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Soul Swap

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1:

 

Ichigo Kurosaki was Kakashi Hatake. Although, he guessed it would be more accurate to say that Kakashi Hatake had once been Ichigo Kurosaki because now he technically wasn’t. Ichigo had never been the type to let the technicalities stop him, however, not even the technicalities that said reborn souls couldn’t remember their past lives. He wasn’t exactly an expert on the topic of rebirth, of course, but he did know what Rukia had told him after all that crap with Uryu had been taken care of.

According to Rukia, after the dearly departed such as herself, well, departed, they were converted into reishi and sent into the Cycle of Rebirth. Thanks to this, the number of souls remained fairly constant; the reborn souls from Soul Society filling the slots in the World of the Living while the World of the Living souls filled the slots in Soul Society. It was a constantly shifting balance of souls and a fragile one at that. It was that balance the quincies had threatened but that wasn’t the important part of the story right now, the important part was this: not only had Ichigo been reborn despite being a human at the time of his death, he’d been reborn somewhere inside of Soul Society with every single scrap of memory intact.

That hot summer day they'd spent staring up at a sky swirled with orange, Rukia had told him that one day, she too would be reborn as someone else, somewhere else. At the time, he remembered wondering if he’d be the same. A human that could turn into a soul reaper. Hah. He should’ve known the end result would be somewhere in between.

Leaning back on his hands, Ichigo stared up at a sky that was blue without a trace of the nostalgic orange in sight. He was somewhere different, in a body that was different, but underneath it all, Ichigo Kurosaki had remained himself somehow. Talk about a mess. Not that he was complaining.

For whatever reasons, be it an undeveloped brain or the world taking pity on him, he hadn’t remembered who he was until this morning. After four years in this body, his past memories had finally decided to douse him with every single thing that had ever happened at precisely three am in the morning. His name was Ichigo Kurosaki, he was sixteen-years-old and he had died with only the cold presence of his killer to keep him company. He’d woken up to that! And though he hated grand emotional displays, he hadn’t been able to stop the tears from falling.

He had died in Hueco Mundo. He had died and he had failed to protect her again, he had failed Orihime again. What had happened to her after that? Was she still there, in Hueco Mundo? Had the others made it out all right? Had they rescued her? It’d been four years since then— Since he’d... Since he’d died. Since he’d been killed. All that crap with Aizen must’ve been over by now. Were they okay?

And what about his sisters? What were Karin and Yuzu up to!? There was no way Goat-Chin could raise them on his own!! Ichigo wouldn’t trust him with a goldfish!!

That settled it. He had to find out what happened! He had to get back to his real family!

Abandoning the koi pond he’d been sitting beside, he stood and gave the surrounding garden a quick once over to be certain he was alone. He didn’t know where he was, but if he made it back to Seireitei and explained the situation, he was sure he could talk them into opening a gateway to the World of the Living. On the off-chance they refused, he could always ask Byakuya for help. After all, the guy still owed Ichigo a solid for knocking that stick out his ass.

Nodding along to his flawless logic, Ichigo focused a burst of spiritual energy into his feet and easily hopped over the fence that encircled the Hatake compound. This was going to be easy!

 

2:

 

It didn’t take long for that man to find him. In fact, Ichigo had barely made it five streets over. He was standing in the entrance of a shopping district by the looks of it. Clothing stores, bookstores, movie posters, stands brimming with food—it’d thrown him for a loop! For starters, he’d thought normal souls couldn’t feel hunger, so why would they have all that food they didn’t need set out? And secondly, since when did Soul Society have movie theaters? He didn’t recall the place being so.... modern, the last time he’d been here. When he’d broken in to rescue Rukia, Soul Society had looked like a place torn right out of his history textbooks, but this village was... well, if he had to put it into words, it was more like a combination of both modern and feudal times.

A lot could change in four years, he had figured, taking in the signs advertising different foods and products, the dirt path and the crowd of people up ahead, some dressed in kimonos, others wearing clothes so normal he did a double-take. Now that he thought about it, even his clothes were semi-normal; a dark form-fitting shirt with a turtleneck collar and even darker shorts. It was weird but almost normal.

He was tugging on the stuffy collar of his shirt when a shout came from behind him.

“Kakashi!!”

Pale skin, dark clothes, a short ponytail that was bushy and bleached of color, Ichigo relaxed. ‘Dad’, his mind seemed to supply, but Ichigo stubbornly rejected the notion. He already had a father, and this man sure as hell wasn’t it. Despite that, he was in Bushytail’s arms before he could run let alone process that the man had picked him up.

“How did you get all the way out here!?”

Ichigo blinked, once, twice, disoriented by his sudden change of gravity. Then came the annoyance. “I walked,” he said, pushing away from Bushytail’s chest to scowl at him more effectively. “How else would I get all the way out here? You think I just crawled all the way from the compound?”

Bushytail stared at him as though he’d grown another head.

Ichigo realized his mistake a second too late. Four-year-olds weren’t supposed to be this well-versed in the art of being a smartass.

A beat passed, two, three, Bushytail gave him a wry grin. “I take it the compound is getting a little stuffy for you, then.”

“Somethin’ like that,” Ichigo muttered, dropping his scowl off to the side.

“Care to tell me what you were doing out here then?”

“No.”

“Kakashi...”

Dad or not, Ichigo recognized that tone. He was in trouble. “‘M not doin’ nothin’.”

A sigh. “I suppose this was a long time coming. I can’t keep you locked up in the house forever. I just figured with you being such a quiet kid, I’d have a bit more time.”

Ichigo frowned. What was he getting at?

Bushytail set Ichigo down with such care, it was kind of touching. Then he dropped into a crouch so that they were face-to-face. “Kakashi, I know you’re still too young to understand but you can’t go off on your own without telling me. I’ve made too many enemies over the years, enemies that could very well target you in order to get to me.”

And in came the guilt. Ichigo may not see this man as his dad, but this man certainly saw Ichigo as his son. He must’ve been terrified when he’d noticed Ichigo was missing.

“I’m sorry,” he apologized, meaning every word.

Didn’t mean he’d given up on finding his way home though.

Bushytail’s expression softened and he pulled Ichigo into his chest, arms wrapping around him in a way his real dad had stopped doing after he’d entered Junior High. It was awkward being hugged so lovingly by a relative stranger, but again, the child in him registered this man as ‘dad’, and melted into the embrace without his permission, even allowing Bushytail to scoop him up into his arms once more.

“When you get a little older, I can start taking you to the park, but for now, please have patience with this father of yours.”

Ichigo humored that with a grunt. He’d never been known for his patience.

 

3:

 

If anybody asked Ichigo who his mother was, he’d say Misaki Kurosaki hands down. Ichigo had loved his mother. He’d loved her so much that losing her had crushed his entire view of the world. He’d sworn off crying and become sullen, stopped taking other people’s crap (something that resulted in more fistfights than he cared to count). Losing his mother had been a life-altering moment for Ichigo, so he wasn’t quite sure what he should be feeling right now, watching as Bushytail paid his respects to the woman who’d given birth to him.

She’d already been long gone by the time Ichigo’s memories had resurfaced. According to Bushytail, she’d died during labor.

Ichigo may not consider her his mother, but he visited her every birthday all the same, burning incense with Bushytail and wishing her well. He owed the woman that’d given him life again that much.

As he did every year, Bushytail knelt in front of her grave with his hands clasped in prayer. He never cried during these visits. He never frowned and he never glared. Ichigo got the feeling Bushytail was trying to be strong for him, the same way Ichigo had once been strong for his sisters. But still. It couldn’t have been easy for him. That’s why Ichigo always tried to give him space on this day, saying a quick prayer for the woman before backing away and waiting for Bushytail.

After a while, Bushytail stood and offered him a hand. “So, Kakashi, what would you like to eat?”

Ichigo thought it over for a moment. “Mentaiko karashi.”

An amused snort. “Again?”

Ichigo scowled up at him. “You’re the one who asked me what I wanted!”

“I didn’t say no,” Bushytail said, raising a hand in placating gesture while the other engulfed Ichigo’s much smaller one.

“Sweet!”

 

4:

 

Admittedly, it took Ichigo longer than he was proud of to realize he wasn’t in the Rukongai. Actually, he didn’t think he was anywhere near it. He’d read a lot of books since “waking up”, and not a single one had mentioned anything about souls or hollows, nor had he seen any soul reapers running around. Again, he was inconsolable. How was he supposed to get home if he couldn’t find Seireitei? That place was freaking gigantic!! How could it be this hard!?

He’d even tried asking Bushytail about it, but all he’d gotten were confused looks and explanations that made no sense. His last attempt had gone like this:

 

“Yo, Bushytail, which District are we in?”

 

Bushytail had glanced away from the training post he’d been chucking kunai at for the past hour and a half, pale skin damp with sweat. “District?”

 

Ichigo had given his legs one last swing before hopping off the engawa and padding over to him. “Yeah.”

 

“No, Kakashi, I think the word you’re looking for is ‘village’, and we live in Konohagakure.”

 

“Kono-what? Where’s that at!?”

 

After that, Bushytail had abandoned his training in favor of sitting Ichigo down with some kiddy book listing all the different “hidden villages” scattered throughout the land. Even taught him a song to remember them by. When Ichigo caught himself humming it later, he was not happy. In fact, he was the exact opposite of happy.

He was pissed he was stuck in some foreign part of Soul Society, pissed he couldn’t leave it—Bushytail always keeping track of his whereabouts, especially when he ventured outside—and most of all, he was pissed that he’d died. It wasn’t fair. He’d been here for five years. Five. Years. He still couldn’t believe it.

He’d only been sixteen. Sixteen. He’d had a family waiting for him! He’d his whole life ahead of him, how could Hat-and-Clogs just let him go like that!? Why hadn’t he tried harder to stop him!? Had he even tried at all!!?

Wait. Wait, no!! What was he thinking!!? He didn’t regret trying to save Orihime!! She was his friend, there was no way he’d regret trying to help her!! He didn’t!! He... He didn’t.

He didn’t right?

Bushytail found him sitting by the koi pond that afternoon with his head buried in his knees and his arms wrapped around his legs a little too tight. Ichigo had been so lost in his own head he hadn’t noticed Bushytail until after the man had grabbed his shoulder, and therefore he’d reacted to someone invading his personal space the usual way: he lashed out with a fist.

Bushytail caught it with ease.

“Nice reflexes,” he’d said, pride oozing off him as he moved Ichigo’s tiny fist away from his nose.

He sounded so much like Goat-Chin in that moment Ichigo wanted to scream. Instead, he breathed out, “Did you want something?”

Bushytail didn’t bat an eyelash at his tone, didn’t seem to notice it. “Yes, I do.”

Ichigo sat up straighter. That wasn’t like him. Bushytail was usually incredibly observant, he’d never had any trouble picking up on Ichigo’s moods despite his best attempts to hide them. He’d even noticed Ichigo’s aversion to mirrors—awful silver hair in place of orange, stupid pale skin in place of tan, disgustingly delicate features, eyes as dark as coal, a freaking mole —and had gone out of his way to buy Ichigo a mask that covered his face from the nose down. For him to miss such an obvious thing... something must’ve happened. Was someone attacking the village? Was it Aizen!?

And yet. When Bushytail moved, it wasn’t to knock him out of harm’s way or warn him of danger, it was to offer him a kunai.

Ichigo tensed furiously at the sight of the blade, memories of clanging swords and bloody battlefields threatening to suffocate him.

Bushytail missed that as well, his too wide smile having caused his eyes to crinkle shut. “I figured it was about time we start your training.”

Wait. What training? Why would Ichigo be training!? Bushytail had never told him they’d be training!

“For what?” He choked out, managing to cast the kunai a suspicious look despite how the sight of it made him burn.

Bushytail’s smile faltered. “You don’t know?”

“Know what?”

It took a while for Bushytail’s confusion to fade, and when it did, it was replaced by the kind of fascinated horror he’d expect from someone that had just clapped eyes on Kukaku’s newest home. “Kakashi, you really don’t know what I do for a living!?”

“Uh. No?”

“We’re Hatake!! We’re a clan of shinobi!!”

Ichigo, to his credit, only freaked out a little. “We’re— We’re what!? We’re shinobi!? What the hell!?”

Or maybe not.

“Language!” Bushytail chided, though the reaction was purely reflexive at this point.

Scooting away a good foot or two, Ichigo jabbed a finger at him. “But— But wait, wait, if we’re some kind of great shinobi clan, then where’re all the rest of the members at!?”

The look Bushytail gave him was equal parts fond and sad.

Being on the receiving end of such a look was sobering if nothing else. Ichigo lowered his hand.

“They’re dead, Kakashi.... Tell you what, ask me a couple years from now, and I’ll tell you all about the gruesome history of our clan. But for now, let’s say we get you started on your kunai throwing.”

It wasn’t a question. Ichigo could tell that much.

“Also, we need to work on your observational skills. I knew you were dense, son, but it seems I’ve underestimated to what extent.”

“Oh. Right... Wait a minute, are you calling me stupid!!?”

“Ah, you’re improving already.”

 

5:

 

Ichigo had always been a fast learner. Or so he’d been told. To him, his growth rate was normal. Figuring out Getsuga Tenshou? It’d taken a couple fights but he’d pulled it off in the end. Learning bankai in two weeks? Rough but doable. He hadn’t known the average soul reaper spent years just trying to achieve their shikai, if they ever managed to achieve it at all. He hadn’t known bankai was sacred, hadn’t known it was so much rarer.

Ikkaku was the one who told him in the end, and even after that, Ichigo hadn’t thought much of it. He’d been like this his entire life and no one had ever cared before. Well. No one until now, that is.

Bushytail watched as Ichigo’s kunai thunked into the bullseye for the tenth time in a row without missing, satisfaction radiating off him in waves nearly as bright and brilliant as the sun itself. “Good, you’re doing good, Kakashi! I’m proud of you. I’d say you’re ready to advance to shuriken.”

At the praise, Ichigo smiled despite himself.

 

6:

 

“Kakashi,” Bushytail said, kneeling down to place his hands over Ichigo’s small shoulders.

Ichigo looked up at him expectantly.

“I’ll be away for at least a week this time. You’ll be good while I’m gone, won’t you?”

Ichigo didn’t appreciate being treated like he was helpless. Bushytail noticed this—he always noticed, darn it—mirth dancing around his crinkled eyes and a hand moving to ruffle Ichigo’s unruly silver hair.

He swatted it aside irritably. “It’s not like this is the first time you’ve left. I’ll be fine.”

Five, though he may seem, Ichigo was technically in his early twenties. That may be younger than Bushytail but it was old enough for him to take care of himself!

With a low chuckle, Bushytail pulled away. “An old friend should be dropping by to check in on you now and then. Consider yourself lucky—if I wasn’t so confident in your ability to care for yourself, I’d be having him stay here with you, and none of us would want that, now would we?”

Having spent months with Rukia in his closet, Ichigo couldn’t care less where Bushytail’s friend stayed, so long as it wasn’t in his room. Not that he was complaining about the misguided consideration. Less supervision would make his research easier.

Bushytail opened the door, allowing for a triangle of light to bleed into the otherwise dark hallway. The light highlighted his broad shoulders and the points of his spiky hair, making them almost seem to glow, and as he cast Ichigo one last warm smile, Ichigo felt an equally warm feeling stir in his chest. For a not-dad, he had to admit, Bushytail was pretty okay.

“Be safe.”

Maybe, just maybe, one day he would add “dad” at the end of it. For Bushytail’s sake, of course.

 

7:

 

If someone was to walk into the Hatake clan’s normally pristine study, they’d have thought a storm had swept through it. Books of every size lay scattered across the room, some having landed neatly on their spines, others not so lucky. The antique maps the Hatake family were so proud of had been strewn across the floor as the sole occupant of the room pored over them, angrily ripping pages out of his notebook whenever something failed to meet his expectations. Most of his notebook had befallen this tragic fate.

Ichigo wanted to scream. His research was turning up nothing. Nothing!

He knew he was somewhere in Soul Society—he had to be!! There was nowhere like this in the World of the Living! This didn’t make any sense! Not unless... No. No, that wasn’t possible. Seireitei was here!! It had to be! He just wasn’t looking hard enough!

Tearing another book from the shelf beside him, he slammed it onto the floor and began flipping through it only to chuck it at the wall a minute later when it bore no results. Grabbed another. Repeated the process.

Why wasn’t he finding anything!? Why did no one know what Seireitei was!? Why wasn’t there a single shred of information concerning it!? It was so frustrating!!

Giving up for the day, he buried his face in his hands. He just wanted to go home!

 

8:

 

Ichigo dreamt of breaking bones and horrid screams. His breaking bones. His horrid screams. A crescent of a smile towered over him, and somewhere in the darkness that had swallowed him whole, he could hear the sound of someone crying. Her crying.

The dream shifts, and suddenly he’s dangling in the air with a strong cord wrapped around his throat. Chips of green ice observe him impassively right before a beam of light tears through his chest. Skin, muscle, bone, the light turns everything it touches to dust and he falls, falls, falls. This time, she screams.

Even after waking up, her desperate pleas continue to ring inside his ears. 'Kurosaki-kun!!' His body feels weightless as he jerks upright and clutches at his heaving chest. 'Please don't die!!' It was still there, he had to remind himself. 'Don't leave me all alone!!' He wasn’t in Hueco Mundo.

He sat there for a while, staring at his shuriken patterned sheets while he tried to get his breathing under control. He couldn’t. An image of her tear-streaked cheeks filled his mind and his fingers clawed into the sheets, bunching the fabric up in his hands.

He’d failed her. He’d failed her, he’d failed everyone and now he was alone and everyone was gone and— and—

In a burst of movement, he threw his blanket off and barreled into the hallway. He didn’t want to think about this!! He only slowed his pace out of habit when he neared the kitchen, ears straining for the telltale sounds of Bushytail bustling about in the kitchen. He knew the possibility of Bushytail having returned early was slim to none but he couldn’t help it, he needed a distraction. He wasn’t expecting to actually hear anything. The clanking of dishes and the swssh of running water had his heart skipping a beat.

Bushytail was home!? Already!? Screw walking!! Bolting for the kitchen, he slid into the doorway on socked feet and came to an abrupt stop when he found the back of someone that was very much not Bushytail. Ichigo reacted appropriately.

“AAH!! Take this burglar!!”

“Wha—!?”

The sharp sound of kunai being deflected rang throughout the small space, soon followed by the thunks of them whacking into the floor. The blond lowered the spatula he’d used to bat the kunai aside, and Ichigo noticed, belatedly, that it was covered in bubbles. Wait. Why was some weirdo washing dishes in his kitchen? Who breaks into someone’s house just to clean it? That didn’t make any sense.

“Hey hey now, those are some pretty dangerous weapons you got there kid. And attacking your guests? Now that’s just rude.”

That wasn’t the blond talking. Scowling, Ichigo followed the voice to the kitchen table, where some old dude was sitting and drinking sake. Not at the table though. On the table.

“Guests?”

“Huh? Didn’t your old man tell you? He blackmailed me into checking up on you.”

“He did what?”

Thinking back on it, Bushytail had mentioned asking a friend to stop by, hadn’t he? Ah, whatever.

“Knock next time,” Ichigo growled with an annoyed glare at both of them. “And don’t just sit on the table.”

“What!? Don’t you remember who I am!?”

“Sorry, I don’t.” Ichigo turned away from the geezer, causing him to squawk in offense. “And who’re you exactly?”

The blond he’d scowled at only smiled and though he appeared to be the same age Ichigo had been when... Well, Ichigo knew not to trust it. Physical age meant little in Soul Society. There was no telling how old the guy might actually be.

“My name’s Minato Namikaze. That rude old man is my former sensei, Jiraiya.” Minato proceeded to offer him a half-bow that caused several soap suds from the spatula to drip onto the floor. “I’m sorry for the intrusion, Hatake-chan.”

“Hey!”

Despite the awful way his day had started, Ichigo couldn’t help but crack a grin. He liked Minato. “Just call me Kakashi. And knock it out with that ‘chan’ crap, got it?”

With a nod, Minato rinsed the spatula off and began to scrub it dry with a towel. “I was just about to prepare breakfast for the three of us, would you like to help, Kakashi-kun?”

“Huh? Oh. Yeah, sure.”

He didn’t think it possible, but Minato’s smile grew wider.

 

9:

 

“You know, you’ve got pretty good aim for a kid,” the old dude remarked around a mouthful of egg-on-rice. “Pretty crummy deduction skills though, I gotta say.”

“Gee, thanks a ton. J... J..” What was it again? “Jirichio.”

“IT’S JIRAIYA!!”

 

10:

 

When Bushytail finally came home, Ichigo greeted him the classic Kurosaki way: with a dropkick. The man deflected with such speed and grace, Ichigo barely saw him move, snagging Ichigo by the wrist just as fast and holding him up so that they were face-to-face. Ambushing a shinobi probably wasn’t the brightest idea he’d ever had, but what could he say? He’d missed Bushytail.

Grinning despite the shock of being batted off so effortlessly, Ichigo said, “Welcome back!”

Bushytail scowled. “Jiraiya, what exactly have you been teaching my son?”

“I didn’t teach him anything!” Jiraiya denied from the doorway of the kitchen.

Ichigo thoroughly enjoyed the disbelieving look Bushytail shot Jiraiya.

Turning his attention to Ichigo, Bushytail’s hardened scowl melted. “Hi, Kakashi, did you have fun with Minato-kun?”

“Yeah!”

“What about me!!?”

“Hmm? Did you say something, Jiraiya?”

 

11:

 

“That kid of yours is weird, Sakumo.”

Ichigo hesitated over his next step. Peering around the corner, his eyes found a rectangle of light near the end of the hallway, the dimly lit kitchen a beacon in comparison to the rest of the compound.

He could hear Bushytail snort. “Because he’s not impressed by your yelling? Well, I hate to break this to you old friend but no one is.”

“Hey! The ladies love my enthusiastic spirit, it’s one of my best characteristics!” This was met with a clunk he could only assume was a cup being slammed down. Jiraiya’s voice lowered. “Besides I was referring more to that behavior of his. Damn brat doesn’t act like any five-year-old I’ve ever seen.”

“Language,” Bushytail chided. “And how many five-year-olds do you even know?”

“Plenty.”

“So just Kakashi then.”

“Don’t dodge the subject, Sakumo. You expect me to believe the ‘great White Fang’ hasn’t noticed something so glaringly obvious?”

For several heartbeats, no one spoke. Ichigo swallowed thickly, a shaking hand latching onto the side-table pressed against the wall. He pulled his foot back, placing it softly beside the other.

A brash sigh. “What do you expect? He’s my son. It only makes sense he’d be a little...”

Silence. Ichigo could only assume he was gesturing.

“The son of a genius is a genius, you mean.”

Ichigo scowled. He was no genius. A fast learner, sure, but not a genius. The only reason Ichigo was advanced for a five-year-old, was because he wasn’t one. He was twenty and had attended school for most of his past life—of course he knew things. He’d be more concerned if he didn’t.

“Even taking that into account, don’t you think he’s still a bit off? He talks like he’s an adult.”

Ichigo would certainly hope so.

“What are you suggesting?” Bushytail sounded tired.

Ichigo frowned.

“I don’t know yet.”

Bushytail’s exhaustion seemed to infect him, and Ichigo retreated, giving up on his nightly run to the bathroom altogether. Bushytail found him a couple hours later sitting with his legs dangling off the engawa.

Leaning against a wooden beam, he crossed his arms over chest and stuffed his hands inside the sleeves of his silver kimono. “Jiraiya’s a bit paranoid,” Bushytail said. “But he means well.”

Ichigo looked away. Of course he’d noticed him. Should’ve figured.

“I guess. Not gonna lecture me for eavesdropping?”

Feet padding closer, Bushytail stopped beside him. “I wouldn’t be much of a ‘shinobi-parent’ if I did that. I’m actually rather impressed, Jiraiya may have been drunk at the time, but the fact still remains he didn’t notice your presence.”

Huh. Morals really were different here, weren’t they? Goat-Chin would’ve given him a hard smack upside the head for pulling something like that. A hypocritical one considering the man’s own tendency to eavesdrop, but a hard one all the same.

Ichigo tugged his knees into his chest at the thought of his family, the longing he never seemed able to adjust to rearing its ugly head.

Though it was dark, Bushytail noticed. He always noticed. “You know,” he said softly. “You can tell me anything. You do know that, right?”

Ichigo wasn’t sure about that. If he told Bushytail he had memories of a past life, would he really believe him? Would Bushytail believe him if he told the man about soul reapers and hollows, about Seireitei and everything Ichigo had gone through to protect his friends? Everything he’d given up? Ichigo already knew the answer. Of course he wouldn’t. Hell, he hadn’t believed it at first either, not even when Rukia, a living, breathing soul reaper had shown up in his room. If he told Bushytail the truth, he’d probably send him off to the looney bin.

“I just wanna get stronger,” Ichigo answered. It wasn’t a lie so why did he feel guilty?

Bushytail smiled. “I see. That’s a sensible wish, but can I ask why?”

“I wanna protect.”

“Protect? Who do you want to protect Kakashi?”

Ichigo thought about his friends, thought about their loyalty. He thought about his family, thought about Yuzu humming as she stirred a pot of soup, about Karin ignoring Goat-Chin, about the way Goat-Chin would throw himself onto their mother’s memorial poster sobbing every time without fail. Then he thought about Bushytail, about the serene smile he always seemed to wear while sipping tea, about his pleased looks whenever Ichigo mastered something new.

“Everyone.”

After all, he couldn’t just pick and choose his precious people. They were all important to him. Every last one of them.

“I want to protect them all.”

If Bushytail found his words odd, he didn’t comment on it, something Ichigo appreciated. He only leaned back on his hands and stared up at the inky sky that was dotted with stars. “If that’s what you truly want, then how would you feel about enrolling in the Academy this coming fall? You’d be a bit younger than the average student, but I’d say your ability is already up to par.”

Ichigo couldn’t help it, his mouth fell open. “Huh!? No way!! Is— Is that allowed!?”

Bushytail had already discussed the Academy with him numerous times, and though he had zero interest in becoming a shinobi, he’d figured it would be the best way for him to continue his search for Seireitei. Being a shinobi would take him all around the world, and if he didn’t find Seireitei in the process, surely he’d at least find a clue to lead him there.

“Is that a ‘no way’ as in you don’t want to enroll or—”

“No!! I want to!! Enroll me!!”

The teasing glint in Bushytail’s eyes remained but a glimmer of pride joined it. “I’ll have to talk to the Hokage about you taking the entrance exam, but... I’ll see what I can do.”

 

12:

 

A week later, Bushytail returned from another mission with the widest grin Ichigo had ever seen him wear and a letter of permission from the Sandaime himself. Thus began Ichigo’s life at the Academy.

Chapter Text

13:

 

Passing the entrance exam was a breeze. A test on the different types of weaponry shinobi use, an essay inquiring after his reasons for enrolling as well as what he hoped to gain from doing so, then he was being taken outside with the others to throw kunai at posts and demonstrate how well they could control their spiritual energy. Though, for some reason, they kept referring to spiritual energy as chakra and spiritual pressure as chakra signatures. It made him wonder just how far away he must be from Seireitei for things to be this different. He knew Rukia could cast these “jutsu,” but she’d always referred to her spells as kidō. Maybe it was a cultural thing?

Well. Whatever. It wasn’t like knowing was gonna help him any.

After completing their impromptu throwing test, they were lined up and handed leaves. Ichigo tuned the instructor out while she explained what this was for, far more interested in turning the leaf around in his hands. Well, this explained why Bushytail had taken him aside a couple weeks back for “special training.” They’d started with paper though, waiting until he could stick it to his palm before moving onto leaves and then after that rice paper. The paper itself had been easy to stick, but it’d taken him a day or two not to blast the leaves into tiny pieces whenever he tried, and even longer for the rice paper. Control had never been his talent in life—a fact Uryu loved pointing out to him—but after a week with Bushytail walking him through it, he’d managed to pull it off.

Three sheets of rice paper upside down on his arm! They hadn’t budged or anything, not even when he’d swung his arm around! Bushytail had been so pleased he’d treated him to yakiniku that night!

Even with his head filled with thoughts of sizzling meat and the loud chatter of a restaurant, Ichigo easily kept the leaf glued to his palm. When the instructor pacing down the line finally arrived at him, she paused just long enough to take in the leaf sticking to his palm and the bored scowl etched across his face before nodding and carrying on. Guess that meant he’d passed.

Overall, everything they’d been tested on had been pretty basic, so it came as a shock to him that some of the other applicants managed to fail anyway. Of course, that shock had been nothing in comparison to the near heart attack Bushytail gave him the next morning.

Out of everyone he could’ve possibly greeted, Bushytail had chosen that kid. The one that hadn’t been able to use ninjutsu at all. “Oh! Nice to meet you!” Then to the parent, "My son will be attending the Academy—”

“Bushytail—” he tried to cut in.

“—I hope these two will get along!” Bushytail finished without any sign of having heard.

Well this was just great.

“No, that’s going to be impossible,” the parent said, and man if that wasn’t a bad way to put it.

Bushytail reacted the way any parent without the proper context would. His smile fell and he stepped protectively in front of Ichigo. “Huh!? What a thing to say!!” Of course, the next part wasn’t as textbook, “Are you one of those monster parents!?”

Ichigo sighed and closed his eyes. Really? That was the conclusion he’d arrived at? Guess Ichigo would have to take pity on him. “What he means to say is that that guy,” he jabbed a finger at the shorty with a bowl-cut. “Failed the entrance exam. Which I would’a told you had you waited for like five seconds.”

Bushytail shot Ichigo a glance over his shoulder. “Wha—?” Then he seemed to remember other dude and quickly turned back to him with an apologetic grin. “Oh, pardon me! I just assumed since you were in front of the Academy...”

Ichigo rolled his eyes.

The father let out a loud, uproarious laugh that reminded him of Jidanbō. “Don’t worry about it!!”

Not that Ichigo wasn’t relieved the man hadn’t flipped his shit (as per Jidanbō standards) but was this really something to laugh about? And what was with those clothes? Green spandex was totally lame.

Bowl-cut himself remained quiet throughout the exchange, too preoccupied with staring at Ichigo with the blankest of looks on his face.

Talk about irritating. When the warning glare Ichigo shot him went ignored, he finally snapped out a, “What!?”

Bowl-cut finally blinked.

Ichigo’s eye twitched. Was he trying to pick a fight with him!!?

Bushytail’s hand dropped to his shoulder, steering him away. “Oops! We should get going or we’re going to be late!!”

“Lemme go!!” Ichigo yelled, trying to jerk free and failing miserably. “You don’t have to drag me!!”

It wasn’t like he’d been about to nail the guy upside his creepy little head or anything! He’d only been thinking about doing it! Honest!

They were about to walk through the Academy gates when a voice from behind stopped them both in their tracks.

“Your name is Hatake Kakashi, isn’t it?”

Bowl-cut.

Ichigo jerked his shoulder free and turned to him fully. “Yeah?”

Bowl-cut raised his fist in a thumbs-up that showcased his knuckles, which were riddled with bruises and bloodied bandages. “I won’t forget it!” With a confident smile that almost seemed to sparkle in the sunlight, he turned and ran down the street.

His father lingered long enough to offer a polite bow before following.

Ichigo stared after them, hands sliding into his pockets. “What was that all about?”

“Well, Kakashi,” Bushytail said, and darn it, he was ruffling his hair again! “It would seem you’ve landed yourself a worthy rival.”

Ducking away from Bushytail’s hand, he blurted out, “Huh!? But that guy didn’t even pass!!”

“The waiting-list admissions haven’t been announced yet, right? The Academy isn’t blind either, that boy has potential. In fact, he may even surpass you one day. You’d do best to remember his name.”

His name? Crossing his arms, Ichigo thought back to yesterday. They’d said his name at some point, hadn’t they? Yeah, they’d called him up for his demonstration. It was... It was....

“Goober Mighty?”

Bushytail just stared at him for a very long time.

 

14:

 

Bushytail had been right. He wasn’t sure how the guy pulled it off, but Goober Mighty wound up in his class. Ichigo couldn’t say he cared one way or another, but still, it was incredibly annoying to find himself on the receiving end of yet another thumbs-up/grin combo from the guy. He could only cringe from the other side of the room and hope with all his hope Goober didn’t sit beside him. He couldn’t be seen with someone dressed like that! During his last life, he’d worked hard to cultivate a reputation, darn it, and he had every intention of doing so again!

That’s why when Goober chose to sit in the front, Ichigo slumped over with relief. Guess Goober wasn’t interested in being friends with him. Dodged a bullet.

While the instructor took roll, Ichigo entertained himself by staring out the window. Today, the sky was a clear, crisp blue, and as he watched it, a lazy breeze rustled the leaves of the nearby trees. In front of the fence, a lone swing began to sway alongside them, and a morbid part of him wondered if this was what it was like for those who couldn’t see spirits. Though he guessed, in this case, they were the spirits. Which was kind of weird in hindsight because so many of them looked like children. Ichigo was sure they were closer to his actual age though. Rukia had told him people could be born in Soul Society, but somehow he doubted it was this common.

“Kakashi Hatake?”

Ichigo raised his hand. “Right he—”

Before he could finish, the door slammed open, a short, dark-haired boy practically tripping over his own feet trying to get inside. He staggered a step, two, three, managed to grab onto the chalkboard before he really did fall.

He shoved himself away from it just as fast. “DID I MAKE IT!!?”

Rather than answer, the instructor eyed the newcomer speculatively over the top of his clipboard. “Name, please.”

For a fraction of a second, the boy seemed perplexed by the question. Then a broad grin was stretching across his round face and he was jabbing a thumb at his chest. “My name’s Obito Uchiha, and I’m gonna be the next Hokage!!”

Around them, several of their classmates began to snicker. 

Huh. That guy looked kinda familiar. Squinting, Ichigo leaned forward across his desk as much as he could without leaving his seat, eyes drinking in every detail of Obito's reddening face.

Yeah. Ichigo had definitely seen him somewhere before, he was sure of it. But where? His mind went blank. Darn it. He’d never been good at this sort of thing. Why did remembering people have to be so hard!?

Obito, who’d taken his seat two rows up from the door, grew increasingly more jittery as the minutes ticked by. It wasn’t until Obito started casting him not-so-discreet glances that he realized he’d spent most of the class staring at the poor guy. Tearing his gaze away, he returned to burning holes into the wooden swing instead. Man was he bored.

 

15:

 

Ichigo scowled down at the bento Bushytail had prepared for him. It was... about what he’d expected. The main dish consisted of a fish that was so charred, it crumbled into a black powder beneath his chopsticks. The side of rice was severely undercooked and refusing to stick together at all, and for a special treat, there was a carrot. Hadn’t been cut or steamed or anything, it was just a plain old carrot.

With his scowl morphing into a grimace, Ichigo slid the bento as far away from himself as he could manage without knocking it off the desk. He’d rather take his chances not eating.

“Kakashi-kun!”

Ichigo looked up, watching as a girl bodily dragged a clearly reluctant Obito over to him. That couldn’t be good.

“What? Do you want something?”

Despite his not-so-friendly tone, the girl’s smile didn’t waver. “It’s me, Rin Nohara, remember!? We played kick-the-can together a couple weeks ago!”

Kick-the-can? Ichigo frowned. He didn’t remember anything like that.

As he thought this, his gaze drifted to Obito’s sulky face and a spark of something ignited in the back of his head. Oh! “Riiiight! You’re the guy that started crying halfway through! I knew I recognized you from somewhere.”

Honestly, if anyone should’ve been crying it was Ichigo. Playing a childish game like that, he didn’t know why he’d let them talk him into it! It was like that eternal tag incident all over again!

“I didn’t cry,” Obito protested. “I just got dirt in my eyes!”

“But dude, weren’t you wearing goggles?”

“Shut up!!”

Rin ignored them. “Can we eat with you?”

Her sweeter-than-chocolate tone reminded him of Yuzu, of all the times she'd begged her big brother to hang out with her. He was agreeing before he could stop himself. “Sure. You can eat with me.”

Noticeably pleased by his answer, Rin wasted no time scooching next to him. Obito followed her example, albeit, with far less enthusiasm. Due to this and Ichigo’s disinterest in getting along with them in general, it was Rin who did most the talking. It wasn’t until Obito took notice of Ichigo’s bento that either of them said anything at all.

“Is... Is that your lunch?” The guy asked, looking faintly ill.

Ichigo gave him a sympathetic frown. Seeing Bushytail’s cooking for the first time wasn’t easy on anyone. “Sadly it is.”

Slowly, Obito began to shake his head, a hand drifting up to clamp over his mouth. “You’re not gonna eat that, are you?”

“Obito,” Rin hissed, and though her tone was scolding, she looked every bit as ill as her friend.

“It’s fine. Bushytail sucks at cooking. I doubt he actually expects me to eat this.”

