there is a sprawl of notes, equations, tentative fuuinjutsu designs written in blood spiraled around him. Tobirama only knows he was the one to write them because they leave off where his other hand splayed, fingertips raw from manic rubbing over an unforgiving surface.
What the hell happened during that fugue?
On second thought, the notes don’t make sense! Here, a double-back loop traditionally used for space-time stabilizers, there, a helix equation for layered genjutsu, in between a nigh incomprehensible ramble about the spaces between matter intersecting disastrously with a different paragraph of old observations on the energy of the soul and how it interacted with dimensions when called through them.
Complete nonsense, all told; the ultimate point is to end the illusion, not build more!
Besides, this end bit segues halfway through a sentence into theorizing putting a contained dimension under genjutsu as if that’s possible—
Tobirama blinks out of another zone, wondering why he’s staring blankly at a spreading puddle of blood. He must have been in it a while for it to be so large. His throat is sore. His hand is wrapped around the handle of a kunai buried in his gut. He wonders why the pain is so distant—
Tobirama blinks out of another zone, wondering why he’s choking. His throat is sore. He’s hanging from a tree, wire wrapped around his neck, cutting into flesh from his own body weight. The specter of death is upon him.
Tobirama has the wherewithal to examine his surroundings the next time he comes to. They’re boring, void-like, and of appropriately questionable reality. Just like last time. Just like all times as far as he knows. The floor is not a floor, the walls are not really walls, and the table and chairs are made or not made of non-matter, but at the end of any unit of time he comprehends, they get the job done.
He hauls himself into the waiting chair and tells the Shinigami, “You have a very austere sense of aesthetics, don’t you?” without so much as a by your leave. Since the other option is screaming, he figures this is the politer option.
Hmm, does choosing the politer conversation route count for much with something who can read your thoughts anyway? Tobirama instantly forms the opinion that it should, because you’re consciously choosing to be polite rather than the involuntary expression of honesty that exists in one’s thoughts.
“I have what I need, no more, no less,” the Shinigami says with a voice that doesn’t come from their mouth but nevertheless comes from the physical vicinity of their face. Very confusing.
There’s no ringing quiet in here at all.
“So,” Tobirama says distantly, “what did you learn from that...that. I’d like to assume there’s a point, you see, because I like when there are tangible motivations for things. And from my perspective it was a little...heavy-handed. After my last assumption.”
“Better,” is what the Shinigami does say, tinged with satisfaction that rubs raw. “You learn quickly. I like that in souls. You’re a very stubborn one but you have a surprising amount of flex to you. I applaud the way you assume new shapes while still remaining yourself; oftentimes, I find that souls need a little erosion before they figure out their fundamental parts to anchor their identities fully.”
Tobirama blinks. Opens his mouth, closes it. The Shinigami is patient. “Assuming...assuming souls transmigrate, can transmigrate, does that mean a soul has the same fundamental parts from life to life? That the foundations of my own life are similar enough as to be the same for my last life? Or my next life?”
“Each soul,” the Shinigami says with care, “is a unique structure. The trappings it acquires from life to life are but temporary imaginings, not quite pretty costumes and not quite the ever-shedding skin of a snake. Beyond all, the structure remains pure. It is...interesting to me. How much a soul can forget between lives. How much it can be prodded to remember. I often find that it is souls like yours, that know themselves well, that have the hardest time remembering past memories.”
The Shinigami hummed in absent thought. “Yes. What need have you of petty trappings when you never forget the most important details. It’s souls who don’t know themselves who are liable to cling to every little thing, because they don’t know what’s important.”
“Does that...interest, play a part in what souls see in your realm?” Tobirama propped an elbow on the edge of the table. “Are you experimenting?”
The Shinigami scrutinizes him with fathomless eyes that Tobirama is careful not to meet. “I believe you mortals call it stress testing.”
“Stress testing,” Tobirama repeated dully.
“Never to destruction,” the Shinigami...assures? “As an overseer of souls, that would be unconscionable.”
“Of course,” Tobirama murmurs, an exhaustion all his own creeping in and burying his face in a hand. “Was that... fugue part of it then? Alternating environment to test reactions to differing stimuli?”
“No,” the Shinigami repeated. “You were just getting too close. An entirely lively mind indeed.”
“I don’t—” Tobirama frowns. “I don’t remember.”
“I made you forget. Only temporarily, mind. I’m sure it’ll come back if it’s important. If not, if it is important, your mind will retread a path it thinks new.”
“...You are entirely disconcerting.”
“So are you. I’m a God of Death; what’s your excuse?”
Tobirama exhaled a short laugh, a bitter sound. Curled his fingers so he was propped on his knuckles. “So what have you learned? Unless, that’s not for mortal minds either. I confess myself curious about the data you’ve collected. I presume it’s souls who ‘don’t know themselves’ that require eroding? What do you do with souls like mine then? What’s even the point of stressing a soul down to bare essentials, do they even recall these lessons after being released and reborn?”
“I live in hope,” the Shinigami says simply.
“Do you even live in a conventional manner?” Tobirama scoffed.
“Good for you.”
“I don’t really view it one way or the other. I don’t thank you for the sentiment.”
“So what do you do with souls like mine?” Tobirama asks again, archly. “If we already know our fundamental parts, what’s the next step to take, O Death God?”
“I suppose…” the Shinigami trailed off in an unsettling hiss. Tobirama was loath to incur yet another nightmare but he had no patience for theatrics.
“You suppose?” He asks, leaning back in the chair and crossing his arms.
“I suppose it’ll be a surprise.” The Shinigami finished. Implacable as a mountain bed and just as hard to move to any appreciable degree by mere mortals’ reckoning.
Just like before, Tobirama doesn't see the tanto move.
Just like before, the variables were changed.
Tobirama came to shackled to a tree, seated at the base of a trunk with a chain running across his lap and all around the girth of the tree, his hands manacled above his head by a loop of chain over a branch. He sighed. Crossed his legs and tried to get comfortable. Jerked at the manacles to test their security which was, unfortunately, pretty good.
“I’d quit while you’re ahead if I were you,” an idle voice commented from up in the branches. A familiar idle voice. Tobirama closed his eyes, thinking, finally. He’s been waiting for this.
“You’d do a lot of things I wouldn’t, if you were me,” Tobirama replied. “Izuna.”
“Ain’t that the truth!” Izuna guffawed, breaking the deathly ambience in the most irreverent, jarring fashion. “Oh, I had a list of people I’d assassinate on the unlikely chance we ever switched bodies. Too bad the Yamanaka never pulled that shit on us, eh?” The branches overhead creaked as he moved. “Those were the days, Tobirama. Those were the days.”
“They were not,” Tobirama says. “Not then, not afterwards.”
“Well I wouldn’t know that!” Izuna crashed down in front of him, red eyed and furious. “I died before there was ever anything different, didn’t I. Didn’t I?! My good ol’ days will always be bloody, will always be killing, will always be imagining each and every way I could’ve killed you given half a shot! And I don’t need you, or anyone, telling me what a pity it was!”
Tobirama does not look him in the eye. “Okay.”
“Okay?” That seemed to take some of the wind out of the Uchiha’s sails. He eased his stance some, settling back on his heels, still poised to move, still crouched to spring, but less urgent. He nodded. “Okay. Glad you understand.”
“I take it there were others who didn't?” Tobirama says carefully, placing each word as cautiously as a waterfowl trying not to disturb the fish.
“Ha!” Izuna barked a bitter laugh. “Is there ever. Your village is like poison; every Uchiha who survived to see its birth treat me like a shell shocked victim. Those who have no memory of before treat me like a god, at first, and then they treat me like a monster. They’re soft; those peace-born Uchiha. Our era would have eaten them alive.”
Tobirama regarded him in his peripherals thoughtfully, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. Yes, he often found those children of the village to have weaker stomachs for atrocity, but...wasn’t that the point? That the children who come after them be the heirs of their virtues, not their sins. That they bury the blood to enrich the earth and grow something better from it.
“You remember another place than this?” Tobirama asks instead. “How did you come to be here?”
Izuna scoffed. “I could not possibly explain to you in words how any of that happened. Suffice to say; I got the impression you were here, a query was posed, somehow, and I agreed. The getting in and out bit is beyond my memory.”
“You would think so,” Izuna says dryly. “It was all quite boring from perspective.”
Tobirama hummed, shifting carefully. “So, are you here as one of my ‘victims’ or were you just looking for a little payback? Because I have to tell you, the constant dying is getting a little boring on my end.”
“As if I’d ever be your victim,” Izuna spat, what Tobirama can see of his mouth curled in disgust in the corner of his eye. “We fought in honorable combat. You beat me. I died. End of story. At no point was I victimized!”
“I...take it that’s something of a sore point.”
“Some people,” Izuna snarled, “didn’t seem to get the memo about how life works. Worked. Works, damn it. Let himself get caught up in stupid ideas that would have been better served when we were still enemies. I, of course, would argue that being subjugated still made us enemies but I would have had some damn subtlety about fixing it!”
Ah, this old ground. Familiar vitriol. Tobirama was sick of it long before he took steps to rectify it, to the best of his efforts, once it was in his power to do so. It wasn’t a pretty fact; the Senju conquering the Uchiha, wrangling concessions from a defeated foe, rather than coming together in agreement they way they allowed popular rumor to paint it to the other clans, in vain. But it was a fact they had to live with, so they did, to the best of their tolerance. It grieved his brother, Tobirama knew, grieved him to see his shared dream come to fruition in such a fractured manner, and he never quite knew how to even the scales where his old friend was concerned. Not in any way that didn’t worsen the cracks in his psyche, to be honest.
The hokage election was just the final nail in the coffin as far as Madara was concerned. No one was going to vote a satrap into office when his conquerors stood a good possibility of writing his legislation for him. It didn’t matter that Hashirama would have abided by Madara’s will no matter what anyone would have thought or said to him. Might as well cut out the middleman, as it were, and put the actual authority between them in charge.
Madara had long since lost his capacity to take things well.
It was such a mess trying to ease the Uchiha Clan into a position of equal power, and out from under the Senju Clan, during his reign as Hokage. Technically, all the Clans became satrapies under the Hokage’s authority but no Uchiha could become Hokage while they were still subordinated to the Senju. It could not be allowed to continue in a village that started with democracy.
Tobirama didn’t always give enough attention to the problem. He knows this. He knows it well. There was so much that divided his attention; his students, the war, the day to day minutia, building new, needed structures as the village evolved, and grew, and suffered losses. He relied a lot on Mito to keep things moving in that direction, more than he felt was fair to her. She wasn’t the one to make the mess, it shouldn’t have fallen to her to clean it up.
“Madara hasn’t come around after all these decades?” Tobirama asks, brows rising despite himself. “Strange. One would think death and reunion would go a long way to easing his madness.”
“Decades?” Izuna repeated, baffled. “It’s only been the one. A really frustrating one where he can’t seem to decide if he’s happy to see me or not. It’s really annoying.”
“Decades?” Tobirama parroted right back. “He died just a handful of years after you did. I processed his body myself.”
“Well, clearly, he didn’t die because he only showed up dead a decade ago. Shows what you know.” Izuna scoffed. “Madara had tricks up his sleeves he never had the guts to use while I still lived, more fool him. We could have routed you awful Senju years ago.”
“I hope you realize that goes both ways,” Tobirama says coldly, and cold from the discovery that Madara may well have been running around with impunity, still spreading his madness. “It would have been a slaughter such that not even our fathers could have imagined.”
Izuna scowls, silent, not agreeing but neither does he disagree. After all, they had tricks up their sleeves too cruel and monstrous to be palatable too.
What does it say about them that Izuna died before using them, but Tobirama lived to carry them out in the village’s name?
Nothing good, he imagines, nothing forgivable either. Maybe Izuna is right. Maybe there is something poisonous about Konohagakure that drives its people to such heights of fanaticism. Not even Madara was exempt from it. His sin being that he turned it upon the village instead of the village’s enemies, that he stopped pretending it wasn’t lurking inside him, inside them all, and repudiated the village for it rather them politely pretend everything was fine like the rest of them.
How foolish, to forget that not even he is immune to his brother’s drive.
Tobirama cannot bear the silence anymore in this awful, awful hellscape. “Why am I tied up?”
“Because you feel tied up,” Izuna promptly answers. Or not-answers, for all the help it gives. Tobirama finds there are many things that are not-things in this place, and all are infuriating.
“That,” Tobirama says dryly, “is patently obvious. Do you mind perhaps untying me? I hardly see the necessity.” He feels a bit ridiculous directing a flat glare at the Uchiha’s shoulder, but he respects Izuna — and more importantly, the depths of Izuna’s animosity — too much to glance nearer to his face.
“Nah,” Izuna says easily. “This is kinda nice.”
“Screw you too.”
“Not in a million years, Senju.”
“Don’t be disgusting,” Tobirama sneered.
Izuna shrugged, “Don’t leave such obvious openings then.”
“Is there any particular reason you’re here? Only, I can’t imagine you popped over here on a whim.”
Izuna shifted, the weight of his gaze heavy on the side of Tobirama’s face. “You could say that.” He’s quiet for a moment. “I died well, Tobirama. No one can take that from me. I did what was in my power to do right up until the end. My regrets are few, and my triumphs many.”
“I’m sensing a ‘but’ here,” Tobirama says softly.
“There is one thing…” Izuna shifts again, rocking on the balls of his feet. Tobirama tenses as Izuna draws his sword, slow and deliberate, and lays the blade across his knees. “I’ve been dreaming about it for a long time now. You know what I’m going to do with this.”
“Yes.” Tobirama grits his teeth. “Fuck you.” The blade sinks into his side and he looses a ragged gasp, an exact mirror of a memory he was never allowed to bury. The puddle beneath him grows and grows. “Vindictive little shit.”
“Eh, you’ll get over it.” Izuna draws the blade over his loose sleeve, wiping the blood off, before sheathing it with equal care. “You won’t stay dead long. And you won’t die quick either. We have some time to talk still.”
“I find I have nothing further to say to you,” Tobirama says, though his breath comes short and blood streaks a fresh trail down his chin.
“That’s fine, I have plenty to tell you about.” Izuna makes himself comfortable on the dead earth. “Shall I tell you of your poisonous village and its going-ons since your death? My kith and kin tell me much, and their kith and kin tell them more…”
There is a tremor in his hands he cannot shake, and trying just makes it worse. Tobirama clenches his fists in his lap and watches them shake, hating the weakness. The chains, like the blood, followed him to this non-space with the Shinigami, hanging slack from his frame and trailing on the floor.
There’s no discernible end point on them he can find. They’re just...there. Like the blood.
“Why do I have to die to get anywhere?” He asks. “I only ever arrive by death, and leave the same way.”
“How else do you conceive of moving between planes?” The Shinigami rebutted. “Mortal perspective is so fixed in place, so linear, only in death do you conceive of yourselves as unfixed in space and form. Strange how you little beings are so concerned with losing yourselves when that’s plainly impossible.”
“Depends on your definition of losing yourself; going too far down an unconscionable path, forgetting all your memories, loosening your mortal anchors to drift through space-time, all those count as ways to lose yourself.” Tobirama finally looked up at that face that might be a mask or a mask that became a face. “Is that what you seek to rectify then, souls that have lost themselves?”
“Those are only definitions of losing yourself as long as you can’t perceive the other side.” The Shinigami clacked their teeth against the tanto shoved between their jaws. “You will still be a being no matter how far down a path you go, or how many memories you lose, or whence you drift. You will still be the same soul. You will still occupy the same space. How can you claim to lose yourself when you are there all along? Is recognizing who and where you are truly so necessary?”
“Clearly not for you if these are questions you have to ask, but yes, most mortals would say so.” Tobirama tilts his head back with a sigh, more tired than he can ever express. “So. Death makes me malleable enough to shift planes. That’s...interesting, in a morbid way. I suppose it makes some sense.” He slumps further in the chair with a soft clink of shifting chains. “Why am I tied up?”
“Because you feel bound.” The Shinigami says simply. “It’s come to the forefront of your mind so it makes itself known.”
“Do I feel bound because I’m tied up or am I tied up because I feel bound?”
“Of course,” Tobirama echoes. “...Is it truly that simple?”
“...Of course. Did you imagine it otherwise?”
“I think I imagined a lot of things otherwise that turned out not to be so. Most of the time it’s disappointing. I think that makes me an optimist in the worst of ways.”
“Never quite practical enough not to hope for the best at least a little.” The Shinigami laughs its horrifying ragged rasp. Like a death rattle made mirthful, Tobirama noted with distant horror. “Tell me, do you still labor under the idea some part of this is false?”
“Of course,” Tobirama breathes, less the certainty of before, more a secret heresy harshly condemned from on high once already, undeterred. He feels rooted in this truth more than ever. Even now, something about this conversation niggles a memory; a series of bloody notes concealed under seething, destructive madness and still more blood. Death made souls malleable enough to transport — old observations on the energy of the soul and how it interacted with dimensions when called through them — souls are fixed, souls are energy, souls are objects at rest until an external force — death — acted upon them!
So simple, how did he forget? Unless the simplicity of it made it easier to forget the words to describe it.
“Oh,” Tobirama says, because this revelation is too big, too momentous to pass unremarked. The barest whisper of discovery falls from his lips to make room for it in his head. “Oh. It is that simple, isn’t it?”
“Oh?” The Shinigami does not stir, his bulk does not shift, but his gaze presses heavier. “Where did you go in your head, Senju Tobirama, that your words seem to they address a different answer?” Tobirama flinches at his spoken name, echoing in the hollows where there would be bones were he living, rattling the air in its place.
“This time, O Death God, I think I’ll keep it to myself,” Tobirama manages through grit teeth. The shakes are back in his hands, renewed by the unnatural intonation of his name. “You didn’t seem to like spoilers last time.”
The Shinigami does move then, ponderously lifting a hand to press flat to the table, shifting his weight the slightest bit forward. The air becomes so close in the pocket that Tobirama struggles to remember he doesn’t need to breathe, his shoulders hunched under the pressure. “Do you seek to play a game with me, mortal? How disappointing. I always win them.”
“But how often do you get to play?” Tobirama dares to speak and the pressure lifts. He gasps, pressing a hand of his own to the table, bracing himself as he finds the courage to lean in. “How often do you get the pleasure of a game, O Death God, that you don’t play with yourself, eh?”
The Shinigami cocks his head, the tanto sliding in its sheath. Slowly, the Shinigami’s bulk retreats into their chair, clawed hand slipping off the table with a soft susurrus of claws on the non-existence of the table.
“What are you proposing?”
“A bet.” Tobirama raises his chin with a grin fit for battle. “I bet I can figure a way out of here before you finish...whatever it is you do with souls like mine.”
The Shinigami rumbles with a thoughtful hum. “If the prize of winning is escape, then the forfeit of losing is staying. One day you will leave my domain, Senju Tobirama, it is inevitable, but always you will return to me. This is my covenant with you.” And saying such slid the tanto out the rest of the way and slammed it point first into the table. It wrapped its hand below the hilt and tightened its grip until blood ran down the blade.
Tobirama has never backed down a day in his life. He reaches for the blade. The god’s blood burns on his palm, in his palm.