At least, Ichigo hoped he didn’t. Bushytail may be revered as a genius by the villagers, but when it came to domestic matters, the man could be plain stupid. Once he’d accidentally turned all of their clothes pink in the wash. Pink. To this day, Ichigo still wasn’t sure how he’d managed to pull that off, they didn’t even own anything pink!!

At his words, dual sighs of relief sounded out. And then, “But wait, does that mean you aren’t going to eat lunch?” — “Bushytail?”

Rin and Obito looked at each other.

Ichigo watched their silent argument with the ever deep wave of exhaustion threatening to drag him under. He missed Chad. Chad never asked him annoying questions.

In the end, Obito seemed to win the impromptu staring contest, returning his scowl to Ichigo. “Who the heck is Bushytail?”

“Bushytail is Bushytail,” he answered dryly. “Next question.”

It was meant as sarcasm, but Rin took him seriously, glancing at the bento he could’ve sworn was emitting a dark, deadly aura at this point. The sunlight streaming in from the window seemed to have had some sort of aggravating effect on it.

Leaning close as if to broach a sensitive topic, Rin whispered, “Aren’t you hungry?”

“No.” On cue, his stomach rumbled. His cheeks heated up, and in an attempt to hide the color that was undoubtedly creeping over the top of his mask, he pretended to muffle a cough into his hand. “I’m not hungry.”

“I guess there’s no helping it,” Obito sighed, sounding far more triumphant than anyone had a right to be over food.

Ichigo was about to ask him what the hell he was on about when Obito proceeded to slide his bento toward him.

“Take as much as you want. As your elder, it’s the least I can do.” And though he was speaking to Ichigo, he kept stealing side glances at Rin for some reason. It was weird.

“Same here!” Rin chimed in, oblivious to Obito’s looks. “My older sister made it and she’s a really good cook!”

“Uh. Thanks. I’ll have some, I guess.”

Obito and Rin were a little off, but he guessed they were nice people. Swiping a strip of tempura out of Rin’s bento, he listened to Obito’s recap of his day while Rin smiled indulgently, “oohing” and “awing” at all the right places.

Ichigo decided he liked them.

 

16:

 

“My gift for getting into the Academy is a roll of paper?”

Ichigo’s lack of enthusiasm only made Bushytail laugh as he unrolled the paper in question. “Your lack of faith in my gift giving abilities wounds me, Kakashi! This is a summoning contract.”

Now that sounded interesting. Leaning forward on the balls of his feet, he looked at the paper and the various names written across it. The names were written in something weird, some parts of the text thin and red, others clumpy and dark enough to be black. Actually, it kind of reminded him of—

“Woah woah woah, wait a minute! Is that blood!!?”

Bushytail cast him a solemn look. “A summoning scroll is a huge responsibility, Kakashi, and this one in particular has been passed down through the Hatake clan for many generations, always from the head of the clan to his heir.”

Ichigo jabbed a finger at the offending thing. “HEY!! Don’t dodge the question!! What is that!?”

Standing, Bushytail backed away from the scroll and bit roughly his thumb, drawing blood. Ichigo watched, shocked, as he went through a series of hand seals before slamming his bloodied one into the ground. A puff of smoke. The smell of sulfur. Ichigo was face-to-face with the largest Siberian husky he’d ever seen.

“This is Shiro. One of my summons.”

Ichigo stayed very still while Shiro sniffed him over, cold nose bumping against his chest then his waist and his neck. When she released a loud huff through her nose, he let out a sound he refused to call a squeak and jumped a full foot backward.

Turning to pad over to Bushytail, she snorted out, “Pups.”

“What’s that supposed to mean!?”

He wasn’t used to dogs, okay!? It wasn’t his fault! She whirled around to face him, something that had him flinching three additional steps back. Holy crap, his entire head could fit inside her mouth!!

The dog let out another huff, and it was only then that he realized the sound was laughter. “That’s what I mean. Boss, is this your pup? He’s gotten much bigger than the last time you called me out to see him.”

Bushytail rubbed the nape of his neck sheepishly. “I’ve just been so busy...”

“Yeah, yeah,” Shiro said before dispersing in yet another puff of smoke.

Bushytail returned his attention to Ichigo. “I wanted to give you an example of what summoning pertains but you won’t be doing this for a while. For now, I just want you to sign your name on the contract, and we can begin your training after you graduate from the Academy.”

He was leaving already? Ichigo couldn’t help it, his good mood plummeted. “But you just got back.”

Being alone in that giant compound wasn’t exactly pleasant, it only served to fill his head with all the people who should've been there. He knew he shouldn’t be whining though. Bushytail had a job to do, he couldn’t stay home with him just because he was lonely.

Instead of punching him until he cheered the hell up like Goat-Chin would've done,  Bushytail knelt down until they were at eye-level with a clear apology written in every line of his face. “Kakashi, I know my schedule has gotten a little erratic as of late, but the village needs me now more than ever. Please try to understand.”

“I do understand.”

Really, he did. He’d done the same thing, after all, always leaving his friends and family behind. He’d done it to protect them, done it with every intention of returning, and yet... Looking back on it, he regretted all the moments he must’ve missed because of it. Karin’s soccer games, Yuzu’s cooking, sparring with Goat-Chin. He regretted worrying them. He regretted pushing them away. He’d never understood how they must’ve felt until now.

Karin, Yuzu, Goat-Chin. How had they felt when he’d gone after the visoreds without a word of a farewell? Were they worried about him when he didn’t call over the summer? How much had it hurt them when he’d vanished during family outings? When he’d left for Hueco Mundo after having just returned home, how much had it broken their hearts? At least Bushytail had the decency to tell him the truth. The truth...

Something uncomfortably cold began to squirm inside his chest. Wasn’t he pulling the exact same crap now? Keeping things from Bushytail, plotting to leave the village on his own, wasn’t he doing it again?

A large hand settled on his head, warm in a way that had his shoulders loosening before he could think about it. “Don’t look so downtrodden, son. I’ll be home before you know it.”

Ichigo managed a smile. It was a strained smile, but a smile nonetheless. “Yeah. I know you will.”

(he wondered how his family had felt when he’d never come home)

 

17:

 

Ichigo settled into life at the Academy so seamlessly it was like he’d never stopped attending school in the first place. It helped that the Academy taught more than just shinobi techniques; lessons about math, science, and history often peppered in, even if only in relation to their profession. He may not know anything about the history of this place, but the math and science portion had been a welcoming sight. He could almost imagine nothing had changed as he solved the familiar equations, pencil scratching over paper in a soothing manner.

If he closed his eyes, he could pretend he was back in Karakura town with his friends. That at any second now, the lunch bell would ring and he, Keigo, Mizuiro and Chad would head up to the roof to eat. Keigo would tell his annoying stories, Mizuiro would spend the entire time texting, Chad would be a silent presence at his side—it would be a good day. He relaxed into his daydream. As per custom, Keigo would beg them to hang out with him after school ended. They’d all refuse. Keigo would fall into a pile of dramatic tears only for Mizuiro to reveal that they were only screwing with him. Keigo would declare betrayal. Ichigo would roll his eyes, Chad would crack a grin. And It would be a really good day.

Of course, that was when the instructor just had to interrupt him, asking him to answer a question for what had to be the twentieth time this morning despite the fact he hadn’t raised his hand once. This was getting ridiculous! Meeting the instructors’ expectant look with an irritated one of his own, he pointedly dragged his eyes down to where Goober had thrust his arm as high as he could physically manage without leaving his seat.

“Why don’t you ask Goober, Ya—” What was it again? Something with a Y. Yellow? Yufi? Yellow Mongoose!? No. That didn’t sound right. And why was he so stuck on yellow? “—Yammy-sensei? It looks like he knows the answer.”

“It’s Nakamura, Hatake-kun,” the man sighed. This wasn’t the first time he’d corrected Ichigo on his name. “And do you mean Maito-kun?”

“Yeah, him. Ask him instead.”

Why did he have to keep insisting that Ichigo call Goober by his surname? Talk about uptight. Even as he rolled his eyes and began to slip back into his daydream, he didn’t miss the way their instructors’ lip curled in disgust when his gaze landed on Goober.

Goober didn’t seem to notice the hostility though, jumping to his feet and throwing the instructor a passionate thumbs-up. “YOSH! There is no need to be worried Nagayama-sensei! I know the answer!! But should I get it wrong, I will run two hundred laps around the village on my hands in penance!!”

“It’s Nakamura,” said Nagayama.

At this point, many of the other students were muffling laughter into their palms. Ichigo couldn’t for the life of him figure out why. Dude just said he was gonna run two hundred laps on his hands, shouldn’t they be worried about him?

“All right, Maito-kun. What’s the answer?”

Goober smiled confidently. “Hard work.”

“What.”

Lowering his head, Goober let out a laugh that was deep and kinda ominous. Ichigo couldn’t help it, he leaned forward.

“It was clever of you to make this question appear as a mere math equation, Naguchi-sensei—”

“It’s Nakamura,” said Naguchi.

“—but as a shinobi-in-training, I have seen right through your deception! If a shinobi were to miss five out of their twelve shuriken throws, then clearly what they need to do is work harder!!”

“Hey that actually makes sense,” Ichigo said. So the problem was a wax-on wax-off kinda thing then?

Across the room, he could see Obito nodding along with a serious frown. “I thought that might be the case.”

“YOSH! I am glad that you agree with me, my rival! And Odacchi-kun!”

“Odacchi-kun? Who the heck is that?” Was there someone named Odacchi in here?

Nagoya looked at Ichigo. Looked at Obito. Looked back at Goober. Blinked several times really hard. “...Let’s move on. What kind of shuriken is shaped like a star, you in the back, answer!”

 

18:

 

“RIVAL!!”

Ichigo paused at the corner. Goober was tearing down the street, headed right for him by the looks of it. He didn’t slow down as he neared, choosing to sling his momentum into a slide that actually put him in front of Ichigo.

“What is it now, Goober?”

Goober jerked back as if stricken. “You’re pretending not to know my name!?”

What? Was Goober not his name? Darn it!

“What a hip attitude!!”

What was it then!?

“Trendy!”

Gilgo? Gyro?

“You are indeed worthy of being my rival!”

Gainomoru? AGH!! It was no use! He couldn’t remember!! Guess he was stuck calling him Maito for now.

When he looked up, he realized Maito was staring at him as though awaiting a response. “Huh? Did you say something?”

Maito jerked back again. “How cool of you my rival!! You truly are a man of great composure!”

While the guy started in on some weird spiel about the power that came with being youthful and hip, Ichigo noticed something. Over Maito’s shoulder near the corner of the fence, the air was slightly distorted. The more Ichigo stared, the more he was certain of it. What was that? Some kind of jutsu?

Maito threw his arms far overhead with a loud shout that drew Ichigo’s attention, and by the time he’d looked back, the distorted air was gone.

 

19:

 

When Ichigo got home, the first thing he did was grab a bokken and walk over to the koi pond. He knew a bokken wasn’t a decent substitute for his zanpakutō, and he doubted having it would make any real difference, but he wasn’t sure what else to do. He needed to get in contact with Zangetsu, and at least having the bokken helped him concentrate.

Thanks to the sheer chaos regaining his memories had brought with it, it’d taken Ichigo a couple weeks to realize he couldn’t feel Zangetsu anymore. He’d tried meditating that same day, only to discover something that had made his entire being shudder in disgust. Somehow, dying and being reborn had cut him off from the other half of his soul. He couldn’t even enter his inner world anymore!

Every time he tried a heavy wall of fog seemed to drop between him and his destination, cutting him off, forcing him back. He wasn’t one to give up though. Month after month, from summer until fall, he’d kept trying and trying to get in touch with his zanpakutō spirit. Last week his efforts had finally started to pay off. He’d reached out like he always did only to discover that the fog had turned into something tangible, something he could reach out and grasp. It never failed to pull away before his fingers could close around it though.

Frustrating. The whole thing was incredibly frustrating. After another failed attempt, Ichigo rested his elbows on the bokkun and dropped his chin onto his hands. Now what?

 

20:

 

Something had gone wrong. Horribly, horribly wrong. It didn’t take an observant one to notice the downcast look on Bushytail’s face, and when Ichigo aimed a dropkick at him, Bushytail was slow to block.

“Kakashi,” he said with a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “I’m home.”

From where Ichigo was being dangled by his ankle, he said, “Welcome back.”

But wait. Wasn’t Bushytail supposed to be home next week? Ichigo was about to point that out when Bushytail lowered him to the ground. He’d expected many things after that. Bushytail to ruffle his hair and critique his form. To ask him what he’d been up to and if whoever he’d blackmailed into checking up on him had been nice. The normal stuff.

Which meant he was in no way prepared for it when the man dropped to his knees and pulled him into a hug. It was a tight and desperate thing, a thing that seemed to scream “please I need this” and Ichigo couldn’t bring himself to pull away. Instead, he tentatively wrapped his arms around what little he could reach of Bushytail’s back.

“...Bushytail?”

No response.

The arms around him tightened for a fraction of a second, then Bushytail was breaking away to stand and ruffle Ichigo’s hair. Like nothing had happened. “How about some dinner? I bet you’re hungry.”

“Hey?”

“Mentaiko karashi, right? Even I can make that.”

“Bushytail, hold on a sec!”

Bushytail vanished inside the kitchen without a sign of having heard. Yes, something was very wrong indeed.

 

21:

 

For the first time since being reborn here, dinner was a silent affair.

 

22:

 

Ichigo was walking to class the next morning when a blur cut across the edge of his peripheral vision. Around him, the other people making their daily commute didn’t seem to notice. Tch. And people called him unobservant.

Curiosity peaked, he cut his way through the crowd and turned around the corner the figure had been heading towards. Right as the road came into sight, the figure vanished around the corner at the end of that path. With his forehead creasing into a scowl, he went after it, thoughts of class and Bushytail fleeing from his mind.

The figure stayed just on the edge of his vision no matter how fast he walked or how many alleyways he cut through. By the time he’d finally caught up to it, it was standing on the other side of a grassy clearing, obscured in the shadow of a large statue until he could hardly make out anything about it.

Stepping into the clearing, he called out, “Hey! You! Who are you!?”

The figure turned just enough for its face to edge into the lighter part of the shadow, and Ichigo realized it was a man. Then he was gone. This wasn’t the first time Ichigo had seen a shinobi vanish into thin air but somehow, this felt different.

With a frown, Ichigo walked over to the statue. It was a large cube that was resting on top of a platform. There were names carved into the surface, so many, that it would probably take hours to read. A memorial?

 

23:

 

Class was an uncomfortable affair. He’d shown up late thanks to the incident with that guy, and apparently, while he’d been gone, everyone had decided that the back of his head was the most fascinating thing in the entire world and no amount of glaring could convince them otherwise. It also didn’t help that he kept catching snippets of whispered conversations.

 

“Isn’t he—?”

 

“Shh. Not so loud!”

 

With an irritated growl rising in his throat, Ichigo ignored them, choosing instead to focus on drawing Zangetsu on the cover of his textbook. When he’d finished, his zanpakutō had wound up looking more like a blown-up snake than an oversized khyber knife. He glared at it like it was the cause of all his problems.

 

I feel sorry for him. To think his dad really...”

 

“SHH!!”

 

Ichigo’s heart skipped a beat. Wait. What? Had... Had something happened to Bushytail?

He turned in his seat, trying to catch sight of who’d said that, but everyone was dutifully staring at the board. He turned back around. After dinner last night, Bushytail had locked himself in the study and was yet to leave it, but he’d been fine health-wise... Right?

Nagayama was scrawling the name of some old dude across the board. Half the class was whispering amongst themselves. The other half was diligently taking notes. The clock was ticking, pages were turning, feet were tapping, and suddenly he couldn’t take it anymore. Grabbing the edge of the desk, he flung himself over it and raced for the door. He had to go check!!

“Hatake-kun!!?” Nagayama yelled. “What on earth!!?”

“I have to go to the restroom!”

 

24:

 

Ichigo burst inside the Hatake residence with enough force to nearly knock the front door off its hinges. “BUSHYTAIL!!”

He didn’t wait for a response, kicking his sandals off and hurrying to the study where the man surely must’ve been! Without bothering to knock, he slid the door open only to find—

“Hm? Kakashi?”

—Bushytail was meditating in the panels of sunlight streaming in from the window. At the sight, every single muscle in Ichigo’s tiny body slumped in relief. His knees were shaking, threatening to give out from under him. He couldn’t lose any more people. He wouldn’t be able to handle it if something happened.

“Kakashi? Shouldn’t you be in class?” There was no sternness there, only surprise. Surprise that quickly morphed into horror. Bushytail was grabbing Ichigo’s shoulders before he could blink, grip unusually tight considering how gentle he normally was with him. “Did something happen!? Did someone say anything to you!?”

Ichigo blinked, once, twice. “Uh, no. Actually, I thought something happened to you.”

The surprise returned, then it was gone in place of something like relief. He rested a hand on Ichigo’s head, even as his dark eyes drifted to the side. “I see.”

When Bushytail made no move to say or do anything, Ichigo frowned. “Uh.. Bushytail? Are you... Are you doing all right? You’ve been acting kinda funny.”

Bushytail’s eyes flickered back to him, a black on black so dark, he couldn’t see his pupils. Ichigo knew Bushytail's eyes were a perfect mirror of his own, he’d spent the better half of one morning peering at them in the mirror, just trying to figure out where his pupils ended and his irises began.

“Hm? Did you say something, Kakashi?”

“...No. It was nothing.”

Bushytail stood without removing his hand from Ichigo’s head. “Let’s get you back to class then. Although,” he paused, turning to peer out the window. “It’s about time for lunch, isn’t it?”

Ichigo followed his gaze. Scowled. He still had no clue how Bushytail could do that—just look up at the sun and automatically know what time it was.

“Let’s say we drop by that tea shop on the way there and grab you something nice to eat?”

Considering the fact he normally spent his lunch hours either scavenging for food or taking naps, he had absolutely no problem doing that. “Yeah. That sounds good to me.”

 

25:

 

While they walked through the village, Bushytail never stopped talking. The smile he’d plastered on after stepping outside hadn’t faded or faltered, and his hand on Ichigo’s was a bit constricting. Ichigo didn’t fight him this time. How could he when everyone was staring at them like that? Like they’d done something wrong?

Seriously what was everyone’s problem? If they had something to say then just say it already! He hated all this tiptoeing around!

Ichigo was about to yell exactly that when Bushytail quickened his pace, yanking him around the corner and out of sight. When he looked down at Ichigo, the smile was still there but a touch of disapproval had entered his gaze. Of course, Bushytail had noticed. He always noticed.

But Ichigo had never been the type to back down without a fight. “Why won’t you just say something!? Those jerks they’re just— they’re bad-mouthing us, all of them!! Why won’t you fight back!?”

Bushytail turned away so that the back of his silver hair was all Ichigo could see. “This is adult business, Kakashi. Leave it be.”

Ichigo opened his mouth to object but the words wouldn’t come. This was the first time Bushytail had ever done that. Used his age against him. What was going on lately? Everybody was acting off!

Rather than dignify Bushytail with an answer, Ichigo pointedly looked away and began to mutter not-so-kind things under his breath. Stupid Bushytail. Stupid villagers.

Bushytail gave his hand one last squeeze before letting go.

 

26:

 

Even after they bought their food and went their separate ways, the stares and whispers didn’t let up.

 

27:

 

Weeks passed like this. Everyone and everything was off. He would’ve been more concerned over the everyone if not for how worried the everything had him. People talking crap about him he could handle. But this? This was just bizarre.

Ever since that day the air behind Maito had rippled like a summer’s heat haze, he kept catching these blurs and dark figures at the edges of his vision. He wanted to say it was spirit-related—because really, in his last life, it’d always been spirit-related—but seeing as he lived in Soul Society and technically was one of those spirits himself, that wouldn’t have made any sense.

Although. He’d be lying if he said the everyone aspect didn’t have him worried at all. Nowadays, Bushytail always seemed tired and worried over something, and it didn’t help that he’d been benched after another mission went sour. Thanks to that, he’d only grown more distant.

Ichigo understood it, the frustration that came with not being able to do anything, so he’d started asking Bushytail to spar with him, just to give him something to take his mind off things. It didn’t help as much as he’d hoped it would. Bushytail hardly even spoke anymore, too wrapped up in his own thoughts.

On another such day, Ichigo slid his sandals on and grabbed his schoolbag off the floor. “I’m heading out! There’s miso soup in the fridge.”

Bushytail didn’t respond, but after the last couple weeks, Ichigo hadn’t expected him to.

 

28:

 

When he found out the reason behind Bushytail’s odd behavior, he was buying groceries at the store. This wasn’t an uncommon occurrence, not in this life or the last; Goat-Chin being too busy managing the clinic to make the trip and Bushytail being completely hopeless where household chores were concerned. The one time he’d let Bushytail tag along, he’d grabbed nothing but vegetables and had insisted that was all they’d needed. No toilet paper, no toothpaste, no snacks or spices or fruit or even meats; just vegetables. Eggplants to be exact. Three of them. How had he survived up until now?

After that, Ichigo had banned him from coming along. Something that he now regretted, seeing as it meant he’d had to leave Bushytail by himself to come here, and lately leaving him alone for any period of time made Ichigo’s chest ache with worry. He’d even considered cutting class altogether just to stay home and keep an eye on the man, but he knew Bushytail wouldn’t stand for him missing out on his education, no matter how out of it the man had been acting.

After being shut down the last time he’d tried asking about it, Ichigo had decided to wait until Bushytail was ready. Until he came to him. But. Ichigo was starting to think that hadn’t been the best way to handle things. It’d only given Bushytail more time to wallow in whatever had him so down in the first place.

If this kept on for any longer, Ichigo was going to have to beat the sadness out of him the classic Kurosaki way. With how distracted the man had been lately, Ichigo could probably get a couple good hits in...

With only enough stuff to float them through the week, Ichigo was heading for the register when he’d heard it.

“Isn’t that the disgraces’ brat?” Came a male voice from the other side of the aisle.

Ichigo froze.

“Yeah,” answered a woman. “Just what we needed, another Hatake screw-up training to be a shinobi. Just you wait, I bet he’ll abandon his mission too.”

What? What were they talking about!? Bushytail wouldn’t do that!

“What’s the worst he can do? The Hatake name is good as dead. And all for what? A couple’a friends?”

Ichigo forgot to breathe as memories of his own friends resurfaced in his mind. Rukia and Renji. Chad and Uryu. Orihime. Then cold green eyes were shattering the image of them like glass, revealing not a hint of emotion towards him, not even when a blast of light tore through his chest.

For them. He... Was it...

The same voice scoffed. “They all hate him now anyway.”

What if...?

“If you ask me it wasn’t worth it.”

It was, it—

“He should’ve just done what he was told.”

Ichigo staggered back a step, stricken. A hazy screen, apologetic looks, a stern refusal. If... Had he... NO!!

No, he’d heard enough!!

Dropping his bags, he raced for the exit. As he pushed his way outside, he caught the last part of the conversation.

“Either way, I bet he’s regretting it now.”

The doors slammed shut behind him.

 

29:

 

Ichigo tore through the streets of Konoha in a way he’d never had the need before. The damp, chilly air smelled sharp with the promise of rain, and as he ran, he could almost imagine he was invading Seireitei all over again, that the entirety of squad eleven was swiping at his heels. Like he’d needed any more motivation to hurry the hell up. Bushytail was special! He was the one good thing about this entire mess!! Bushytail, he—

Ichigo slammed into the doors of the Hatake estate with enough force to nearly send him on his face when they snapped open with ease. He staggered his next few steps, threw all his weight into a run and soon his stride had evened out enough for him to crash through the entrance of the Hatake house with equal fervor.

Bushytail was—

Ichigo didn’t bother removing his sandals on the way in, he couldn’t have cared less about the muddy footprints left behind as he raced through the narrow halls. Outside, the first crack of lightning lit up the sky in flashes of violet, then it stole the color from the hallway entirely, bleaching everything a solid white. Including the study, where the door had been left ajar.

He was—

Sitting properly with his legs folded and his spine ramrod straight, a figure was dyed black as yet another flash of lightning fractured what little bit of sky that was visible through the window. Ichigo knew who that was. He knew who was sitting there, holding an object that shimmered like mercury as it made a quick decisive arch towards their own body. The person sitting there was— He was— He was the one good thing— He— He was— HE WAS HIS—

“DAD!!!”

Thunder exploded overhead, loud enough to make the entire house shake, but Ichigo was already in motion, already leaping into the air and—

“OOMPH!!” 

—smashing his foot right into Bushytail’s stupid face!! For once Bushytail wasn’t alert enough to block him, the tantō nicking his side but missing his stomach as his entire body was thrown to the left and onto the floor.

Ichigo landed in a crouch. Stood. Drew in a deep, deep breath and then, “ARE YOU GONNA TELL ME JUST WHAT THE HELL YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING!!?”

Bushytail propped himself up on an arm, his free hand moving to cradle his cheek, which was already browning in the beginnings of a bruise. When he looked down at Ichigo—down because even though Ichigo was standing and Bushytail was sitting, he was still too short to tower over the man—his expression was comically shocked.

Up until now, admitting Bushytail was his dad had felt so much like betraying Goat-Chin he hadn’t been able to do it. But wasn’t it the truth? These past five years, it’d been Bushytail taking care of him, helping him, being there. He knew that wasn’t Goat-Chin’s fault, and Goat-Chin was still his dad but... Bushytail was too. He cared about him too much for that not to be the truth.

Bushytail blinked. “You... You kicked me?”

Ichigo placed his hands on his hips. “You’re damn straight I did and I’m about to do it again!!”

Bushytail leaned away from him. A good reaction. Ichigo was far from done.

In the spirit of that, he yelled, “Are you crazy!!? What were you about to do with that tantō, huh!?”

Bushytail opened his mouth. Grimaced. Looked away.

The hot rage that’d been exploding inside his skull like fireworks increased until his vision began to blur at the edges. “You’ve spent the last few weeks feeling sorry for yourself and now this!? You were gonna kill yourself, weren’t you!?

“Kakashi—” Bushytail started, his tone that of an adult talking down to a child.

“Don’t you ‘Kakashi’ me, you freaking jackass!”

Bushytail gasped, scandalized. “Kakashi!!”

“Shaddup!!”

Bushytail shut up.

“This is all because of the crap those people are saying, isn’t it!?”

Bushytail didn’t react, only stared at the hand he’d laid flat over the floor. What!? Was Ichigo wrong then!? And why wouldn’t Bushytail look at him!! At... him. Him. Oh.

Oh.

The tsunami of rage that’d been threatening to swallow him whole lessened into stormy waves. “You thought I’d hate you, didn’t you?”

Silence.

“Didn’t you?”

A flinch.

With a long, tired sigh, Ichigo ran a hair through his hair, and for a moment, he could almost convince himself that it was the proper color. “That’s why you’ve been so weird lately, isn’t it? You knew I’d find out eventually, even though you’ve been trying to hide it, and you thought I’d turn my back on you just like everyone else did. That’s it, isn’t it?”

Slowly, carefully, Bushytail tilted his head to look at him. “You knew?” He rasped. “You knew what I did?”

“Yeah. You saved your friends,” he said, stressing the words. “And there’s nothing shameful about that.”

There wasn’t, of that much he was certain.

“Kakashi—” He had that tone again, that irritating adult-talking-down-to-a-child tone.

“Just stop it okay? I would’ve done the same thing had I been in your shoes. Does that make me shameful?”

“Kakashi—”

“I’m serious.”

There must’ve been something in his eyes, a ferocity, a knowing glint, something, because, for several heartbeats, Bushytail fell silent.

“I... Kakashi, because of me, our villages’ standing has fallen. It is only right that I—”

Ichigo promptly tried to punch him in the nose. As people do. “Would you shut up about that already!? What’s the point of honor if you’re dead!!?”

Bushytail’s eyes went round. He lowered the tiny fist he’d caught inches from his nose. “But—”

“If it’s your fault and you blame yourself then take responsibility and make things better already!! But as far as I’m concerned,” he jabbed his finger at Bushytail. “You did nothing you need to feel sorry over! There’s nothing shameful about protecting your friends, and anyone who says otherwise is an idiot!”

The corners of Bushytail’s mouth twitched. “Then everyone besides my five-year-old son is an idiot then?” He asked, and with a jolt, Ichigo realized that for the first time in weeks, Bushytail’s smile was finally reaching his eyes.

With a huff, Ichigo dropped to sit criss-cross on the floor next to him. “That’s right.”

Everyone here must’ve been dumb to treat Bushytail this badly. Bushytail was kinda hopeless but he was a good person, one of the few people Ichigo actually respected.

“Don’t do that again,” he said, plain, simple. “Or else.”

A soft laugh was his answer. “All right.”

“And I’m holding onto that tantō until I’m sure you can be trusted with it.”

“That’s fine.”

“And you’re buying all of my favorite foods tonight!”

“Of course.”

Hm. He wondered what else he could get away with? “And you’re teaching me summoning!”

“Not until you graduate.”

Darn! Should’ve led with that instead.

 

30:

 

Two hours later, Ichigo thought about his mother’s cooling body. Thought about the way it had trapped him against the ground, sleek with rainwater and heavy with the smell of blood. Blood so pungent he’d wanted to vomit even before he’d opened his eyes.

“Please don’t do that to me again,” he rasped.

Bushytail set a hand on his head, gentle, calming, and brought their foreheads together. “I won’t. I promise.”

Chapter Text

X

 

x

 

Sakumo knew his son wasn’t normal. Once upon a time, he’d spent weeks worrying over Kakashi’s sudden change in personality. One night Sakumo had put his son to bed as a soft-spoken child prone to tears, and in the morning, he’d woken up to a child that was loud and brash. Logically, Sakumo knew it couldn’t have really gone down like that (children didn’t just change overnight despite popular belief), but it had felt that way at the time.

What had happened to Kakashi, he’d wondered. Had it been his fault? Had he messed up, failed as a father already? Or what if... What if he hadn’t known his son from the start? Out of all the questions he’d been forced to ask himself, that one had stung the most. Had his son hidden his personality and thoughts away from him? Was Sakumo unreliable? Had Sakumo already failed him?

He spent those anxiety-ridden days smiling through his nerves and keeping a wary eye on Kakashi. Subtle interrogations, a visit from a Yamanaka friend, careful observation; after two weeks of this, Sakumo had arrived at the only conclusion he could’ve given the circumstances: Kakashi was indeed Kakashi.

If an enemy shinobi had disguised themselves as his son, surely they would have tried harder to imitate his son’s quiet personality, and his Yamanaka friend would have noticed any mind-altering jutsu as well. Plus there were too many small details thrown into the mix, too many obscure gestures and habits no one except for Sakumo could have been privy to, Sakumo having become a tad... reclusive. After his wife’s death.

Kakashi had simply grown up a bit more, he’d supposed. There was too much left of the old Kakashi for it not to be true. Yes, his son still made the same expressions even if many of them were now obscured by a mask. He still loved the same foods and preferred to spend his idle moments sitting by the koi pond, gazing into the water.

Everything was still all right. And if his “everything” meant his son exclusively, well, what else could be expected from him? Sakumo was a Hatake, and Hatake were notorious for being overprotective of their loved ones. But.

Still. Sometimes, he wondered.

On such a night, Sakumo had stirred from a nightmare with blood bathed scenes burning behind his eyelids and a scream wedged in his throat. He’d risen to make a cup of tea, something to soothe his frazzled nerves, but a shape outside the window in the hallway had him stopping dead in his tracks.

His son, his precious little Kakashi, had been gazing into the koi pond with a look of such intense sorrow, it had taken Sakumo’s breath away.

Perhaps it was the way the moonlight had drenched Kakashi’s pale hair and skin, making him almost seem to glow. Perhaps it was the way that same light dappled his eyelashes, turning them white. Perhaps it was the way his silver kimono was patterned by the ever-shifting refraction of light off the surface of the water. But. In that moment, Sakumo could have sworn there was something otherworldly sitting in his garden. It was as if he’d stumbled across a lone spirit reflecting upon its life before moving on to the next world.

And. Sakumo had wondered.

He always let it go in the end. He may be a genius but he wasn’t an expert on children or even adults for that matter. The questions continued to linger in the back of his mind—what had happened, was he okay, was this normal, was that normal?— but the back of his mind was where they stayed.

And that had been good enough.

He loved his little five-year-old son terribly, but he’d never been an overbearing parent. If Kakashi wanted to talk, Sakumo would listen, but until then, he was content to give Kakashi his space. Jiraiya had other ideas though.

After he finished thoroughly chewing Sakumo out for his.... well, for his attempt, he’d started in on a topic Sakumo had been trying his best not to think about.

“There’s no way any five-year-old could come up with something like that! Genius my ass!”

Sakumo barely refrained from sighing. “So you’ve told me.”

That night, Kakashi had spoken with the wisdom of someone twice his age. No five-year-old should have that sort of outlook on life, let alone that kind of grit; the kind that was earned through countless trials and so much pain. The kind of grit he typically only found in his comrades. No five-year-old should even be close to that, especially not his five-year-old.

“Sakumo, be honest with me. Did he really say all that to you?” Jiraiya asked for the twelfth time this morning. “Word for word?”

Scratching his cheek where a sandal-shaped bruise had once settled in splotches of purple and yellow, Sakumo said, “I realize that it’s not normal—”

“Sakumo—”

“—but this is just how Kakashi is.”

“Darn it, Sakumo!!” Jiraiya slammed his cup onto the engawa, making the saké inside slosh out onto the wood. “Stop covering your eyes to the truth!! You know damn well that something isn’t right about this!! Or do you expect me to believe that you’ve really grown so complacent!?”

Sakumo set his cup down with a tink that filled the space like the welcoming bell in a silent restaurant. He looked up at the thick veil of clouds overhead, graying and darkening with every passing minute it seemed. It would rain again today, he could smell it in the wind.

“Jiraiya, watch your tongue,” he said with enough bite to have the other man falling silent.

The anger melted out of Jiraiya’s frame, replaced with a gentleness Sakumo did not want to see. “Look. I understand that you don’t want anything to be wrong with your kid, Sakumo, I do. But we’re shinobi, we can never be too careful.”

“What do you understand, Jiraiya? You’ve never been a parent. Kakashi is fine. You think I haven’t already done the proper tests? You think I haven’t looked into this matter?”

For a moment, neither of them said anything. Then Jiraiya was blowing out a breath and running his fingers through his bangs. “This is stupid. What are we fightin’ about this for?”

The tension in Sakumo’s shoulders dissolved. He allowed himself to smile. “I believe you were chewing me out for being ‘a stupid idiot.’”

“And I stand by it,” Jiraiya said, refilling his cup with the bottle of sake that’d been set between them. “Look. I have a lot of experience with geniuses, Sakumo. Hell, I’ve even raised one.”

At the mention of Minato, Sakumo lowered his gaze to his lap.

Huffing, Jiraiya leaned back on his hands. “I’m not as ignorant to your plight as you’d believe me to be old friend.”

Sakumo closed his eyes.

“Just let me take that kid of yours out for a day, give me a chance to size him up and all that jazz.”

Opened them. “Haven’t you already spent time with him?”

“That doesn’t count, the kid stuck to Minato like glue. He’s a good judge of character, I’ll give him that.”

“Yes, to ignore you, he must be.”

Jiraiya jerked upright. “That’s not what I meant and you know it, Sakumo!!”

Disguising his laugh as a cough, Sakumo retrieved his cup and gulped down the rest in a single, fluid movement. “I have an... appointment tomorrow. You can pick him up from the academy and watch him until I get back.”

“Huh? What kinda appointment do ya got?”

Sakumo raised his cup to his mouth. “Mah. After everything that went down, Kakashi insisted I see a therapist.”

Jiraiya promptly spit out his sake.

 

X

 

x

 

Everything was turned on its side. A mist of rain pattered down, collecting on his bare arms and forehead. When the droplets began to cling to his eyelashes, he groaned and shifted to wipe them away. In the end, he only succeeded in smearing it across his eyes, making them sting when he opened them in full.

A forest of tall, weathered skyscrapers was what greeted him. There were cracks running down the sides, cracks that were filled with vines and other such plants. There were even places where trees had broken through windows, branches tangled up along the side of the buildings as they fought each other for the weak rays of sunlight.

It was almost beautiful. It was almost familiar. It was almost... Okay, enough of that, why the hell was everything sideways? And why did he feel like he should know this place!? What was going on!?

He forced himself up with a scowl, knowing full well he wouldn’t fall. Strolled to the edge of the building where a green shrub had tangled itself around a chunk of rubble. He cupped one of its leaves in his hand, felt the water that’d been trapped on top leak onto his skin.

“Seriously, where is this place?”

Somehow, being here made him feel calm, made him feel at peace, and as he thought this, the hazy rain came to a stop.

....

...

..

.

.

 

.