Venom and ambrosia both.
Afterwards, in a barren landscape once more, the last vestiges of remembered pain fading from his throat, he’ll look at his palm and see a spidery black stain spread across his palm under the blood.
He’ll laugh. Maybe cry. Hashirama once told Tobirama that he’d never had any respect for the gods for as long as he’d lived. He’d meant it as a rebuke, but Tobirama wore that observation with pride. Used to wear it, a long, long time ago. What would he say now, Tobirama wonders, knowing he’d made a deal with one so impulsively? The very one he’d spited in life so thoroughly no less.
Well, it’s of no matter right now. Hashirama is somewhere far away, or maybe very close, and sometime soon Tobirama will find him because he can’t escape this hellscape without him. Just the same, he doesn’t know how much time he does have. A foolish mistake but then...only fools play games with gods; the gods always win.
Still, still, he has a piece of the puzzle, or maybe he’s just remembering it, and from there he can feel out the next piece. That’s everything.
His contemplation is interrupted by a hauntingly familiar screech of mindless fury.
The hordes return.
This one he remembers; Uchiha Setsuna, citizen of Konohagakure, military police officer, would-be rebel, and inheritor of Madara’s vicious, paranoid ideals.
Unlike Madara, Setsuna is no titan on the battlefield, he was no chore to strike down the first time and his present maddened state does him no favors; the opposite, really. The Setsuna he knew was a smart fighter, or at least, smart enough to know he had to fight smart. This maddened creature falls to Tobirama’s sword with neither grace nor sense, nor the awareness of his own defeat.
There is no honor to be found in the Shinigami’s stomach; only senseless slaughter.
There’s a lesson there, or maybe a metaphor, Tobirama thinks, sheathing his sword, a parallel to life most don’t want to look at too closely for fear of the shadows. But no, that’s not right either. An opponent who thinks and feels and reasons is a person worth matching wits with, an honorable opponent to win against. A maddened foe is a pitiable thing and to put them down is a mercy.
Tobirama breaks out into a quick jog, heading nowhere in particular, just trying to put some distance between himself and where the next raging figure will appear.
He needs all the thinking room he can get.
The next opponent is also an Uchiha which is less surprising than it is; Tobirama spent a not insignificant chunk of his life killing a not insignificant number of Uchiha.
He recognizes this one too. A child hunter.
One of Itama’s killers.
This one he’ll take satisfaction in killing.
Except between one breath and the next there’s a back pressed to his, a body that turns in conjunction, and a sword that swings with his to strike down the furious soul lost to memory. Izuna stands over the body of the kinsmen he just helped slay, and gives Tobirama an infuriating smile, as if he hadn’t stabbed him and watched him bleed out slow and agonizing last time. Tobirama sees red.
Izuna dances out of reach of a decapitating swing and bends like a reed in a breeze around several more wild blows, laughing brightly. “Quite the hello! Did you miss me? I certainly missed you; it’s boring around here.”
“You little bastard!”
“I guess you’re still mad,” Izuna mused, then yelped and threw himself into a side roll when Tobirama throws caution aside and just charges him. “Look, I refuse to apologize for my actions but I do concede it was kind of a dick thing to do while you were tied up! But in my defense—” Izuna ducked another swipe at his throat. “—in my defense, it was temporary!”
Tobirama skids to a halt, so angry he almost can’t speak, can only glare in breathless seething at the object of his ire. “What do you want, Izuna?”
Izuna shrugs, careless, relaxed, infuriating. “Thought I’d do something different, something I never got to do in life; fighting with you instead of against you.”
“Pass,” Tobirama flatly declared, and turned to walk away. Whatever game Izuna wanted to play, he wanted no part in it. Izuna could go suck a dead rock in a withered tree like a horribly misshapen bird adding to its gizzard for all he cared.
Izuna spluttered; a far more satisfying sound than it had a right to be. “Oh come on, you’re not even going to at least consider it?”
“You helped me slay your own kinsman,” Tobirama stated. “Exactly what part of that is worth considering?”
Izuna flickered in front of him, looking deadly serious, enough so that Tobirama stifled his initial urge to shoulder him aside and keep walking. Izuna’d better be quick about it though, there was only so much time between materializations and Tobirama wasn’t sticking around long enough for an opponent to manifest on top of him. Tobirama was the one that did that to people, not the other way around, thank you very much. Then Izuna’s expression turned shrewd and Tobirama decided maybe giving him a chance to talk was a bigger mistake then he initially thought.
“You haven’t quite decided whether these are real people or not,” Izuna says, narrowing his eyes. “Have you? You’re erring on the side of are and that’s why my helping disturbed you.”
“I suspect it’s not as simple as are they or aren’t they,” Tobirama bit out. “What disturbs me is your apparent willingness to strike down someone who looks like one of your own.”
“And why should that bother me?” Izuna jutted out his chin, lip curled challengingly. “You think kinslaying was ever as taboo among the Uchiha as it is among the rest of clans? That man was an asshole, a given with his profession, and I was glad when Madara had him and his lot executed to drive the lesson home for the rest of his generation. I was the one to swing the executioner’s axe, for Amaterasu’s sake! I’m not like those soft, peace-born Uchiha, Tobirama, I don’t care if he is the real version or not, I’d do it again a thousand times!”
“Except it’s not just executing dissidents, is it, Izuna?” Tobirama fired back. “I’ve heard about how Uchiha achieve the Mangekyo, with Kagami as my student how could I not! Where do you draw the line, huh? Where do you draw the line between when it’s acceptable or not to kill one you called comrade?” Tobirama took a harsh breath, forcing the sneer down. “This, this question, the fact it must be asked, is precisely why I never considered nominating Kagami for the Hokage seat, no matter how politically sensible it’d be. I know Kagami, I’d trust him at my back in a heartbeat; but I also know what being Hokage does to someone and I would not, could not, risk handing power to someone who grew up being told that killing your own people for power is acceptable.”
“Oh, you hypocritical bastard,” Izuna snarled. “You grew up being told killing Uchiha for sport was acceptable but you were trustworthy as their leader? How you don’t choke on your own bullshit amazes me. Has it never occurred to you that people other than yourself are capable of rejecting the rhetoric they were raised with? I was raised with the idea that killing my enemies’ children was acceptable and yet I pushed for the Uchiha to stop even harder than Madara did because I didn’t like what that mentality was doing to my Clan! Because there should be lines! And if you didn’t trust Kagami to draw his own then that’s your problem!”
“I never thought Hiruzen capable of turning a blind eye to treason either!”
Tobirama panted for breath he didn’t need, swallowing to sooth the harsh rasp in the back of his throat from screaming. Izuna had gone wide eyed, struck silent, he fidgeted uncomfortably before crossing his arms and looking away, chin tucked in protectively.
“Being Hokage has a way of— of breaking you, Izuna,” Tobirama managed. “It wore my brother down until he died of it, trying to hold on to himself. It wore me down until I too gave into death, with more death on my hands than I can carry. It wore Hiruzen down until he was nigh unrecognizable from the staunch, honorable young man I nominated. Hell, lust for the position warped another of my students so much I can’t even bear the thought of looking at him. I never wanted to see what it would do to Kagami, or any of them.”
Some days, Tobirama couldn’t bear to look at what it had done to him; the things he’d condoned in the name of war, the issues he’d pushed aside for the sake of a tomorrow that would never come for him, the boundaries he’d broken after swearing them off as a much younger man. So much of Hashirama’s dream had crumbled to so much ash in his hands— No. He couldn’t think like that. Tobirama had done his best, and at the end of the day, the end of his lifetime, it still hadn’t been enough.
“Honestly, the more I hear about this village of yours, the more thankful I am I died before it existed,” Izuna mutters. “What a crapshoot. Seriously. You really did me a favor there.”
Unexpectedly, laughter bubbles out of him at that. He laughs until he’s almost sobbing because honestly, some days really were just like that. He wipes a tear from his face, sighing, “It wasn’t all bad. Some of it was quite breathtaking, actually, the things we could do when the Clans pulled together instead of tearing each other apart. After the village was formed...once, I could walk the breadth of Fire country from end to end without ever encountering enemy shinobi. I never imagined I’d be able to do that, Izuna, not in my lifetime.”
Izuna regards him solemnly, a flash of reluctant understanding flitting through his gaze before he offers, “I always said you were shit at sneaking. To think you needed everyone out of the way to do that…” He tsks mockingly.
“Oh, like you weren’t a frontliner to the bone.” Tobirama scowls.
Izuna grinned. “Yeah, but you Senju get so big and tall. How do sneak anywhere lumbering around like that?”
“How do you Uchiha sneak anywhere with your constant need to make an entrance?” Tobirama retorted, feeling the last of the tension in his spine seep out. Then a pair of feet hit the dead earth and he was spinning in a furious lunge to take their head off before they had a chance to scream.
Not an Uchiha this time, he noted, this one had an Iwa headband.
“So, you had a theory about them then?” Izuna inquired idly, tilting to get a good look at the body. “Or, wait, you scientific types call it a hypothesis, that’s right. What’s your hypothesis then?”
“I have a suspicion,” Tobirama corrected, “these both are and aren’t real people.”
Izuna cuts his his gaze to the body and back meaningfully, Tobirama resists the urge to roll his eyes. “The Shinigami mentioned to me the memories and experiences of our mortal lives are but trappings draped over the structure of our souls, to be shed in death in preparation of a new life. The Shinigami did not mention what happened to those discarded trappings.” He gestured to the fading body, the chain hanging from his wrist strangely light. Perhaps he was becoming accustomed to the weight? “These people, they’re like...simulacra. They speak but they can’t be spoken to. They act on memories but they can’t be reasoned with. For all intents and purposes they have less sentience than my shadow clones do. It seems...more comprehensible than building them from scratch.”
“I see,” Izuna says thoughtfully, and then, because annoying Tobirama seemed to be his overriding mission in life, asks, “And what if the Shinigami actually did build them from scratch with just enough innate knowledge of your assholery to want you dead? Not that that’s hard. Making the leap from thinking you’re an asshole to wanting to kill you, I mean.”
“I know what you meant,” Tobirama snapped. “And all that would happen is a tentative hypothesis being discarded in favor of yet another existential crisis, but what else is new in this horrid place?”
Izuna blinked, rolling back on his heels. “Wow, it must be bad if you’re willing to admit it’s getting to you.”
Tobirama is so far past being the young man too proud to admit to pain that Izuna remembers. He’s too old and burdened to pretend things to himself anymore. Izuna’s already seen him bleeding in the physical sense, what did he care if the Uchiha saw him bleeding in the figurative sense. “I feel I’m not exaggerating when I say; before my first meeting with my host existence here was akin to Tsukuyomi. Repetitive, tedious, agonizing, and no sense of time.”
“At least one of those adjectives are not like the others when it comes to Tsukuyomi’s usual descriptors,” Izuna manages, blinking hard, bewildered. Which Tobirama had to give him; the usual descriptors normally ran along the lines of nightmarish, tortuous, semi-lethal, hellish. But since all those applied to the Shinigami’s stomach too, Tobirama would counter that humans can adapt to anything given time and little choice, and the same thing over and over again is tedious no matter how painful. Of course, pointing it out just netted him a magnificent scowl at the notion the Uchiha’s most mind-breaking genjutsu got boring after the tenth loop.
They ended up getting so into the argument, Tobirama fails to react fast enough to the next assailant and takes three knives to his side and suffocates in blood, the sight of Izuna shaking his head following him into darkness.
The Shinigami is not alone when Tobirama wakes, and that’s interesting.
He doesn’t recognize said mysterious guest, which isn’t really an indication of much, but the Konoha hitai-ate is heartening. They eye each other curiously as Tobirama takes a seat, cataloguing the golden hair, bright blue eyes, and a politely curious smile behind a splatter of blood that brightens upon taking him in.
“It’s an honor to meet you, Nidaime-sama,” the mysterious guest beams at him, “I’m a big fan of your work in the field of space-time fuinjutsu.”
Tobirama blinks, pleasantly taken aback. “The honor is mine…?”
“Minato,” he says, smile gentling, pride in the tilt of his chin. “Minato Namikaze, Yondaime Hokage.”
“Oh,” Tobirama says, leaning forward in his chair. “The honor truly is mine. You are interested in space-time fuinjutsu?”
Minato’s smile turns impish, in response he holds out a tri-pronged kunai with the handle facing Tobirama. Not for politeness’ sake, Tobirama discovers, but to show him the characters painstakingly inked on the grip with a steady hand and a fine brush. He brushes a finger over them, cataloguing the layers and the patterns and the matrices that made up the seal, tracing the lines power follow in his mind to its ultimate, delightful conclusion.
“You improved my Hiraishin.”
And it’s brilliant. Better balanced than he ever managed with it; single loops changed out for more stable double loop knots, the complexity counterbalanced with sleeker channels for more control over the flow of chakra. It lets Minato condense the seal further. It would take finer control to utilize, of course, less amenable to brute force which Tobirama finds he appreciates. The Hiraishin was among the most complex seals Tobirama has ever invented and this Minato, the successor of his successor, has taken it and made it breathtaking in form.
It’s more than a little impressive.
Tobirama wants to ask questions, wants to pick his brain for every detail of the process, wants his opinion on every note Tobirama left behind. He wants to know if the Hiraishin is the only aspect of sealing Minato’s explored, if he too branched out into jutsu creation and if so, what his favorite branch was. He wants to know everything Minato can tell him of the village, how he died so young, how he ended up here. But he can’t. This is neither the time nor the place for such indulgences.
A Death God looms over them from his end of the table and Tobirama finds his gaze inevitably drawn to it, almost against his will, physically incapable of not knowing its there. Minato gradually loses his easygoing smile as well, going still and attentive and intent, and like that it’s easy to see the Kage he must have been. Tobirama wishes he could have seen it.
“Do I suspect rightly?” Tobirama asks the Shinigami, carefully neutral.
The Shinigami hums thoughtfully, a rumble that vibrates the floor and rattles the table. “So quick to make use of new variables. It brings me such satisfaction when souls don’t have to be led to answers...” The hum deepened beyond human hearing, only discernible by the rattling table and trembling floor. “What you suspect is as correct as you can comprehend within the parameters of the knowledge you have.”
“In other words; as close to a truth as a mortal can manage when the literal truth is still beyond mortal comprehension.” Tobirama says dryly.
“In essence.” The Shinigami confirms.
Minato makes an interested noise in the back of his throat. “What were you, uh, suspecting, if I might ask?”
Tobirama made to reply, rather eager for a second opinion from someone of a similar skill set, only to hesitate at the last second. When the Death God in the room made no move to stop him, he explained to Minato what the Shinigami told him about souls, and his suspicion about the maddened figures that plague him outside this room. Minato takes a long moment to mull it over, mouth pursing.
“I knew the ones I saw were definitely Yin constructs,” he says at last. “I was sealed in here with the Yin half of the Kyuubi no Kitsune; once you get past the bijuu-ness of him the feel of his chakra compared to the people who showed up had undeniable similarities. Except he keeps eating them to shore up his strength since he’s been cut off from the natural chakra of the living world, so I don’t usually have very long to examine them. Or the heart to make him stop. And, um, you can only listen to him muse on the taste of human chakra like he’s picking apart the subtle flavors of wine so many times before you start tuning him out. Not that it isn’t interesting sometimes! It’s just he usually only does it to be a dick.” He seems to realize he’s rambling off point, switching to a less mind-boggling topic.
“My initial hypotheses were less technical, or informed, then your own, Nidaime-sama. I am a Sage; in the course of my training I went to places both within and without that saw me confronted with illusory beings for the sake of crossing barriers that held me back, or shedding mindsets that restricted my understanding. I assumed there were similarities in the liminal spaces. And I— was rather more in favor of methods that let me kill my opponents close enough to get a good look at them than your honorable self. I knew all the faces that showed up.” He shrugs.
Tobirama tries not to look perturbed. He’s not sure he succeeds. “I see.” A lie. He did not. Where did he even start? “You may leave off the niceties if you wish, I daresay we are equals in death.” His mind kept circling back to the, well, the bijuu in the room, but he didn’t want to waylay the conversation on anecdotal details. He hopes it’s an anecdotal detail. “You say there are similarities in the liminal spaces you’ve visited? What do you mean by that?”
“I mean, the liminal spaces I’ve traversed for training were characterized by out of body experiences,” Minato says easily, confidently. “Even when to get there involved going inward. It all involved thinning barriers. We come, we get what we need out of it, we leave. The setting, the people, our injuries, our deaths, even time itself has no hold over us in these places. All things pass, and pass through. This isn’t even a true afterlife, this is a space between the living and the dead. And it’s in the between spaces that mortals are confronted by the things they wish to hide from most. Theologically speaking, they don’t call twilight the hour of meeting evil spirits for nothing.”
“I think I understand,” Tobirama says slowly. “We’re untethered here. Our anchors to life have been severed, and we’re kept from one in the afterlife until we’re released.”
“Exactly!” Minato beamed. “We’re in the space between reality! We just have to be patient until someone wears the Mask and catalyzes our reaching the other side.”
One problem. Tobirama cannot afford to wait for someone desperate or altruistic enough to wear the Mask. The odds are even smaller considering information about the Mask was highly confidential. Was it still in Uzushio? Izuna had been more than clear about Uzushio’s fate after Tobirama’s death.
But no; Minato was too confident in the Mask’s use. Perhaps it’d been salvaged, either by the survivors or by Konoha, as being too valuable to leave behind to rot or be stolen by enemies. It’s what Tobirama would have have done.
“Thank you for your view on the matter,” it felt wrong to say expertise when the actual expert sat, silent and still, at their corner of the table, watching inscrutably, “it lends valuable insight that I wouldn’t have come into on my own.”
Minato laces his fingers and rests his chin on them. “Sure you don’t want the story of how I ended up in here with half a Kyuubi? As you can imagine, I don’t have a new audience very often.”
Tobirama looks to the Shinigami, questioning.
“I mind it not,” he says. “It’s refreshing enough to be a visible presence, rather than an invisible eavesdropper.”
If that bothered Minato he showed none of it as he launched in to his tale. “It all started on the day my son was born, and Uchiha Madara showed up to kill us…”
Tobirama comes to, disquieted.
Minato’s story had been...disturbing, by all accounts. His account of the mysterious assailant, their skills, their malice, their control of the Kyuubi, it all pointed at Madara...if all you knew of him came from history books, as well as discounted his vast age. Madara was no Uzumaki to retain his vitality well past his prime, there’s no way he could keep up with a young Kage if he were still alive a decade ago.
The sheer fact this unknown Uchiha had short hair? Automatically disqualified him as being even an insane Madara. Tobirama couldn’t imagine Madara ever swallowing enough of his own arrogance to shorten his hair. The man had been far too proud of the message it sent.
And the description of the Mangekyo was not Madara’s Mangekyo. Incorporeality, teleportation, neither of those skills were among Madara’s repertoire.
An easy mistake to make, he supposes, the Uchiha don’t— didn’t keep public records of their Mangekyo, and a Kage couldn’t demand access to proprietary knowledge of a Clan’s bloodline without a damn good reason. With Minato dead the village was missing their key witness, and Izuna had been oh-so helpful in informing him of what, precisely, had happened to the Uchiha in the absence of their beloved Yondaime.