 

Ichigo opened his eyes. He shifted his sore, tired legs so they were no longer criss-cross and pulled his arms away from the tantō they’d been resting overtop. Right. He’d been meditating beside the koi pond. With a jaw-stretching yawn, he leaned backward until he was propped against the willow tree.

The branches that hung over the pond swayed in the lazy breeze that followed. As it swept his bangs away from his face, he tried to think back, tried to remember what he’d been doing just now but nothing sprang to mind. Man. Must’ve fallen asleep.

Chapter Text

31:

 

Bushytail’s recovery didn’t happen instantly, but after that night he started making more of an effort. Every morning he trained in the garden, brushing up on skills he’d been letting deteriorate, and in the afternoon he visited the therapist Ichigo had bullied him into trying. The conversation had gone like this:

 

“I don’t need a therapist, Kakashi.”

 

“Yes you do.”

 

“No I don’t.”

 

“Yes you do! Look at you! You’re still a mess! What would your friend Jirichio think if he saw you like this!?”

 

A raised brow, “You mean Jiraiya?”

 

“What ever!”

 

It’d taken a couple of days to talk him into it, but after trying it out, Bushytail had liked it enough to keep going back. He still had bad days, days where he hardly spoke and couldn’t bring himself to get out of bed, but Ichigo was there for him. He wasn’t about to let his dad get that bad again.

Things at home hadn’t exactly returned to normal but they were getting there. Bushytail was even taking advantage of his time off to work on his culinary skills, often welcoming Ichigo home with a batch of cookies that looked like they’d been pulled straight out of hell. Which was awful. But the worst part. The worst part was the lunches.

“Wha— What is that?” Obito breathed out at the sight of Ichigo’s newest bento.

It was supposed to be curry, that much he was certain, but in the end it’d turned into some kind of goopy rice stew. The rice refused to bend or break under his chopsticks and the chicken’s texture was better left unsaid.

Ichigo really didn’t want to try this. He glanced at Obito, who was gaping at his lunch like it was the single most horrifying thing in existence. Well, that gave him an idea.

Fishing out a particularly round clump of rice with his chopsticks, Ichigo lifted it halfway to his face, pretending to size it up. Then he struck, grabbing Obito’s nose and shoving the food into his mouth. “Here, try.”

For a second, nothing happened. Then Obito’s face was turning a sickly shade of green and his eyes were rolling up inside his skull.

“Obito!” Rin cried, catching him before his head could thunk into the desk.

Ichigo looked down at his now empty chopsticks. “Huh. Guess that recipe’s a bust too then.”

Rin glared at him like he’d killed her puppy.

 

32:

 

“Rival!! I challenge you to a—”

“Try this.” Ichigo shoved the chopsticks in his mouth before he could finish that sentence.

For a moment, Maito simply stood there, frozen with his cheeks bulging around the chopsticks. Then he swallowed.

 

“....”

 

“....”

 

“Rival,” he staggered back a step, staggered back as if putting space between them would somehow explain the mysteries of life. “You eat like this!!?”

Ichigo was about to explain that, no, he and Bushytail lived primarily off of takeout at this point (how he missed Yuzu’s cooking...) but before he could, Maito’s entire expression lit up.

“Wait, I under stand !! This must be some kind of training!! A training of will!! Of mind-over- body!!” Tears began to stream down his cheeks. “SUCH DEDICATION!!”

Yup, this recipe was definitely a bust.

“My rival, you have inspired me to work even harder!!” Then he froze. His hand rose to his mouth. “I am suddenly not feeling so well.”

On cue, Rin’s hand shot up from the middle row where Obito was still slumped against the desk. “Sensei! I think Obito-kun needs to go to the Infirmary!”

 

33:

 

“Look, I’m sorry,” Ichigo said. “How many times do I have’ta say it?”

Obito and Maito graced him with twin blank stares. Ichigo crossed his arms and refused to let the guilt show on his face.

Obito was the first to break, face planting the pillow with a groan. “I hate youuuuuuuu.”

Maito went back to hugging the mini trash bin the medic lady had given him.

“And you’re certain this is ordinary curry?” She asked for the hundredth time.

“Yes,” Ichigo answered, also for the hundredth time. “It’s not some kind of poison, it’s really just curry.”

She cast him a disbelieving frown before resuming her examination of his lunch. “...I’m not finding any traces of poison in it.”

“That’s because it isn’t poisoned.”

“He tried to kill uuuus,” Obito whined pathetically.

“Remain strong Odacchi-kun,” Maito said with a grim sort of grin. “With this food in our bellies, we will only grow as—” A gag cut him off, and he went back to dry heaving into the trash bin.

Obito shifted so that his pained scowl was just visible over the pillow. “Who’s Oddachi-kun? Did that stupid Bakashi get someone else with his stupid poisoned bento?”

“It’s not poisoned,” said Ichigo. Again. “And don’t call me that!” Again.

Silence met his words, heavy as a flood of water. For the second time, he was facing off against twin blank stares.

“Huh,” the nurse said. “It’s really not poisoned.”

 

34:

 

“Is your dad some kinda space alien?”

“No.”

“Is he an enemy spy who’s dedicated his entire life to slowly poisoning everyone in the village with his awful cooking, starting with the future Hokage?”

“Again, no.”

“Is he some kind of demon?”

Ichigo considered that one. “Well...” It would take a demon to turn a normal recipe of curry into a lethal weapon. “Probably not,” he decided.

Obito only groaned and clutched his stomach.

Ichigo rolled his eyes and tried to remember why he’d agreed to walk these idiots home. Oh right, because he’d kind of, sort of, maybe accidentally made them sick and neither of their guardians could get them at the moment. That was why.

With his arms wrapped tight around his stomach, Maito managed to say, “My rival, how is it that you withstand this pain?”

“Well for starters I don’t eat his cooking.”

“And yet you gave it to us!!?” Obito sprang forward a couple steps to jab an accusatory finger at him. “I knew it, you were trying to poison us, you jerk!!”

“I wasn’t.”

He had only been checking to make absolutely certain it wouldn’t kill him if he ate it. Plus Obito’s gaping had kinda ticked him off this time.

“Liar!!” Obito shouted and for a second, an image of Keigo overlaid him, teary-eyed and accusatory.

Something in Ichigo tightened hard enough to momentarily stop his breathing. He shook it off like an unpleasant chill before responding accordingly. In classic dealing-with-Keigo-fashion, Ichigo walked passed Obito without sparing him a glance. “Yeah, yeah. Whatever.”

“Hey!! Don’t ignore me!!”

Great, now he was even quoting Keigo. If he kept this up, soon he’d be tackling Ichigo in the halls and begging him to hang out every day.

“Don’t worry Odacchi-kun, my rival is just a cool kind of guy! He may come across chilly, but deep down inside of that rough, cold exterior I know for a fact that he is burning with the fiery flames of youth.”

Okay, what the crap was that guy on about this time? Flames of youth!? Seriously, what even was that!?

“‘Oddachi-kun?’” Obito echoed, soon followed by a pause as he looked from side to side, searching for this ‘Oddachi’ fellow. Then he stiffened. “Wait. Do you mean me!? My name is Obito!! Obito Uchiha!!”

While the two began bickering back and forth—well, Obito bickered and Maito batted aside his objections through sheer bull-headed obliviousness—Ichigo decided to focus on navigating. Maito had said his house was around here, hadn’t he? In fact, it should probably be right around this corn—

Oh.

“Oh come on!” He hissed out between gritted teeth.

With a glance to confirm neither Obito or Maito had noticed, he slowly backed away from the corner. Turned. Began to head in the opposite direction. He’d made it ten steps in when Obito spoke up.

“Hey isn’t that the Academy?”

“Hm?”

When Ichigo glanced over his shoulder, they were peering around the corner he’d been trying to get away from. They exchanged puzzled looks before zeroing in on him. Ichigo began to sweat. Their expressions didn’t change for a full ten seconds, and then, they were both jabbing fingers at him.

 

“BAKASHI YOU LEAD US IN A COMPLETE CIRCLE!!”

 

“RIVAL!!”

 

“IT’S NOT MY FAULT OKAY, BLAME THE STUPID VILLAGE!!”

 

“I BLAME YOU!!”

 

“THIS IS MOST UNYOUTHFUL OF YOU, RUN A HUNDRED LAPS AROUND THE VILLAGE IN PENANCE!!”

 

“BOTH OF YOU SHUT UP!!”

 

35:

 

In the end, they wound up wandering around the village for a full hour before Obito snapped and took the lead, dropping both Maito and Ichigo off safely at their doorsteps. Ichigo waved after him and tried to ignore the irony behind this turn of events. On second thought, maybe Obito was more like Uryu.

 

36:

 

The world had been flipped on its side. The clouds were sideways, the sun was a straight walk ahead. Even the wind was blowing sideways.

As he made his way along a horizontal skyscraper, he stepped around the tiny plants that had burrowed themselves within the cracks on the wall. The vines that were hugging the structure forced him to watch his every step lest his feet get snagged.

Where was this place? Why did it feel so familiar to him? So... comforting?

As he thought this, he came upon a deep gouge in the wall that had filled with water, giving it the appearance of a small pond. He knelt beside it and dipped his hand in the lukewarm water, half expecting a koi fish to brush against his fingers. It reminded him of home.

 

37:

 

Ichigo snapped out of it between breaths and wondered what he’d just been thinking about.

 

38:

 

The next morning, he spent the walk to class yawning. What was he so tired for? There was no reason for him to feel this wiped out, all he did lately was meditate and sleep! Agh!! He hated this stupid child-body!! How long was it gonna take for him to be grown-up again!?

And to make matters worse, he still hadn’t seen hide nor hair of Zangetsu since waking up here! Ichigo didn’t know much about reincarnation but he was still the same person, wasn’t he? So Zangetsu should be here. Was he avoiding him!? But why? Had Ichigo done something wrong? Had he disrespected him somehow? Was he... Was he mad at Ichigo for dying!?

What if.

Ichigo stopped walking. The crowd moved around him like water would a rock, some glancing, most glaring. For once, he couldn’t have cared less.

What if Zangetsu never spoke to him again? If that happened, Ichigo would truly be alone here. Not only that, he... he thought about Kenpachi, thought about the way his zanpakutō had howled with pain as they fought. Was that how things would be from now on? Was that where they were headed?

Then again, Ichigo didn’t even have a zanpakuto at the moment, so maybe they were headed somewhere much worse than that. As the thought crossed his mind, it took everything he had not to shudder.

The crowd around him was clearing when he finally regained enough sense to keep walking. Well. He would have started walking, had it not been for the guttural howl that ripped through the air.

Slowly, he turned. Turned towards the row of buildings that marked the beginning of a neighborhood. The stragglers from the crowd either hadn’t cared or hadn’t heard it, eyes remaining glued straight ahead, expression devoid of worry or fear.

An uneasy feeling churned inside his chest, and maybe it was the grogginess clouding his judgment, maybe he just wanted the distraction, but instead of continuing down the route Bushytail had made sure he’d memorized before classes started, he turned and headed into that neighborhood. The more he thought about it, the more he became certain this was necessary. If there was a hollow someone could get seriously hurt. Better to check it out, even if it turned out to be nothing in the end.

There was a couple of adults meandering around the neighborhood, but other than that, the street was lifeless (a shocking contrast, given the crowd he’d just been walking through). Off in the distance, a shinobi jumped from roof to roof, their face obscured by the mask of an animal. At the end of the path, a woman with red tattoos down her cheeks was scolding a dog large enough to be a wolf.

Ichigo shrugged both peculiarities off with an ease that caught him off guard. He was getting used to this place. He didn’t know how he felt about that.

Studying that concrete fence that separated the elevated yards from the path, Ichigo did his best not to eavesdrop on the conversation going on ahead. That was another peculiarity he’d gotten used to—his enhanced hearing and sense of smell. He hadn’t even noticed it for a while, having already gotten used to it by the time his memories decided to come back. He still wasn’t sure what the cause of this was, whether it was one of those Weird Clan Things he’d learned about in class or if it was just another Normal Weird Thing everyone else in this place was capable of. Either way, it was thanks to his enhanced sense of smell that he noticed it, a tinge of iron nearly hidden by the mildew of dying leaves. Blood.

He smelled blood.

All tiredness fled his mind at the smell, and he was moving before he could stop himself, racing passed the woman and skidding around the corner. There was an alleyway up ahead, a gap between two houses that had once been boarded off judging by the remnants of a wooden fence on one side of the entrance. When he reached it, his legs slowed to a stop.

The alleyway was shaded thanks to the angle of the sun, shaded in such a way, he almost missed the blood that had soaked the sides of the houses and was clinging to the wall of concrete that blocked off the other side—someone’s backyard, most likely. The smell of iron hung the heaviest here, so heavy, in fact, he felt like he was drowning in it even with his mask in place. He wanted to take a step back, wanted to take a step back so that he could breathe, but his legs had frozen him in place, frozen him in place as he watched it.

Watched the hollow tear that man’s arm right out of the socket and gulp it down in a single, fluid movement. Strings of muscle slopped onto the ground and the sound of a rattling chain filled the narrow space when the man collapsed.

A chain. A... A spirit? But that didn’t—

The thought was lost entirely when the hollow prowled out of the darker part of the shade. It looked like a half-starved dragon, all green scales, and jutting ribs. Where arms should’ve been, wings like those of a bat took up most of the alleyway, thin and covered in scars.

Ichigo didn’t blink. Couldn’t. In this body, the hollow seemed bigger somehow. It was like his first encounter all over again, staring up at a monstrous creature in a frozen kind of shock as it crushed his sister in its massive hand.

As if the hollow could feel his eyes burning holes into it, it stopped mid-chew, allowing a bloodied, mangled sleeve to fall out of its skeletal mouth and thud against the dirt. Its yellow eyes rolled around inside its eye socket, doing a full loop before they zeroed in on him.

Ichigo finally managed to take that step back. Then another. Then another. Then he was running away from the alleyway as fast as his frustratingly small legs would carry him. He couldn’t fight it here!! He needed to lure it away, lure it somewhere no one else would get drawn in!!

A crash shook the ground and he stumbled over an earthquake only he seemed to feel. The woman with tattoos didn’t panic at the sight of the hollow ripping through the sky, nor did she bat an eyelash at the howl it let out, loud enough to make his eardrums ring. The hollow paid her no mind either, yellow eyes trained solely on Ichigo. What the heck was going on!?

Darn it, he didn’t have time to puzzle this out!! Skidding around a corner at the end of the street, he jumped the concrete fence and took off across someone’s yard, ignoring the shouts for him to, “watch where he was going,” and “be more careful.” Another howl and the hollow was rocketing towards him at a speed that could rival a missile.

“Crap!!”

Throwing himself forward, he planted a hand on the ground to flip himself over the other side of the fence and out of the way. Even as he landed in an easy roll, his wrist stung, sending bolts of pain up his arm. His body wasn’t moving the way he wanted it to! He was starting to understand how Rukia must’ve felt when she’d been stuck in that faulty gigai!

The hollow, moving too fast to stop, crashed into the ground above him, sending puffs of dirt over the fence that coated him from head-to-toe and made him raise his aching wrist to shield his eyes from the onslaught. He didn’t linger long, whirling around on his heel and taking off in the opposite direction. There had to be somewhere he could go!

Right as he thought that, his gaze landed on a forest off in the distance, just visible over the roof of a house. That was perfect!

Thanks to his recent training, the speed and length at which he was running didn’t faze him in the slightest, not even when he funneled his chakra into his legs to give himself a much-needed boost. He was racing into a grassy clearing in no time, flying passed a square statue he only had enough time to think looked vaguely familiar before a bulky tree was blocking it from view.

The instant he was sure no one else was around, he skidded to a stop and turned. He’d lost sight of the hollow but he knew it was coming. He could sense it just over the top of those trees. Ripping the tantō out with shaking hands, he tossed his bag aside and craned his head to stare up at the multi-colored leaves.

The branches swayed seemingly on a breeze, swayed seemingly in harmony, the way they would during a picnic or a peaceful stroll through the woods. He did a circle in place as he stared up at it, heart racing, then suddenly the leaves were parting right down the middle and the hollow was shooting through them, shooting for him. He raised the tantō. Thought better of it at the last second and dove to the side, narrowly dodging claws that smashed through the ground, leaving behind a deep scar.

 

When you dodge, don’t let them cut you.

 

“Damn!” He rolled to his feet and raised the tantō again, circling the hollow while it shook off bits of dirt and rock that had collected on its shoulders.

In this body, the hollow didn’t just seem big, it was big. Ichigo clenched his jaw, refusing to falter. He could do this. He wasn’t afraid.

Adjusting his grip on the hilt despite his throbbing wrist, he threw himself at it, taking a swipe for its mask. A swipe the hollow easily caught between its teeth, shaking him, tantō and all like a wolf would a rabbit. Wrist aching, body flung from side-to-side with enough force to jar his head and knock the air from his lungs, he could feel his grip on the tantō starting to slip.

 

When you protect someone—

 

But he thought about the people he’d passed on the way here and held on tighter, flipping his body around so that he could plant a foot on the hollow’s mask and kick himself free. The blade grated against the hollow’s teeth as it slid out, creating a scratchy sound not unlike nails over a chalkboard.

 

—don’t let them die.

 

His back smacked into the ground, skidding across it until he collided with a pile of bushes. Branches scratched at his arms and legs but he paid them no mind, already scrambling to his feet, scrambling to meet the hollow that was charging him with its claws leaving horrid marks on the ground with every dashing step.

 

And when you attack....

 

Again, he tightened his grip on the tantō and readied himself. The hollow was five feet away, he could feel the way it shook the ground. Four feet, its mask blotted out the entire world behind it. Three feet, he could smell the rot on its breath. Two feet, its jaw practically unhinged, showing off a set of bloodied skeletal teeth that disgusted him. NOW!!

 

...KILL!

 

Droplets of blood filled the air while Ichigo watched. Frozen. With the tantō still mid-swing. That. He hadn’t done that.

Thick, droplets of blood the size and color of cherries rained down overhead, splattering the front of his shirt and clinging to his hair. A sticky warmth rolled down his cheek and began to hang off his chin, all the while he couldn’t rip his gaze away from the hollow’s body, from the way it had been sliced clean in half.

As the halves spread farther apart, a face like that of an ogre could be seen from the other side, skin a deathly gray, white hair rippling behind it like a mane. Its eyes were hollow with only a faint yellow glow to show it had any at all.

What...

The halves of the hollow dissipated into blue light the same way it always did, but that was where the similarities ended. Rather than allowing the light to fade off into the sky, the creature opened its mouth, drawing the beads in like they’d been caught in a vortex. They arched and twirled, vanished into its stomach without a trace, and only after the last bead had been drawn in, did its mouth shut with the finality of a slammed door.

What on earth...

 

What on earth was that thing!!?

Chapter Text

 

X

 

x

 

It was chance alone that brought Minato Namikaze to the Third Training Ground that morning. A mission had gone south, poor communication had resulted in a member of their team not being in the proper position and the target had slipped away. Konohagakure was already on the cusp of war with Amegakure and Iwagakure. If their failure reached the wrong ears...

After that disaster of a mission, Minato couldn’t help but miss the easy comradery he’d once shared with Team Seven. They never would have made a mistake like this.

Not that he had any room to complain. He’d left his teammates of his own accord, having chosen an apprenticeship under Jiraiya in favor of being promoted alongside them. And besides, all things considered, Minato was a lucky man. Both his teammates were still alive, not many could say that.

Over the years they’d simply drifted apart, team drinks and lunches growing more and more scarce until one day he’d passed by Ichiraku and realized it had been three years since he’d last sat there with them. Life could be fickle like that sometimes. He knew this. And. He didn’t regret his decision. Jiraiya had made him into the man he was today.

Minato closed his eyes, allowing a breeze to sweep his bangs away from his forehead. Truly, he had no regr—

 

BOOM!!

 

Minato most certainly did not jump a full foot into the air nor did his heart skip a beat. Definitely not. He was a shinobi! A skilled one, at that!!

Placing a hand over his totally not racing heart, he drew in a breath that was most certainly not to steady himself at the same instant another ground-shaking crash sounded out. He frowned in the direction of the forest.

It was probably a shinobi blowing off some steam after a failed mission of their own but... Hopping onto the branch of the nearest tree, Minato decided to investigate. Call him paranoid, but after years of service, he knew better than to operate on assumptions.

 

X

 

 

x

 

39:

 

Ichigo was covered in blood that did not belong to him but surprisingly, that wasn’t the most concerning matter at the moment. In front of him, there was a creature the likes of which he’d never seen before. Taking its tantō into account, he wanted to say it was an Arrancar, except... it didn’t have a mask, let alone a gaping hole through its body.

It didn’t even feel right! It’s spiritual pressure felt alien. It reminded him of the Gates of Hell.

When those gates had opened, an intense feeling of dread had rolled out of it the same way heat would an oven. He hadn’t realized what he was sensing at the time, but after returning from Soul Society, he knew it wasn’t the gates that had given off that heavy dread. No, it was the spiritual pressure of the creature that had been inside of them, ragged and craving the death of others.

This thing, whatever it was, felt similar to that. If he moved a muscle, if he so much as twitched, this creature would cut him down where he stood. If he even blinked it would drag him right into hell.

The creature’s eyes snapped to him, thrusting him back into the present. Before he could stop himself, he’d flinched and taken a step back.

The creature tilted its head like a curious dog. Then he blinked and it was in his face, so close their noses were almost touching.

It smelled like decaying flesh.

This time he forced himself to stay in place, to obey the instincts that screamed at him not to move. Don’t run, don’t look at it. Don’t breathe. Don’t act strange. If he did, he’d be done for! This thing would kill him!

His palms were getting clammy. His body was starting to shake. He wasn’t sure how much longer he could keep this up.

The creature shifted until its nose was inches from his right cheek, then his left, then it was doing a full circle around him, sniffing all the while. Ichigo resolutely stared straight ahead and curled his trembling fingers into fists.

He didn’t move, not even when something shifted in his peripheral vision. If he did that— If he even moved— If he even breathed—

“Kakashi-kun?”

Behind him, the creature stopped moving. Ichigo drew in a single, shaky breath and turned his head. It was that guy. That person. The, uh. The blond guy. Who he’d cooked with that one time.

Uhh, uhh, his name was, “Mitochondria?”

Mitochondria, to his credit, only froze for a second. “Mito..? Well. It has been a while, I suppose.” He smiled. “My name is Minato Namikaze. You do remember me, don’t you?”

Shifting to face Minato, he resolutely didn’t look at the pale specter looming over his side. All those years Ichigo had spent ignoring ghosts was finally paying off. “Uh, yeah. Sorry about that, I’m just not that good with names and faces.”

Minato’s smile warmed. “Then I suppose I should just be grateful you remembered my face.”

Huh. He took that well. This time Ichigo would try harder to remember his name. Minato. Minato. Minato. Mina...

But. Wait, wait, speaking of Minato, why wasn’t he reacting to the blood? Or to that creature? Did he know what it was? Did he know to ignore it too?

Images flashed through his mind, a woman scolding her dog, not reacting to the heavy smell of blood nor to the hollow that whipped through the air. The way people had gone about their day as Ichigo raced passed, hardly sparing him a glance. As if he hadn’t felt uneasy enough already.

The creature drifted until it was in Ichigo’s face again, blocking his view of Minato. Ichigo stubbornly kept his expression neutral.

“Shouldn’t you be in class?” Minato asked, and despite the context of his words, there was no sternness there, only curiosity. “Did your teacher have a mission?”

That happened every now and then. Sometimes there was an empty slot that needed to be filled or the instructor specialized in something a mission required and classes would be canceled for the day.

“Uhh—” He broke off, remembering the Lying Lessons Bushytail had subjected him to because he was ‘terrified Ichigo would spill all their Clan secrets.’ “Something like that.”

Let Minato draw his own conclusions. Form his own explanation. That way even if Minato was proven wrong, he couldn’t pin the blame on Ichigo. Ichigo hadn’t confirmed nor denied his statement.

Apparently losing interest in him, the creature began to drift higher and higher until it was in the air far above his head. Ichigo dared not look up at it. He didn’t want to risk drawing it back.

“I should really get going,” he said, forcing his tone to stay level and his steps to his discarded bag to be only that; steps. No running. Not yet.

Grabbing his bag, he shoved the tantō inside without bothering to sheathe it and slung the strap over his shoulder.

Minato shifted to let Ichigo pass, but he must’ve changed his mind at the last second because suddenly a hand was on his shoulder, forcing him to stop. “Before you go I heard—” He broke off with a surprised noise.

Ichigo’s blood went cold.

Turning to Minato, he found the blond staring at the hand he’d grabbed Ichigo with. Or more specifically, he was staring at the bright red blood that now covered his palm. Slowly, Minato’s wide eyes slid to him. Then the man blanched as if he was seeing Ichigo for the first time.

That. Wasn’t a good sign.

Until now, Minato hadn’t been able to see the blood. If he was right that meant... That meant...

The world inverted, surely it had. The sky was the ground, the ground was the trees and everything was wrong wrongwrongwrong wrong—

Ichigo didn’t realize he was running until he heard Minato shout after him. He didn’t stop. He had to get away from here!! He— He needed to think, needed to figure out what the heck was going on!!

Normal humans, they— they never saw the blood left behind by the dearly departed; not unless they touched it! Which meant...

...Ichigo. He. He wasn’t in Soul Society.

Those people, they hadn’t reacted to the hollow because. Because they hadn’t known it was there! Same with the blood.

Ichigo wasn’t in Soul Society.

He— He wasn’t— Ichigo tripped over his next step, slamming into the ground in front of a cube statue on his hands and knees. Rather than push himself upright and continue running, he stared at the dirt between his hands with his eyes burning terribly.

He didn’t know where he was. Hey, where was he? Chad, Rukia, Renji, Tatsuki. Everyone. Where were they!? His family! Where was his family, where was Yuzu and Karin, where was his dad!!? Where were they!!? He wanted them back!!

Something warm pressed against his shoulder blades. A frantic sound buzzed in ears, but it was distant, as though Ichigo was underwater.

It wasn’t until he forced a sliver of air into his constricting lungs that he realized the buzzing was Minato’s voice and the warmth was his hand.

“Kakashi-kun I need you to breathe for me, okay!?” Minato was saying when his hearing cleared up. “I need you to tell me where you’re hurt!”

“I’m not,” he said, and that may have been convincing if his stupid voice hadn’t chosen to crack.

Minato helped Ichigo sit upright. Despite the worry dancing across his face, his voice was icy calm when he asked, “Did someone attack you?”

Well... “I—”

“There are gouges in the ground over there, did you get caught in the crossfire of a spar?”

“No, I—”

“Have we been inva—”

He really wasn’t in the mood for this right now. He batted Minato’s hand away. “I said I’m not hurt, okay!? Just leave me alone!!”

Minato still wasn’t listening, which was evident by the way he placed a hand on Ichigo’s head and began to gently prod around his skull. “Let me know if this hurts, okay?”

Minato had apparently decided Ichigo was on the cusp of death and nothing was going to convince him otherwise. Jirichio hadn’t been kidding when he’d said this guy was stubborn. Though to be fair, Ichigo probably did look like he was about to die. He felt like it. And after Hueco Mundo, he could confidently say that he would know.

Still. That didn’t make Minato’s actions any less irritating so Ichigo went with his default response whenever someone got in his personal space and grabbed Minato’s wrists in a grip that threatened pain.

A blink and the icy steel in Minato’s eyes defrosted, leaving only confusion behind.

At that, he found himself loosening his hold. Minato was just worried. He shouldn’t take his pain out on him. “Sorry about that,” he breathed out a tad too raggedly. “But I really am all right.” When he shifted to avoid meeting Minato’s eyes, he noticed something. Up in the sky, the creature from before was flying by, heading in the direction of town by the looks of it. As he watched, another one of those creatures joined it, passing the first one and heading in the opposite direction. Huh. That was...

Minato let his hands drop. He didn’t stand though. “Whose blood is that?”

Ichigo let his gaze drop. How was he supposed to explain this!?

Minato seemed to take that as a “I really am injured after all” because next thing Ichigo knew, he had grabbed him by the collar of his shirt and the entire world was rolling. Ichigo’s stomach followed suit. That was not a good feeling.

When he opened his eyes, he was no longer in the forest, instead, he was staring at a stretch of colorless tiles. He was in a hospital, that much was clear; Ichigo would know that strong, sterile smell anywhere. The nurses rushing in and out of sight may have tipped him off as well. Wait, were they even called nurses here? That was worth looking into.

“Woah, what the heck did you just do!?”

Minato ignored him in favor of beelining for the front desk, placing Ichigo on his feet but not letting go of his collar. “I have a critically injured kid with me, he needs treatment immediately!”

The woman manning the front desk stared over the edge of it at Ichigo.

Ichigo stared back. While the blood may make him appear critically injured to Minato’s eyes, to anyone else he was just a kid with a couple of shallow scratches on his arms.

As if to prove this, the woman shot Minato a thoroughly unimpressed look. “Is this a prank, Namikaze-san?”

Minato blinked. Looked at Ichigo. Looked at the woman.

Releasing Ichigo, Minato made a hand seal and whispered, “Kai!”

Nothing happened. Minato’s confusion became a palpable thing that filled the room.

Call it spite, but Ichigo kept his gaze stubbornly trained ahead. Couldn’t a guy process he was never going to see his friends and family again in peace?

“He’s— He’s covered head-to-toe in blood!” Minato shrieked, flapping his hands at Ichigo as if to say ‘just look!’ Then a spark of something was igniting in his eyes and he was holding his blood-stained hand over the desk. “Don’t you see it!?”

“Namikaze-san,” the nurse bit out. “As funny as I’m sure you think you are, we have real patients that need to be taken care of, and you are holding up the line.”

Ichigo glanced over his shoulder to where a single shinobi had lined up behind them, his arm in a sling. Ah, here for a check-up. Good for him.

Minato lowered his hand. “What?”

“Yeah Minato-san,” Ichigo drawled. “Enough with the pranks already, I have places to be you know?” He turned back to the woman. “I’m sorry about this. I tried to stop him.”

The woman nodded. Then she shot Minato a look with so much venom in it, he actually took a step back.

“Well, we’ll be on our way then,” Ichigo said, giving her a polite bow before turning on his heel and heading for the door.

The doors were already closing behind him when Minato regained enough sense to follow. “Kakashi-kun!”

Ichigo ran.

Minato was faster, incredibly so, snagging Ichigo by the collar of his shirt and again, the world rolled. Concrete turned into wooden floorboards, the houses up ahead turned into a pale wall and the sky into a ceiling. Ichigo’s feet hit the ground as if he’d jumped in place. Minato landed beside him.

He was in front of him instantly. “You shouldn’t move around too much! I’ll call for a medic!”

Batting Minato’s hands off for what had to be the hundredth time, Ichigo moved away until Minato was out of his space and held out his arms. “Look! I’m not hurt, okay!?”

“But...”

“Yes, there’s blood! No, it’s not mine! How many times do I have’ta say it!? I’m fine!!”

A frown. “Why was she acting like she couldn’t see it? Unless...”

Minato dissolved into a fit of barely audible muttering while Ichigo looked on with a scowl etched across his face. He tried to cross his arms to increase the power of his Irritated Look but only succeeded in sending a wave of searing hot needles stabbing up his left wrist. Right. Through the sheer mind-numbing horror, he’d somehow managed to forget he’d sprained it. Ow.

As if he could sense Ichigo’s pain, Minato stopped muttering and stood with a plastic smile. “Just a second.”

“Uh. Okay?”

Fake smiles put Ichigo on edge. Normally those meant he was about to get drop-kicked by a black-haired midget. A black-haired midget who... he was probably never going to see again.

Minato moved with speed only experience could grant, slicing his thumb on a kunai and flying through a series of hand seals.

Wait was he—!?

A puff of smoke enveloped the room, and though it had him coughing, Ichigo couldn’t help the momentary excitement that flared up in his chest. He was! He was summoning!!

Except, when the smoke cleared, Ichigo found himself staring at a toddler-sized frog. Like that, his moment of happiness was crushed.

“Bushytail’s summons are cooler,” he muttered, kicking a piece of dust across the floor.

The frog cast him a thoroughly offended look. “Hey! Don’t you disrespect us amphibians! We’re plenty cool!”

“I guess,” Ichigo said, not meaning it at all. Frogs were totally lame. Dogs were like, way cooler.

Minato’s weird smile didn’t waver. He sent a weighted look Ichigo’s way. “Do you see anything odd about him?”

The frog followed Minato’s gaze. Stared. “Well, yeah now that you mention it.”

Minato opened his mouth but before he could speak the frog mowed on, “Half his face is a mask, talk about weird!”

Despite the oddities of his past life, this was the first time Ichigo had ever been insulted by a frog and he had to say, he didn’t care for this at all. “Hey, watch it! My mask isn’t weird.”

A snort. “You just keep telling yourself that.”

“I’ll tell myself whatever I want you pinhead.”

“Pin— Pinhead!!?” The frog yelled, moving as if to roll up a sleeve that didn’t exist. “Well I’ll show you!!”

Before the frog could act on his threat, Minato placed his bloodied hand on the frog’s triangular head. “Okay, how about now?”

The frog was quiet for a beat, two, three, then his eyes were going comically wide and he was gesturing frantically at Ichigo. “AAAA!! B-B-B-B-B-B-BLOOD!!”

Ichigo forced a smirk despite the exhaustion dragging down on him. “What? Never seen blood before?”

Through the frog’s furious turned screaming, he heard Minato let out a soft, “I see.”

Something about those whispered words gave Ichigo the feeling his life was about to get a billion times more complicated.

 

40:

 

His assumption was proven correct when he found himself being swept inside the Hokage’s Office no more than ten minutes later. Minato was going through the motions of catching the Sandaime up on current events and helping him see the unseeable blood, but Ichigo couldn’t work up the energy to care. He really didn’t want to deal with anyone right now.

All this time. All this time he hadn’t been in Soul Society. Chakra, blurry figures, Zangetsu, shinobi, Hidden Villages—he probably should have figured it out sooner. But. He hadn’t wanted to. Up until now, the hope that he would one day be reunited with his loved ones had been the only thing keeping him going, and without it he... he just didn’t know what to do anymore.

If he wasn’t in Soul Society, if he wasn’t in the World of the Living, then where was he? Was there another dimension no one had told him about? Did Rukia and the others even know about this one? If that was the case then... just how many other worlds were out there?

Thunk thunk thunk, the Sandaime was tapping his cigar against an ashtray. The sound drew Ichigo out of his thoughts, and when he looked up, he realized the old man was watching him through narrowed eyes.

Ichigo didn’t like that look one bit. “What do you want old man?”

Minato startled, turning to stare at him like he couldn’t believe what he’d just said. “Ka— Kakashi-kun!”

Ichigo ignored him.

The Sandaime didn’t acknowledge what he’d said, only interlacing his fingers in front of his chin and hiding half of his expression from sight. “This is indeed concerning. I’ll need to have this examined.”

Examined? They were going to study that blood? A curious part of him wondered what they would find, but the rest of him, the part of him that knew this was a Very Bad Idea, had his pulse quickening at the implications.

“I never told you that you could do that!”

An exasperated sigh escaped the Sandaime, lessening the tension in the room somewhat. “Do we need your permission?”

“Well. It is my scarf,” he argued with a pointed look at the bloodied scarf Minato had taken from him and set across the Sandaime’s desk.

“I don’t believe you’ll be wearing it much after this,” the Sandaime pointed out with a chuckle.

He had a point. There was no way that blood was coming out. Which sucked. Bushytail had given him that as a birthday gift, it had the Hatake Clan crest on it and everything.

“I can order your father to get you a new one, how does that sound?”

A new scarf would be nice. But wait. Wait wait wait, that old guy was negotiating with him like he was some toddler!! He couldn’t sway him by promising him a new scarf!!

The Sandaime must have noticed the mullish look that took over his face because he dropped the subject. “Kakashi-kun, I need for you to tell me exactly how you came to be covered in this blood. Start from this morning.”

Hand rising to scratch the back of his spiky hair, Ichigo allowed his gaze to drift to the ceiling while he considered how to answer this. Right now it didn’t seem like they suspected him of anything, but if he dodged their questions too much, he got the feeling that would change. That, and he doubted he could pull off blatantly lying to their faces.

“If I talk, can I at least take a shower afterwards?”

He was, after all, still covered from head-to-toe in that hollow’s blood. The more it dried, the more uncomfortable it got; his clothing becoming rough and scratchy, his hair drooping into his face. And that was ignoring the disgusting smell that was growing worse by the minute. How could they stand this?

“Of course you can,” the Sandaime said, and it was only thanks to all the time he’d spent with Hat-n-Clogs that Ichigo recognized the fake smile for what it was.

Well wasn’t this just great? He was stuck in this room with no guarantees of being allowed to leave anytime soon. Fantastic. His hand twitched, yearning to pull the tantō out of his backpack. If they started acting shady he’d fight them if he had to.