It all made his heart hurt.
Izuna hasn’t come to pester him yet, and neither has a maddened puppet. This gives him time to get some ideas in order while things are still quiet.
The people were composed of Yin; therefore they pinged his senses as genjutsu. Truth. Yin constructs are essentially genjutsu and can be dispelled as such. Truth. Tobirama can’t dispel them like genjutsu. Truth? Pending. New angle; Tobirama has only ever attempted such from a distance. Hypothesis: he may need physical contact with the constructs to successfully dispel them.
He sets that thought aside for later.
Tobirama and Minato were allowed to speak to each other at the behest of the Shinigami. Truth. The Shinigami would naturally angle to win their bet. Truth. Minato told him things about his life, nothing directly about the Shinigami’s realm. Minato was with the Shinigami before Tobirama arrived. Tobirama doesn’t know how much Minato knows about the bet. Truths all.
Tentative hypothesis: censorship. Tentative hypothesis; inducing paranoia by way of suspecting censorship. Tentative hypothesis; Minato may or may not be a pawn on the Shinigami’s side, unwittingly or no.
More data required. That too is set aside.
A familiar scream splits the silence and Tobirama sighs, gathers himself, and prepares to test a theory that will most likely see him skewered.
Old excitement stirs in his chest. Dangerous hypotheses used to be the most fun.
Just his luck, his latest opponent is a Hagoromo of all people, the berserker fury on his face indistinguishable from how the clan was in life, swinging his mace with wild abandon. Wild enough to not care that he was over extending himself enough that Tobirama could duck in close and shoulder check him back a couple steps.
This was...going to be tricky.
Genjutsu was only partly a science, and only partly an art; mostly it was about convincing a brain that something was or wasn’t so. Doubly tricky when it was yourself you were tricking. Brains were a very weird dichotomy of skeptical and stubborn, and while you could train yourself against falling into the trap of either, inevitably you always would because brains like comfortable patterns and were loathe to leave them.
Considering his own heavily Yin being, he can’t even discount accidentally convincing himself that jutsu was impossible here when conventional means failed.
Which is just... so aggravating.
The mace was swinging back around and Tobirama wasted no time, ducking under it, grabbing the Hagoromo’s forearms, jamming a shoulder in his sternum, and heaves. The Hagoromo hits the ground with a grunt and a furious wiggle, even more incensed by the knee pressed to his throat to keep him relatively pinned while Tobirama tries to work.
Tobirama presses a hand to his forehead, marveling at finally feeling a presence with a sense he’d long thought severed in this hellscape. He can now confirm physical contact is better than distance chakra-wise. How much he can do with it remains to be seen.
A blow caught him in the back, sending him tumbling forward. Having figured out he couldn’t unpin his hands the Hagoromo had jackknifed his legs up to kick Tobirama off. Tobirama rolled out of the way of the mace thudding into the ground with a crack of dead stone, surging to kick the Hagoromo’s feet out from under him, tangling their legs and wrestling the man on his front this time. He gets a bone cracking elbow in the ribs twice and a knee forced against the ground with jarring force before he can get the man sufficiently pinned.
Tobirama slaps his hand above where a person’s chakra core resides and spikes his own with all the viciousness he can muster, all the certainty that this Yin construct wasn’t real and he’d make it so with everything he has.
Under his palm the body stiffened and shuddered, sinking slightly as the body turned to the consistency of wet, packed sand, as it were losing its ability to hold its constituent parts together. Tobirama threaded his chakra deeper, forcing the cracks wider, prying open new ones, pouring himself out until his vision darkens at the edges for the sake of ripping apart this maddened puppet—
The force of the Hagoromo dissolving into bright particles threw Tobirama backwards with enough force to make a divot in the dead stone, his already cracked ribs shattering into pieces. The familiar sensation of lungs filling with blood made him gurgle exasperatedly.
Damn it, this is going to kill him. How annoying.
There’s blood in the back of his throat, threatening to rise. His broken ribs a sharp, breathless sting like acid. He lays there, a hand pressed to the offending injury, waiting to die. Once you got over the panic of pierced lungs, asphyxiation was a boring, drawn-out way to die.
And like a wish upon a monkey’s paw, Izuna’s shadow fell over him. Tobirama groans.
“Are you in pain, or are you just happy to see me?”
“Fuck off,” Tobirama grumbles. “Have you no respect for the dying?”
“Kinda useless to the already dead, innit?” Izuna crouches by his head, the corner of his mouth quirked in a pleased grin. “I could get used to watching you bleed out. It’s like karma.”
“Fuck off.” Tobirama repeats. “And what karma? I didn’t watch you bleed out to death. You did that at home while your brother fretted instead of reaching out to one he knew could fix it. There’s your karma.”
Izuna’s gaze went distant. “I’m not so sure your brother could have fixed me, actually. There was—” he gestures frustratedly, “extenuating circumstances none of us knew to account for.”
Tobirama sighs a shuddery, aggravated breath, resigned to Izuna refusing to leave. “And what would that be?”
Izuna is silent for a long moment, mouth pursed in thought. “About two weeks before that battle,” he begins, “I was coming home from a mission when I ran into this weird fucker. No clan I recognized, but strong. Or maybe, sturdy is more accurate. Figured he was a mercenary or some such, you know? But I got a good stab on him and he just— exploded into mold spores! Like a clone technique. It was the damndest thing.”
“You inhaled it, didn’t you?”
“Got it in one,” Izuna confirms. “Had some wicked hayfever and a solid weak of medics shoving antifungals on me, and I thought I was fine. Everyone thought I was fine. But then...then you grazed my left lung and a wound the Uchiha medics could have patched up — should have been able to patch up — turned foul no matter what they did for it. And I have to wonder…”
“Was it a slow assassination inadvertently sped up, or priming you to die from the next inflicted wound,” Tobirama finishes, disturbed. Two weeks was plenty of time to get into the bloodstream from the lungs. Did this assailant somehow know a battle between their clans was imminent or was that immaterial? “Who did you piss off?”
“Who did you piss off to have my brother’s ire directed at you?” Izuna counters. “Hell, who did my brother piss off? Who did yours? Don’t be so certain it’s about me. You’re smarter than that.”
“And you are irritating,” Tobirama grunts, feeling a rib shifting under his hand from all the talking. “Now be quiet. I’m trying to die in some measure of peace.” What peace there was in this hellscape. He’s just lucky no one else has showed up looking to tear him to pieces in his weakened state. That had happened before, frequently, and it would give him nightmares were he capable of sleep anymore.
Unless Izuna counted as his next foe. Whatever mechanism set loose new ones at least had the courtesy not to release more than one at a time.
“Your chains are shorter,” Izuna notes, nudging at a few links.
Yes, he noticed. They shortened every time he stopped paying attention to them. Which was an interesting experiment in the observer effect but it hasn’t been important enough to pay attention to. He hardly feels them lying down like this, anyway, it’s like he’s not even trailing chains at all.
As soon as that thought crosses the front of his mind the feel of chains disappears entirely.
Ignoring Izuna’s suspicious glee, Tobirama glanced at his wrist, noting even the absence of an indention where metal used to press.
Unbidden, he remembers.
“Do I feel bound because I’m tied up or am I tied up because I feel bound?”
“Of course,” Tobirama echoes. “...Is it truly that simple?”
“...Of course. Did you imagine it otherwise?”
“Do I feel like I’m dying because I am or am I dying because I feel like I should?” Tobirama murmurs. It all came back to perception, didn’t it? Was he perceiving reality or was reality conforming to what he thought he perceived? How right the Shinigami was, to say he was arrogant to believe himself ready for a literal truth when he can’t even see what was staring him right in the face.
Palm shifting over his shattered ribs and punctured lung, Tobirama closes his eyes and remembers what they feel like whole, unbroken, unbloody, air whistling so easily in and out he scarcely had to think about it. He remembers that his body too is Yin; holds on tight to the memory of willing the Hagoromo’s body to unravel for the illusion it is.
Wills his own body to reform its illusion of health because he is already dead and dying again is stupidly redundant!
Tobirama refuses stupid redundancy.
He has died once, and once was enough.
His palm is flat to his side, instead of carefully cupped, pressed to an unbroken line of bone once more as it should be. The copper taste of blood in his mouth receding, a near memory, but a memory all the same. He opens his eyes and edge of his vision isn’t closing in, he lungs breath easy, quietly, with nary a gurgle.
“Huh,” he says. “What do you know. It truly is that simple.”
Izuna arched a brow as he sat up. Tobirama paid him no mind, carefully probing where the injury was, taking a deep breath to test the stretch of muscle and lung tissue, tracking the expansion and contraction. All perfectly healed. Or reverted. Or maybe simply reformed. Or maybe it was never wrong because he’s made of energy and his perception determines his form and both are correct.
What a wonderful and perfectly terrifying way of looking at the world.
“Feeling better, are we?” Izuna asks, rocking forward on the ball of his feet. “I gotta say, watching you muddle through things the average dead person coalesces in the afterlife knowing is the most entertainment I’ve had in years.”
“If you thought to dishearten me you are way off mark,” Tobirama says irritably. “Everyone’s born with a beating heart; it takes mastery of your physical self to alter it.”
“Tell me something that doesn’t sound like you ripped off a monk.” Izuna rolled his eyes. “Congratulations, you figured out how to not die. You have a leg up on literally every living person ever.”
Tobirama endeavored to ignore the sarcasm. “Izuna, why haven’t you moved on yet? Why do you still go garbed in this lifetime? Surely, you’ve waited long enough.”