Minato bowed. “Sandaime-sama, if I may?”

“Go on,” the Sandaime said.

Minato straighted. “The clearing I found Kakashi-kun in had clearly been used for a battle of some kind. There were deep gouges in the ground as well as disruptions in the bushes and freshly trampled grass. After I made contact with the blood, I also saw that there were multiple spots of it around the clearing, the largest portion in the area Kakashi-kun had been standing. Taking that into account, as well as the absence of blood on the tantō he had drawn at the time, it seems as if he was splattered by the blood.”

Ichigo winced and carefully tucked his arms so that his sprained wrist was resting over the other. Minato was not making his life any easier right now.

The Sandaime gave a hum that could have meant literally anything.

Minato seemed to take it as a ‘please continue.’ “There were no traces of any shinobi having entered or left the clearing at any point this morning. The only presence I could detect was Kakashi-kun. I believe,” Minato glanced at Ichigo, a split second of concern flashing across his face. “This may have been the work of a Kekkai Genkai.”

Ichigo blinked. A Kekk’a what’a? Was that a thing?

“Maybe something capable of masking people from sight,” Minato went on as if Ichigo hadn’t spoken. “And if that’s true, it’s possible the village may have been infiltrated.”

He was close. It kind of scared him how close Minato was to the truth. Just who was this guy? He was... kind of incredible.

“Kakashi-kun, is there anything you’d like to add to that?” The Sandaime prompted.

“No not really.”

“Kakashi-kun,” there was a clear warning in his tone. “I would rather this matter be handled as discreetly as possible, but our village security has been called into question and should you persist in avoiding my questions, I will have no choice but to involve outside parties.”

That sounded an awful lot like an interrogation. If the Sandaime really went through with his threat, there was no telling how much information they could leach out of him. Ichigo was just no good at playing mind games, not to mention, he couldn’t ignore the possibility of them using some strange power to get him talking. He’d already seen all kinds of weird powers in this world, and as much as he wanted to keep his mouth shut and ignore everything outside of his own head, at least if he talked to them he could control how much information they got. If they found out about his past life for instance...

Ichigo scowled and happily jumped on the first distraction he could find, which came in the form of a spirit passing through the wall. The spirit was a woman wearing a Jounin’s vest. Her brown hair was cut around her jaw and there were several notable scars spread across her tan face.

As she floated by him, he noticed her chain was long enough to drag across the floor. The sound of them rattling reminded him of the spirit from the alleyway and that. That made up his mind if nothing else.

“You know. You almost had it Minato-san.” Drawing in a breath to steel himself, he said, “Look I’m not entirely sure how to explain this, but, well...”

Crap. Where should he start? When Karin was little and seeing spirits more clearly, what was it he’d told her?

“Listen. I know that what I’m about to say is going to sound really scary—” He broke off. Okay, so maybe the speech he’d given his sister on her sixth birthday wasn’t the best thing to use on two adult shinobi.

Maybe it was the throbbing in his wrist, maybe it was the uncomfortable clothing and the disgusting smell of blood, but Ichigo felt something in him finally give into the exhaustion. “I can see spirits, okay?”

Minato’s mouth fell open.

The Sandaime blinked, once, twice, three times.

The woman whirled around, brown eyes widening in a mixture of shock and hope.

“The blood you see is from a hollow. A hollow is an evil spirit that feeds on other spirits.” Normally. “People with—” Wait, he probably shouldn’t mention spiritual energy and pressure to them. “People can’t see them, but for some reason blood is different.”

It was Orihime he’d first heard about this from. They’d gotten to talking while he was training with the Visoreds, and before he’d known it, that night had come up. She’d told him that right before she’d gotten attacked, some of her brother's blood had dripped onto her hand and after that, she’d been able to see it. Later that night over dinner, it was Shinji who’d explained it to him, because, apparently, he’d been eavesdropping on them like a freaking creep.

Suddenly, the woman was in his face. “Wait! You can see me kid!?”

“Didn’t I just say that?”

“Don’t get smart with me brat!” She snapped. “I have a message that needed to be delivered to Sandaime-sama yesterday, but I succumbed to my injuries before I could reach the village. Tell him for me, that’s an order!”

“Last time I checked, I didn’t take orders from you.”

“My team could be dying right now!” She hissed, and okay, fine, Ichigo wasn’t that much of a jerk.

With a sigh, he asked, “What’s the message?”

“Uh, Kakashi-kun? Who are you talking to?”

Rather than answer Minato, he turned to the Sandaime and said, “Hey, Mei Shiranui has a message she wants me to relay to you. The team you sent to patrol the border between us and Iwa was attacked yesterday afternoon and they need you to send reinforcements to back them up.”

A hand smacked against the back of his head with enough force to nearly make him lose his balance.

“Ow! What the heck was that for!?”

Mei towered over him with her hands on her hips. “Be respectful!! That’s the leader of our village you’re talking to!!”

The room went silent. Then the Sandaime was turning to the window and saying, “Bring me Mei Shiranui’s file.”

A minute later, a blur shot through the window. A shinobi wearing an animal mask knelt beside the Sandaime’s desk, holding up a file that must have been Mei’s. The instant the file left their hands, the shinobi vanished through the window again. Huh.

Minato looked back and forth between them. “Sandaime-sama..?”

“Mei Shiranui was indeed one of the shinobi I sent on that mission a week prior. He could have heard her name from Sakumo-san, but...”

The effect was instant, Minato tensed and looked at Ichigo like he was the single most baffling thing in existence.

“I have some questions for you. First of all, what is Shiranui-san’s blood type?”

Ichigo turned to Mei.

Mei nodded, clearly having expected this. She told him.

“It’s A positive,” Ichigo repeated.

“And the names of her Genin teammates?”

“Uh. Idachi Suzuki and Ryuji Hyūga.”

“Specialty?”

“Taijutsu and...” he trailed off as he listened to her next addition. “I am so not repeating that.”

She shot him an unrepentant smirk.

“How many S-rank missions has she successfully carried out?”

“Eleven. Look, I know you think I’m a nut-job but can we please get on with this?”

The Sandaime placed the file delicately on his desk and set his hands overtop it. “You were saying something about blood?”

“Yeah. On my way to class this morning I got attacked by a hollow. I led it somewhere isolated so no one would get hurt but while I was fighting it, this creature came outta nowhere and just sliced it in half,” he explained, remembering its ogre-like face and chilling spiritual pressure. “I thought it was a hollow at first, but it didn’t look right.”

“Can you describe it?”

“Well,” Ichigo paused, trying to conjure a full image of the creature. He was rewarded with a hyper-realistic face and a body that looked like a child’s drawing. “Its hair was white? And it was wearing a kimono too, I think. The kind people are typically buried in, except it didn’t look human at all so I know it wasn’t a spirit like Mei.”

“It’s Shiranui-san to you, you rude brat!”

He ignored her. “It was using a tantō too, which was even more bizarre. I’ve honestly never seen anything like it before in my life.”

On the other side of the desk, the Sandaime had gone deathly pale.

At his side, Minato looked no better.

“Is that all Kakashi-kun?” The Sandaime asked, voice surprisingly calm despite all the indicators he was feeling anything but.

“Hm? Actually,” he said. “There were two of them.”

Everyone was staring at him in horror at this point. What? Was it something he’d said?

“I want privacy seals erected around my office immediately!” The Sandaime ordered, losing all illusions of calm. “Anyone not directly involved in this matter is to stay outside of those seals and that includes the Guard Platoon!! And Namikaze-san, I want you to bring Jiraiya and Sakumo-san to me this instant!!”

 

41:

 

The Sandaime stared at Ichigo. Ichigo stared at the Sandaime. The impatient tapping of Ichigo’s foot against the floor was the only thing to break the silence that had fallen over them after Minato’s departure.

The Sandaime raised a cigar pipe to his lips, inhaling a puff of smoke he blew out through his nostrils.

“Smoking is bad for you, you know.”

The Sandaime didn’t outwardly react. “Is that so?”

Mei rolled her eyes. “Yeah, good luck telling him that kid. We’ve already hosted three separate interventions on the subject.”

“‘Three?’” Ichigo shot her a startled look before turning back to the Sandaime with extra heat. “Dude stop being so stubborn! That stuff will seriously kill you! Do you want to live the rest of your life with a tube stuck down your throat!?”

The Sandaime shot him a confused look. Carefully setting his cigar pipe on the desk, he asked, “Tell me, how long have you been able to see the dead?”

That was a hard question to answer. Mei’s curious frown wasn’t helping matters.

“I’m not really sure how to answer that,” he admitted. “It’s been a while I guess.”

After all, his past life counted too, didn’t it?

“Have you seen any of my predecessors wandering around?”

“You mean those old guys that’re carved into that mountain? No, I haven’t seen ‘em. They’ve probably passed on by now.”

A sigh of relief lowered the Sandaime’s shoulders two notches. Ichigo hadn’t even realized how tense the man had gotten.

“That’s good. I’d hate for my old friends to be trapped between worlds.”

Ha. Ha ha ha haaaaa, yeah, being trapped between worlds wasn’t a good feeling.

“You don’t fully believe me yet, do you?” He asked, if only to take his mind off the darker route it was threatening to turn down.

Mei snorted. “He wouldn’t be a good shinobi if he did. Paranoia keeps us alive squirt.”

“A load of good that did for you,” he muttered.

He received another smack to the head for his efforts.

“I am... considering the possibility,” the Sandaime admitted, eyes following the way Ichigo’s head had dipped down from the blow. “Throughout the years, I have seen many things I would have once thought impossible. Since then, I have learned to keep an open mind.”

Huh. Straightening out, he rubbed his aching head. “I can understand that I guess.”

The silence that followed was more comfortable than the last.

 

42:

 

Ichigo had officially reached his limit by the time Minato had returned with Jirichio and Bushytail. He was tired. He was covered in blood. His arm was freaking sprained and. And he just wanted to be left alone.

He didn’t bother listening to the explanation that took place, only leaned against Bushytail’s legs and shut his eyes.

Bushytail’s hand was on his shoulder instantly, keeping him close even as he listened to the Sandaime talk with a blank expression.

It was the phrase “Kekkai Genkai” that had Ichigo prying an eye open and tuning in.

“Uh. C-Could you please repeat that, Sandaime-sama? With all due respect...” Bushytail’s grip on his shoulder tightened a notch.

The Sandaime nodded. “I understand that this is a lot to take in at a moment’s notice. That is why I’m extending your leave to another month and excusing Kakashi-kun from a week’s worth of classes. I ask that during that time you look into this matter.”

“There are a few Kekkai Genkai that run in the Hatake Clan,” Bushytail said. “But I don’t know much about them personally. I’ll be sure to look into it.”

“I expect you in here this time tomorrow.”

“Thank you for your consideration Sandaime-sama.” On that note, he bowed deeply and gestured for Ichigo to do the same.

Ichigo stayed upright. “There’s somethin’ I want to ask about first.”

The Sandaime eyed him speculatively over the cigar pipe he’d returned to smoking at some point. “Yes?”

“What about Mei’s request?”

At that, Mei shot him a grateful look.

A beat of silence, and then, “I’ll have someone look into it.”

That was probably the best he could hope for. “All right. Thank you,” that was when he bowed.

Even while Bushytail led him out of the room, Minato and Jirichio remained inside, eyes glued to the Sandaime. Ichigo decided not to question it when Mei followed them.

Once they were outside, Bushytail turned and looked him over with a calm that reminded Ichigo of the world before a hurricane blew through. “Are you hurt Kakashi?”

“I kinda sprained my wrist,” he admitted.

His hand dropped onto Ichigo’s head. “After you get cleaned up, I’ll take you to the hospital and have that seen to.”

Ichigo didn’t fight him off this time. Instead, he met Bushytail’s gaze with a desperate hope swelling in his chest. “Do you believe me?”

“I do,” He answered without hesitation. “And that’s why...” Bushytail dropped into a crouch, facing Ichigo with an authority that allowed for no arguments. “You are never to mention anything about that creature again.”

Ichigo frowned. Was it really that big of a deal? “Dad. What... What exactly was that thing?”

“I’ll tell you when we get home. Remember this well, Kakashi, in this world, you never know who might be listening.”

 

43:

 

It was after he’d toweled off and changed into a clean pair of clothes that Mei drifted through the bathroom wall. Ichigo, to his credit, only screamed a little bit.

“Okay, okay, calm down! I’m sorry for not knocking kid, just listen okay?”

Ichigo reluctantly lowered the soap dispenser he’d been ready to throw at her head. “What is it?”

She was quiet for a beat. Two, three. Then in a mirror of Bushytail, she knelt down until they were at eye level. “Look. I have a kid who’s just a little bit older than you are. He’s quite the brat himself but—” She broke off as a pained glint entered her dark eyes. “I know I have no right to ask this of you, but thanks to recent events, you’re the only person I can ask. So please. Look out for him, will you? His name is Genma Shiranui and I was the only family he had.”

Ichigo closed his eyes and breathed. When he opened them, he smiled, and if it was a little bit sad, no one could see it through his mask. “I will. I promise.”

She released a breath as if she’d been freed from some terrible pain. “Oh thank you.”

Then a flash of light enveloped the floor beneath her feet, drawing her into it. A second later, she was gone.

Ichigo stared at the air she had once occupied. Had he just... Performed a Konsō on her with words? Man. This world really was different.

Chapter Text

 

X

 

x

 

Hiruzen stared at the unmoving sky outside his window. He should have gone home hours ago, but his mind was filled with so many unanswered questions they almost seemed to weigh down on him, trapping him in place. A Kekkai Genkai that allowed one to interact with the souls of the dead. For all that he was hailed as a knowledgeable man, Hiruzen had never heard of such a thing.

In fact, had the boy not looked seconds away from fainting, he likely would have kept him all day interrogating him. Perhaps Danzō was right. Perhaps Hiruzen truly was soft? Or perhaps his sudden burst of generosity had been caused by Sakumo?

It had been a subtle thing, a thing only Hiruzen himself had taken notice of, but upon seeing the blood coating the younger Hatake from head-to-toe, Sakumo’s stance had shifted ever-so-slightly. At the blink of an eye, he had gone from a loyal shinobi standing at attention to a shinobi ready to launch an attack. The way he had shifted to shield the boy with his body, he would have been able to block any counter-attacks against them with ease and beat a hasty escape out the window (Hiruzen should really do something about those windows).

The move had clearly been unintentional on the man’s part, but Hiruzen could see the battle lines being drawn for what they were. Though he needed answers, he could afford to wait one more day. Pushing matters wasn’t worth risking the loyalty of the White Fang of Konoha. With war brewing on the horizon, Hiruzen knew the village needed his strength now more than ever.

Hopefully, a little rest would do both of the Hatake some good. Sakumo needed time to cool his head and absorb this new information, and young Kakashi needed a chance to recover from whatever horror he had faced and prepare himself for the questions he would soon be asked.

The mug of coffee that had long since gone cold gave a soft thunk as he placed it on his desk. As a parent, his heart ached for Sakumo. The power to see the dead, there were many people in this world who would kill for such an asset, and not all of them were even shinobi. That boy, simply by existing, now had a bright red target painted across his back. What would be done to him if people were to find out? How they would torture him, break him in until he was the perfect tool. Or perhaps they would experiment on him instead, cut him open to see what made him tick? Either possibility sickened him.

To make matters worse, if people were to find out that boy could see the Shinigami of all things, and that there was more than on—

Hiruzen didn’t dare finish that thought. He ran his hands down his tired face. Perhaps the dismissal had been for him as much as it’d been for the two Hatake. He was getting old. He wasn’t certain how much longer he could bear the weight of this hat.

Because as much as his heart ached for Sakumo as a parent, his heart as the Sandaime Hokage had already hardened itself for the good of the village.

Tomorrow morning he would report this incident to the Council. He hoped young Kakashi would be accepted by the village with open arms, but logically, he knew the probability was low. Konoha as a whole may be more accepting than its counterparts when it came to those with unusual powers, but even within their own ranks, the fear and hate-mongering for those that differ from the rest stew in silent contention.

The Elders would want the Hatake boy watched carefully from here on out, his classmates would be fed venomous words against him and begin to drift away. With that and his Clan’s disgraced status, young Kakashi would have to work ten times harder than his peers to gain Konoha’s trust and respect. Unless...

Yes. If he did that, the boy would have a much better chance, now wouldn’t he? The Council would surely fight him on this course of action, but this type of Kekkai Genkai shouldn’t be difficult to conceal. If he brought up a few old favors and put his foot down...

With that settled, Hiruzen moved onto the next and most concerning matter. The Shinigami.

If his teachers were still alive, what would they have done? Hiruzen closed his eyes as a wave of memories swept over him. He already knew the answer to that question. They surely would have done what was best for Konoha, no matter what price had to be paid.

The image of Tobirama’s unflinching back as he headed off to his death burned behind Hiruzen’s eyelids, as it always did whenever he found himself stuck with a difficult decision. That made up his mind if nothing else.

 

X

 

 

x

 

Sakumo had told a lie. That morning, he had looked directly into the Sandaime’s eyes and lied through his teeth. A month ago, he wouldn’t have dared. After all, to lie to one’s own Hokage was to spit on the village itself. And yet. Even knowing that, he still didn’t regret his decision, nor did he feel any guilt over it.

Recently, he had gotten a taste of just how fickle Konoha’s love was. The village raised its children preaching friendship and comradery, but when one held true to such beliefs the village was quick to turn on them.

Despite its flaws, Sakumo could confidently say that he still loved Konoha. In all honesty, he always would. Konoha was where he met his wife. Konoha with its beautiful springs and homely winters, with its tea shops that were perfect for unwinding after missions, with the wind that carried the nostalgic smell of leaves. Konoha had raised him, had kept him clothed and fed. Just last month, he had been under the impression that every single person in Konoha was his family. Not anymore.

The Hatake Clan was one of fierce loyalty. They held their family above all else, and after that horrible mission, he had turned to his supposed family only to find them walking away with their backs to him. It had almost broken him. The fear that Kakashi would soon do the same had broken him.

It wasn’t until his son’s foot was colliding with his face that he’d realized how lost he’d become. He was the one who’d almost turned his back on Kakashi. His fear had nearly driven him to abandon his son, abandon him before he himself could get abandoned.

Every time he thought about that night, he felt such relief that he hadn’t succeeded. Sakumo wasn’t sure of anything anymore, but there was one thing he refused to question; Hatake did not abandon their family. His family may be a lot smaller than he’d initially believed, but size wasn’t what mattered, it was heart, and his family had that in spades. Sakumo was not alone, and with this flickering Will of Fire, he would surely protect the people he had left, even if the village itself turned on them.

That was why he lied, that was why he intended to lie every single day for the rest of his life.

There were no Kekkai Genkai in the Hatake Clan. Their DNA carried the genes for minor sensory enhancements and little else. Whatever was causing Kakashi to see the dead, it had nothing to do with their Clan genetics, nor did it have anything to do with his wife’s merchant family. He had a feeling that it wasn’t the work of a Kekkai Genkai at all. A hunch of sorts.

Sakumo was the only person who needed to know that tidbit, however.

Taking a sip of his tea, he thought about the Clan documents he had “lost” and sighed happily at the warmth that trickled down his throat and filled his belly. Sakumo regretted nothing.

 

 

X

 

 

x

 

44:

 

Ichigo practically lived in the Hokage’s Office for the next four days of his life. He sat through boring discussions concerning the Hatake Clan, he’d gone into detail about his encounter again and again again and endured question after question after question—he’d even put up with those freaking holier-than-thou old people that showed up after the second day and started demanding answers from him like he was some kind of criminal!

The more they badgered him, the more he answered with pure sarcasm and feigned ignorance. If that meant they had to stop the meeting every five minutes for a lecture about “respecting his elders”, he could literally not care less. Every time they started The Lecture, he’d shove his fists into his pockets and glare at a spot on the wall until they shut their traps again. Eventually they’d realize he wasn’t listening. Probably.

Despite the hours they’d spent crammed into the same room going over the same things, not once had they mentioned the Shinigami. Ichigo hadn’t brought it up either. Not after the talk he’d had with Bushytail. It had gone like this:

 

Bushytail turned the tantō around in his hands, allowing the sunlight to reflect off different angles of the blade as he checked it over for blood.

 

Blood made metal rust apparently, a fact Ichigo hadn’t been privy to in his last life. Even when he’d taken it upon himself to handle the cooking and cleaning during those first few months after his mother’s death, Goat-Chin had forbidden him from handling any knives in one of the rare instances the man had behaved like a responsible adult. As for Zangetsu, he’d always seemed to clean himself off. The more Ichigo thought about it, however, the guiltier he felt for neglecting to give his partner the proper maintenance he’d deserved.

 

Bushytail slid the tantō carefully into its sheath and placed it over his knees as if to meditate. He closed his eyes. “Kakashi.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“I would like to hear what happened from you.”

 

Setting the pouch of fish feed on a rock next to the pond, he shifted to properly face Bushytail. “Is it safe to talk out here?”

 

“The walls of the Hatake Compound are covered in a multitude of seals. They keep unregistered Chakra signatures from entering while the locks are engaged, as well as muffle the sounds from both the inside and the outside.” He opened his eyes. “For us, this is one of the safest places in all of Konoha.”

 

“Huh. I didn’t know that. You really need to start telling me these kinds of things.”

 

“I do tell you, you just don’t listen.”

 

That was— “Probably true.”

 

Bushytail prompted Ichigo to begin with a wave of his hand, and in turn, Ichigo spared him no details.

 

“What you encountered this morning is known as the Shinigami, Kakashi. Or I suppose I should say a Shinigami.”

 

What!? But that was...

 

“Up until now, we had operated under the assumption that there was only one of them in existence. Though there are a few forbidden jutsu that draw on its power, the Shinigami has been held to near-divine standards throughout the Five Great Shinobi Nations, one of the only things in existence we know to be more powerful than a Bijū.”

 

A Bijū? What was that?

 

“If the Shinigami were to be viewed as a mere creature rather than one of the pillars that holds our world together, there’s no telling what lengths people would go through to get their hands on one. Right now we’re at the brink of another large-scale war, if the other villages were to gain knowledge of this, they would surely try something. And if they were to learn that a young child had the power to see these Shinigami they want possession of...”

 

Ichigo’s blood ran cold. He would be targeted.

 

As if picking up on his thoughts, Bushytail said, “This gift of yours is a very dangerous thing, Kakashi, especially right now. If people were to find out, they would surely come after you. You’d spend the rest of your life looking over your shoulder, not only for people who would want to use you but for people who would want to eliminate the threat you could pose before it ever comes into fruition.”

 

His mind was whirling. Seeing spirits in this world really was a big deal! Like a really really big deal!! This was—

 

But. But wait, that creature was a Shinigami of all things!? That explained why it had felt so wrong to him if nothing else, and yet... And yet, if this world already had Shinigami, there would be no need for Soul Reapers. And if there was no need for Soul Reapers—

 

“Dad,” he said, and he pretended that the last sliver of hope he had left wasn’t seconds away from shattering. “Where do people go when they die?”

 

“Hm? They go to the Pure Land. Why are you asking?”

 

—there was no need for Soul Society.

 

“Forget it. It’s nothing.”

 

So. That was it then. It was over. His family, his friends, his life. They were all just. Gone.

 

45:

 

Ichigo stared up at the ceiling, trying to ignore the heavy feeling that had wrapped itself around his heart that day and refused to leave. But the more he tried to push the feeling away, the more it sank into him. He kept flashing back to those last moments before Hueco Mundo; what he could have done differently, what he could have done better.

If only he had—

He shoved the bitter thought away before it could fully manifest. It came back.

If only—

No! He grabbed his head and shook it desperately. Stop it!!

If only he had never met her, if—

Shut up!!

If only he hadn’t tried to save her—

That was wrong!! He didn’t regret it!! He’d never regret something like that!!

It was her own fault for getting caught, not once but twice, she was wea—

In a haze of rage, he smashed a fist against the wall he’d been leaning against. “I said just shut up already!!”

“Hatake-kun?”

Ichigo flinched. Turning, he found a boy who appeared to be his ag—no, not his age, younger, much younger, oh god, he was learning to fight alongside children, wasn’t he!?—walking towards him with a friendly smile. Not just friendly, he seemed to know Ichigo. Which was problematic because Ichigo had no clue who he was.

Drawing in a breath, he shoved the hysteria threatening to take over him to the very back of his mind and decidedly ignored it. “Hey,” he said, plastering on what had to be the fakest smile he’d ever used. “Uh... I’m sorry, who’re you?”

The kid faltered, and for a second, Ichigo thought he’d offended him. Then the kid was raising a hand to his mouth in a poor attempt to muffle a laugh. “Yeah, that sounds about right. Honestly I’d be more surprised if you did know me, even though we are in the same class.”

Huh? They were!? Since when!?

The kid held out his hand. “It’s nice to finally get a chance to talk to you. My name’s Asuma Sarutobi, but just call me Asuma. Would it be all right if I call you Kakashi?”

“Uh, yeah, sure.”

Asuma’s slanted smile tipped even further. “I didn’t think you’d mind. You don’t seem like a formal kinda guy.”

“I’m not,” he admitted.

Asuma began to rock back and forth on the balls of his feet, shooting the closed door to the Hokage’s Office a glance as he did. “So what’re you doing outside my father’s Office? You here to see him?”

“Woah hold on a minute, you’re that old guy’s son?”

Asuma shot him a startled look. “You didn’t realize? You really are bad with names.”

“What— I— Look it’s not my fault, okay!? How am I supposed to know his name when all anybody ever calls him is Sandaime-sama!”

“Yeah,” came a bitter snort. “You’re telling me.”

Ichigo opened his mouth to respond, though what he would have responded with, he had no idea.

Luckily he didn’t have to think of something, Asuma giving his head a slight shake before asking, “So how come you haven’t been showing up to class lately? Are you dropping out of the program? Is that why you’re here?”

That was an awful lot of assumptions he was making. “Huh? Why on earth would you think that?”

Asuma’s expression became frighteningly cheerful. “Rumor mill!”

Ah, yes. The rumor mill. His old nemeses. “Is that so?”

As if sharing a private joke, Asuma glanced around the hallway and leaned forward to whisper, “Don’t worry, Gai-kun’s been passionately defending your honor.”

Ichigo frowned. Gai? Who the heck was that?

When he didn’t respond, the silence between them turned uncomfortable. While Ichigo raked his memory for who the crap this Gai person was, Asuma feigned interest in a potted plant on the other side of the hallway.

After what felt like entirely too long, Asuma drew in a breath and said, “Hey. Kakashi-kun, are you o—”

The door to the office came open. Bushytail stepped out with an emotionless mask Ichigo had come to recognize as his I Don’t Like What’s Happening Here But I’m Not About To Risk My Career face. When he saw Asuma, he gave him a polite half-bow before turning to Ichigo and saying, “Sorry to keep you waiting. Feeling up to some Lunch?”

“No. Not really.”

Lately, he hadn’t felt like doing much of anything.

“All right. Let’s go home then.”

 

46:

 

As they walked passed a Bakery, Ichigo ignored the Shinigami that was perched on the roof, silently observing the crowd below. In the distance, the shriek of a hollow was cut short.

 

47:

 

The Sandaime showing up at the Hatake compound at two in the morning wasn’t something Ichigo was particularly overjoyed by. In fact, he was the exact opposite of overjoyed. He’d already seen enough of this old man to last him a lifetime, the last thing he wanted was for the guy to start showing up at his house!

If the Sandaime noticed his irritation, however, he didn’t comment on it, only smiling at him pleasantly over the cup of tea Bushytail had made for him.

Crossing his arms, Ichigo leaned against the doorframe. “What do you want old man?”

Bushytail flinched, causing the tea he’d been pouring to slosh against the side of the cup and drip onto the counter. “Kakashi!”

“What do you want Sandaime-sama?” Ichigo amended.

Gently, the old man placed his cup on the table and reached into his robes. “I came here to deliver these to you in person.”

The Sandaime slid two files onto the kitchen table. Face going blank, Bushytail walked over and grabbed the one closest to him. Ichigo copied him, giving the Sandaime a speculative scowl as he did. When the old man didn’t protest the action, he lifted it off the table and flipped it open.

What?

“An S-ranked secret? What does that mean?”

“It means that any information concerning your Kekkai Genkai is now highly classified. Only the Council, myself, and a few select others are permitted to have knowledge of this matter. Do you understand the implications?”

He did. After his talk with Bushytail, it’d be stranger if he didn’t. The old man was trying to protect him. That was... more than pretty much anyone in charge of anything had done for him ever.

A strange warmth festered in his chest, threatening to bubble over. “I do.”

“The Council has demanded that you approach them if there are any new developments in your ability, and starting today, you will be expected to swing by my office at the end of every week and report to me everything that you’ve seen with your Kekkai Genkai. After you garner more trust in the village, I should be able to have these meetings pushed back to once a month, and should you prove yourself even more than that, I may be able to push it back altogether, with you only needing to report to me if anything out of the ordinary occurs.”

That made sense. Having people poke their noses into his business bothered him, but he understood why the old man was doing it. The world Ichigo saw was totally unknown to them, he couldn’t blame them for being cautious about it. Besides, it shouldn’t take him too long to earn their trust, right? And if all he had to do was tell the old man what the spirits he’d seen had been up to, it’ll be a short conversation anyways.

“All right, then,” he said, lowering the file to his side. “Have it your way.”

“Sandaime-sama,” Bushytail said and though his tone was soft, none of the usual gentleness was there. “What is the meaning of this?”

Ichigo shot him a frown.

The Sandaime interlaced his fingers in front of his chin. “That is the next topic I wish to discuss. From here on out, anything concerning the presence of more than one Shinigami is now an SS-ranked secret. Which means that only I have the authority to possess this knowledge. You are never to speak of this again, and should you, you will be tried for treason and dealt with accordingly. I have already made Namikaze-san and Jiraiya well-aware of this arrangement.”

Ichigo nearly dropped the file in his hands. He grabbed it, it slipped, he grabbed it again, this time knocking it up to chest-level where he caught it in both hands and nearly crushed it. “Woah woah woah,” he blurted out. “Just hold on a second, isn’t that a little much!?”

He knew the Shinigami stuff was bad but come on!! Tried for treason!!? Wasn’t that taking it a bit far!!?

As if he could read his thoughts, the Sandaime said, “Hardly. You’re still young so I do not expect you to understand the full weight behind the Shinigami’s name. I may be unable to prevent you from having knowledge of this Kakashi-kun, but under ordinary circumstances, I would have demanded the immediate sealing of all three of their memories where this matter is concerned. I have only made an exception due to their identities.”

“What the heck is that supposed to mean?” Ichigo asked the same instant Bushytail said - “I understand me and Jiraiya, but to allow Minato-kun to retain his memory of the incident.... Does that mean you intend for Minato-kun to...?”

The Sandaime nodded. “He’s proven himself to be a capable shinobi. I would like for him to pass on those skills, and it will only benefit the village should he be in the know throughout the process.”

Ichigo looked back and forth between the Sandaime and Bushytail. Okay. They’d officially lost him. What were they talking about?

“He’s young,” Bushytail said, and holy crap, his face was even more blank than before!

“So were you,” the Sandaime said, much the same.

Silence fell over the room, riddled with a tension so thick he could’ve sworn it was spiritual pressure. Ichigo was definitely missing something.

After a solid minute of this, Bushytail dropped his gaze and said, “The Council. Do you truly intend to hide this from them?”

“What they don’t know can’t hurt them,” the Sandaime said. “As often as they seem to forget it, I am the one actually in charge of this village.”

 

48:

 

All of the lights in Orihime’s house were off. The cheerful vibes her home typically seemed to exude were gone. Gone with only the unnatural glow from a screen that shouldn’t have even been there to fill the void left behind.

Just a month ago the four of them had huddled together in this room, desperately cramming for an upcoming test. Well, they were supposed to be cramming but in reality, Uryu and him had gotten into a heated argument over a math formula that had escalated quickly, and by the end of it, they’d been debating over the finer points of Hamlet.

Chad may have flipped his textbook open but he’d barely glanced at the thing, too busy quietly laughing at their antics and poking holes into their logic. Orihime had vanished into the kitchen after five minutes of this only to reappear with a plate of the weirdest snacks he’d ever seen and pleas for them to try some. This process had repeated itself numerous times with numerous different snacks, every single one weirder than the last. He honestly wouldn’t be surprised if she’d forgotten why they’d come over in the first place.

He hadn’t realized it at the time, but that day, his mind had come to associate this place with loud voices, sincere smiles and the smell of cooking food. Now it was silent as a graveyard and every bit as bare.

The people inside stared at the dimly lit floor with such guilt it almost hurt to look at. Which Rukia wouldn’t. Look at him, he meant.

He tried asking where Orihime was. Rukia wouldn’t answer him.

The confusion he’d felt ever since waking up this morning injury-free with traces of Orihime’s spiritual pressure on his hand increased. He wasn’t sure why, but that was when he’d first begun to suspect something was off. Maybe it was because she hadn’t been there when he’d woken up, smiling down at him and telling him how happy she was that he was okay. Maybe there was something about her spiritual energy, some flavor of distress that had leached into her very soul and lingered on his hand long after she had left. He didn’t know. He’d never been good at telling these kinds of things.

Ukitake’s grim face appeared on the screen. The more he talked, the more Ichigo knew, and yet, it still took him by surprise when the words were said out loud. When he’d been told that Orihime was gone.

Around him, the room began to spin.

 

“—a traitor—”

 

“—insignificant—”

 

“—not worth the risk—”

 

He could barely hear them over the ringing in his ears, and the more they said, the more he wished the ringing was louder, loud enough to drown them out. He didn’t understand. How could they accuse her of that!? This was Orihime they were talking about! She wouldn’t even betray them in a video game let alone in real life!! There was no way this was true!!

“The least you can do is tell me how to get into Hueco Mundo,” he insisted, keeping his voice calm despite everything in him that screamed otherwise. “She’s still my friend, so I’ll just go save her myself!”

The Head Captain cracked open an eye. “You must not.”

Ichigo flinched. Why was he saying that!!?

“We are going to need your help in this battle, Ichigo Kurosaki. I won’t allow you to plot your own course of action and die for nothing!”

For nothing!? His heart skipped a beat. They were all staring at him now, their faces drawn in pity.

He stumbled away from the screen, one step, two, three, four, whipped around to face them. “It— It wasn’t for nothing!! She needed me!! Don’t you get it!!? She needed me to protect her!!”

“But Ichi-nii...”

At that voice, something in him froze. Slowly, as if moving through syrup, he turned back to the screen to find Yuzu and Karin projected on it instead. Yuzu with her sad round eyes and Karin trying her best to be strong despite the clear abandonment and the grief etched across her young face.

“Didn’t you promise you would always protect us?” Yuzu asked. “Didn’t you promise mama after we were born?”

“Ichi-nii... why? Why did you leave us?” Karin asked. “You didn’t even say goodbye!!”

“I didn’t! Look, I didn’t leave you, okay!? I’m still right here, aren’t I?”

It was no use, his words weren’t reaching them.

Yuzu lowered her teary eyes to the floor as if she couldn’t bear to look at him any longer. “Why did you stop hanging out with us?”

“I—”

Karin took a step closer to the screen, anger joining the myriad of emotions playing across her expression. “Why did you have to lie to us!!?”

The world flashed as if lightning had exploded overheard, and, suddenly, his mother was standing in front of him, looking exactly the same as she had on that awful night. Blood pattered around her feet, and when she spoke, her normally gentle voice was vibrating with rage. “Weren’t you supposed to protect them the way you couldn’t protect me, Ichigo!?”

He couldn’t help it. He screamed.

He was thrashing before he was even fully aware, struggling against his sweaty sheets and the hands that were trying to shake him.

“Kakashi!”

It wasn’t for nothing, he didn’t die for nothing, he didn’t, he didn’t, he— he hadn’t broken his promise, he hadn’t broken any of them, he just—

“Kakashi!!”

Ichigo’s eyes snapped open. A man was peering down at him, pale skin almost blue in the dim lighting, white hair messy and falling down his shoulders like he’d just rolled out of bed.

Ichigo blinked, the terror that had been gripping his chest loosening its hold enough for him to swallow a mouthful of air. Right. He. He knew this person. It was— “Bushytail?”

Bushytail’s lips twisted into a smile that looked more like a grimace. “You were having a nightmare,” he explained. “I could hear you from my room.”

Well. That was... embarrassing.

“Uh, I...” His head dropped, gaze shifting to his lap. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you up like that.”

With a soft sigh, Bushytail placed a hand on his head. “There’s nothing wrong with feeling Kakashi.”

Ichigo couldn’t meet his eyes. “I know.” He didn’t. He didn’t know anything anymore.

Bushytail’s hand slid off him. The mattress dipped, and when he looked up, Bushytail was sitting on the side of his bed. He patted the space next to him, gesturing for Ichigo to come closer.

After a beat of hesitation, he did.

They sat in silence for a while, Ichigo trying to calm his racing heart, Bushytail seemingly lost in thoughts of his own. And didn’t that make sense? Bushytail he... he had nightmares too. Ichigo had seen him get up in the middle of the night before, eyes rimmed red and his hands shaking terribly.

“How do you do it?” He asked. Ichigo was used to the occasional nightmare, but after finding out the truth of where he was, he’d been having them every single time he closed his eyes. He felt so pathetic. If Rukia and the others could see him right now, they’d be disappointed in him, he was sure of it.

Bushytail blinked, shattering the distance in his eyes. “If there was a surefire method to fight them off, I would have told you months ago.”

Ah. So he had noticed when the nightmares first started. Ichigo had wondered.

"The only thing I can do is tell you that despite everything that’s happened, everything that's expected of you, it is okay for you to be human."

Memories clawed their way into his mind, memories he'd been trying so hard to forget. Those halcyon days before hollows and soul reapers, days where the most he had to worry about was winning against Tatsuki and making good grades. He remembered running through the streets of Karakura carefree as the wind, his mother's smile before it was marred by memories of blood, how safe it used to make him feel. Goat-Chin and Yuzu sobbing every time they went to the movies, the way he and Karin would wander off and pretend not to know them, their cheeks aflame. Those feelings, those memories, they were all so painfully human, so painfully alive.

And painfully painful. He didn't want to think about them. Thinking about them hurt. Thinking about them made him falter, made him...

"As a shinobi, you’ll be expected to endure the weight of your emotions," Bushytail went on. "You’ll be expected to do a lot of things, but it’s impossible to go through life without ever faltering. No one’s that strong. We’ve all had times where we’ve felt weak Kakashi, and we’ve all had times where we’ve hated ourselves for that weakness. But I’ve learned that there’s no shame in it; falling down, messing up. The only shame is in staying down."

At that, Ichigo shot him a startled look. What the— Was he a freaking mind reader now!?

"You wear your emotions on your face."

Ichigo reached up, fingers finding maskless skin. Oh. Right. "Dad, I..." He wanted to tell his dad the truth. He wanted to tell him every single thing that had ever happened to him, he— he wanted— "I’m sorry. About the hollow," he said instead. "I thought I could handle it."

For several worrying seconds, Bushytail didn’t say a word.

Ichigo’s breath stayed coiled in his lungs. The guilt was heavy, too heavy, it made his own gaze join Bushytail’s on the floor. “I’m not gonna make any promises or say that I won’t do it again. Hollows don’t normally go after the living, I know that in my head but I still can’t just look the other way.”

He waited for the disappointment. The scorn, the anger.

“I know,” was what he got instead.

Ichigo’s head snapped up, wide eyes finding Bushytail’s calm ones. “But— But wait, you’re not mad at me!?”

“You enrolled in the academy to protect everyone, didn’t you? If that’s the nindō you’ve chosen then there’s nothing I can say or do to dissuade you.”

“My nindō,” Ichigo repeated. Did he even deserve to call it that? Bushytail said there was nothing shameful about messing up, but Ichigo, he’d failed everyone in his last life. Did his situation really count? Who was to say he wouldn’t do it again? Fail. Lie. Hurt. Lie.

(he wanted it to count)

“Dad there’s... There’s something that I’ve been wanting to talk to you about for a while now, but. But every time I try, I just can’t bring myself to do it.”

Bushytail’s gaze drifted away, settling on the wall as the gears in his head visibly turned. “Something you want to talk about? This isn’t about the detergent, is it?”

Ichigo sat up straighter. “The detergent?”

A beat passed, two, three, Bushytail raised a fist to his mouth, feigning a cough. “Forget I mentioned it,” he said, tone clipped.

“Wait you can’t just take it back!” He snapped. "What the heck did you do!?”

“It’s not important.”

Ichigo jumped to his feet, wobbling slightly as the bed shifted under his weight and jabbed a finger at Bushytail. “Like hell it isn’t!! What did you do to our clothes!!?”

Rather than try to deny it further or change the subject, he only smiled.

Ichigo blinked and lowered his finger.

“Now you’re starting to sound like your old self again,” Bushytail said. “You’ve been so down these past four days, I was starting to worry you wouldn’t come out of it.”

A wave of exhaustion swept over him. Ichigo allowed himself to slump into the space next to Bushytail again.

“Whatever it is you want to talk about,” Bushytail said, eyes twinkling as if he was telling some sort of inside joke. “I’ve waited this long, I can wait a bit longer.”

Ichigo lowered his head. “You knew, didn’t you? You knew that I was hiding something from you?”

“Whenever you lie you either break eye contact or smile cheerfully. I wouldn’t be much of a shinobi if I didn’t pick up on such obvious tells.”

Bushytail knew. The weight that had been threatening to crush him lifted, a fresh breeze of relief swirling through his chest and sweeping away some of the guilt. He could breathe easier. In the spirit of that, he drew in a nice, long breath before releasing it slowly. It was refreshing.

“Yeah right,” he couldn’t help but snark. “Like you wouldn’t have noticed anyway.”

Even Hat-n-clogs would have trouble getting anything passed Bushytail. It was like everything the man lacked in social and domestic skills had been compensated for in his observational skills. If this was a video game, his observation would be a solid one hundred and the other two would be whopping zeroes.

“Does this secret of yours have anything to do with your gift?” Bushytail asked after another stretch of silence.

Ichigo didn’t hesitate. “It does.”

“And you’re not in any danger?”

“I’m not.”

Placing his hands on his knees, Bushytail heaved himself off the bed. The smile on his face remained not the slightest bit forced or faked, and before he could stop himself, Ichigo was smiling back. “Then that’s all I need to know for now.”

“Hah,” Ichigo huffed out a laugh. “I get it. Good one. The detergent bit was just to rile me up, wasn’t it?”

Bushytail looked away.

Ichigo’s eyebrows twitched into a scowl. “It was a lie. Wasn’t it?”

Silence.

Ichigo opened his mouth but before he could speak, Bushytail was clearing his throat and moving for the door in the fastest walk he’d ever seen the man use. “Well, goodnight Kakashi! Feel free to wake me up if you have another nightmare and try not to stay up too late!”

The door closed with more force than necessary.

Ichigo threw himself off the bed and slung the door open again, racing out into the hall. “Hey!! Don’t you run away from me!! Dad!!”

 

X

 

x

 

Three days ago, a nameless shinobi had dropped into a respectful bow at her leader’s feet.

“And you’re certain that is what you heard?” Her leader asked, unflinching despite the report she had given him.

She remembered the boy she had watched get dragged into the Hokage’s Office. That day, she had been under strict orders to observe the Sandaime and report anything noteworthy back to her leader. A young child being rushed to the Sandaime had fit that criteria in her eyes, especially when she’d realized that the child was the young prodigy her leader had been keeping an eye on, Kakashi Hatake.

Knowing she couldn’t get any closer without her presence being noticed, she had ordered one of her termite kikaichū to chew its way into the wall and listen. What her kikaichū had overheard right before the privacy seals were raised had proved her judgment to be solid.

Her leader had been unavailable that day, too busy with meetings and other such business, so she had returned to the base and waited. Hours ticked by. She did not move. Night turned to day. Morning turned to afternoon. She did not eat. She did not sleep. She only waited.

Deepening her bow until her forehead touched the floorboards, she said, “Yes. Please pardon my tardiness, Shimura-sama.”

Danzō Shimura made a vague sound. In his hands, she could see the results of the blood test conducted on the child’s scarf, the one Shimura had insisted on handling himself. Just beside his leg, a picture of a man peeked out, one she recognized as a fellow ROOT agent who had died two months ago. But of course, only those in ROOT knew the man had existed at all.

If the nameless shinobi had emotions, surely this would have upset her. Instead, she only dropped her gaze to the floor. In ROOT death was the expectation, not the exception.

“I’ll excuse it,” Shimura said. “I have a mission for you.”

After Shimura finished relaying her orders, she vanished in a soundless shunshin between one heartbeat and the next.

Chapter Text

49:

 

Ichigo spent his fifth day on leave throwing out Bushytail’s ruined clothing and dealing with the grocery shopping. Bushytail had wanted to help, of course, but Ichigo wasn’t in the mood to deal with any more disasters. Which was unfortunate, because when he’d left thirty minutes ago, Bushytail had been sequestering himself in the kitchen to cook lunch and that in itself was a disaster just waiting to happen.

At the thought, Ichigo sighed, long, hard, and readjusted the grocery bags in his hands. He either needed to find someone with enough patience to teach Bushytail how to cook or figure out a way to ban the man from the kitchen altogether. He wasn’t sure how much more abuse their oven could take.

As Ichigo turned the corner, he spotted the wall of the Hatake compound off in the distance. The path that led to it was empty, and yet, as he walked, he could have sworn he felt a gaze on him. That wasn’t abnormal in a village filled with shinobi (not to mention spirits), but this time, there was something about it that had the hairs on the back of his neck standing up. His sandalled feet came to a stop.

Lifting his eyes, he surveyed the rooftops. They were empty. He lowered his gaze, scanning the windows, doorways, the tops of fences. Still nothing.

He was alone. Despite this, his instincts continued to ring out alarms demanding that he flee. He started walking again. Quickened his pace. His feet thudded against the ground, one thud, two thuds, three, four, five, each one making his heartbeat just a bit faster.

A shadow moved in his peripheral. He whirled around, groceries abandoned into the air and his fists shooting up to—

Minato blinked down at him, hand outstretched as if he’d meant to tap his shoulder.

Ichigo returned the confusion being directed at him in spades. Then he looked at the fists that had frozen between them. “Uh, I—” He quickly lowered them, snatching up the bags once more and shooting the much taller teen a sheepish grin. “Sorry about that! You startled me.”

Minato mirrored it back at him, “I should be the one apologizing then! I shouldn’t have snuck up on you like that!!”

The feeling of being watched vanished. With one last glance around, he allowed himself to turn his attention fully onto Minato.

“Those were some interesting reflexes kid,” an annoyingly familiar voice drawled from behind the blond. Jirichio walked into sight, a hand scratching the back of his neck. “What’s got you so on guard?”

Ichigo scowled at his feet. Like he’d tell Jirichio. “It was nothing.” Then to Minato, “What are you two doing here? You usually don’t drop by unless Bushytail has a mission.” Wait. “Does he—”

“No, it’s nothing like that!” Minato quickly assured him, but just as fast his assurance had come, the energy behind it seemed to flee. “We’re here to...”

Ichigo’s scowl deepened. What was Minato acting nervous for? Had he sensed it too? That feeling of danger?

Grinning like a loon, Jirichio threw an arm around Minato’s shoulders and yanked him into his chest. “Can’t we come over just to see that old man of yours?”

“I guess,” Ichigo said, dragging out each word. “But if it’s Bushytail you want to see you could’a just kept on walking.”

“Well maybe we were worried we’d get thrown out after he realized we’d let the chance to escort his ‘precious’ son home safe n’ sound pass us by?”

“Hey!” He snapped. “Bushytail wouldn’t kick out Minato-san!”

At that, the anxious look on Minato’s face increased tenfold. The poor guy looked ready to sink into the ground.

“And I’m not ‘precious’ either!”

Jirichio didn’t seem bothered by the jab at him, only raising his hands in surrender. “All right, all right, you got me. We didn’t come here to see Sakumo, this time we came here to take you out for a bit, show you a thing or two.”

“Huh? How come?” They’d never taken him out before. This was suspicious. “Not that I’m not grateful, but isn’t this a bit out of the blue?”

Jirichio’s cheerful countenance didn’t falter. “Well if you don’t wanna come along I can’t force you. I just thought you must be bored by now, having spent the past five days sitting around at home, but hey, if you’d rather hang around the compound n’ eat whatever rancid smelling meal Sakumo is cooking up in there, then there’s nothing I can do to talk you out of it.”

The world dimmed in color. Slowly, silently, Ichigo swiveled his head to the compound. He was greeted by a breeze that carried the acidic smell of burning plastic, so strong, it felt like he’d been punched in the nose.

Gagging, he staggered a step away from it. Oh man that really was coming from his house, wasn’t it!? What the heck was Bushytail doing in there!!?

With a put-upon sigh, Jirichio turned the way he’d come, grabbing Minato by the collar of his shirt and dragging the blond after him. “I know he was your first choice Minato, but if the kid really loves his old man’s cooking that much, who are we to interfere? I suppose I’ll just have to find another way to help you out.”

Ichigo stared after Jirichio, watching as his figure grew smaller and smaller. Then he turned to stare at the thin trail of smoke he could now see wafting from the direction of the kitchen. He returned his gaze to Jirichio, eyes a tinge wider than before. So. It wasn’t like he’d bought any perishables this time.

“Hey!” He called out, and if his voice was a tad hysterical, well, he wasn’t admitting to anything. “Wait! I’ll come too!!”

 

50:

 

“Tree walking?” Ichigo asked, staring up at an oak tree so tall it almost seemed to touch the clouds.

“That’s right. It’s one of the first shinobi techniques you’ll be learning once you make genin, but my talented former student here is willing to teach it to you early!” Jirichio said, slinging an arm around a clearly uncomfortable Minato’s shoulders.

Ichigo scowled. The way Jirichio said it, it was like he was expecting Ichigo to be starry-eyed at the prospect. Ichigo was most certainly not starry-eyed. Ichigo didn’t do starry-eyed. “Couldn’t this have waited until after I put the groceries away?”

With a strained laugh, Minato weaseled his way out of Jirichio’s hold. “I’m sorry about this. Sensei can get a little carried away sometimes...”

Huh. They really were close, weren’t they?

“You know kid,” Jirichio cut in, ignoring Minato’s escapade. “I’m starting to get the feeling you don’t know just who you’re dealing with here! I’m more than just your old man’s friend you know!”

Ichigo blinked, once, twice. “I know who you are. You’re Jirichio, right?”

“Wrong!”

Hands shooting out as if to push an invisible enemy away, he hopped several feet backward on a single clogged foot.

“I am the man whose name is known throughout all the Five Great Shinobi Countries!”

He whipped his head around, ducking into a kneel as his ponytail did a full circle through the air, then he threw his arms out until one was pointing straight ahead and the other straight behind.

“Even in the heavens!!”

He held the stance for several long seconds before he snapped his head up to lock eyes with Ichigo. “I am one of the legendary sannin, Jiraiya, the Toad Sage!!”

Ichigo stared at the man.

The man stared at him.

A yellow leaf drifted between them, carried by the breeze and twirling out of sight.

Ichigo jabbed a finger over his shoulder. “Yeah so, if that’s all you wanted to say Jirichio—”

Jirichio drooped as if someone had shoved a massive weight onto his shoulders. A beat passed, two, three, he began to chuckle. “You’re really not taking me seriously.”

That didn’t sound good. Setting the groceries down at his feet, he readied himself for a fight. But rather than attack, Jirichio jumped upright and started flailing around in yet another weird dance. It kinda reminded Ichigo of a Kabuki dance except... stupid.

“Well I’ll show you! Watch and tremble in awe, for I am the Great Jiraiya!!” On that note, he bit into his thumb and slammed it down, causing a large puff of smoke to explode at his feet. When it cleared, Ichigo found himself face-to-face with a frog as tall as he was and wait, wasn’t that—!?

The frog’s eyes widened the same instant his did, and in sync, they both sprang away from each other. “AAAAH, IT’S YOU!!”

“Huh?” Jirichio looked back and forth between them. “You two know each other?”

Without bothering to reply, the frog shifted into a fighting stance, bouncing from foot to foot. “Well ain’t this perfect!? I was just thinking it was about time I came back here and showed you the true power of us amphibians!!”

Ichigo fell into a stance of his own, this one better suited for fending off combatants of his own size. “Yeah,” He growled with a sharp grin already forming under his mask. Summons or not, Ichigo would sooner die before he let himself lose to a frog!! “Why don’t you just come over here and try it, I’ll show you all about true power all right!!”

Jirichio took a step closer. “Woah, woah, wait a second—”

“Please don’t stand in the way Jiraiya-sama!” The frog said, sparing the man an irritated glance.

“Yeah,” Ichigo chimed in much the same. “Can’t you see we’re in the middle of a serious battle right here?”

“...A serious battle?” Jirichio repeated dubiously.

Ichigo ignored this in favor of meeting the frog’s eyes. “Tell me. What’s your name?”

“It’s Geromaru. And you?”

He opened his mouth, the words Ichigo Kurosaki begging to slide off his tongue, but with a grimace that went unnoticed under his mask, he forced out the words, “Kakashi Hatake.”

The frog dipped his head, raising his webbed fists more readily. “Now we can battle without restraint!”

“Yeah,” Ichigo also readied himself to charge. “Sounds good to me!!”

Before they could act on those words, however, Jirichio was stepping in between them with his hands raised to pacify. “Hey hey, I didn’t bring you two here so you could fight.”

“You can teach me how to tree walk when I’m done with him!”

“Tree walking?” Geromaru asked, his stance relaxing somewhat. “You’re teaching him that?”

Ichigo opened his mouth to retort but before he could, Geromaru raised his webbed hand to silence him. “I don’t know how’ta do that either.”

At that, Ichigo relaxed as well.

Geromaru shot him a smirk. “Ya thinking what I am?”

“Yeah,” Ichigo had no problems mirroring the sentiment back. “I’ll have it down long before you can you stupid frog!”

“Hah. Like you got the brains for that you masked-faced brat!”

They moved in sync, whirling around on Jirichio to yell, “Teach us!”

Jirichio scrubbed a tired hand down his face. "You have got to be kidding me."

 

51:

 

Ichigo glared up at the tree in frustration. This was so his luck. Of course this entire exercise depended on his ability to control his chakra. Of course it did. Most things in this world seemed to, which was unfortunate because he was just no good at this crap!

Releasing a frustrated breath, he pushed himself to his feet and dusted off his pants. Not that whining about it was going to change anything. Whether it was hard or not, he was going to do this!

Ignoring the way the bruises on his back twinged in protest, he charged. His feet stuck with ease on the first two steps, but by the time he had reached the third, his control was already slipping, foot popping off the bark, causing him to slam his other foot down way too hard. The effect was instant. His chakra exploded the bark, sending him flying backward as a puff of smoke and wood rained over him like confetti. This one was gonna hurt.

And yet. Instead of the cold, unforgiving ground, he found himself smacking into something warm and much, much softer.

By the time he’d regained enough sense to open his eyes, he was already being placed on his feet.

Minato let him go and stepped out of his space, studying the tree with such an intense focus, Ichigo hesitated to thank him. There wasn’t a trace of anxiety left in Minato as the gears in his head visibly whirled, it made him feel like he’d be interrupting something if he spoke up. A second later, he dismissed the thought as ridiculous.

“Uhh... Thanks,” he said. “You didn’t have to do that.”

Minato looked away from the tree in favor of smiling down at him, but the focus didn’t leave his eyes, not even when he knelt beside him and snagged a browning leaf off the forest floor. “Here, why don’t you try sticking this to your palm first?”

Ichigo didn’t ask why, only took the leaf with a baffled scowl. He placed it on his palm, funneling just the right amount of chakra to stick to the leaf’s brittle surface. When he turned his palm towards the ground, the leaf stayed.

“Good. Now while you’re holding it, I want you to focus on the way your chakra is moving.”

“On the way it’s moving?”

Minato nodded. “Even when we’re not using it, chakra is constantly cycling through our bodies like blood; it sustains us, keeps us alive. The trick to chakra control is learning how to funnel the proper amount from that flow. Like with this leaf, using too much chakra will cause it to explode, and in the process, you’ll lose precious chakra you otherwise could have saved. But on the other hand, if you use too little, you won’t be able to stick the leaf to your palm and the chakra you used will go to waste anyway.”

Ichigo cast the leaf on his hand a startled look. Was he losing chakra right now?

Minato held up his index finger. “The tree walking exercise is about more than just gaining the ability to move through the trees—the better you become at locating the proper output of chakra each situation requires, the less chakra you’ll waste when casting jutsu, and the longer you’ll be able to fight.”

Ichigo stared at Minato, wide-eyed and a little speechless. He hadn’t... thought about it like that.

“I think I kinda get it now.” Heaving out a breath to release any lingering frustration, he cast his attention to the chakra buzzing through his coils like static. “Thank you.”

Minato positively beamed.

 

52:

 

Ichigo limped home, his body aching from both bruises and low chakra reserves alike. If this was how it felt to be mildly low on chakra, Ichigo didn’t even wanna consider what severe chakra exhaustion felt like. He wanted to consider what no chakra was like even less. He’d had enough of dying, thanks.

Despite the unpleasant memories buzzing around his skull, he was satisfied in a way only a good workout could leave him. Tree walking was hard, harder than he’d thought it’d be, but after only two hours of practice, he could already make it halfway up that tree. Which was more than Geromaru could say, he still couldn’t get passed a quarter of the way up, which meant Ichigo was winning! Hah!

Decidedly ignoring the fact his opponent was an actual frog, he puffed out his chest with pride. He practically had this down already!

The grocery bags swayed with Minato’s next step, drawing his attention. Ichigo would have carried them himself, but Jirichio had literally shoved them into Minato’s hands, insisting that it would be “rude” to make their “exhausted protégé” suffer under the weight of the groceries that were like, what? One pound each? Then he’d taken off to who-knows-where.

Ichigo didn’t get why Minato was going along with it. This was ridiculous. He would have just taken the bags and left if the blond didn’t look one jumpscare away from bolting.

Honestly. What was up with him today? Seeing him acting all timid and jumpy was weird. Wasn’t he supposed to be some big shot shinobi?

Wait now that he was back on the topic— “Hey, what did Jirichio mean when he said he was helping you? I didn’t see him do anything like that.”

And there was the jumpscare.

With the way Minato froze up, anyone else would have thought he’d spotted a landmine up ahead. “Oh,” he said. “That.”

Ichigo raised a brow.

Lips twitching into a wobbly smile, Minato began to walk again. “Jiraiya-sensei wanted me to practice teaching.”

Huh. That was it? What was he so nervous about then? Teaching, after all, was an important skill. Ichigo had spent a majority of his Elementary school days memorizing the material and studying how the faculty taught so he could tutor his sisters. “Huh, that makes sense I guess.”

Minato stared up at the cloudy sky, eyes distant and his smile no longer forced. “Jiraiya-sensei can be brash, and at times selfish but he’s a good man. In fact, there’s no one in the village I trust more than him. When he noticed I was having doubts about myself, he insisted that I at least give it a try before I dismiss myself. If it wasn’t for him, I’d probably still be holed up in my apartment overthinking things.”

Ichigo took a moment to absorb that. “It’s not that I dislike him or anything, but...” Jiraiya didn’t like him.

In all honesty, Ichigo had actually memorized the guy’s name months ago. He could call Jirichio by the right name but... Well, while he could admit to being dense at times, suspicion was an emotion Ichigo had never had much trouble picking out. He was used to being on the receiving end of it; shopkeepers subtly following him around their stores, the faculty always watching him like a hawk, always waiting for him to start trouble. Jirichio’s behavior reminded him of theirs and Ichigo wasn't exactly fond of those people. He had to give it to the man though, he was much better at hiding it. If he hadn’t overheard him talking to Bushytail that night, he might have missed it altogether.

Minato passed the grocery bag in his right hand into his left, making them both crinkle into a frenzy. Hand now free, he placed it on Ichigo’s head and though he didn’t ruffle his hair like Bushytail so often did, Ichigo found himself automatically relaxing nonetheless.

“He’ll come around.”

Ichigo wondered about that.

 

53:

 

Minato probably would’ve followed him all the way inside if Ichigo hadn’t waved him off, and even then, the blond had hovered. First to make him promise he wouldn’t practice tree walking without supervision, then to assure him he’d drop by some time soon to check on his progress with the added bonus of letting him finish his competition with Geromaru. It wasn’t until Ichigo had given him a confirmation to both that he’d finally seemed content enough to leave. Talk about a mother hen. And people said Ichigo was bad.

Waving after the blond’s retreating back, he turned to the groceries that had been set against the wall. He could see the top of the detergent peeking out of the first bag, and in the bottom of the second, there was a black outline from the spare shirts he’d bought in preparation for the next time Bushytail decimated half his wardrobe. After that, his gaze drifted to empty space beside the second bag, expectant. Empty air greeted him.

Shouldn’t... there be another bag? He’d bought enough stuff to fill three, hadn’t he? Detergent, disinfectant wipes, shirts, toothpaste and... Wait. Where were the paper towels?

Ichigo’s eyes followed the wall all the way to the left. All the way to the right. There were still only two bags.

Overhead, thunder rumbled in the sky. His head snapped up at the sound, causing a raindrop to splat directly between his eyes. He grabbed his forehead with a pained hiss. “You have got to be kidding me!!”

He left the bags under the sloped roof of the main gate, taking off for the small clearing Jirichio had insisted was perfect for training in. Or at least, in the direction he vaguely remembered it to be. No way he was leaving that bag out in the rain like this!! It would get all gross!!

Ignoring the breathless feeling that lingered from training, he jogged around the wall and headed deeper into the village, easily dodging around the legs of the villagers as they hurried to find shelter. The rain picked up. A crack of lightning fractured the sky. Thunder shook the earth.

Which was just perfect. He hated storms. Hated them. It always seemed to be storming during the worst moments of his life. It had stormed the night his mom was killed, it had stormed when Rukia sacrificed herself to protect him, it had even stormed that awful afternoon when he’d almost lost Bushytail. He wouldn’t be surprised if it had been storming in the World of the Living when Ulquiorra kil— finished— defeated him. Defeated him.

The early winter chill in the air mixed with the icy rain had his skin going numb after only fifteen minutes out in it. His spiky hair clung to his scalp and dipped into his eyes, making it hard to see. This was not aiding him in his noble quest to locate the paper towels.

His feet came to a stop at the beginning of a grassy clearing, and once he pushed his bangs out of his eyes again, he realized that it was most certainly not the one he’d been searching for. Huffing out an irritated breath, he turned to leave. Would have, if not for the object he could just make out through the furious haze of rain. A square statue. Raising a hand to scrub his bangs out of his eyes for the umpteenth time, he found himself walking towards it.

This place again. Why was it always this place? It was like no matter what he did, he always wound up right back here.

As he drew closer, another shape came into sight. Someone’s hunched back.

He slowed his pace. It was a kid. They were sitting in front of the stone with their hair and clothing clinging to them like a half-drowned cat. They didn’t seem to notice, shaking fingers pressed against one of the many names that were carved into the stone and their gaze dulled with grief.

Flower vases had been placed around the stone, and in front of the kid’s muddy sandals, sat a framed photograph. A jar of incense blocked his view of the picture itself. A funeral? Ichigo looked around. They were the only ones in the Training Ground. It must’ve ended a while ago.

He shuffled his feet. Should he say anything? It was the chill in the air that nudged him on, reminding him of the strange feeling he’d gotten earlier. As if sitting out in a storm wasn’t dangerous enough, there was no way he was leaving this kid alone when something dangerous could be prowling around!

“Hey, you shouldn’t be sitting around out here, you could get hurt.”

The only indication the kid had heard him at all was the way they turned until he could no longer see their face. They didn’t move their hand away from the stone, their fingers gently tracing the name as if it would shatter if they pressed too hard. The heavy sag of their shoulders, the way they didn’t seem able to lift their head at all; the more Ichigo stared, the more he saw it. Saw the despair of a person that had lost everything. Numb at first, hurting more and more with every day that passed. Ichigo knew it well.

That posed a question he doubted the kid would answer. Turning his attention fully to the stone the kid seemed unable to pry themself away from, he read the name and was only a little surprised by what greeted him.

“Mei Shiranui.”

Upon closer inspection, this kid, they. No, he looked familiar. Hair that was the color of oak and long enough to brush his jaw, the way his nose stood straight, that tan skin—

“Your mother,” he said. Not asked. There was no need. He already knew.

The kid sitting alone in the rain was the son Mei had asked him to look out for. He was Genma, the owner of the name Ichigo had promised himself he would never forget.

“Oh,” he allowed his gaze to drift to the many names that were carved into the stone. “So that’s why. This stone. It’s a memorial, isn’t it?”

Still nothing.

Sighing, he channeled his nervous energy into scratching an imaginary itch at the nape of his neck. “Look you can’t just sit out here for the rest of your life, and especially not in this weather.”

As if in agreeance, another crack of lightning lit up the sky in a series of blinks, only to be followed by an explosion of thunder. Ichigo cast the ever-worsening storm an anxious frown.

Genma didn’t react.

That wouldn’t do. Reaching down to hook Genma by the elbow, he yanked him to his feet. “Come on. I’ve got no clue where you live so you're just going to have to stay at my place tonight.”

Now that his body was being forced into motion, a spark of confusion wormed its way into Genma’s otherwise blank expression, but he didn’t fight it, too lost in his own shock and grief to compute much about the outside world at the moment. If that helped Ichigo get him somewhere safe for the night, then he couldn’t complain.

It would be problematic if he stayed this way for too long, however. Yuzu shut down exactly like this after their mother passed away, but she’d had a family to take care of her. Who would take care of Genma?

 

54:

 

Ichigo led Genma through the gates of the compound and around the side of the estate. With a superstitious glance around to make sure Bushytail hadn’t noticed, he pulled Genma onto the engawa that overlooked the garden and through the hallway until they arrived at his room. Closing the door behind him, he shoved the grocery bag with the spare shirts into the boy’s chest. It was five whole seconds before Genma wrapped his hands around the bag.

“You should get changed,” he said in the best authoritative voice he could manage given his psychical age. He pulled a pair of shorts out of his drawer as well. “Here, put this on too. It’s a little small but it’s better than nothing.”

After all, Ichigo was kind of a pipsqueak right now. Turning to give Genma some privacy, he wondered if this was how it felt to be Rukia. He’d have to keep an eye out, if he wasn’t careful, he’d end up getting blown away by the wind like she had in Hueco Mudo. He waited for the amusement that used to follow that memory. It didn’t come.

Once the rustling behind him stopped, he turned to find Genma wearing a shirt that was way too big for him. Understandable. Ichigo had grabbed those shirts for Bushytail while he was getting groceries, so surprise, surprise, he hadn't paid much attention to their appearance beyond their size. And what a horrific appearance it was.

In the center of the shirt, a cartoon leaf was facing forward with its giant gloved hands holding two grocery bags. Or was it a cartoon string bean? He couldn’t actually tell. Its oval eyes were large enough to protrude off the sides of its head and its nose was red and bulbous. It had no lips, and yet it was smiling wide enough to show off a set of flat, square teeth, and above its head, a dialogue box sat with the name of the store perched inside.

Another round of lightning made his darkened room flash white, only serving to highlight its soulless stare.

Okay. Maybe Ichigo should have tried his luck getting Genma into one of his shirts instead. He was about to suggest this when a knock on the door had his heart leaping into his throat.

“Kakashi? Is that you?”

Aw crap, it was Bushytail!! Grabbing Genma, he shoved the now visibly perplexed boy into the closet and slammed it shut the same instant his bedroom door came open.

Bushytail looked at the desk first. Then the bed. When neither yielded him any results, he scanned the room until his eyes landed on Ichigo, who was currently sprawled flat against the shōji door that marked his closet, hands holding it shut and his left leg still stretched from the lunge that had put him there.

For several seconds, there was only the hiss of rain to fill the silence between them.

“...Kakashi,” Bushytail said. “What on earth are you doing?”

Ichigo was about to look away, remembered Bushytail mentioning that was one of his tells, stopped. Squeezed his eyes shut instead. “I-I was just practicing one of the stretches I learned about in class!”

“Huh,” was all Bushytail said.

“You know me, always trying my hardest!”

Cloth rustled. A sigh cut through the air. “Kakashi. Closing your eyes like that makes you even less believable to me.”

He sounded so despairing Ichigo couldn’t help but crack an eyelid open.

Bushytail was pinching the bridge of his nose as if to ward off a migraine. “You need more lessons on deception. Now, tell me what you’re hiding in the closet.”

Sweat began to bead on his forehead. Ichigo gave up on closing his eyes and slowly extracted himself from the closet door. “W-W-Why would you think I’m hiding? Anything?”

“If you’re not hiding anything then you won’t mind opening it for me.”

“Huh!?” Ichigo recoiled, “Why would you want me to do that!?”

Bushytail’s tone turned stern. “Open the closet door.”

“Bu—”

“Open it Kakashi.”

Ichigo reached for the wooden partition in the shōji door. “Can I just—”

Bushytail smiled, warm, understanding. “No.”

Ichigo opened the closet door.

Half-hidden in the gloom of his closet, was Genma. At some point during their conversation, he’d crawled under the shirts that were hanging from the rack and settled against the wall with his legs hugged to his chest.

“Oh wow!” Ichigo said, feigning surprise. “Would you look at that!? When did he get in there!?”

Bushytail shot him a thoroughly unimpressed look before walking over to crouch in the doorway of the closet. After what felt like decades of Bushytail studying Genma in silence, he said, “You know, most kids your age try to hide stray cats in their closets.”

“You’re allergic to cats,” Ichigo pointed out, because, really, at this point, it was the only retort he could think of.

Bushytail let out a long, resigned sigh. “Go get one of the guest rooms ready. I’ll see if I can lure him out of the closet.”

Ichigo brightened instantly. “All right, sweet!”

As he bolted into the hallway, he heard Bushytail say to Genma, “That’s an interesting shirt you have on.”

 

55:

 

By the time Ichigo had finished pulling a futon and spare sheets out of the guest bathroom’s closet, Bushytail had coaxed Genma to the kitchen table where he was sitting with his bare feet dangling high above the floor and his eyes staring blankly into a cup of steaming tea. Bushytail sat across from him, his hands wrapped around a cup of his own.

There was a third cup set out as well, and that was where Ichigo sat, pulling the tea towards him to warm his chilled fingers. He’d been so caught up in getting Genma into dry clothes that he’d completely forgotten to do the same for himself.

“Is this where you disappeared to?” Bushytail asked. He had his blank face of disapproval on but he didn’t sound angry.

Ichigo doubted he was. “Hm? Ah, no, I actually ran into Minato-san and Jirichio on the way home and they took me out for some training.”

Surprise lightened the atmosphere somewhat.

“Did you? What did they teach you?”

Ichigo leaned back into his seat with a smirk. “I’ll show you it myself when I get it down!”

“‘When?’” Bushytail asked, a sliver of amusement worming its way into his tone.

“Yeah. ‘When!’”

Maybe it was the sound of people talking, maybe it was the heat from the tea, maybe his shock was simply wearing off on its own, but Genma chose that moment to lift his head and blink as if he was seeing clearly for the first time.

The worry from earlier returned and Ichigo’s smile dropped.

Bushytail, on the other hand, smiled wider. “It’s nice to meet you, you’re a friend of my son I take it?”

“Not really,” Ichigo interjected.

Bushytail ignored him. “My name is Sakumo Hatake,” he placed a hand on Ichigo’s head. “And I’m sure you already know Kakashi.”

To Ichigo’s surprise, Genma nodded.

“What’s your name?”

A beat passed. Two. Three. Four. Five. He lowered his head again and whispered, “Genma... Shiranui.”

“You’re welcome to take shelter here from the storm,” he cast the window a glance as if trying to gauge what time it was. "The lunch I made earlier is still in the fridge, I’ll reheat it for dinner.”

Of course it was. Why couldn’t Ichigo ever catch a fricking break?

With one last reassuring look for Genma, Bushytail grabbed his cup of tea and— Woah, wait, wait!! Why was it empty!!?

Slowly, Ichigo’s too wide eyes moved from the cup to Bushytail. He hadn’t even seen the guy take a sip!

“Kakashi,” Bushytail said, acting for all the world like his vanishing tea was totally normal. “Can you show him to the guest room he’ll be staying in?”

Then he turned and made his way to the fridge, leaving Ichigo to stare after him in mute horror. Maybe his dad really was a demon after all...

But, more importantly, “HEY!! You better show me how to do that!!”

 

56:

 

“Feel free to stop by whenever,” Bushytail said. “Kakashi’s friends are always welcome here.”

Ichigo didn’t argue that time, only frowned at the numbness that had returned to Genma’s expression after dinner and persisted into the morning. Watching Genma vanish down the frost-covered path, he decided he’d have to check in on him sooner rather than later.

Too preoccupied with thoughts of damaged kids, he didn’t notice the bird until it had landed neatly on his head. Ichigo felt the startled yell this elicited was totally reasonable.

Bushytail coughed into his hand, and woah, wait a minute, he was laughing wasn’t he!? He was trying to hide it but he was laughing at him!!

Irritation casting aside the heavy feelings from moments ago, he crossed his arms and leveled Bushytail with a glare he also felt was reasonable.

Bushytail shoulders were still shaking with mirth when he extended his hand, allowing the bird to hop onto it.

It was a messenger bird. Some of the irritation faded at the realization. Wait. Why was there a messenger bird? Bushytail wasn’t taking missions right now.