The look Izuna gave him could have stripped ink from paper, low and furious and pained and how dare he ask something he had no right to know. A lesser man would have withered before it, rebuffed, even if not apologetic.
Tobirama has been asking questions he has no right to answers to all his existence; he doesn’t care. He wants to know or he wouldn’t have asked.
Izuna shoves himself to his feet, and for a moment Tobirama thinks he’s going to kick him, before Izuna stalks away. “I don’t know why I’m surprised you’ve forgotten,” Izuna says roughly. “You were called through Edo Tensei; the very nature of which is an Impure World reincarnation. Of course you’ve forgotten.” He adds, as if in afterthought, “Damn your unholy creations.”
“Ah,” Tobirama says for lack of anything else to say, then immediately feels foolish for even have done that. He supposes that’s an answer of a kind. “There’s no need to say anything more,” he offers, “I’ll remember eventually if I used to know.” Which is more patience than he’s usually inclined to but ultimately he has bigger priorities to tackle then Izuna getting bent out of shape for something he doesn’t even recall.
There’s a glowing coal in his mind’s eye that is his triumph. He’s figured out some small piece of the genjutsu he knew was present all along. It just took him awhile to realize that he, Tobirama, was a part of it too, not separate, not engulfed, but an integral piece to its working. It brings to mind his brother’s rambling about feeling out Sage techniques; how frustrating he used to find it then, that his brother couldn’t explain anything in technical terms because he relied so much on his sheer intuition to see him through.
He understands now. He doesn’t know how to go about explaining this either.
He glances at the unmarked stone where a body dissolved like so much wet sand and light, wondering, if that construct was destroyed, if all the memories and power it contained from a lifetime was gone, could it no longer be summoned? How fascinating! If what Edo Tensei summoned were remnants cast off by the soul it might explain how the Edo Tensei puppets were limited in strength by their caster, rather then being fully themselves—
Tobirama shakes his head sharply, rising to his feet. This isn’t the time for idle distractions. He takes an unnecessary breath to center his reeling thoughts; it feels like there are pieces not entirely in alignment, just waiting for the slightest wiggle to finally settle them in place, and it kept drawing his attention back like a loose tooth you couldn’t help but poke at over and over again. More than ever, Tobirama longed for a quiet room and a stack of clean paper to let his thoughts spill on until whatever was niggling for his attention came to the forefront.
The soft sound of footsteps signals Izuna’s return, apparently finished packing away whatever emotional response Tobirama accidentally triggered. “If I’d known how boring it was here I’d definitely have rethought coming.” Izuna says lightly. “I thought there’d be more, I don’t know, appropriate ambience.”
Tobirama pointedly glances around at the dark sky, the withered, blackened trees, and the dead stone landscape that went on as far as the eye could see, then gave Izuna a dry look.
Izuna shrugs a shoulder. “What? It’s the Shinigami’s stomach! I thought there’d be, you know, rivers of fire and monsters roaming around, the screams of the damned a constant chorus in the background.”
“That’s Jigoku, you nitwit,” Tobirama says dryly, then pauses, uncomfortable. “Though, I suppose…” he says slowly, “there are some superficial similarities to Tokatsu Jigoku, in that I’ve had to do constant battle and I’m revived the instant I die, but there’s no noticeable temperature here, or breezes. And I don’t think I’m sentenced here for a trillion years either…”
Izuna blinked, baffled. “What.”
“What, what?” Tobirama parroted back. “You were the one who brought it up.”
“I have no sweet clue what you are talking about,” Izuna says, making a face at him.
Tobirama huffs, “It’s Buddhist lore. Jigoku is the collective name for the eight great hells; Tokatsu Jigoku is the least of them in terms of punishment and duration of punishment. The standard sentence without the mercy of a Buddha is something like one and half trillion years. Which is clearly not the case here unless time is even stranger in here than I thought.”
“...I’m an atheist,” Izuna says after a befuddled minute. “From a Shinto background. Why the h— why the fuck would you need eight hells? Isn’t one enough?”
“It’s not just eight hells,” Tobirama says, relishing in Izuna bafflement a little bit. “There are eight hot hells and eight cold hells, and those sixteen can be further divided into over sixty-four thousand planes and subdivisions of punishment, each for a specific crime. The furthest levels are said to take millenia to reach.”
Izuna’s eyes got wider with every word, until he was doing that particularly disturbing thing battle-crazed Uchiha do where their eyelids widened beyond human ability and the eyes bulged out ever so slightly to widen their peripherals.
Tobirama repressed an instinctive shudder. Seriously, it was so creepy. And that’s him saying that!
Wait a minute.
“What do you mean, you’re an atheist?” Tobirama demanded. “We are literally in the belly of a god, and you’re an atheist?”
“I,” Izuna sniffed, “owe no power my belief, higher or otherwise. I may acknowledge their existence, but I refuse them my faith, my awe, and my supplication. And if they don’t like it they can just suck it up.”
“...I can’t decide if that’s liberating or disturbing,” Tobirama admitted, taken aback. A lifelong pursuit of science had left him more rooted in his faith at the end than at the start. How could he look upon the stars, knowing the right alignment could power a seal even Hashirama would struggle with, and fail to marvel at powers greater than humans? How could he summon the dead and fail to weep with the understanding that there is such a thing as an afterlife, not an endless nothingness? How could he look a bijuu in the face, feel the might of their being press against his skin, and call it a mere monster?
How could he look at all this and still choose to stand apart?
He couldn’t. He can’t. His mind is full of stars, and worlds, and the power of blood. Maybe he isn’t the praying type, or exactly inclined to beseech the gods to fix his own problems when he still has working hands. Maybe gods are more easily comprehended as metaphors than straight existence. But he does believe in them.
Not for the first time, Tobirama doesn’t understand Izuna.
He doesn’t think he ever will.
“What?” Izuna leaned back, apprehensive. “What’s with that look?”
“There’s someone I dearly want to introduce you to,” Tobirama declared, eyeing the Uchiha speculatively. If only this hellscape were even the slightest bit navigable, or at least less segregated for its prisoners—
He paused, backtracking that thought. Was this another instance of him assuming things or an actual restriction? Because if so… He frowned. Traveling only ever happened when he ‘died’ because that’s when he’s most malleable, or the Shinigami says, except its not really death it’s just a temporary dissolution of his higher consciousness. Like a trance state perhaps, or a state of deep meditation.
The idea of killing himself to see what happens seems a risky habit to get into, though, and carries no small amount of risk. There’s no telling if the Shinigami will scoop him up somewhere and foul the experiment with yet another distraction. He can’t afford more distractions.
Centering his thoughts however, that he can do that easily enough, easy as breathing. Sink inward until his awareness spreads outward to touch every pulse of chakra in anything more sentient than plants. He can’t do that here in the Shinigami’s stomach. The ground is too dead, the air is dry of natural chakra, there’s nothing to carry his own chakra outward.
But if time and death are illusions then so is distance.
He’ll just have to take a leap of faith and trust in his ability to catch himself.
As the Shinigami said, it’s only losing yourself if you can’t perceive the other side.
Tobirama can’t flare his chakra outward but there’s blood aplenty, and blood is power. He flings it outward to fall in sigils and swirls upon the ground, a circle with spread wings, and it’s madness, it doesn’t have an anchoring point to fold points in space side by side. He’s running on intuition and sheer gall and it’s an old friend, that high, the same one that carries him through every impossible idea that’s just crazy enough to work.
Izuna had backed away with a yelp, not getting far before Tobirama hooks a hand around his elbow and drags him close. The Shinigami may tut about the fixedness of mortal perceptions of space-time all it likes but Tobirama invented the Hiraishin, the first to be mad enough to fling himself through space and survive. And thrive. He’s not fixed in place, he just hadn’t found the right jumping point.
Tobirama closes his eyes and thinks of yellow light and the way dying feels—
It’s like flying.
Landing is rough.
Tobirama pulls them out the other side like wading through syrup, sheer bullheaded determination driving them just that last step more. Izuna shudders afterward, clutching himself, clutching at Tobirama, with convulsing hands, eyes wide and dark. Tobirama has a moment to second guess his decision to drag Izuna along on a half-cocked teleportation when a pale light like fire winks in the distance, shimmering like a mirage. Or as if it’s moving, Tobirama thought, spine drawing taut.
And indeed, pale fire winked, between one blink and the next growing bigger. They have ten minutes, maybe.
“Alright?” Tobirama asks, easing out of Izuna’s grasp.
“You do this kind of shit to yourself willingly?” Izuna gasped back, eyes still wide. “What the fuck. What the fuck was that. Was that your fancy jutsu that killed me? It’s terrible! I think I saw things between mortal kind wasn’t meant to!”
“Ah,” Tobirama restrained the urge to shift half-sheepishly. “Yes, it— helps to take a breath and close your eyes in between if you’re not used to it. You learn to tune it out eventually. Pay it no mind, it’s just your brain trying to make sense of things it doesn’t have the sensory equipment to fully perceive.”
“Says you,” Izuna snapped. “My eyes see a good deal more than you do, thanks!”
“Well, it’s not going to kill you so stop whining!” Tobirama’s well of sympathy dried quickly in the face of ingratitude. “Now look like an actual, functioning person instead of a bunch of weasels in a skin suit. We’re about to have company.”
“The weasel cracks got old before I hit puberty, Senju.” Izuna scowled.
Tobirama rolled his eyes. “Blame your parents like the rest of us then.”
The glow of pale fire was close enough to make out the shape of waving tails, the silhouette of a head and shoulders and long limbs. Tobirama squared his shoulders, the last time he’d seen the Kyuubi like this it — or was it he? — had been crashing through Konoha, spreading fire, death, and destruction, a bright star consuming the smaller lights of humanity in its wake, before Hashirama drove it out and Mito sealed it. Keenly, he remembers the aftermath, as the highest member of the chain of command left in the village.