Ichigo watched as Bushytail retrieved the scroll and bid the bird a soft thank you as it soared into the sky. He watched as Bushytail unrolled it, eyes roaming over whatever was written.

Bushytail’s mouth settled into a straight line, neither happy nor unhappy. “It seems I’ve been specifically requested by a client.”

Ichigo, too, kept his expression carefully policed. “They can do that?”

Bushytail didn’t move. “Yes.”

Ichigo had to fight the urge to shuffle his feet in the silence that followed. The idea of Bushytail going on a mission after everything that had happened... He didn't like it. He couldn't lie to himself and say that he did. That and. He’d gotten used to it, always having someone at the compound with him. But.

Shoving his hands into his pockets, he pulled on the most convincing grin he could muster. “So you’re finally getting a mission again huh? That’s great. I’m glad for you.”

A surprised look.

“Really.” Ichigo’s smile became a little more sincere. “I’ll be fine. You just worry about getting home safely, okay?”

Bushytail didn’t smile, but his expression softened just a bit. He nodded. “I’ll be home soon.”

 

57:

 

Ichigo made his way through the bustling crowd the next morning, ducking under swinging hands and dodging around too tall legs. The fact he was wearing his backpack over one shoulder wasn’t helping him in this endeavor, but to be frank, wearing it like this was way cooler than the alternative. The alternative made him look like a toddler!

Cursing this tiny body for what had to be the thousandth time, Ichigo slid between two adults, offering a hasty apology when his bag brushed against one of their knees. He received a scandalized glare for his efforts.

 

“Oh. Look.”

 

“Yeah. It’s the Hatake’s son.”

 

The whispers started around him, as they always did whenever he made the mistake of sticking out. He quickened his pace. That didn’t deter them. Lucky for him he was nearing the end of the marketplace anyways and he was able to push his way out of the crowd and into the winding road that would lead him to the Academy. There were a few people walking ahead of him though, so he ducked into an alleyway for good measure.

It was a long one, a dimly lit gap between two tall buildings that stretched on until the exit was a narrow rectangle of light. As he walked through it, broken glass crunched beneath his shoes, and the dumpster he passed reeked of something vile. Talk about gross. Maybe he should’ve stuck to the main road after all. As if summoned by the thought, a feeling of dread pinged down the back of his neck.

Instinctively, he straightened out his spine and looked around.

The buildings were tall, too tall, he couldn’t see what was on either roof. He extended his senses, finding not a trace of chakra. Didn’t hear anything suspicious, didn’t smell anything either. Didn’t even sense any spiritual pressure, though he wasn’t sure how reliable that was anymore. So far, every single person he’d met had such low spiritual pressure, he could only detect it if he was standing right next to them. It was like their spiritual energy was constantly being filtered into something, and if Ichigo had to guess, he’d say that chakra was involved somehow.

Nervous energy shivering up his legs, he tried to walk faster, decided it wasn’t enough, took off running. The exit didn’t seem to get any closer. Why was this alleyway so long!?

That was when something slammed into his back. He reacted appropriately, twisting around and lashing out with a leg to unbalance his attacker. His leg was jumped over with ease, a blur of color flipping itself through the air and landing in a neat handstand five feet away. They righted themselves to their feet with just as much ease, lips already spreading in a toothy grin he only knew one person to wear.

“Rival!!” Maito said in that overly loud way of his. “You’ve returned!!”

Huh. Maito was better than he’d thought. “Hey,” he growled. “What’s with the sneak attack!?”

“I wanted to test your reflexes!” Maito shot back unapologetically. “They were pretty good.”

“How many times do I have to tell you that I’m not interested in being rivals with you?”

Maito recoiled. “So straightforward! But I am not one to be deterred!”

Yeah, he’d noticed. Ugh. Rolling his eyes, Ichigo readjusted his bag and resumed his trek out of the alleyway at a much calmer pace. Honestly. Why were all the nutjobs always drawn to him?

 

58:

 

Watching as Maito took off for the Academy in a mad sprint that left a trail of dust in his wake, Ichigo rolled his eyes and pulled the strap of his bag farther up his shoulder.

He was about to follow the lunatic when a shadow swallowed him whole. The temperature dropped. He tried to turn, tried to react to whatever was happening, but a heavy weight slammed into the side of his neck, making his head jerk violently and then—

.

 

.

.

 

.

.

 

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Nothing.

Chapter Text

59:

 

Ichigo woke up to find a sky overshadowed with dark, swirling clouds. Rain was pelting him mercilessly, each lukewarm drop registering with the force of a slap, but it wasn’t until he heard the sound of rushing water that he realized something was amiss. He didn’t get enough time to act on that realization though, a wall of water slamming into him, dragging him under.

Salt stung his eyes, his throat burned terribly. He reached out blindly for something, anything, but it was through sheer luck alone that his fingers snagged the edge of a surface mere seconds before the world dropped out from under him. A bolt of electricity shot up his spine, his legs dangled uselessly, and it was all he could do to hold on as the wave continued to crash down overtop of him.

Cracking an eye open, he found a murky darkness one could only encounter under the depths of an ocean, a single trembling orb of light pointing him in the direction of the surface. The muscles in his arms shrieked from the exertion of fighting the current as he hauled himself up the object he had grabbed onto. By the time he’d gotten his torso over what he was now recognizing as the side of a building, the wave had mostly waned, leaving him to huddle in a shivering heap.

A thin sheet of water still puddled around his fingers, splashing water into his face every time a droplet fell from his hair. This was the exact opposite of pleasant. Yet another reason to hate storms.

Raising his forearm to scrub the worst of the water from his eyes, he staggered upright on rubbery legs and looked around. A city that had been turned onto its side is what greeted him, half-flooded and covered in plant-life. It reminded him of a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie, something where modern-day japan had been slammed by a meteor, destroying modern life and letting the plants take over. Wait.

Wait he didn’t have time to admire it!! Where was he!!? And. And why the heck did it remind him of his inner world!? Rubbing the water out of his eyes one last time, he took another look at his surroundings. It couldn’t be. Could it?

A flip switched. Memories flooded into him; waking up to a peaceful haze of rain, the koi pond that reminded him of the Hatake compound, the bushes, and trees that had filled him with wonder, the skyscrapers that were reminiscent of a time where things had been different. This was his inner world. There was no longer any doubt about that. What the heck had happened here?

Another wave crashed into the skyscraper he was standing atop, weaker than the last but strong enough to tug viciously at his legs as it passed. Stumbling a step back, Ichigo glared at the water like it was the cause of all his problems. This shouldn’t be possible, should it!? For starters, he wasn’t a soul reaper anymore! There were no soul reapers here, no zanpakutō! He was just a human who could see spirits! That was the truth!

Wasn’t it?

His heart began to race. Months. He’d been trying to get to this place for months. Months! But. But if he was remembering correctly, he had gotten here. He’d gotten here several times. So why hadn’t he realized until now? Why hadn’t he remembered!?

Frustration shot through him, warming his chilly limbs. “What the heck is going on here!? ZANGETSU!!?”

He didn’t see the punch coming until it connected with his face, sending him rolling across the building and right over the side. He barely managed to snag the edge in time, fingers clawing into the slippery surface, waves tugging hungrily at his legs. Footsteps splashed towards him as he struggled to pull himself up, a foot stomped on his head, pinning him cheek-down against the building. The tart smell of salt and swamp water filtered through his mask. He grimaced.

“You damn idiot,” growled a young voice that sounded strange, almost raspy. It was also kind of familiar.

The kind of familiar he would have gladly ignored had a hand not replaced the foot on his head, fingers clawing into his hair, yanking him over the edge of the skyscraper and onto his feet until he was face-to-face with—

His mind went blank.

A kid was staring at him. At, because they were the exact same height as him. Had the exact same hair. Exact same face. His skin was a tinge paler though, a solid white devoid of life as opposed to a porcelain tint. And those eyes. Ichigo may have recognized the voice, but his brain would have been literally incapable of processing who he was looking at if not for the yellow irises that rested overtop black sclera.

“What the—?” His voice sounded distant and pathetically confused, even to his own ears. “What the heck happened to you!?”

His now chibified inner hollow glared with all his hate. Which was quite a lot given the source.

Ichigo’s brain needed a second to reboot. Possibly a minute. Maybe a month. What was even happening anymore!!? Seriously!?

“Y-Y-You— You’re wearing a t-shirt!!” He said, feeling oddly scandalized.

In fact, the outfit his inner hollow had on matched Ichigo’s perfectly, from the face mask that stretched to his nose, all the way down to his shinobi sandals. The only difference was the coloring; Ichigo wearing mostly black, the hollow, mostly white. No shihakusho? Wait, all this time had this guy just been matching Ichigo’s current appearance?

“I’m gonna slaughter you!!” His hollow screeched, and, oh, crap, he was raising his fist again!

Ichigo slammed his wrist into the hand that was buried in his hair, knocking it aside and ducking under the punch that followed. The hollow’s knuckles brushed the tips of his hair, but Ichigo didn’t slow his momentum, slamming his hands onto the skyscraper and spinning himself around until he was slamming his leg into the side of the hollow’s knees. The effect was instant, the hollow let out a startled yelp and tumbled ever so elegantly onto his rear-end.

Ichigo hopped to his feet and jabbed a finger at him. “Hey!! Just what do you think you’re doing!!? This isn’t the time for this!! And where is Zangetsu!?”

“You wanna know where Zangetsu is, huh?” The hollow crooned with a tip of his head. “Well I’m not going to tell you!”

That sobered him up. His jaw clenched with enough force to ache. “You bastard. Weren’t you supposed to have disappeared back then!?”

The hollow sighed through his nose. “You really are an idiot.”

He raised his hand. A blur of black fell from the sky and he caught it with ease, flipping it around to reveal the inverted Zangetsu from before. The hollow slammed it into the skyscraper beside him, using it to heave himself upright.

“Have you forgotten? I told you didn’t I? If you truly wished to control my power, you’d better stay alive until the next time I appear.” The bitter laugh that shook his shoulders made his words no less ominous. “Not that it matters anymore. Not in this body.”

Ichigo didn’t know what that meant but he didn’t care. Couldn’t say he cared about the zanpakutō that was stabbed between them either, lunging forward to grab the hollow by the collar of his shirt. He took a second to breathe after that, dredging up every last scrap of the hurt and resentment he’d been forced to feel these past few months.

“WHERE IS ZANGETSU!!?”

 

X

 

x

 

“Where is Kakashi-kun?” Rin whispered.

Obito watched their teacher lower the clipboard he’d used to take attendance. For what had to be the ninth day in a row, Kakashi hadn’t been around to raise his hand when his name was called out.

“He’s probably late,” Obito said, because, really, that would be totally understandable! Until he considered his own words, that is.

If that really was the truth, that would mean Bakashi was over a week late. That was bad, even by his own standards. He hadn’t believed the rumors about Bakashi dropping out when they’d first started, but now... Bakashi, he. He wouldn’t. Right?

Teeth sinking into his bottom lip, he tried to ignore the disappointment stinging in his chest. Rin, Bakashi, even that weirdo Gai, Obito had been hoping they’d, well. He’d been hoping they’d becomereallygoodfriends!

He was already friends with Rin, best friends, in fact, (and hopefully one day, maybe even more than that...) but the thought of having his very own clique was so tantalizing!! He was tired of always feeling like the odd man out! Tired of being ignored and dismissed, of always struggling to find enough people to play Kick-the-Can with! It wasn’t a two-player game!! They needed more players!!

If Bakashi were to drop out, would they still be able to become friends? He doubted it. If they didn’t have classes in common, why would he want to talk to someone like Obito? The jerk. Yeah, Bakashi was a jerk.

Ignoring the tears already blistering in his eyes, he forced himself to focus on the assignment the teacher had passed out.

Rin cast him an exasperated smile. “Are your allergies acting up again?”

Obito sniffled wetly. Nodding along, he opened his mouth to add leftover food poisoning from Bakashi’s demon dad to the list of reasons why his eyes were watering. Watering because he wasn’t crying! Shinobi didn’t cry, and Obito was gonna be Hokage one day so there was no way he would be crying!!

Before he could say any of that, however, Asuma twisted in the seat in front of them until he was facing their way. “You shouldn’t invest too much in gossip guys. Kakashi-kun isn’t going to drop out,” he said, and Obito was fairly certain this was the first time Asuma had ever deigned to speak to them. “I checked with him myself, he’s just sick.”

Wait. What?

Obito turned to Rin the same instant she turned to him, both visibly trying to process what had been said.

“Sick—” Rin began at the same instant Obito said; “You ran into—” 

Again they turned to each other, this time, their expressions carefully blank.

‘This is more important,’ Rin seemed to say.

‘Nuh-uh mine is just as important,’ Obito relayed back.

Asuma’s gaze swiveled between them, lips twitching as if he was fighting off a smirk. “I talked to him the other day. He was waiting for his dad to get out of a meeting with my dad—which probably wasn’t the best thing for him in hindsight. He looked really sick.”

“I’m afraid that’s not true!!” Someone said from behind them, making Obito nearly jump out of his skin.

Whirling around, he found that Gai had taken the seat directly behind them. How the boy clad in blinding green spandex could sneak anywhere, Obito had no clue, but he did know one thing. Gai was wearing that mulish scowl. Whenever he looked like that, there was no arguing with him.

“The four of you, quiet down!” Nakamura snapped, looking up from the paperwork on his desk.

“We’re sorry Nakamura-sensei!” Rin called out.

Obito cast the man in question a second of a glance before turning fully to Gai. “What do you mean?”

“I had quite the rejuvenating spar with him just this morning!” Gai whispered in a way that was insulting to the act of whispering itself. “And there is not a doubt in my mind that my rival was heading this way!”

Instead of arguing or seeming even moderately insulted by Gai’s fierce objection, Asuma’s hand raised to his chin and his expression turned thoughtful. “So you’re saying he was on his way to class? Then where is he?”

The mulishness fled, replaced by a frown. “Perhaps he got lost?”

Asuma squinted at Gai like he was crazy.

Obito, on the other hand, was already nodding his agreement. Oh. Oh yeah. “Yeah, that would make sense. Bakashi is Bakashi, after all.”

Rin shot him a smile so sweet, it could have made the air around her shimmer with sparkles. “Obito-kun. That isn’t nice.”

Obito swallowed the fear clawing up his throat and wisely shut up. That smile meant imminent anger, and the last time he’d made her angry, she’d stirred sriracha sauce into his tea when he wasn’t looking.

“Nor is it relevant to my class,” Nakamura said from directly beside their desks, making all four of them startle and scurry to grab their pencils. “And Hatake-kun is just fine, Sandaime-sama gave the boy time off to deal with clan matters.”

The effect his words had on the others was instant, their shoulders relaxing, their heads already nodding along because really, it made sense. It wasn’t uncommon for clan kids to miss time due to this, dealing with stuffy meetings, embarking on specialized training, it was normal, really. Being an Uchiha, Obito knew this better than anyone. And yet. He couldn’t relax.

“But... But wait!!” He cried out, unable to hide the horror digging its claws into his heart for even a second longer. “How are all of you running into Kakashi-kun but not me!!?  I wanna hang out with him more, that’s not fair!!”

 

x

 

X

 

60:

 

“How many times do I have’ta tell you!? I’m Zangetsu!!” The hollow smashed his forehead into Ichigo’s, sending him staggering backward as his vision flared white.

Cupping his aching forehead in his palm, he leveled the hollow with a glare that could boil water. “You really expect me to believe that!?” He snapped, barely audible over the howling wind. “That’s nonsense!!”

The wind pushed the hollow’s spiky white bangs out of his face, making the glare he was mirroring right back at him all the more intense. “You always were a hard-headed one, weren’t you, Ka-ka-shi?”

Ichigo flinched. He hated that he flinched. “That’s not my name,” when his voice began to shake, he raised it into a yell to cover it up. “And you know that!!”

The hollow scoffed. “It is now. In case you’ve forgotten, you went and got us all killed.” He leaned forward. “Or did you go and forget that too?”

Ichigo refused to flinch again. Refused to back down. He didn’t care what this hollow said. He wasn’t Zangetsu. Zangetsu was the old man! “I’m still the same person, I—”

“Shut up!! Do you plan to live in denial forever!? You’re pathetic!!”

“If I’m so pathetic then why even bother telling me all this!?” He demanded, venom dripping into every word. “I bet you’re just scared I’ll beat you like I did before, aren’t’cha!?”

The hollow didn’t give him the response he wanted. He only stared with the sliver Ichigo could see of his face falling blank. Then he raised the inverted Zangetsu, pointed it at him and channeled his spiritual energy just enough to make it light up around him and—

Ichigo gasped. The pain of his knees smacking into the ground registered distantly as his chakra system erupted into flames. He choked, gagged, hissed, clawed feebly at the spot beneath his ribs as every single one of his chakra coils was flooded with a pain that tore through them and flooded his body with acid. Somewhat hysterically, he wondered if this was what Minato had meant when he’d told him to learn the way his chakra flowed.

Probably not.

A wave crashed over the skyscraper, powerful enough to roll him onto his back but not to sweep him away. It was only then he realized he’d fallen down at all. He didn’t move. Wasn’t sure how long he lay there, staring unseeingly at the sky until the burning ebbed, and when it did he choked down a mouthful of air with the desperation of someone who’d been seconds away from suffocating. His headache evolved into a migraine.

“Was that clear enough for you?”

Ichigo forced himself to open his eyes. When had he closed them? Rain pattered against his face, then his back as he dragged himself upright. His muscles cried out in protest.

“Your body’s not the same as it once was. You can’t even handle the strain of your own spiritual pressure. Just me starting to use getsuga was enough to lay you flat.”

Ichigo staggered to his feet.

“The only reason you’re still alive right now is because the old man suppressed your spiritual energy—every single scrap he could after you were reborn here. And the only reason the old man is around is because I am, and the only reason I am is because I just so happened to be fused with your soul! Is it starting to make sense for you now, or do I need to turn it into a song for you!?”

Ignoring the fact his inner hollow was claiming to be freaking fused with him— “You. If that’s really the truth then,” he winced as the pain in his head leaped from a five to a solid ten. “Why haven’t you killed me yet!?”

Silence.

“You said it yourself. You said I’m only alive because the old man sealed all of my powers away, but I know for a fact that I’ve been getting them back! So why not strike while you still have the chance!? I’m totally helpless right now, all you have to do is channel your spiritual pressure!!”

The silence dragged on long enough for Ichigo to think he wasn’t going to respond, but then the hollow was rolling his eyes.

“Are you really that stupid Ichigo!? How many times do I have’ta say it!? If you go and get yourself killed, I’ll die with you!!”

Ichigo was gaining heat, anger burning strong as the fire that had nearly torn him to pieces. “I’ve already figured out that much!!”

Waking up in the sewer system under Soul Society, the worry pinched into Hanatorō’s face, the tremble in his voice as he told him a hollow mask had shielded him from the worst of Renji’s attack. Yoruichi fixing the hollow mask with a piercing stare, looking as worried as a cat could as she explained a hollow mask had prevented what would have been a fatal injury. His fight with Byakuya, the way the hollow had insisted Ichigo wasn’t strong enough as it struggled against him, insisted that Ichigo would die if he didn’t let him handle it. Ichigo knew none of that had been out of the kindness of his heart. The hollow had only stepped in to save his own skin. He knew that.

But, “What I don’t understand is why you haven’t just devoured me! That’s all you’ve wanted from the start, isn’t it!? Well now’s your chance!!”

He blinked and the tip of the inverted Zangetsu was pressed against his throat. The hollow’s eyes crinkled in such a way, he had to be smiling. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not sparing you outta kindness. I would love to devour your soul one day. But sadly if I so much as attempt that at the moment, I’d wind up sending us into a state that’s far too similar to Soul Suicide for my liking. Ever hear of that little phenomena? When two things that really shouldn’t go together get forced together anyways, the results usually aren’t as pretty as we are.”

That. Wasn’t a pleasant thought.

“What, did you think the old man suppressed your spiritual energy for a good laugh? He did it because thanks to you there wasn’t any other choice!!”

Ichigo placed a hand over his chest, staring down at it contemplatively. Despite the gears turning in his head, he smirked at the hollow. “Wow, would you look at that, turns out dying has its perks after all. In fact it looks like it just took care of my little infestation problem for me!”

Rather than rage, the hollow returned his smugness in spades. “Heh, I wouldn’t count on that. One day things will be right again, and when they are I’ll—”

“It’s because of my chakra, isn’t it?” Ichigo cut in, not in the mood for another threat. “Something about it is interfering with my spiritual energy.”

Irritated scowl falling over his features like a well-worn coat, the hollow pulled the blade back and stabbed it into the building once again, draping his arm over the hilt and leaning against it lazily. “More like your body’s trying to convert every drop of spiritual energy you got into chakra. Because that’s a thing in this world apparently.”

Ichigo couldn’t help it, he frowned. Was that why he had so much trouble detecting spiritual pressure from the people here? Because it was constantly being converted into chakra? But if that was true, “What do we even do with this?”

The hollow lifted his chin, looking at something beyond Ichigo’s shoulder. “Well. We’ve got a couple ideas.”

“We?”

“Ichigo,” a deep voice rumbled.

His breath caught in his chest. He knew that voice. Despite the pain lingering in his body, despite the aching in his head, despite the information that had been dumped on him without so much as a grain of sympathy, the rain around him began to lessen. A hand settled on his shoulder, familiar, warm, comforting, and between his next breath and the one that followed, the rain stopped altogether.

“It’s you.”

 

X

 

x

 

“It’s you,” Asuma pointed out. “If you guys really are friends with Kakashi-kun, he won’t mind you swinging by!”

Rin threw him a nervous glance over her shoulder, fist hovering inches from the Hatake gate. She closed her eyes as if turning his words around in her head, and by the time she’d opened them again, there was a steel in them anyone would expect from a shinobi-in-training. Jaw clenching, she rapped her fist against the door. They waited.

And waited.

And—

“Maybe he’s not home?” Asuma suggested as a breeze drifted by, carrying a leaf that twirled over their heads as if to punctuate the lack of anything interesting happening underneath it.

Gai tilted his head. “Perhaps he’s still lost?”

Obito frowned. Even if that was true, shouldn’t his family be home? Striding forward until he was standing next to Rin, Obito banged his fist on the wooden gate far too loudly to be polite.

Despite his previous assurances, Asuma looked every bit as nervous as the rest of them in the silence that followed. A silence that went unbroken. No voices on the other side, no gate coming open.

The disappointment that swept over them was palpable.

“What if he’s in the hospital?” Rin asked, her voice impossibly small.

“Maybe he started feeling sick again,” Asuma agreed.

Gai clenched his jaw in that stubborn gesture again and set out to change their minds.

Obito couldn’t lie, he was on Gai’s side this time. Kakashi wasn’t sick, their teacher told them it was clan business that had him missing classes! Obito may have never been on the receiving end of specialized clan training, but he’d seen it enough with his cousins to know what was what! Sometimes, they even got to leave the village!

Surely, Kakashi got to do stuff like that! Kakashi was crazy smart just like the vast majority of Obito’s family! He could be dumb sometimes, sure, but he was smart. Obito knew he was.

He was about to bring this up when a foot scuffed against the dirt behind them, too loud to have been an accident, too distant to have been one of them. Whirling around, he found a tall man walking towards them, for all the world looking like a shinobi on his way home after a long mission. Well. At least he did until Obito noticed the grocery bag dangling from his hand. Paper towels?

“What’re a bunch of kids like yourselves standing around out here for?” He asked. “This ain’t a park, you know.”

Spiky white hair, too dark eyes, Obito knew exactly who this person was. “You!! You’re Kakashi-kun’s dad, aren’t you!?”

The man spluttered.

Obito refused to back down. “Where’re you hiding Kakashi-kun you jerk!? We’re his friends and we wanna play with him too!!” At the end of his rant, he sighed heavily through his nose.

Rin and Gai nodded along to his flawless logic and deductive skills. For some reason though, Asuma was trying to muffle a laugh into his palm. Obito had no clue as to why and decided Asuma was clearly a weirdo like Gai. Obviously that was the only explanation.

The newly dubbed weirdo raised his free hand, trying to wave his attention over. “O-Obito-kun—” He began, mirth trembling in every word.

Kakashi’s Jerk Dad did the honor of cutting him off. “Heh. It seems like you brats need a proper introduction!” He swiped his hand through the air. “I am—”

“He’s Jiraiya-sama,” Asuma cut in. “You know. The Toad Sage?”

Jiraiya froze in place.

At that, Obito finally tore his gaze away from the man to frown at Asuma. “The what?”

Before he could answer, Gai strode forward until he was standing in between them, leaning towards the adult with his brow crinkling together in pure concentration. He was quiet for a beat, two, three, then he was blocking his mouth from Jiraiya’s sight to say, “I don’t see it Asuma-kun. He doesn’t look like a toad to me.”

Obito cast Jiraiya a look of his own, taking in the man’s appearance more carefully before cupping a hand over his own mouth to say, “I don’t know, I can kinda see it.”

Rin cast the man a blank look before shuffling closer to the three of them. She turned her head fully away from Jiraiya to whisper, “Even if he looks like a toad you shouldn’t say it! It’s mean!”

On that note, Jiraiya slumped in place.

Asuma was looking back and forth between them like he wasn’t sure whether to keep laughing or run. “He’s one of my old man’s former students, and also not Kakashi-kun’s dad.”

Obito cast Jiraiya a narrow-eyed scowl. “Are you sure?”

“Positive.”

Well, if he wasn’t Kakashi’s dad then, “Maybe we should go?”

Rin paid him no mind. Moving to stand at the front of the group, she offered Jiraiya a deep bow. “I’m so sorry for my friend’s behavior,” she said in such a way, anyone who hadn’t been paying attention wouldn’t have realized she’d been every bit as disrespectful. “Do you happen to know where Kakashi-kun is?”

Jiraiya seemed taken aback by the sudden show of respect, glancing around as if he was waiting for someone to spring out of nowhere and declare it was a prank. He must’ve decided it was for real in the end, as his expression dissolved into a sheepish grin. “Ohohoho, so you wanna know where Kakashi-kun is, eh?”

And like that, Rin had him. She always did have a talent for scoping out people’s weak points and exploiting them.

“He should be heading back from the Academy right about now, shouldn’t he? I was actually planning to catch him on the way so I could return this,” he held up the grocery bag, making it crinkle. “He forgot it the other day, but I had important research to attend to so sadly I just didn’t have enough time to return it to him until now.”

Obito studied the fist-shaped mark that was yellowing the man’s cheek and the rumpled state of his clothing as if several feet had stomped on him. What kind of research had he been doing exactly? He wasn’t some kind of pervert, right?

Obito edged away.

“Kakashi-kun wasn’t at class today,” Rin explained, unfazed.

Jiraiya threw his head back and laughed. “Skipping out is he? Sakumo isn’t gonna be happy about that!!”

Asuma crossed his arms. “Do you know where Hatake-sama went?”

Jiraiya cast the gate a gauging look before quickly losing interest. “Beats me. He must be out getting groceries or something.”

Uh-oh. The flattery was wearing off.

Rin grabbed the hem of her lavender shirt, twisting it nervously. “But...”

“You kids should just go home.”

And it was gone.

“But...” This time, her voice cracked. Her round hazel eyes grew suspiciously shiny.

She was switching tactics? Well... Well fake tears didn’t count so he could help her with this one!!

Tugging his goggles down until they hung from him like a necklace, he thought about cats stuck in trees and old ladies being ignored as they struggled home under the weight of their groceries. The effect was immediate. Tears sprung into his eyes, eyes that he proceeded to turn on Jiraiya.

Jiraiya visibly balked under their combined stare. “Uh. Hey hold on a second, what’s with those looks!?”

A blur of green, Gai was racing forward until he was in front of them with concern written in every line of his face. Was he faking?

“Please don’t cry my friends!! I will help you search for Kakashi-kun and his missing father!”

Behind Gai, Jiraiya’s forehead began to bead with sweat.

“I have to agree,” Asuma sighed with such misery, Obito would have thought he’d fallen for their act too if not for the way he subtly winked. “One of our classmates could be injured somewhere, it just wouldn’t be right to go on about our day until we’ve at least made sure that he’s okay. I’m sure that’s what my dad would want.”

Suddenly, Jiraiya looked like he desperately wanted to be anywhere but here.

Rin chose to speak right as her breath hitched in a sob, “I know my sister will g-get worried if I don’t get home soon, but I could never turn my back on someone in need!”

Obito was about to really sell it when Gai did the honors himself, tears gushing down his face. Tears he tried to muffle into his elbow and failed terribly, making him look even more pitiful. “Such—” A sob. “Such beautiful words. You truly are a wonderful person!”

Unlike some people. With that thought in mind, Obito turned back to Jiraiya.

He could see the moment Jiraiya broke, could see it in the way his pained expression melted into a resignation that was palpable. The man scrubbed a heavy hand up his face. “I can go check with the Hokage himself. Would that make you kids feel better?”

Rin’s bottom lip trembled terribly. “Would you really do that for us?”

Jiraya’s hand twitched in an aborted movement. Clearly the guy had been planning on jabbing a thumb at himself but instead his hand wound up on Rin’s head. “Hey hey, don’t cry! Say, if the Sandaime doesn’t know I’ll even find the boy myself, how about that?”

“Thank you,” Rin choked out.

Obito nodded along, barely managing to squash the victorious cry that rose to his throat.

Gai shot into Jiraiya’s chest like a rubber band, wrapping his arms around the adult. “That you would do this for us!! You truly are a man of great kindness! Jirachi-sama!!”

“It’s Jiraiya!!”

Rin shot Obito an unimpressed look before daintily dabbing at her eyes.

“WOULD YOU GET OFF OF ME!!?” Jiraiya snapped. “YOU’RE GETTING SNOT ALL OVER ME!!”

At the sight of Jiraiya stumbling in circles, trying and failing to pry a sobbing Gai off his chest, Obito couldn’t help but crack a grin. Operation find Kakashi was a go!

 

X

 

x

 

61:

 

Cloak billowing in the wind, drenched hair clinging to his face, Zangetsu smiled at him in a way that was neither forced nor faked. “It has been quite a long time, Ichigo.”

At the use of his name, a warm swell of gratitude curled around his heart. “Yeah,” he said. “It truly has been.”

As if to mirror this warmth, long, opal stretches of light began to descend from between the clouds, shining on the cold skyscrapers in patches of heat. He shuffled into one of them, relaxing as his dripping clothes began to dry.

Removing his sunglasses, Zangetsu began to wipe away the specks of water that had collected along the lenses. “Forgive me for not answering your calls. I had feared that if you were to discover our existence you would injure yourself in your haste to recover your lost powers. It was never my intention to reveal myself to you so early on, but as of now there are no other options left available to us.”

“Huh. I see.” Ichigo said, though he really didn’t.

As if to explain, a memory flared to life; Ichigo trudging to the Academy in the early morning light, a heavy blow to his neck, pain, nothing. He thought about feeling watched, the unsettling presence his instincts had warned him of a couple days back, and suddenly, he felt like an idiot. Of course. Someone had been stalking him. Had knocked him unconscious. And now...

“I’ve been kidnapped,” he said, somewhat dumbly. There was a sentence Ichigo never thought he’d say.

“Kidnapped like a frickin’ damsel in distress,” the hollow sneered.

Ichigo cast him a heated glare, though he didn’t retort. No one had ever tried to kidnap him before. Never. So why now?

Bushytail was an important guy, he knew that much, had an enemy of his done this? The thought of being used to lure his dad into a trap made his stomach lurch. He hoped not.

Or what if—

Ichigo frowned. No. It was classified. “There’s no way anyone else could have found out about me, right?”

The old man didn’t bat an eyelash. “In a world filled with those who excel at hiding in the shadows, I believe you will find that often times the reverse is more likely to be true.”

Ichigo flinched. “So someone knows then? That’s what you’re saying, right!?”

“It’s a strong possibility.”

“‘A strong possibility,’” he huffed. “Well isn’t this just great?”

“Ichigo.”

“Yeah, I know, I know.” He sighed. Combed a hand through his hair. “You and Bushytail, the two of you are like broken records; ‘you have to wait until you’re old enough to learn this’, ‘I’m not going to tell you this until you can do that’—honestly! You were tampering with my memories, weren’t you!?”

Zangetsu didn’t reply.

To Ichigo, that was all the confirmation he needed. “You both worry way too much!” He let his hand fall to his side. “Don’t you trust me!?”

Zangetsu was quiet for a beat. “I do.”

“What about you!?” He asked the hollow. When he received no answer. “Hey! Do you trust me or don’t you!?”

The hollow crossed his arms. “I trust the old man.”

Okay. That was probably as good as they were going to get. “Well. The way I see it, it’s only thanks to both of you that I’m still standing here today—and for that, I’m grateful.”

Over his head, they exchanged a look.

“You say you’re one in the same. If that's really true then as far as I’m concerned that makes you both Zangetsu. I’m not saying I’ll forgive you for everything that you’ve done,” he cast the hollow a pointed glare. “But the fact still remains that you’ve both protected me and helped me get stronger at some point. I understand that and I’m truly grateful, but that doesn’t mean that I’m content to just sit on the sidelines and be protected by you either! I’m glad to be alive, really, I am, but I’m still myself and there are things that I want to do and I can’t do them as I am right now!! I have to get stronger!!”

The old man closed his eyes. “Ichigo. You will never truly be able to regain your spiritual powers while you’re in that form, and even the pieces that you do manage to get back won’t manifest the same as they once did. You must understand that.”

Under the old man’s testing tone, Ichigo straightened his spine. “I’m well aware of that.”

If this body wouldn’t allow him to use his powers, then he’d just have to find a way around it. It was as simple as that.

Another beat of silence passed. The old man opened his eyes. “As you are right now, you will be able to maintain this form for only five minutes. As long as you do not attempt to go passed that timeframe, you may make it out of this with only repairable damage to your chakra coils.”

At that, the hollow threw his head back and howled with laughter, a sight that had never meant anything good for Ichigo in the past. In fact, that had only ever meant bad things for him. Very, very bad things.

Ichigo was throwing up his hands in a universal gesture to stop before he could question it. Woah! Woah! Woah! “Wait a minute!!”

Before either spirit could show any sign of having heard him at all, the world changed three times. From a dilapidated city to a dark room to a blaring white haze of pain he couldn’t see passed and—

He exploded.

His skin melted off, his muscles were smashed into powder. His bones splintered into thousands of pieces and in his mouth, he tasted ash. Green eyes stared up at him without a hint of emotion, stared up at because— No. No he was looking at a tiled floor. He was on a tiled floor. A tiled floor where—

A cero blasted through him, destroying his meager chakra coils. Wait that was wrong, it wasn’t a cero it was— Shredding them without mercy and flooding his body with the raw stinging pain only a burn could induce. He itched and ached and there was a cord wrapped around his throat, dangling him in the air as the Espada watched the last trace of life leave his eyes.

She was screaming. No, she couldn’t have been, she wasn’t here, it was him, he was screaming. Screaming in pain.

Despite that, he grabbed hold of twin hilts and sliced through the wall with ease. Like that would have been enough to stop him in any world! The ringing in his ears blocked out the KROOM this elicited but he could not escape the pressurized wind that sent him staggering several steps back nor could he dodge the small rocks that pelted him.

His vision blurred with every beat of his heart but he took a step forward anyway. Two, three, four, stepped into the hallway with two khyber knives that were radiating steam clutched in hands. A blur from down the hall, people were running towards him, face hidden by masks that were not unlike hollows and—

His mind blanked out.

 

X

 

x

 

Jiraiya was not having a good time. How was it he’d let himself get manipulated by a bunch of brats again? He could admit to having a soft spot for children but this was getting ridiculous!!

His old sensei didn’t seem any more impressed with Jiraiya than he was with himself, raising a single brow at him from the other side of the desk. Though the brats were waiting in the hallway, he wouldn’t be surprised if Sarutobi knew exactly why he was here. Sarutobi had a way of seeing right through him.

“You’re saying you wish to know where Kakashi-kun is?” Sarutobi asked, taking a slow drag from his cigar pipe.

Jiraiya scratched the nape of his neck. “This is ridiculous, I know, so just lemme know where he is and I’ll be outta your hair.”

Rather than get annoyed, Sarutobi looked thoughtful. “I suppose I could send someone out to track him down.”

What? “You don’t need to go through the trouble of doing all that,” Jiraiya said, waving his hand dismissively. “Just have that ANBU team ya've got following him around tell you where they’re at.”

Silence.

“Come on, there’s no need to be so stingy, I saw one of the ANBU tailing him myself, so just—”

Sarutobi raised a hand to shut him up.

Jiraiya’s tongue wisely glued itself to the roof of his mouth.

Sarutobi lowered his cigar pipe, balancing it carefully on top of the ashtray. “What do you mean by that?”

Jiraiya blinked. Sarutobi sounded serious. “I caught a glimpse of one of them the other day. White mask, black cloak, same old same old.”

Sarutobi lowered his head. “I did not order an ANBU team to tail Kakashi-kun.”

It took Jiraiya a second to process that. And when he did, “But that was one of our guys, you think I can’t recognize an Aburame when I see one!? Mask or not—”

“An Aburame?” Sarutobi growled, a dangerous sound Jiraiya hadn’t heard from the man since that time he and Tsunade got cornered by a team of Missing-Nin.

When Sarutobi had found two of his freshly-minted Genin barely clinging to life, he’d torn into their enemy like the shinigami himself. Sarutobi had been in the office for so long, Jiraiya had actually started to forget how formidable his old sensei was.

“Where is Danzō?” Sarutobi went on, snapping Jiraiya out of his thoughts.

Huh? What did that old coot have to do with this? “How would I know?” Then, “Wait. Are you saying that the ANBU I saw wasn’t one of our guys!!?”

Sarutobi stood with enough force to shove his chair into the wall. Without turning around, he made a series of hand signs at the window. A streak of black flashed by as one of the ANBU stationed outside leaped into action.

“Sensei!!” He said, and if his voice was pitching higher in desperation, who could blame him?

Sarutobi didn’t look at him. “As of right now, I have reason to suspect Kakashi-kun may have been abducted.”

Oh. Oh god. Feelings about the kid in question aside, that was Sakumo’s son! That was his best friend’s son and. And Jiraiya had let him get kidnapped!! Oh god, what had he done!!?

Stomach rolling dangerously, Jiraiya slammed his hands onto the desk. “Let me help with the search!!”

“No.”

“What do you mean no!!? I—”

“I need you here. I cannot make baseless accusations, Jiraiya!”

Accusations? “You think that old bastard Shimura might’a—”

“I am certain his intentions were good.”

Jiraiya spluttered, “Good!? He—”

“Danzō has always had the good of Konoha in mind. Sometimes that leads him to make uninformed decisions.”

“Unin—!? He kidnapped Kakashi!!”

Jiraiya had known his former teacher could be unreasonable where Danzō was concerned, but he hadn’t realized it was this bad. Defending him when he very well could have kidnapped a child!? And a clan heir no less!! What was he thinking!?

Grabbing his chair, Sarutobi slid it back in place. “That is still yet to be ascertained.”

If Jiraiya was a lesser man, he would have recoiled. In a situation like this, good intentions didn’t factor in. Kakashi was a strange kid, strange in ways that made Jiraiya watch him just a little closer, but he was. A kid, he means. Kakashi was a kid. He was only five!!

Guilt joined the horror in its current conquest to squeeze the life out of him. He struggled to choke down his next breath. Five-years-old and there was no telling where he could be right now.

Sarutobi fell into his chair more than sat, his expression doing something complicated.

Jiraiya didn’t know what that meant, but he did know one thing. Sakumo was going to kill him.

 

X

 

x

 

62:

 

When things cleared up, he was lying on the floor in a miserable ball. His back was pressed against a wall, his hand was clutching the floor in front of his face, pale and speckled in blood that was not his own. How had he gotten here? He kept getting snippets of what he’d done after breaking through the wall, but they came in disjointed pieces and he was having a difficult time making sense of them.

It took another minute for him to realize that he was still intact. That his bones had not broken, that his muscles were untorn, that his skin had not melted. Nothing had ripped through his chest, nothing was even there. Not a person, not a thing, not a sound nor a soul. He was alone.

He needed a minute. Drawing in a sliver of air, he allowed his eyes to flutter shut. Just one...

Chapter Text

X

 

x

 

Jiraiya paced. He’d never been good at sitting still when he had something on his mind; his legs bounced without his permission, his fingers drummed, his feet tapped. It was an unfortunate habit for a shinobi to have, and one he’d spent the better part of his genin years learning to stave off, but at times like this, times where he was stressed beyond belief, the habit tended to rear its ugly head.

He wished Orochimaru and Tsunade were here. He could use some old fashioned banter to distract him. But then again—

He remembered Orochimaru’s back growing smaller with every step he took away from the memorial that’d been held after the Second War. Remembered Tsunade slumped against the wall with a bottle of saké cradled in her lap, eyes terribly haunted.

—if they were here, he’d probably have more reasons to feel stressed. He’d tried giving them space these last few years, tried giving them time to recuperate, but he was beginning to think that had been the wrong call. It certainly hadn’t helped Sakumo when he was feeling down. In fact, his friend had nearly done something irreparably foolish during his absence.

The hysterical feeling from earlier returned with a vengeance. If anything happened to that kid Sakumo would lose it. Jiraiya had no doubts about that. He had to find Kakashi, he had to make this right!

He didn’t realize he was tugging at his hair until Sarutobi raised an eyebrow at him. Weaving his fingers out of said hair, he pinned them under his armpits instead, trying to remain still.

Sarutobi sighed and for a second, he looked a hundred years older. “Jiraiya...”

Whatever he was about to say was forgotten when the door came open. Two ANBU stepped inside, parting in opposite directions to allow one Shimura Danzō to walk into the room. The doors behind him closed with a resounding thud.

 

x

 

X

 

63:

 

This migraine was going to be the death of him, Ichigo was sure of it. He tried to groan but his voice clung to the inside of his throat, allowing only a strangled whine to filter out. That worked too he guessed.

He would have been content to lay there a little longer if not for the flicker of movement overhead. Rolling his forehead along the floor, he peered up at the ceiling, catching sight of a hollow that was covered in skin not unlike a frog. It was sort of shaped like a frog too, hands and feet easily sticking to the ceiling as its oval mask twitched from side-to-side. Searching. That burst of spiritual pressure must have drawn it here.

More movement to his left. A hollow slithered into sight, identical to Orihime’s brother except for the fact it was black instead of red.

Ichigo tore his eyes away from it. He couldn’t risk the hollows figuring out he could see them. He was weaponless. Sore and tired. One hollow would be enough to give him trouble, two were out of the question.

He tried not to shiver when a third hollow joined their ranks. Then a fourth. Then a fifth.

That settled it. He had to get out of here. Taking a moment to steel himself, he pushed himself to his knees and placed a hand against the wall, bracing his weight against it as he stood on legs that wobbled. Two hollows cast him curious looks at that, skeletal noses raised as though they were checking his scent. Checking to see if he smelled good enough to qualify as dinner if he had to guess. Or would he be breakfast?

Ugh, crap, he didn’t know what time it was. How long had he been out? Shoving away from the wall, he staggered passed them with all the grace of a drunk. He wasn’t sure how he made it around the corner without getting chowed on.

Feet unsteady, he fell more than leaned against the wall across from the last one, keeping a hand against it as he moved down the hallway. Wherever he was, the place was spotless to the point of seeming sterile. The tiled floor was polished to such an extent, he could almost see his reflection in it, and the smell of cleaning products hung heavy in the air.

Despite this, despite the way it made his nostrils burn, Ichigo drew in a breath. As he released it, he assessed his current condition. Though his chakra coils were buzzing with a dull sting, the pain had mostly faded. Rolling his shoulders, he noted the way the muscles along his back throbbed in protest. Unpleasant but nothing he couldn’t handle. He’d had worse.

Okay. Good. He could do this.

By the time he’d reached the door at the end of the hallway, he could walk without support. He was about to reach for the handle when a termite skittered across his fingers. As if stung, he ripped his hands away from the door and staggered away from it. One step, two steps, three, four, the smell of blood had him whirling around to find—

A girl was standing at the corner of the hallway, her face hidden by the mask of a bear. Its jagged, bared teeth were red, nearly as red as the blood dripping from her gloved fingers. Splat. Splat. Splat. Drop after drop collided with the floor and surrounded her feet like crushed berries.

Not a good sign. Following the blood with his eyes, he found her entire sleeve drenched in it, so thick, he could see it shimmering in the fluorescent lighting despite the darkness of her sleeve. He had done that. The memory was vague, fuzzy at best, but he could recall the feel of his blade slicing through her shoulder, leaving behind a gash deep enough to immobilize that arm.

His next breath shook with wonder, “How on earth are you still standing?”

That was a human body! An injury like that should be enough to land her in the hospital!

The girl’s hand shot up as if to command the sea of bugs scurrying along her arm like a second skin. Then she visibly reconsidered, hand twitching before it vanished behind her and returned with a kunai instead.

Ichigo reached for his back, hand encircling empty air before dropping to his side. Right. The khyber knives were gone.

“Who are you?” He asked.

Her response came in the form of a kunai thrown at his legs.

Ichigo jumped backward, the kunai wedging itself an inch into the floor in front of his foot. A blow to immobilize, not kill. Good to know.

Yanking the kunai out of said floor, he raised it in time to deflect a second one, sending it careening into the wall then she was in front of him, the hilt of another kunai rocketing towards his face. Ducking under it, he twirled on his foot until he was under her arm. Tried to slash her chest, arms were too short, left a narrow cut along her side instead.

Her kunai flipped around to slash and he raised his own to block, catching it sharp end against sharp end.

SHREEEEEK!!

They slid down each other, metal against metal until the tip of her kunai dropped off the side of his and she swiped at him again.

Strike after strike, block after block, they danced across the hallway. Ichigo wasn’t overly familiar with this particular dance, usually he had a massive zanpakutō between him and his opponents, something that could block and overwhelm with ease. As he was now, he was the one being overwhelmed.

He was short, his muscles weren’t fully developed, kunai weren’t exactly something he had experience using in fights. It didn’t take him long to figure this out, nor did it take him long to notice she was herding him to the wall, hoping to limit his movement.

Kunai raised, he caught hers by the side but this time when the sparks flew he shoved against the weight with everything he had, breaking her guard and sending her hand flying back.

Under her mask, he saw her eyes widen but she didn’t make a sound. Something wasn’t right. He’d been in enough fights to know this behavior wasn’t normal. Byakuya had talked more than this!

Biting down on the questions rising up his throat, he leaped onto the wall, using it as a springboard to send him soaring over her head. Now in mid-air, he twisted around and threw his kunai hilt first, watching as it hit its mark against the nape of her neck. She staggered to the wall.

Landing in an easy roll, he lunged for her and planted his foot in the back of her knee, making it buckle. When she dropped to his level he grabbed her hair and slammed her head into the wall. Hard.

Letting the silky hair slide through his fingers, he backed away. Her mask slid down the wall with a skkkkrk that grated on his ears, body getting lower until she was strewn awkwardly with her mask against the floor that bordered the wall.

His chest was heaving, lungs desperately trying to reel in air. He was out of shape. Releasing his next breath of air, he said, “Sorry about that. But I can’t afford to be gentle right now.”

He doubted he would have won if he’d tried that. Taking a step towards the door, he was more than ready to leave when a drop of blood splattered against the tiles. He followed the direction it had fallen to her injured shoulder. His heart squeezed. He turned away.

Took a step. Two. Three. Half a fourth. Hesitated. Turned back around.

He was a bit pressed for time but... helping would only take a minute. Mind made up, he patted himself down. Found his pockets empty. Pockets. Wait. There were pouches clipped to her belt, weren’t there?

Kneeling beside her, he popped one of them open and looked inside. A small sack peered up at him, the cord holding it shut glinting in the light. Deciding to investigate, he undid it, allowing the cloth to deflate in his hand. Four round pills were inside.

These weren’t just any pills though, they were Soldier pills. Nagayama had dedicated an entire lesson to these things, taking even one was enough to replenish a shinobi’s chakra and give them enough energy to make it three days without sleep. That explained how she was able to move despite her injury.

For a moment, he considered them. What effect would something like this have on his five-year-old body? He wasn’t sure what the dosage was, but did it matter?

Then again, with his coils in this condition, replenished chakra was probably the last thing he needed. Well, that and, if the old man really was converting his spiritual energy into chakra, then that would mean Ichigo had a pretty large supply to fall back on anyway. He could already feel slivers of chakra running through his coils, irritating them the same way warm water would a burn. Something told him he was going to have to get used to this feeling.

Tightening the cord on the sack, he returned it to the pouch and began to shuffle through the other ones. It didn’t take him long to locate a roll of gauze, and laying her down flat, he wrapped enough around her shoulder to staunch the bleeding until someone else found her.

There was only enough gauze left to wrap around the roll four times once he was finished, and giving it a thoughtful bounce, he caught it and said, “I’ll be taking this.”

It wasn’t like she was conscious enough to make use of it anyways. Besides, she had tried to kidnap him. Fair’s fair.

Pocketing it, he pilfered two of the abandoned kunai on his way to the door. Hesitated with his hand on the handle. Went back and grabbed the third as well. There was no way he could handle using Zangetsu so soon after the last time and he needed something to fight with.

Shoving two of the kunai into his back pocket, he grabbed the handle, pulled it down. The door slid away from the frame smoothly, shadows bleeding out of the narrow crack. Solid black turned to gray as he pushed it farther open, the fluorescent lights overhead cutting into the room enough for him to see—

His blood turned to ice.

 

X

 

x

 

Danzō was silent under the face of their accusation, hands neatly laced over the top of his walking stick, expression carefully blank.

Jiraiya mirrored the sentiment right back at him. Danzō wasn’t exactly someone he’d call trustworthy. He couldn’t even call him someone he liked. Something about the guy had always rubbed him the wrong way, and he was starting to see why.

Sparing neither of them a glance, Sarutobi lowered his cigar pipe. “What do you have to say for yourself, Shimura-san?” 

Danzō didn’t react to the use of his name—as if Danzō was a stranger. “I can admit to part of the accusation,” he said. “I did indeed order a team from my very own ROOT to follow the boy, but it was only to ensure his safety when you yourself failed to do the same. With his Kekkai Genkai, he is a very useful tool for the village and I did not wish to see harm befall him or worse, for him to end up in enemy hands and turned against us.”

Jiraiya believed that about as much as he believed the possibility of Tsunade ever going sober. “So what you’re saying is that the Aburame I saw was actually guarding the kid?”

Danzō dipped his head.

“You did not request for Kakashi-kun to be given a guard,” Sarutobi argued. “In fact, when we were discussing exactly that you were the first to oppose the notion.”

Suddenly Danzō looked terribly regretful. “It pains me to admit that I was not thinking rationally at the time. After I calmed down I realized my mistake. Kakashi-kun is a promising member of Konohagakure, resources should never be a concern when it comes to keeping him safe.”

Jiraiya hadn’t known about ROOT until five minutes ago but from what he’d been told, “Your guys are supposed to be the best of the best and yet you’re telling me they can’t even guard one kid? It seems to me this organization isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.”

Danzō looked at him.

Jiraiya held his gaze. He almost wished the old coot would do something about it.

Danzō returned his eyes to Sarutobi.

Jiraiya bit back a scoff.

“I find that difficult to believe,” Sarutobi said. “You have never been the type to be swayed by emotion.”

“Even I am capable of lapses in judgment.”

Sarutobi lowered his head, a small exhale parting his lips. “That, I can believe.”

At his former sensei’s resigned tone, Jiraiya blinked and turned to face him fully. Sarutobi ducked under his desk, shoulder blades moving as he pulled open a drawer. When he returned, he was holding a crystal ball.

Jiraiya couldn’t help but crack a grin at that. The crystal ball jutsu! Ha! Jiraiya had forgotten about that old technique!

“I am already familiar with Kakashi-kun’s chakra signature so I can get a visual on his current location.”

Danzō gestured for him to go ahead. “I have nothing to hide.”

Sarutobi cast him an expressionless look before turning to the crystal ball. Hands placed on either side, he closed his eyes. A minute later, an image of Kakashi manifested in the center and Jiraiya couldn’t stop the relieved breath that burst out of him. Palms slamming onto the desk, he leaned over it to get a better look. The kid was alive!

His relief was quickly replaced by horror when he realized the kid was fighting someone. Kakashi deflected a kunai, sending it soaring out of sight. A masked shinobi lunged for him, aiming the hilt of a kunai for his head but the kid—that little rascal—actually managed to duck under the blow and retaliated with a swipe of his own. He’d overestimated his reach though, causing the kunai to harmlessly graze the attacker’s side.

As if that scene wasn’t stress-inducing enough, Jiraiya recognized that mask. “That’s the ROOT agent I saw.”

Sarutobi’s gaze hardened. “What do you have to say for yourself, Danzō!?”

Danzō looked shocked, the whites of his eye visible as he tracked Kakashi’s fight.

Jiraiya turned back to the crystal ball right in time to watch Kakashi use the wall as a springboard to get behind the shinobi. Then Sarutobi lowered his hands and the image cut out.

“Tell me where that is.” It wasn’t a question, it was a demand, and even Danzō knew better than to hold his silence after that.

The shock on Danzō’s face didn’t fade but anger joined the mix. “Very well. I know where that is, but I assure you that I am not involved in this matter.”

“That is to be evaluated. Jiraiya.”

At that, Jiraiya straightened his spine.

“When he gives the location, go. I’ll send a team of ANBU behind you.”

Giving his former sensei a two-fingered salute, he readied himself to shunshin through the window.

Just hang in there a little longer kid, he silently willed. Jiraiya’s coming, don’t you dare die.

 

X

 

x

 

64:

 

Ichigo swallowed. His heart was hammering in his chest, harder than before, harder than ever. He lowered his right foot into the room. Then his left. Repeated the motion mechanically, lifelessly, until he reached the center of it.

Large tanks sandwiched him in on either side, tall enough to nearly touch the ceiling and ordered in neat rows that stretched from one end of the room to the other. The ethereal green light coming from the tanks was the only thing to brighten the dark room, and inside the tanks, there were... there...

His stomach flipped. Nausea bubbled at the base of his throat. Children. There were children inside those things!!

Breaths coming faster he raced to the tank closest to him, pressing a sweaty hand against the glass. The boy inside was suspended in some kind of strange fluid. He almost seemed to be asleep, naked with only the various cords laced around him to keep him modest.

Ichigo’s flat palm curled into a fist. Shudders raked down his spine but unlike the last set, these ones were feverish. Drawing his fist back, he slammed it into the glass.

“WHAT IS THIS!!?”

This place was a freaking Lab!! He was in a Lab!! A Lab where kids were being—

“The old man was right,” he found himself whispering. Someone knew.

To make matters worse that someone didn’t value human life. Didn’t value morals. A person like that had found out what he could do, had kidnapped him because of it! Brought him here against his will!

It was a strange mixture of emotions churning inside him, betrayal that stung, shock that made his hands go numb, fury that had him shivering. Again, he banged his fist against the glass. The child suspended inside didn’t stir.

He had to get him out of that thing! He couldn’t just leave him in there! Sweeping his gaze around the tank, he located a control panel jutting out of the side. He didn’t know what any of those buttons meant but one of them had to be a release mechanism, right?

His fingers hovered over the buttons. He cast the boy inside a nervous look. If he hit the wrong one, would something bad happen? What if there was a kill switch on this thing? What if he pressed it by mistake?

He didn’t get enough time to find out.

The green light being cast across the floor like the surface of a murky pond was suddenly overshadowed, and acting on instinct, Ichigo rolled out of the way right as a shuriken lodged itself into the glass he had been standing in front of. Cracks spread across it like a spiderweb, fluid oozing through them, dribbling down the side.

More shadows, Ichigo raised his kunai at the speed of light, deflecting yet another shuriken as a shinobi dropped from the top of the tank across from him, their mask that of a cat with stitches painted across the eyehole.

Ichigo readied himself for a fight.

So did the shinobi.

A particularly fat blob of fluid smacked into the floor, drawing his attention for a split second, but that second was all the shinobi needed, shooting for him and slamming their leg into his stomach. Air in his lungs forcibly ejected, he was thrown head-over-heels, tank after tank after tank filling his vision, child after child searing into his mind. He moved with the roll, flinging himself onto his feet right as the shinobi leaped for him with a punch he narrowly blocked, pain exploding along his forearm, lungs demanding the air they had been robbed of.

With a grunt, he shoved the fist away and sliced for the shinobi’s legs with his other hand, forcing them to jump two paces back.

“Hold on,” he tried to say. “Let’s take this somewhere else,” he tried to reason.

The shinobi didn’t seem to hear, leaping onto a tank and using it as a springboard. The glass beneath his foot formed a snowflake from the pressure, dribbling bits of the green that went ignored by the shinobi as he twisted to lash Ichigo’s hand with a kick, sending the kunai flying out of his grip.

Ichigo barely managed to bring his other arm around to deflect the kick that followed, raised both of them for the one after that, then gravity caught up to the shinobi and they were forced to drop to the floor in a handstand they used to right themselves faster than he could blink.

Again, he was hit by the feeling something wasn’t quite right with this person. Usually, he could pick up on his opponent’s emotions as they fought, but he couldn’t pick up anything from these people. It was like they felt nothing.

As he thought this, the shinobi jabbed at his ribs with a fist.

Ichigo jumped to the side, pulling out the second kunai and jamming it into their shoulder as their fist harmlessly grazed the side of his shirt.

A sharp gasp, the shinobi flickered away, resurfacing on top of a tank with a hand clutching their bleeding wound.

“What, didn’t think I would use it, did you?” He taunted.

The shinobi tipped their head like a baffled dog.

“Well think again!” He tossed the bloodied kunai, aiming for their leg.

When they dove to a different tank the kunai smacked harmlessly against the wall behind it. That time. Crap. If they kept fighting like this one of those kids was going to wind up hurt! He needed to wrap this up fast!

Following that train of thought, he bolted to the left, vanishing around the side of a tank as he drew the third and final kunai.

A blur of black overhead, the shinobi gliding effortlessly from tank to tank as they gave chase, gaze never leaving him.

Ichigo funneled chakra into his legs to enhance his speed, making the sensation akin to warm water over a burn shoot up to hot water. Gritting his teeth against it, he soldiered on.

He’d managed to land a blow on this shinobi and he’d taken down the other one! They weren’t invincible, he could do this, he knew he could!

Without turning his head or doing anything to signal his next move, he shot to the right and ran up the side of a tank, ready to meet the shinobi head-on as they leaped between one tank to the next. One step two three four five, he reached the top and his chakra spiked forebodingly at the sole of his foot. He only had enough time to cast said foot a startled look before—

 

KROOM!!

 

Right. He didn't quite have that technique down yet. As it had a hundred times over during training, the explosion threw Ichigo to the side with such force, he couldn't breathe let alone stop himself. But, unlike those other times, it was the head of an unsuspecting shinobi that he slammed into. With his head. There was a definite THUNK.

Everything went white.

When things started to clear up a bit, he was laying on the ground with the migraine from earlier having made a reappearance. Also, the floor was a lot softer than he remembered it being. Blinking rapidly to clear his vision, he cast the space beneath him a confused look. There lay the shinobi he had been fighting, sprawled facedown across the tiles.

Rolling off their back, he scooted away and prodded them in the ribs with his foot. They didn’t stir, out cold by the looks of it. Well. People always did call him hard-headed.

But more importantly, “Ha— HA! Yeah! Just as I planned it!” He said, hopping to his feet and throwing a glance around the room. “Y’hear that!!? If any more of you are out there watching me, you’re next!!”

Silence met his words.

He couldn’t hide the relieved slump of his shoulders at that. Looking down at his singed toes, he honestly had no desire to do that again. Anyways. He checked on the tank he’d accidentally blown up.

The kid inside bobbed in the fluid, unscathed and every bit as dead to the world as the shinobi behind him. The glass was cracked from the explosion, but the metal on the top had taken the brunt of the blast, looking for all the world like a giant had pushed it in with their thumb. Talk about a lucky break. He needed to be more careful!

Beginning the painstaking process of limping back to the center of the room, he made sure to keep an eye on his surroundings. It didn’t take him long to reach the tank he had darted around earlier, and when he did, he noticed a smell that hadn’t been there before. On second thought. Smell was way too generous. This was a stench. It was awful! Did a tree freaking throw up over there!?

Rounding the side of the tank with a hand cupping his nose, it didn’t take him long to realize where the stench was coming from. The tank that’d gotten whacked with a shuriken had continued to break, hairline cracks spreading up the glass, glinting in the faint glow like the lights beneath an illuminated keyboard. To make matters worse, another shuriken had wedged itself into the glass, weakening its resistance against the fluid inside and causing a large portion of it to bust open.

A giant chunk of glass was laying on the floor as if to show this, a myriad of smaller fragments glittering like diamonds in the green fluid, both inside and outside the tank. But that wasn’t the most important detail.

The most important detail was that the child inside the tank was now outside the tank, huddled on the floor on his hands and knees and coughing up a storm. Whether the child noticed him or not, he couldn’t tell, the boy’s long brown hair hiding his lowered face from sight.

Giving their surroundings one last distrustful glance, Ichigo walked closer. When his feet arrived at the edge of the green puddle, he came to a stop and knelt down with his arms slung around his knees. “Hey. You all right?”

The boy looked up, eyes that were nearly as dark as Ichigo’s own rising until they found him. And blinked owlishly.

Warmth coiled around his heart, making his lips curve into a smile and soothing his voice in the gentle tone he typically reserved for his sisters. “I came here to rescue you. My name’s Kakashi Hatake, what’s yours?”

The boy only stared.

Ichigo frowned. The boy must have been around two-years-old, he should be able to understand him at least somewhat. Just how long had he been inside that tank?

A vicious shudder raked through the boy, snapping Ichigo out of his thoughts. The boy hugged himself, but whether it was out of fear or cold, Ichigo couldn’t be sure. Despite that, he was moving before he could process it, peeling off his shirt and handing it to the boy. He didn’t need it anyway, he still had that undershirt of his, the one attached to his mask. He could do without this one.

When Ichigo held it out, the boy stared at the heap of cloth like he had no clue what he could possibly do with it and Ichigo was insane for handing it to him. With a sigh, Ichigo began the tedious process of getting a shirt on a very confused toddler. It took a good minute. Most of which was spent just trying to convince the boy to raise his arms and leave them there.

Now that it was on the boy it could have been a dress. And Ichigo thought he was a pipsqueak. At the sight, he couldn’t stop the smile that tugged on his lips. “There. You just keep that on okay?”

Ruffling the boy’s hair, he stood and retrieved the last kunai from his pocket. While he could grab the shuriken, he’d rather not touch that green stuff any more than he had to. It was seriously grossing him out.

“Stay here.” Turning on his heel, he headed for the tank across from them.

If he couldn’t figure out how to open the tank manually he was gonna have to bust it open, and he’d rather the kid not get hit by the glass shrapnel. It was already a miracle he hadn’t gotten scratched up as it was.

Behind him, the boy stood on wobbly legs. Looked to the left with a confused frown. Looked to the right with a hopelessly confused frown. Proceeded to follow Ichigo.

“No,” he said, holding out his hands in a universal gesture for stop. “Stay.”

The little tag-along froze mid-step, his other foot still suspended in that fluid. Tag-along. Huh. It fit. Until he got a name out of the kid he’d keep calling him that.

When it seemed like Tag-along understood, Ichigo returned his attention to the control panel. There were two giant buttons on it, one red, the other blue, and beside them there were two square buttons with arrows, each pointing in the opposite direction. Did the latter control how far up the kid inside was suspended? If so, he could probably lower them to the bottom of the tank first. There was an idea.

Glancing up to check on the kid inside the tank, he caught a glimpse of movement in the reflection of the glass. Praying for patience, he turned to find Tag-along standing directly behind him, watching him with large, round eyes. He was starting to remind Ichigo of a certain arrancar.

“You’re not gonna turn out to be some kinda espada, right?”

No response.

Ichigo sighed. “You don’t understand any of what I just said, do you?” To himself, he muttered, “What am I even doing?”

Tag-along must have picked up on the stress in his tone, because he frowned.

Ichigo quickly rectified that with smile. “It’s not your fault,” he said, smoothing out his tone once more. “Don’t worry about it.”

He was trying to think of a way to convince Tag-along to stay out of the crossfire when a loud CRRRRRRRRRK shattered the silence that had fallen over the room. His heart sped up. That had sounded an awful lot like a door being opened. Which would mean—

Grabbing Tag-along by the wrist, he lunged around the side of the tank and crouched low, shoving the much younger kid behind him as he did. He kept a hold of Tag-along, free hand gripping his kunai hard enough to turn his knuckles white. Through the green fluid on the tank, he could see the tiled floors on the other side rippling, could see the bottom of the other tanks. He focused on that, waiting for whoever had entered to pass them by.

Unless. Crap. What if they knew he was still here? Ichigo gave his surroundings a quick once over. That last guy had, so what if—

Legs entered his sight. They moved slowly, casually, as if the person was taking a stroll through the park. When they stepped fully into the gap between the tank Ichigo had ducked around and the one beside it, Ichigo found himself studying a man with black hair that draped over his shoulder blades and skin white as hollow Zangetsu. It was there that he stopped. It was there that he vanished.

A warning flared up Ichigo’s spine and, acting on it, he threw Tag-along over his shoulder and leaped away from their hiding spot, sandals sliding until he was three tanks away. He threw the kunai.

The kunai was caught with ease, the man standing where Ichigo and Tag-along had been a mere second ago. Smiling, he leaned his shoulder against the tank and crossed his arms. “Hm. Well isn’t this intriguing?”

Ichigo took a step back. This guy was acting way too relaxed, and in Ichigo’s experience, people like that were usually the most dangerous. “Who are you?”

The man’s smile didn’t widen, it only spread, twisting at the corners in a way that seemed unnatural. “You don’t recognize me? That’s surprising. Don’t you know?” He dropped the kunai, the metal hitting the floor with a TINK. “I’m that fool Jiraiya’s teammate.”

Jirichio? Was he... He was involved in this too?

“My name is Orochimaru.”

That introduction did nothing to alleviate Ichigo’s initial assessment. In fact, it only unsettled him further. If they fought here, there wouldn’t be any more miracles. Those kids would get caught in the crossfire, he had no doubt. He had to take this fight somewhere else. He’d come back for them after he beat this guy!

“Now,” Orochimaru pushed away from the tank and began to bridge the space between them with slow, deliberate steps. “Do tell, how exactly did you get out of that cell boy?”

Ichigo backed away with every step Orochimaru took towards them, maintaining the space between them. “Why should I tell you anything?”

“I suppose you don’t have to,” his tongue slid out of his mouth, far too long to be human. “I’ll find out one way or another.”

Tag-along squirmed on his shoulder.

Ichigo tightened his grip on the toddler. “Not likely!”

He lunged to the side the same instant the guy’s tongue shot from his mouth like a bullet, crashing into the ground he’d been standing on.

Despite the children imprisoned around him, despite the pain in his chakra coils and feet, despite the tall man looming over him, Ichigo raised a hand and yelled, “Dude, did you just try to grab me with your freaking tongue!!? That’s seriously disgusting!!”

And. And it was a yell! An angry one! He did not squeal! Really! Honest!

The tongue slid across the floor and back to Orochimaru, saliva shimmering in the glow of the tanks.

Ichigo gagged. Oh man. Oh no.

Shaking off the nausea to the best of his ability, he readjusted his hold on Tag-along and took off for the nearest exit. Behind him, he heard a laugh. And yet. And yet Orochimaru was in front of him now!?

Skidding to a halt, he jerked around until both Orochimaru were in view. A whine in his ear, tiny hands bunched up the fabric of his undershirt. Darn it. The worry jittering in his legs quickened. If something happened to this kid he wouldn’t be able to forgive himself!

The first Orochimaru stepped out from between the two tanks, smile unfading.

“What is this!?” Ichigo demanded. “An illusion!?”

“A Genjutsu you mean? I would never bother using such a thing on such a weak opponent.”

Ichigo ground his teeth. Weak!?

They began to close in on him. Ichigo backed away until his foot hit the bottom of a tank. He cast it a startled glance. There was no way he could make it up that glass without his chakra exploding again.

The second Orochimaru opened his mouth, and for a second, Ichigo thought he was going to shoot his tongue at him. Then a sword came out. A! Sword! This was getting ridiculous!!

“What the—!? How much crap do you have stuffed in that mouth of yours!!?”

Rather than respond, Orochimaru readied his sword to attack.

Ichigo got an idea.

Orochimaru flipped the sword until it was sideways, light glinting along the blade as it arched for his legs and Ichigo jumped. He didn’t try to deflect it, didn’t duck, didn’t dive to the side, no, he jumped onto the blade and funneled his chakra into his feet.

Orochimaru only had enough time to blink before the chakra detonated, sending Ichigo and Tag-along flying over the doppelganger’s head and... also making the doppelganger explode into smoke? What the heck?

Shoving his confusion aside for later, he landed on his feet and took off for the exit he could see on the other side of the room.

“I didn’t expect you to do that,” the first Orochimaru said, sounding pleasantly surprised as opposed to, well, anything that hinted at Ichigo having the upper-hand.

Ichigo decided to ignore that for now. The pain in his feet didn’t matter, nothing did besides for that door as he hopped over a thick cord that was stretched across the floor and burst through the exit like the hounds of hell were at his heels. It was only when he spotted the pack of hollows near the corner that he realized he had backtracked.

“Come on!” Why did every hallway in this place look the exact same!?

Skidding to yet another hasty stop, he placed Tag-along on the floor and shoved the smaller boy behind him, body angled to give him a view of both sides of the hallway. The first Orochimaru was already in front of them, a sword of his own drawn.

“You stopped,” Orochimaru noted, the casual indifference from before replaced with a wide-eyed look of malice. Despite that, the smile remained. “Tell me, what do you see with those Shinigami eyes of yours boy?”

Ichigo couldn’t help the shudder that tore through him as a strange pressure flooded the hallway, bearing down on him. It wasn’t spiritual pressure though. It almost felt. Like intent. Chakra flooded with intent powerful enough to fill the air. Powerful enough to relay just how badly this man wanted to kill him.

A whimper followed by a scuff, Tag-along had collapsed to his knees behind him, skin deathly pale and his entire body shaking worse than before.

That was enough to sober him up. Ichigo drew in a breath to calm his rattled nerves. Released it. And glared at Orochimaru. Compared to Kenpachi this was nothing. Nothing!

“Hm, I must say that I’m impressed,” the man said, and to make matters worse, he actually did look impressed. “To be able to withstand my killing intent despite being so young, not even a genius should possess such a tolerance. You really are an intriguing specimen.”

Ichigo didn’t waver. Instead, he planted a hand on Tag-along’s head. “It’s okay,” he said, and though his mask hid it from sight, he forced himself to smile again, this one slanted and confident. “Don’t be scared, all right? I’m not going to let anything bad happen to you.”

Orochimaru tipped his head to the side. “Is that so?”

“Yeah.”

On that note, Ichigo walked forward until he was in the middle of the hallway. Only five minutes, the old man had said. Any more than that could mess him up beyond repair. He knew that. But. Closing his eyes, he focused inward. And pulled.

“Sorry, Zangetsu.”

 

X

 

x

 

Jiraiya froze mid-step. In the trees above, the team of ANBU stopped as well, some hanging from the branches, others sticking to the tree trunks. He raised his hand for them to stay put, ducking low and moving to the bushes. Through the bare branches, he could make out two shinobi.

They were stumbling in the opposite direction of him, bleeding from various wounds and when they turned their heads in conversation... Those masks.

Narrowing his eyes, Jiraiya gave the ANBU team the Go-Ahead signal. It took them less than a minute to pin the two shinobi down.

“They’re not ANBU,” Squirrel reported, having cut through the man’s sleeve to show an unblemished shoulder. No ANBU tattoo.

Knee planted firmly in the unblemished man’s back, Falcon grabbed the top of his armor. “Fox and I will transport them to T and I.”

Jiraiya nodded, “Sounds good.”

They vanished.

Turning to the remaining four, he said, “Let’s get a move on.”

They flickered out of sight and reappeared in the trees. Drawing in a long breath through his nostrils, Jiraiya prepared himself to do the same. They were almost there.

 

x

 

X

 

65:

 

Chakra exploded through him, burning and twisting and filling him with energy. The air around his hands began to shiver and smell faintly of ozone, then an electric blue light was shooting out of his hands, except, it didn’t shoot away, only out, twisting and forming around them, becoming solid, becoming two khyber knives with steam wafting off them.

In his right hand, the knife was taller than him and heavy enough to drag across the floor. It was brute force and instinct, a blade that wouldn’t hesitate to crush him alongside his enemies should he falter.

In his left, the knife was the perfect size for him. It was speed and control, it was easy to work with and more than willing.

The hollow and the old man. Even without their spiritual link, he would have been able to tell who was who. He cracked a smile at that, one laced with fondness and nostalgia. It felt like coming home.

Then the pain hit. It was enough to nearly bring him to his knees. Slamming the large khyber knife into the floor, he refused to fall, refused to falter. If his chakra coils were paper, his last go at this had been a shower of rain. He hadn’t realized how bad it was until now, hadn’t realized that his chakra coils were barely holding themselves together. The old man hadn’t been kidding. This went beyond messing him up, if he didn’t finish this fast his entire chakra system was going to collapse and he was going to die.

Using the surge of adrenaline that accompanied that thought, he launched himself at Orochimaru with the smaller khyber knife poised to strike.