Three days he held the village together; digging the living, dying, and dead out of the rubble. Feeling the wave of death batter his chakric sense as signature after signature winked out in ones and twos and threes as blood loss, despair, and Bijuu chakra poisoning swept through the survivors. By the fourth day, Hashirama returned to rest a night and grieve in peace. By the fifth day, Tobirama collapsed and Hashirama strode into the hospital to work his miracles.
Tobirama takes a deep breath. The Kyuubi has spent near a century atoning for the crime of being Madara’s idea of a weapon. It’s time to let old nightmares fade.
As all things must in death.
The Kyuubi, even halved and diminished, still has so much chakra that even now it— they can announce their oppressive presence from a distance. Not far enough not to be on top of them, no, it was impressive all the same considering.
Izuna’s jaw dropped open as soon as the Bijuu became a discernible shape, rolling on the balls of his feet and knees bending as if coiled to run away. An all too understandable reaction Tobirama wished the Uchiha’s brother shared, for all their sakes. Still, he grabs Izuna’s collar; no point in being scared when they’re already dead. What could the Kyuubi do; eat them?
The Kyuubi stopped, just close enough to loom, eyeing them distastefully. “The hell do you fuckers want? Don’t tell me ol’ Corpse-Breath dumped yet more sadsack souls in here for a heart-to-heart. I don’t do feelings.”
“Kurama!” Minato popped up from where he was near hidden by the fur along the fox’s ruff, amused and scandalized. “Can’t you be happy to have new people to talk to? It’s got to be a welcome break after so long with just me.”
“No,” the fox deadpanned. “I don’t even like having old people to talk to. And before you say anything, I don’t even like you. You just attached yourself and somehow I can’t get rid of you; like a fungus.”
Minato slumped on the fox’s head, cradling his face in a hand with a loud groan. Rather undignified for the successor of his successor, Tobirama thought with mild disapproval. Then Minato slipped down Kurama’s shoulder to greet them in person, offering a polite, diplomatic smile. “Sorry about him, he’s the rudest creature in existence.”
“And proud!” Kurama bristled
And then Izuna was stepping forward, grabbing Minato’s hand and giving a bright smile of his own. “What’s to apologise for when he’s in such capable hands?” Izuna’s smile turned sly. “I don’t feel worried at all with you around.” Minato promptly flushed to the tips of his ears.
Tobirama found himself in the dubious position of trading disbelieving looks with the Kyuubi no Kitsune as the successor of his successor devolved into a stuttering, wide eyed mess under Izuna’s...flirting? Was this flirting? Had to be. Izuna probably heard of Namikaze Minato from his most recent generations of kin, except Tobirama couldn’t imagine word of mouth would have inspired enough confidence for that to be a serious statement.
He squinted; he should...probably stop this cart before it wrecked.
“Izuna,” Tobirama interrupted before the madness could spread further, “This is Namikaze Minato, Yondaime Hokage, the successor of my Hiraishin. Minato, this is Uchiha Izuna, former heir of the Uchiha Clan, my old rival, and Madara’s brother.” Izuna made a face at the mention of the Hiraishin, then a deeper one at the mention of Madara. Tobirama felt a curl of satisfaction at that. He turns to Minato, “I was hoping you could introduce us,” he says, casting a glance over Minato’s shoulder at the Kyuubi, Kurama. The fox must have caught the words for he immediately sneered.
“Pass,” Kurama declared, turning to leave. “This ain’t a circus, squishy. If you’re that bored you can figure out how to go fuck yourself.”
“Wait, Kurama—!” Minato tried only for Izuna to shush him and call out, “That’s fine, I didn’t want to meet you anyway.”
“I mean,” Izuna continued blithely, slapping away Minato’s own attempts to shut him up, “I guess I was kind of curious at first, but I have to say you’re not really that impressive in person. You look like a child’s idea of a fox if they’ve never even seen a fox before, which I wasn’t expecting—”
Tobirama quietly resolved to never take Izuna anywhere after this.
Kurama wheeled around on a hindpaw and surged, jaws wide and shrieking angrily at the impudent Uchiha who dodged with a cackle.
Minato edged closer to Tobirama, stunned. “Did he really just do that? Who just baits Bijuu?”
Tobirama made a vague noise in the back of his throat, scowling flatly at the utter spectacle unfolding across the dead landscape as Izuna led the Kyuubi on a merry chase, bearing an uncanny resemblance to someone trying to smash a spider determined to hide in their shadow. “Ugh. Ridiculous.” Tobirama sneered.
“He’s...faster than I expected,” Minato says, losing the alarm in favor of something more thoughtful. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Anyone too slow to keep up with you is a dead man.”
Tobirama huffed. “Why else would I need literal teleportation to kill him?”
“Ah,” Minato acknowledged that point, glancing sidelong. “You seem to be in much better spirits since I saw you last. Less...hmm, not sure of the right word here. Like you’re on day fifty of a burden instead of day one, if that makes sense. It’s still heavy, and it still weighs you down, but you’ve grown strong enough to bear it better.”
“It makes perfect sense.” Not what Tobirama wanted to talk about, however. “Minato, you seem content to wait for rescue.”
“Oh, ha, does it seem so?” Minato smiled sadly. “It’s...been longer for me, in here, such as time has any meaning or sense of passage. Believe me, Nidaime-sama, my composure is the result of practice, not resignation. Plus, it’s— different. For me. I sealed myself in here, of my own will. If Kurama sought a way out, I’d support him, wholeheartedly, but I made a deal. And a Kage can’t go back on his word lightly, else—”
“There’d be no assurance in giving it,” Tobirama finished. “You read my memoir.”
“It was in your notes,” Minato nodded. “You had— have such pragmatic proverbs. They were just as fascinating as your jutsu research, in their own way. They served me well for the rest of my living days.”
“That’s good to know,” Tobirama says, looking away from that earnest expression under the pretense of checking up on Izuna who was— “You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me.”
At some point they’d stopped running around, Izuna had climbed up the Kyuubi, and now sprawled between his eyes and nodded along to whatever the Kyuubi was muttering in an indiscernible, soft rumble. Tobirama is in disbelief. All that fuss and now they’re on speaking terms? Guess there was something to all of Izuna’s ridiculous claims of cantankerous bastard being his second language.
“Oh, that was quick,” Minato commented lightly. “It’s probably safe to go over now.”
“There’s nothing remotely safe about either of them,” Tobirama grumbles. As they near the subject of discussion nearly makes him laugh out loud.
“—and then! He soaked my futon! After he filled it with frogs mind,” Izuna complained with the comfortable air of one who did so often. “Said he would’ve felt cruel to leave them to dry out for who knows how long. As if making me sleep on the floor wasn’t its own cruelty! I swear, I should’ve punched him in the face more growing up. It could’ve done only good things to his intelligence, I’m sure.”
“You really should’ve,” the Kyuubi says sagely. “Especially after all those early wake up calls. Maybe the bastard would’ve thought twice about waking me up if you’d given him a conditioned fear of disturbing sleeping persons.”
“Madara only thinks twice about something just long enough to make a bad idea worse,” Izuna declared, nose wrinkling. “I mean, normally he’s not so stupid about it but I guess he just stopped caring about anything as long as he felt he was taking his pain out on the world somehow.”
“Ugh, I hate that type!” Kurama sank down to rest on the dead stone, crossing his hands under his chin. “Go on and on about how much they lost and how much they’re going to make everyone pay with their lives when there’s a quick solution to reunite with the poor bastards they’re attached to just a knife away. Please, tiny mortal, don’t talk to me about irreversible loss. Unlike them I can’t actually die.”
“That’s a bit cruel,” Izuna pointed out, “if an understandable stance for one such as yourself to take.”
Privately, Tobirama rather agreed with Izuna. Having seen and been both sides of the equation growing up, he could honestly say dying of his own volition to see his lost loved ones had never occurred to him. At least...not until the end. Before that he still had living kith and kin who needed him too badly. He doesn’t remember if he did get to see them again, the uncertainty striking hard behind his sternum. Did his little brothers, dead so young and violently, choose to reincarnate right away? Did Hashirama wait for him like he promised? Did Touka smack him for wasting away years buried in his work? Did his precious niece and nephew in law greet him on their way?
He doesn’t know.
Minato is saying something, to Izuna, the Kyuubi, or himself, he can’t tell. He just— wants away from them.
Tobirama wants— no, needs to find Hashirama. Right now. That’s what he’s supposed to be doing, not, not whatever you’d call this. Time is running away from him as surely as it has no domain in the Shinigami’s stomach. He must escape to win but he can’t escape without Hashirama so what is he still doing here?
“—mean it wasn’t your brother?” Minato asks, dismayed. “I gathered as much from the way Nidaime-sama reacted, but why on earth would anyone want to impersonate a long dead missing-nin? No offense to your brother’s prowess.”
“Please, feel free to insult his prowess all you like,” Izuna says dryly. “I do.” He slides down the fox’s snout. “You guys are really cut off from prime gossip on the living here. I know everything that happened, or at least, as much as my kin knew. Given Madara was involved to some extent I know both more and less about the situation than I really like.”
“A fascinating tale I’ll have to hear some other time,” Tobirama interrupted. “I have to go.”
He casts the seal before they can get a word in edgewise.
Tobirama lands and it’s the barren landscape he knows well and definitely not right, this isn’t what he needs.
He casts the seal, he leaps, he lands, and it’s wrong again.
The ground is cracked and heaving, someone screams without pause, high and piercing and shrill and not Hashirama.
Cast. Leap. Land. Wrong.
Gradually, the landscapes become more abstract; dead grey and black giving way to sicklier hues of green, red, and bruise brown, sharply delineated lines blurring and melting and running together until things like ground and sky had more in common with concepts than actualities. Solid ground turned viscous and air became fluid; casting the seal became harder and harder as he lost any reliable surface to cast it on, requiring several frustrated restructurings to recreate it as a three-dimensional model.
If nothing else, realizing three-dimensional seals were possible was worth the journey.
He reaches his limit when the next landing is naught but shadows filled with incomprehensible shapes floating about in an abyss that fell forever. His gaze skitters over them like like his mind is trying to ignore their existence but they were too real not to, straining to fill in blanks that refuse to be imagined.
He casts and flees for his sanity, thumping down on familiar dead stone under the not-shadow of a withered tree.
Withered, blackened bark is reassuringly real under his hands, a comfortable reality meant for a mortal mind. Tobirama finds it a pleasant relief after his jaunt through the layers of the Shinigami. How far did he even get? There’s no— no sense of boundaries here, no way of marking progress.
Hashirama has never been so out of reach. Tobirama can’t seem to leap to his side like he had Minato’s. What made it so different?
He knew the feel of their chakra so that couldn’t be it. Could it? No, no, surely not. The Shinigami allowed it? Plausible. Also cheating if the opposite were true but not out of the realm of possibility, especially with a god. Hashirama simply not being present—
Hashirama might not be in the Shinigami’s stomach.
Hashirama is not in the Shinigami’s stomach.
Where, where could he be? Tobirama frantically cast about for ideas. Did the Shinigami remove him to an isolated location to stack the deck, where—
He knew only one place.
It’s a long shot.
He’s willing to take it.
He thinks back to the abyss. The farther he got from this plane the more everything became...the closest he can describe it is nightmarish. Assuming mortal safe planes are near the ‘center’ for a given understanding of stomachs… It’s neither safe nor sane to assume the less mortal-friendly planes are near the outer edges but it’s all he’s got to work with.
He shuts his eyes.
It’s just like learning the Hiraishin; close your eyes and hold your breath. You learn to tune out the nightmares.
Cast. Leap. Fall. Cast.
A floor made of not-material greeted his back with the momentum of free fall. He blacked out. Or died. It felt the same.
A familiar, much beloved face hovers over him when he wakes, blocking out the disquieting not-material of the ceiling. “Hashirama,” Tobirama sighs in relief, reaching up to cup a cheek. There are no words to describe the sheer relief. “I found you.”
Hashirama smiles, sad and wan yet still mustering up a spark of warmth. “You did.”
“And in so doing, I have won,” an equally familiar voiced floating down. Tobirama bolts to his feet, chest burning with the memory of a heart beating hard. Hashirama puts a restraining hand on his shoulder and he jerks away from it, incensed. The Shinigami sits in habitual repose, deathly still, but the mask, that dreadful mask, the corners of its mouth are pulled up into a parody of a triumphant leer. Tobirama couldn’t repress a shudder.
“How.” Tobirama demands tightly, fists clenching hard enough to send a fine tremor up his arms. There’s more he wants to say, yet the words tangle in his throat, they sit on his tongue, unmoving and choking.
The Shinigami’s leer only widens. “Know you not the terms of your own bet? ‘If you escape before I finish doing whatever it is I do with souls like yours, you win; if you don’t, I win.’ Sound familiar? A soul cannot survive outside me lest they be pulled to the Pure Land; yet here you are, under your own power. How marvelous. You were so quick. So brilliant. I’ve not been so delighted in ages. Such a lively soul I have made you.”
“What,” Tobirama manages, “did you do to me?”
“Tobirama.” Hashirama lays a hand on his shoulder again, and this time doesn’t let himself be pushed away. “Come sit down.”
“Please,” the Shinigami interrupts, damnably amused, “do come sit. What’s the phrase; you’ll want to sit down for this? That.”
“You—” Tobirama bit his tongue lest he say something he’s truly made to regret, allowing Hashirama to press him down onto the nearest chair. Hashirama stays there, hands on his shoulders. Tobirama doesn’t know whether to take it for support or restraint.
He knows which one it feels like.
The shock of it hasn’t quite set in yet, he thinks; only fools made bets with gods thinking they had a winning chance, and just like a fool he went and did it anyway. It’s his own fault for being surprised he lost. Still, he hadn’t quite expected the inevitable loss to taste so bitter.
“Ah, I see the thoughts on your face, Senju Tobirama.” The Shinigami blew a gusty sigh that didn’t come from their mouth so much as emanated from their general vicinity in a hair raising whirl. “Such an open-ended bargain was doomed from the first, hasty word that spoke it into being. You know this. You knew this. How could you not with that lively mind of yours?”
Tobirama exhales a shaky breath, his brother’s grip an anchor in the midst of turmoil. “I never could resist the unknown.”
“You’ve always been curious to a fault, little brother,” Hashirama says in the same tone he always says it; fond, and exasperated, and ever so slightly rebuking. “Though I think you’ve rather outdone yourself this time. What were you thinking challenging a god to a bet? That’s so irreverent—”
“So quick to condemn others for sins you yourself bear, Senju Hashirama,” the Shinigami mused. “Was it not you who leashed the impure gods of your land to the agendas of mortal men?”
Hashirama flinches as if he were struck.
Tobirama reaches up to grab a wrist, squeezing reassuringly, gaze hard and temper simmering. “We’re not here to discuss that. We’re discussing the outcome of our bet.”
Don’t you dare look at my brother like that, he wants to say, to snarl. The Shinigami looks at Hashirama like they want to break him open to see what he’s made off, all his soft ticking parts and curling vines and strong convictions.
Tobirama would draw the ire of a god without hesitation or remorse to keep that inhuman regard from turning on his brother.
“Indeed, we were,” the Shinigami says, not even bothering to disguise its weighty amusement. “Indeed, so we are. I shall tell you then, of the things I do with a soul like yours and of how our little challenge was doomed to failure on both our parts, and also...how it was yet victorious at the same time.”
Tobirama frowns. “That doesn’t—”
“Make sense?” The Shinigami leans forward, almost, dare Tobirama say— eagerly? “But it will, but it will! I am Death. I am the passing of all things and all barriers. You come to me, to dwell in my being, and my power works over you still; passing through you, dissolving all barriers within and without. I told you before, Senju Tobirama, I take souls and wear them down to their barest essence. Till there are no barriers within, no illusions, no lies, that my power may flow through them easy. Tell me; have you figured out the next logical step?”
Tobirama didn’t dare breathe. Hashirama stiffens with a harsh gasp, a statue that did not yet know it wasn’t stone yet.
“Your face tells me you have,” the Shinigami says with relish. “I have broken down the barriers between you and the universe. It flows through you without pause or stutter. And yet, I have locked you in the cycle of rebirth by your own given word, for as long as it pleases me. It’s magnificent. I have outdone myself with you. Truly.”
What the Shinigami speaks of, Tobirama can barely wrap his brain around. The concepts are— are— beyond expectation. Beyond all expectation and nearly beyond understanding. The Shinigami has always intended for Tobirama to escape him by his own power. Letting him think otherwise, that he had a time limit before he couldn’t, what a pretty trick Tobirama set himself up for. The Shinigami must have laughed themself sick after he left.
Hashirama shakily bowing over the back of his chair as if his strength were abruptly failing him knocks Tobirama out of his stunned stupor and reminds him he’s still there.
“Why are you so willing to reveal this now?” Tobirama forces through a tight throat. “You were so cagey before with me, and now here you are revealing secrets to another so carelessly.”
The Shinigami laughs, hard enough to rattle its bulk with its rasping wheezes. “It doesn’t matter! I’ve won! I lured you to ascension! What care I for a soul hearing what it shouldn’t before its ready when soon it will forget everything?”
Tobirama grips the edge of the not-table so hard the chill of it bit through his fingers. “Don’t you dare—”
Hashirama yelps. “What are you—”
“What’s there to dare?” The tanto drops from his mouth with a clack of metal on sharp teeth. Tellingly, Tobirama tries to shove to his feet to get in front of his brother. Hashirama tries to yank out his brother’s chair to get in front of him.
Then, horrifyingly, the Shinigami reaches for his mask and takes it off.
Beneath lies the serpentine visage of the traitorous criminal who’d summoned them so long ago, still stretched in a matching leer. The tanto came up, Tobirama braces himself, the tanto came down into the Shinigami’s own stomach. They watch, speechless, as the death god carves open their own stomach to spill gaping void in place of entrails.
“It’s time,” Orochimaru’s face rasps with a voice that did not belong to Orochimaru. It rasps with many voices that don’t belong to Orochimaru.
The pressure in the room inverts, seeking equilibrium with the open nothingness the void sought to devour the occupants of the room. Hashirama, who was already standing, staggers under the force grabbing onto his long, loose hair and loses his balance disastrously, dragged into the void head first.
Were Tobirama not terrified out of his wits for him he might appreciate the irony of such an undefeated shinobi being brought low by his own hair, precisely as he’d always warned him.
Tobirama scrabbles desperately to hang on to the table, the furniture curiously immune to the pull of void, body straining with the effort. “ What the hell are you doing? ”
“It’s time, Senju Tobirama.” The inhuman leer widened beyond the boundaries of the human face, eyes gleaming with unearthly light under the scraggly pale hair. A giant hand grabs him by the throat, lifting with careless strength. “The Mask is worn. All souls are freed. You. Are. Called.”
This close, Tobirama can just make out faint spectres in the void, like people seen through a window of dark, watery glass.
“Welcome to my ranks—
The Shinigami let go.