Orochimaru simply moved his head out of the way, allowing the knife to slash the air beside his ear. Gritting his teeth against the strain, Ichigo brought the larger one around. Orochimaru hopped backward, allowing the knife to slice a mere inch from his stomach.

“Those swords,” he said, the malice in his expression worsening. “Did you manifest them using your chakra? How fascinating.”

Ichigo did not appreciate being stared at like a sample under a microscope, and he showed this by bringing the small khyber knife around again, putting some space between them when Orochimaru dodged.

“This Kekkai Genkai isn’t just limited to a Dōjutsu then,” Orochimaru said, swiping at him in retaliation. There was barely any attention put into the attack and yet, blocking it was enough to send Ichigo skidding several feet away. “You can actually interact with the spiritual world, can’t you?”

The hollows had come around the corner at this point, drawn in by the spiritual pressure flaring from his zanpakutō like a beacon. They didn’t attack, not yet, choosing to size him up from the sidelines with hungry eyes.

“What do you see?” Orochimaru asked for the second time. “Is there something there?”

Tearing his gaze away from the hollows, he spat out, “Nothing’s there.”

Orochimaru lowered his head in a soft laugh that shook his shoulders.

An opening!

Pushing away from the floor with a burst of chakra that made his entire leg ache, he twisted both zanpakutō to the right, ready to slash him in two. Orochimaru blocked the large khyber knife with ease and caught Ichigo’s wrist before the other could reach him.

“Tell me,” he said, yellow eyes burning with curiosity. “Have you seen the key to immortality with those Shinigami eyes of yours?”

“Immortality?” Ichigo scoffed. Why was he asking such a ridiculous question? “There’s no such thing. Believe me pal, even Shinigami die.”

That wasn’t the answer Orochimaru wanted. This became clear to him when Orochimaru deflected the large knife, yanked him off the ground by his wrist, and proceeded to chuck him right at the hollows.

He’d done that on purpose, hadn’t he!!?

A lizard-shaped hollow dive-bombed him from the ceiling, skeletal jaw unhinging like a snake. In mid-air, he brought the large khyber knife around and cleaved the mask in two. This made the rest of the pack stop creeping closer in favor of reevaluating him with twitching heads and raised noses.

Ichigo landed in a roll that carried his weight. Pushed himself to his feet and cast the hollows a threatening glare.

The hollow that reminded him of Orihime’s brother slithered closer. Crap! Should have known intimidation wouldn’t work!

Raising his zanpakutō towards the look-alike, he let a Hamlet quote flow from him freely. “‘Thou know'st 'tis common," he said. "All that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity.’”

To be frank, the people in this world could use some good literature, and the day he stopped quoting them was the day he finally snapped and gave up on salvaging their sanity.

“The only meaning in death is to overcome it,” Orochimaru said as if he was teaching Ichigo something painstakingly obvious.

“You’re wrong about that,” Ichigo said, memories of horrified screams and desperate pleas for him not to die ringing in his ears. “No one is invincible.”

The hollow lunged for him.

“No one!”

Before Ichigo could kill it, the hollow’s snake-like body was sliced in half by a powerful swing that took off the very tips of Ichigo’s hair. Orochimaru was still in stance when Ichigo whipped around, heart skipping several beats. The man didn’t acknowledge him, only stood straighter and cast the corner of the hallway a fascinated look.

The hollows lost interest in Ichigo, charging Orochimaru with a series of shrieks loud enough to make Ichigo’s ears ring. A gust of wind flipped Orochimaru’s hair over his shoulder, a claw shot right for him.

“Hey look out!!” He yelled, but Orochimaru didn’t glance at him, only eyed the direction the gust had come from before shifting and slicing the claw right down the middle. A lump of flesh hit the floor, dissipating a second later when the sword’s next slash tore the hollow’s torso in half.

Another hollow shot for him, claws leaving cracks in the floor with every step it took. It didn’t make it far. Blood splattered the wall. The sword glinted in the fluorescent lights as it moved. More blood rained down. Howls and shrieks were cut short, flesh and bone were cleaved with ease. And all of this. He did. Without being able to see. A single hollow.

The sword lowered, soaked in red. Orochimaru didn’t have a scratch on him. “Was that all of them?”

Ichigo blinked. Once, twice. Remembered how to breathe. Nodded.

A hum. “That’s good to know,” he turned back to Ichigo, leveling the sword in his direction.

“What? Woah hold on a second—”

“Did you believe I had changed sides because I helped you? I was merely securing an asset.”

“An ‘asset?’” He remembered the children floating in tanks. “You are the one in charge of this Lab, aren’t you!? You’re the one who’s been doing experiments on those kids!!”

“And?” Orochimaru asked. “Their lives are of little importance.”

“How can you say that!?”

Orochimaru closed his eyes as if he was holding in an exasperated sigh. Then he looked at Tag-along, who was watching them with his young face scrunched up in frozen terror. “Had you left the test subject behind and fled on your own you would have made it much farther. You resemble Jiraiya in that regard.”

There it was again. Jirichio. Why did Orochimaru keep mentioning him!?

“I could never do something like that!”

“No?” Orochimaru said, “that’s too bad.” And then he threw his sword.

Confusion morphed into horror when he realized the sword was heading for Tag-along, sailing through the air like a spear.

“Hey!!” Though he yelled, he knew the boy couldn’t understand him. There wasn’t enough time. Not to explain, not to block. Unless—

Ichigo threw the small khyber knife. It sailed like a kunai, smacking into the side of Orochimaru’s sword and throwing it off course so that it pierced the wall beside Tag-along, the blade a hair’s breadth away from his nose.

Ichigo only had enough time to manage a relieved breath before a knee was smashing into the center of his stomach, knocking him upward into an elbow that slammed down between his shoulder blades. He hit the floor, vision tunneling to such an extent, he could hardly see a thing as he spluttered and coughed, struggling to draw in air.

With his focus lost, the khyber knife in his hand dissipated along with the one he had thrown, vanishing in a burst of electric blue and black.

With the energy Zangetsu brought alongside it now gone, the after-effects of what he had done hit him in full. The hot water shot up to scalding.

Gritting his teeth, he shoved himself upright on rubbery legs that gave not a second after. Tried again. Stumbled backward until he hit the wall. Forced a smile that was far too rugged and sharp to be anywhere near content.

“Was that—” He swallowed down a pained noise when his chakra coils began to feel like wet paper straining and dipping, one tiny touch away from forming holes and breaking. “—the best you can do? I barely. Felt that.”

Orochimaru studied him, yellow eyes trailing from his head to his toes. Without a word, he retrieved his sword from the wall and began to walk towards him.

Ichigo didn’t have any weapons. He could barely stand up. He couldn’t give up though. He couldn’t lose here! He had to do something, he—

Orochimaru stopped. Looked down.

Tag-along was holding onto Orochimaru’s pant leg, still on his knees and shivering horribly. His head was bowed, Ichigo couldn’t see whatever expression he was making.

Orochimaru didn’t deign to look at him and when he spoke, it sounded more like a friendly suggestion than a threat. “If I were you, I’d let go.”

Tag-along didn’t move.

Orochimaru swung his leg up, throwing Tag-along into the air. Then he shifted and smashed that same leg into the toddler, sending his tiny body rolling across the floor.

“Ah— Hey!!” Ichigo tried to run to Tag-along but without the wall he couldn’t stay upright and he fell to his hands and knees. It was like Sōkyoku hill all over again. He wanted to stand. He wanted to but he couldn’t. His body wouldn’t let him.

Orochimaru turned to Ichigo. Started to walk towards him, sword held so the tip was a mere inch above the floor. “Now that I’ve taken a look at that Kekkai Genkai of yours, there’s no longer any need for me to drag this out. I’ve ruled out Dōjutsu but I’ll have to run some more tests to be certain. After all, testing and retesting is the only method that leads to an accurate conclusion.”

Ichigo didn’t want to think about what this man meant by tests, but it was becoming more and more clear that he may have to find out firsthand. “You’re sick.”

“That’s fine by me, I—” He stopped.

Ichigo stared, hardly able to believe what he was seeing. On Orochimaru’s leg, a tree branch had formed, wrapping around it and holding him in place. Following it with his eyes, he found that the tree branch was coming from Tag-along. Because somehow, the kid had turned his arm into the branch.

Something frozen wrapped around his heart not unlike the way the branch had Orochimaru’s leg. “H-Hey, what’re you doing?”

He knew the kid couldn’t understand him, he knew. And yet. The kid understood something. He understood Orochimaru was hurting him. He was trying to protect him. He could see it in the kid’s eyes, could see it in the way his eyebrows pinched together, focused but scared, uncertain but wanting. The way his lips were pursed, the way he still continued to tremble despite how he met Orochimaru’s gaze, pleading with the man.

And. Ichigo couldn’t move.

The disinterest Orochimaru had been directing towards the boy faded. Somehow, Ichigo knew that wasn’t much better than the alternative.

“H-Hey... Don’t.”

Orochimaru’s expression darkened in fascination. “Isn’t this a surprise? It looks like you’re interesting too.”

Those words sent a jolt of terror through him, not for himself, but for the kid who couldn’t have been any older than two. The kid who had already been through way more than he deserved, than anyone did. Fingers clawing at the floor, he yelled, “JUST RUN!!”

A flash of red. Droplets of blood were flying through the air, drifting farther and farther away from the slash across Orochimaru’s cheek. A kunai wedged itself into the floor, speckled in that same blood.

Mouth falling open, Ichigo followed its course to the corner of the hallway, where none other than—

“Jiraiya,” Orochimaru said, for the first time, sounding mildly inconvenienced. It was gone as fast as it appeared, however, an amused smile taking its place. “I never thought you would be the one to find me out.”

Despite having thrown the kunai, Jirichio was gaping at Orochimaru as if the man was a bomb seconds away from going off. “Orochimaru!! What’re you doing!?”

“Isn’t it obvious? Well, then again for someone of your mental caliber I suppose it isn’t that obvious.”

“This isn’t the time for jokes!”

“I wasn’t joking,” Orochimaru said, pointing his sword at Jirichio. Then he vanished, the bloody kunai swapping places with him as he swiped for Jirichio’s throat. Jirichio dodged, sending them around the corner and out of view.

Ichigo wasn’t sure what to make of that. Didn’t get the chance to decide, the branch moving, drawing his attention. Transfixed, he watched as it shrunk and morphed, turning back into a tiny hand with chubby fingers. A hand that flipped until the palm was facing the ceiling as the skin returned to normal. Tag-along studied it, seeming every bit as confused by this turn of events as Ichigo was.

They met each other’s eyes. Tag-along reached out for him with a pitiful sound made at the back of his throat.

Ichigo wasn’t quite sure what to make of that either.

Blurs of black, four masked shinobi were standing by the corner. He didn’t hesitate, grabbing the kunai Orochimaru had switched places with and holding it threateningly towards them.

“Stay back!”

The shinobi wearing the mask of a boar took a step closer, shifting as if they intended to grab him. The shinobi with a rat mask held an arm in front of their chest, using some form of sign language with their other hand. Or was that a hand seal!?

Ichigo tensed.

Boar backed down.

An explosion from the direction Jirichio vanished shook the hall, making the four whirl around with their weapons at the ready and Ichigo tensed further. A streak of green, Jirichio himself came skidding into sight, positioned as if he had blocked a hefty kick.

“Get ba—” he took a step in the direction he had been knocked, paused, looked at Ichigo. “Hey! What are those kids still doing here!?”

“You just try to make us move,” Ichigo held out an arm between them and Tag-along and growled. Actually growled, the noise rumbling deep inside his chest. That... was definitely new. Clan characteristic?

At the sound, Jirichio’s mood did a flip, battle-ready to seemingly at a bit of a loss.

Rat and Boar walked passed him, Rat giving his shoulder a pat before they vanished from sight. Their two pals stayed, one wearing a raccoon mask, the other a tiger.

Jirichio cast the direction he had come from one last look before turning to Ichigo and stepping fully around the corner.

He raised his hands as if in surrender. “Hey hey now, there’s no need for any of that.”

“Shut up!” Ichigo held the kunai more firmly, ready to stab should he make the mistake of stepping into his space.

In the distance, several more explosions sounded off.

“I’m on your side here,” he said, lips stretching into a grin meant to look goofy. Like Ichigo was a child who needed a laugh to cheer him up.

“Like I’d believe that!! You may have attacked him, but that doesn’t mean you’re still not on his side!!”

He’d seen it a lot in his last life, infighting and misleading behavior!

Jirichio’s smile twitched, struggled to stay in place. “Still not trusting me, eh? Not a bad decision, shinobi that’re quick to give their trust typically don’t last all that long. Hey, I was a pretty distrustful kid myself after the first few times I got caught in one of sensei’s traps!”

“This isn’t just about distrust, he said that he knows you!!”

“And who doesn’t know me? I’m the great Jir—”

“He said that you were teammates!” Ichigo snapped. Why was he trying to brush this off!? What was he hiding!?

Jiraiya winced and the smile finally lost its fight, vanishing from his face without a trace.

“Give me one good reason why I should trust you!? You think I haven’t noticed!? You don’t trust me either! You never did! And this,” he gestured to the door he knew over a dozen child test subjects lay. “This just explains it! Everything! You were just waiting all this time weren’t you!?”

“T—”

“Enough!! Stop lying to me!!”

Jirichio’s expression went blank. He raised his hand, making Ichigo grit his teeth harder and track the movement with his eyes. Instead of a weapon or a hand seal, however, Jirichio’s hand rose to the bridge of his nose, pinching. “You’re just as hard-headed as Sakumo, anyone ever tell you that? What the heck happened to you anyway? You look like a rough night out at the bar.”

Ichigo didn’t grace that with a response.

“Look, unless you have plans to betray the village anytime in the immediate future, I won’t do anything to harm you. I have no interest in being butchered by Sakumo and Minato for my crimes and even though you’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Kushina-san, if she ever finds out I’ve done anything to seriously upset Minato...” At that, Jirichio visibly shuddered. “I very well may be a dead man walking.”

Kushina?

The sound of cloth shifting, Tiger strolled closer, only stopping when Ichigo leveled the kunai at them instead. Slowly, they raised their hand to point over Ichigo’s shoulder at—

“Oh.”

The shinobi wearing a bear mask was still laid near the wall where he had left her. Through the panic and fighting, he hadn’t noticed her thin form in the shadow cast by the open door. At the same pace they had pointed at her, Tiger moved their finger towards their own shoulder, moving their hand as if to simulate bandages before turning their finger towards him, a clear question in the movement.

He considered not answering, but in the end, gave a short nod. “Yeah. I did that.”

Their hand dropped. They cast Jirichio a look Ichigo couldn’t read through that mask.

One beat, two, three, Jirichio was silent. Then, raising his gaze to Tag-along, he said, “That kid could use some medical care himself, dontcha think?”

What did he mean by that? Throwing a glance over his shoulder that was meant to be quick, he found Tag-along lying unconscious, round face shining with sweat. For a second, the gravity of the situation vanished from his mind.

“Ah!” He made the mistake of shifting his legs in an attempt to stand, sending an acidic pain tearing up his knees. His vision tunneled, and by the time it cleared up, Jirichio had already pried the kunai from his fingers and was kneeling in front of him.

Tiger was at Tag-along’s side, checking the boy’s pulse.

“What’s wrong with him?” He managed to force out despite the waves of heat rolling through him.

Jirichio looked at Tiger, reading the hand signs that were blurring and creating afterimages in Ichigo’s vision. “Looks like a classic case of mild chakra deprivation.”

“Oh,” he was starting to feel faint. “Is that good?”

“It’s not bad.”

“Oh.”

“You on the other hand—”

The world was getting darker, more distant. He recognized this feeling, knew he was about to lose consciousness. Reaching out, he grabbed Jirichio by the front of his flack jacket. He still wasn’t sure if he could trust the man, still wasn’t sure what to think of this at all, but right now, he knew he was out of options.

“Kids,” he choked out, “There are some more kids. Through that door. You have to. Help them!”

Jirichio’s answer was lost to him. Everything was, as he plunged into darkness.

 

X

 

x

 

Danzō Shimura was angry. Angry his ROOT agents couldn’t keep a five-year-old child detained, angry Jiraiya had dared to insult his personal army, angry Hiruzen had the nerve to accuse him of anything. But more than that. He was intrigued.

When he’d been informed of that boy’s Shinigami eyes, he had intended to have Orochimaru cut him open and see what made him tick. If it was a Dōjutsu, Danzō would have taken those eyes for himself. If it was something in the boy’s DNA, he would have ordered Orochimaru to begin a set of experiments not unlike the Mokuton ones until they could figure out how to replicate it in Danzō.

Because Danzō wanted it. The power to see the Shinigami, to see multiple Shinigami. What he could do with such a thing. What he could accomplish.

Despite that, after seeing Kakashi Hatake fight on par with one of his ROOT agents, he found himself reevaluating his plans. That boy was barely trained. He was barely anything, and yet, he had clearly been holding his own against an operative who not only had ten additional years on him but had been training for even longer than that. He never would have believed it had he not seen it for himself.

That boy had talent. Real talent. He may be uncouth, may be tainted by the ideals of his father, but if Danzō had a couple years with him, he could surely turn Kakashi into the perfect weapon.

That was why he’d signaled for the ROOT agent hiding outside to alert Orochimaru to Kakashi’s escape attempt. Orochimaru would stop the boy as ordered, and when he did, Jiraiya would stumble upon them. With Orochimaru in the Lab trying to abduct Kakashi, it would be easy for Danzō to slide the blame off of himself and claim Orochimaru had acted on his own with the help of a few insurgents. Hiruzen was a sentimental fool, he would take the bait, take anything that cleared Danzō’s name of this.

Then Danzō would apologize profusely to Kakashi, offer to aid him in the future should he ever need it. Which he would. Soon Sakumo would befall an unfortunate accident, and the boy would be left orphaned. Danzō would make sure to find him after the funeral, of course, with words of reassurance and Kakashi would be vulnerable.

He’d have the young genius in his ROOT by the end of that week. A child with no one to defend him, and one whose powers needed to be hidden at that? Easy. It’d all be so laughably easy.

That was why Danzō wasn’t concerned despite his anger. Why he remained unflinching despite the gauging looks that fool Hiruzen kept shooting him. Danzō already had his next moves mapped out perfectly, there was no need for things like concern. He had already won.

 

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Chapter Text

 

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Sakumo’s mission had been strange from start to finish. To be chosen for a mission despite his current predicament—and by predicament, he meant the fact he’d all but been banished from missions until the villagers settled down—Sakumo knew the client must be someone important, someone the Council couldn’t risk offending. Finding that notion to be correct hadn’t surprised him. What had surprised him, was how insignificant the task was.

The client had wanted an escort. Through safe terrain. To their home that was only twenty-six hours away.

This was a C-rank at best, hardly a mission that required Sakumo’s skillset. The closest it ever got to dangerous was when a raccoon skittered passed the client’s legs, startling them so bad they nearly tumbled into a ditch. Honestly. Civilians.

It was possible that the client, ignorant of the way mission classifications were handled in Konohagakure, had requested him after hearing rumors of his skill, but Sakumo wasn’t the type to let unknowns slide on the field. On the field, what a shinobi didn’t know could very well get them killed. That was why he’d made it a point to subtly prod at the client for information as they walked, and what he found out made his day take an even stranger turn.

Apparently, Danzō Shimura had personally recommended him. Last time Sakumo had seen Danzō, the man had been demanding that he turn in his hitai-ate. Call him paranoid, but after that, Sakumo had kept a wary eye on his surroundings.

Danzō wasn’t the type for apologies nor was he the type to forgive any imagined slights against the village. So when he walked through the gates of Konoha without a scratch, let alone an attempt on his life, he was honestly baffled. By all accounts, this didn’t make sense.

He made his way to the Hokage’s office feeling like his entire world had been shoved off-kilter. This feeling didn’t change when he rounded the corner to find a group of children huddled in front of said office. That in itself wouldn’t have been too absurd—after all, the Hokage’s office was a part of the Academy—but in the center of the hallway, there was a boy in blinding green spandex doing push-ups. His movements were... energetic, to say the least, his body a blur as he moved.

If Sakumo remembered correctly, that was Kakashi’s rival, Gai Maito. From Kakashi’s stories, he had surmised this boy was a strange one, and honestly, he probably would have brushed this off if not for the Uchiha that stood by his head.

“Two hundred and five, two hundred and six,” the boy counted, and though the classic Uchiha scowl was etched across his face, he didn’t seem bothered by the eccentric display, only bored.

By nature, the Uchiha were a proud bunch, and more often than not, they tended to turn their noses up at people like the Maito family. Seeing this was a surprise that while pleasant, still had him doing a double-take. A double-take that had him locking eyes with none other than the Sandaime’s son, Asuma. The scene graduated from strange to absurd.

It didn’t help when Asuma startled and leaned towards a little girl to whisper, “That’s Kakashi-kun’s dad!”

Sakumo heard him, of course, because a child’s idea of a whisper very rarely was one at all, shinobi-in-training or not. Deciding not to question whatever was going on here, he gave them a polite nod and continued towards the office. He was not expecting the children to block his path.

“Wait!!” The Uchiha yelled, throwing out his arms to stop Sakumo from stepping around him. Which may have worked had he been taller. As he was now, he only succeeded in blocking a tiny fraction of the hallway.

Sakumo stopped anyways. He. Wasn’t exactly sure what to do here. “Do... you need something?”

Rather than introduce himself or do anything resembling basic manners, the Uchiha jabbed a finger towards Sakumo’s chest without lowering his other arm. “Yeah I do!”

Sakumo leaned away from it. A tiny child was pointing at him with quite an angry look on his face. Where were his parents? Grandparents? Teacher? Someone?

Sakumo cast a not so discreet glance at the hallway around them. “Are you here alone?”

Asuma stepped forward to place a hand on the Uchiha’s shoulder, making whatever response the boy had been ready to yell falter in his throat. The little girl took advantage of the opening to push her way to the front of the group. She offered a polite bow.

“My name is Rin Nohara,” she said. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Hatake-san.”

Sakumo found himself bowing back automatically. “No, the pleasure’s all mine.”

What a polite little girl. He wasn’t sure why she would want to meet him of all people given his current disgraced status, but Sakumo wasn’t one to be intentionally rude. His foot-in-mouth syndrome did enough of that for him.

Rin smiled, a precious thing that made her round cheeks lift and her brown eyes crinkle. “We’re friends with Kakashi-kun! We wanted to know where he is so we can see if he’s okay!”

They were friends with Kakashi? In that case, that little girl must be the Rin Kakashi talked about. And if that was Rin, then that Uchiha must be Obito!

Sakumo’s smile lost its forced edge, “Kakashi is at home.”

His mind caught up to his mouth a second later. Kakashi may have been home when he’d left, but that didn’t mean he was there now. He could be out playing or shopping for groceries. He could even be out with Minato again, working on whatever technique he had refused to divulge.

Despite Sakumo’s relaxed mood, the children’s excitement vanished without a trace.

“But Hatake-san,” Rin said, tone wavering with clear distress. “When we went by earlier he wasn’t there.”

Sakumo was thinking of a way to reassure her when Asuma crossed his arms and said, “He didn’t come to class today either.”

Wait, what? That. Wasn’t like Kakashi.

Kakashi had always been a well-behaved child. He may break a rule here and there, may put on an act and pretend he couldn’t be bothered by them, but he never broke rules for the act of breaking them in itself. Even missing his curfew by a few minutes had the boy putting on a twitchy scowl and avoiding Sakumo’s gaze.

Knowing that the last time Kakashi missed class, Sakumo had wound up being called to the Sandaime’s office to find his son covered from head-to-toe in blood certainly didn’t soothe his already frazzled nerves. Had he been attacked by another one of those hollow creatures? Or what if...

His son’s description of the Shinigami passed through his head. Sakumo’s blood turned to ice. Surely he was somewhere safe. Right?

Gai’s frown deepened. “But I ran into my rival this morning. He appeared to be on his way to class, and when we had a brisk spar, I could tell he was in excellent condition!”

A frustrated noise rumbled in Obito’s throat, making Sakumo’s gaze snap to the left of Rin. “We even told that weird perverted toad guy,” Obito snapped. “And he said he would ask Sandaime-sama where Kakashi-kun is, but he went in there and hasn’t come back out and we’ve been waiting here for hours!!”

Toad guy? Did he mean Jiraiya!!?

“But even though he hasn’t come out, people have been going in!” Rin said. “Shimura-sama went in there and he hasn’t come back out either!”

Sakumo was moving before he realized it, brushing passed the ANBU guarding the door, flipping them both onto the ground when they tried to stop him. His hands slammed into the door, shoving it open with such force, it smacked against the wall.

BANG!

His eyes took in the room at a speed he’d learned out of necessity during the Second War, took in Shimura standing by the Sandaime’s desk without a care in the world. Standing there like he was only visiting a friend. The Sandaime shattered that picture of serenity, however, reading over a file like that same world was caving in on him. His gaze snapped to Sakumo right as a team of ANBU surrounded him.

Sakumo barely noticed the kunai pointed his way. "Where is my son!?”

“Yeah, where’s Kakashi-kun!?” Obito yelled, a chorus of young voices soon joining him because, apparently, the children had followed Sakumo inside.

The Sandaime opened his mouth, likely to demand they be silent, but before he could get the order out, his gaze found Asuma. He froze.

Asuma brazenly held the Sandaime’s eyes, glaring at him with nearly as much fury as Sakumo himself.

Sakumo honestly couldn’t care less at the moment. “Where is Kakashi!? Where is he!!?”

The Sandaime’s hand twitched into a signal that had the ANBU standing down, but his mind seemed far away. “I am not of liberty to share that as of now.”

Sakumo slammed his hands onto the desk and growled. He didn’t recall walking over to it.

Asuma balled up his fists, defiant in a way that spoke of old frustrations and unresolved fights. “Why can’t you tell us!? I thought the Hokage’s job was to protect the people in this village!? Isn’t that what you always tell mom when you don’t show up for dinner!? Every single year when you miss my birthday!?”

The Sandaime closed his eyes.

“If Kakashi-kun’s in trouble we can help!!”

The cigar pipe was raised to the Sandaime’s lips, but he did not smoke it. “Kakashi-kun is currently at the hospital receiving treatment. His condition was quite serious and he has been rushed to the emergency room.”

Emergency room. There was a ball rolling around inside his skull, surely there was. Ignoring every cell in his body that screamed for him to rush to son’s side, Sakumo breathed out, “Go.”

The patter of tiny feet racing out of the room was their answer.

Sakumo, on the other hand, curled his fingers around the desk to steady himself and said, “I want a full report.”

Without the children around, the Sandaime didn’t hesitate to catch Sakumo up on current events. By the end of it, Sakumo was left feeling rather murderous. Danzō Shimura, that bastard had the gall to stand there unflinching as the Sandaime recounted Sakumo’s son getting kidnapped and injured so badly he had to be rushed to the emergency room. Especially since Shimura was currently. The. Prime. Suspect.

Shimura being the mastermind behind this would certainly explain a few things; being recommended by the man for one. If he truly was the kidnapper, that would mean Danzō had been trying to get him out of the way. Get him out of the way so he could have Kakashi experimented on. Experimented on! Every time these words reappeared in his head, Sakumo grew more furious.

He was emotionally compromised. The last time this happened, he wound up worsening Konohagakure’s already horrible relationship with Iwagakure, all but ensuring the Cold War they’d fallen into would soon become its more violent counterpart. Peace talks could only stave off the inevitable for so long.

Sakumo needed to calm down, needed to but he couldn’t stop thinking about the first time he’d held Kakashi, about the way those tiny fingers had curled into the fabric of his shirt. The promise he’d made to himself.

“Sakumo-san,” the Sandaime’s sharp tone sliced through Sakumo’s thoughts, dragging him into the present.

It was only then he realized he was oozing enough Killing Intent to have the ANBU stationed by the door quivering and holding their weapons at the ready. Whether they were ready to defend their leader or themselves, he couldn’t be sure.

Closing his eyes, Sakumo drew the sheer vindictive Need to skewer Orochimaru and Danzō Shimura into the deepest recesses of his mind and breathed. The Killing Intent tapered off.

“Where is Orochimaru?”

That didn’t mean he wanted to skewer them any less.

“Orochimaru has fled Konoha,” the Sandaime said, tone growing distant. “I’ve already sent out several ANBU teams alongside Jiraiya to intercept him before he can reach the border.”

Sakumo had half a mind to demand he be sent too, but with a glare at Danzō, he held his tongue. He wasn’t about to leave Kakashi in the village when he could still be in danger.

“Nothing has been proven—” The Sandaime began, having noticed the look.

“I have reason to believe Shimura-san arranged for me to be outside of Konoha during the time of the kidnapping,” Sakumo cut in.

The Sandaime fell silent.

Sakumo was no fool. He knew the Sandaime and the Council would always be biased in Shimura’s favor. But. “I demand that Danzō Shimura be put on trial for the kidnapping of a clan heir, illegal experimentation, mass child abduction, and the potential brainwashing and unsolicited recruitment of other clan members.”

 

x

 

X

 

66:

 

Ichigo woke in a cold sweat. Something was sticking to his feverish skin and tangled around his legs. Wiggling his toes, he realized it was a blanket, one that was paper-thin. Definitely not his. Why was someone else’s blanket on him?

Keeping his eyes closed, he extended his senses, trying to figure out what was going on and what had woken him.

Was Goat-Chin about to launch a surprise attack on him? No. No way he could stay quiet this long.

What about Yuzu? He didn’t smell any food cooking. Karin was out of the question; she always slept late on weekends, and it must be the weekend since Goat-Chin hadn’t woken him.

Could Bushytail be home? He didn’t hear the man bustling around the compound in his post-mission routine.

Despite the normalcy of these thoughts, despite the many times he had thought them, something wasn’t making sense. Wasn’t connecting. For the life of him, he couldn’t figure out what. His head was hazy, too hazy to properly connect the dots.

Or at least, it was. Then the shifting of fabric and hands far too close had him snapping into full alertness. Kicking off the blankets, he sprung to his feet and whirled around to find himself face-to-face with—

A blonde woman with glowing hands?

Ichigo stared at her.

She stared back.

“Uh,” he frowned. “Who’re you?”

The blonde’s expression darkened. “Lay back down and shut up!”

The commanding tone in which she spoke had Ichigo complying, back pressing into the warm spot he had fled. Her tone reminded him of Kukaku right before she snapped and obliterated everything in sight! He was so not taking these chances right now.

“Do you have any idea what state your chakra system is in!?” She lectured. “You’re lucky that rough idiot didn’t cause the entire thing to collapse just by carrying you here!!”

Rough idiot? For the first time since waking, Ichigo looked around. He was in a hospital room. Must have been. The walls were a plain blue with only the occasional painting to distract from the monotony of it. The floors were well-polished, and the bed he was lying on was clearly the hospital variety. The IV in his arm and the hospital shirt-pants combo were also a giveaway.

Wait. Hospital clothes.

A hand flew to his face, meeting with a cotton surface he quickly identified as a surgical mask. He relaxed.

“Jiraiya said you might prefer that,” the blonde noted, moving her glowing hands to his stomach.

At that, Ichigo’s gaze returned to her. “Jirichio did?” Memories flowed into him; being kidnapped, breaking out, fighting. He shot upright. “Wait! What about the kids I found!? What about Tag-along!!? Are— Are they okay!?”

A hand on his chest pushed him down with surprising gentleness. “The kids have been rescued and placed under the hospitals’ care. The brat that was with you put up quite the fuss when the nurses tried to place him with the rest of the lot,” with a scoff, she pointedly glanced over her shoulder. “In the end they gave him what he wanted.”

Ichigo followed the look, finding the end of another hospital bed visible behind her shoulder. He couldn’t see the top half of the bed through the woman, but now that he was fully awake, he could smell that green fluid, albeit thankfully much, much fainter.

“Is that him?” He asked, voice softening.

She cast him an unreadable look. “...It is.”

Her hands hovered over him once more, the medical ninjutsu making her skin glow a sickly hue. A cold feeling not unlike wind spread through his chakra coils as the chakra funneled into him, soothing the itchy pain in his legs. He released a breath at that, content to let the feeling wash over him.

“You still haven’t given me your name,” he said, more to break the silence than anything.

“It’s Tsunade.”

After another stretch of silence, he asked, “What’re you doing anyways?”

Her pink, glossy lips twitched into a frown. “I’m encouraging your healing rate to quicken.” When Ichigo’s curious stare didn’t let up, she continued, “Your entire system is shot, kid. Chakra coils themselves are rather delicate in nature, and yours have suffered numerous third-degree chakra burns. In normal circumstances, chakra wouldn’t reach such elevated levels while it’s still inside the body, but there are clear signs of stretching along the passageways that lead to your arms along with disruptions in your tenketsu. A large amount of chakra must have passed through your chakra system for this to occur. Count your blessings the only passageways that tore are the ones located in your legs and in your feet.”

The way she phrased the last part held a clear question. Ichigo wasn’t quite ready to answer it yet. “Oh. Right.”

After a beat, she carried on, “I managed to salvage them but you’re lucky Sandaime-sama ordered me to check you over after they were done with you, otherwise, you would have lost the ability to manipulate chakra in your feet permanently, even with the emergency treatment that saved your life. Now you’ve only lost it for the next week while your body finishes the rest of its healing process naturally.”

An icy feeling spread through his body, this one, not caused by medical ninjutsu. “It was really that close?”

She raised an eyebrow. “Are you calling me a liar?”

“No of course not! Thank you! Really, I appreciate the help. You didn’t have to do this.”

If Tsunade had to be ordered to heal him on top of the treatment he’d already received, she must’ve been on vacation or something, right? He hadn’t meant to drag her away from her family.

She didn’t reply but something in her expression shifted. Hands retreating, she grabbed the blanket and pulled it over him once more, standing to check that his IV bag was full. “You’ll need to stay off your feet as much as possible for the next four days,” she said. “I’ve already written you a prescription for some pain-killers, you can take one every twelve hours but if you’re still in pain after thirty minutes of taking one then you can split another pill in half and take half of that as well.”

Ichigo nodded.

“While you may attend the Academy like normal, you are to avoid any strenuous activity and will be sitting out of Taijutsu practice until next Monday. Are we clear?”

At her tone, he tensed and said, “Ah! Yes ma’am!”

Her smirk returned. “Good.” Turning with a swish of her pigtails, she said, “Now if that’s all—”

“Wait!”

She paused, a neutral glance cast over her shoulder.

“Can you check on him?” His eyes slid to Tag-along, who he could now see was curled into a tiny ball under the sheets. “Please.”

For a moment, she didn’t speak. He was starting to think she would refuse when she walked over to Tag-along’s bed, high-heels clicking along the floor. Her hands began to glow.

He tore his gaze away, moving it to the window at his side instead. Behind the Hokage monument, the sun was setting, filling the silver clouds with streaks of orange. He didn’t look at it for long, eyelids growing heavy, shuttering without his permission.

Darkness engulfed his vision. Started to pull him under.

WHAM!!

On cue, he was startled into consciousness for the second time.

“Kakashi-kun!”

Ichigo barely had enough time to hoist himself onto his elbows before his bed was swarmed by his classmates. Rin, Obito, Maito, Asuma, the four of them were talking a million miles-per-hour and at the same time no less.

“RIVAL!! I’M SO GLAD YOU’RE UNHURT!” - “What do you think you were doing going missing like that Baka shi!!?” - “I’m so glad you’re all right, Kakashi-kun!” - “I didn’t think you’d be awake so soon.”

“Uh,” Ichigo wasn’t quite sure what was going on, but he forced a smile nonetheless. “Sorry about that. What’re you guys doing here?”

“What’re we—” Obito recoiled. Suddenly, he was scowling and crossing his arms, “No reason.”

Rin tipped her head, making her brown hair swish. “Obito-kun was worried about you. Right Obito-kun?”

Obito’s cheeks began to brighten. “N-No I wasn’t.”

Thanks to their positions, only Ichigo noticed the impending danger. Tsunade almost seemed to float across the floor as she approached, this time, her heels not making a sound. It wasn’t until she was behind his visitors that she placed her hands on her hips and pointedly cleared her throat. They collectively jumped a full foot into the air and jerked around.

She leveled them with a thoroughly unimpressed glare. “You brats! Don’t go slamming doors around, this is a hospital!!”

The others paled.

Rin dropped into a half-bow. “We’re sorry, Tsunade-hime!! We’ve just been waiting all this time and we were finally told visitors could come in... We won’t let it happen again!”

Tsunade visibly lost steam. With a huff, she turned back to Tag-along. “See that it doesn’t.”

With Tsunade’s eyes no longer on her, Rin’s expression smoothed out. Though he remained a shade too pale, Obito smirked at Asuma, who after a moment of hesitation, returned it. Maito ducked his head, looking for all the world like a scolded puppy, clearly having missed the subtext.

Ichigo sighed. Business as usual then. Well, plus Asuma. Business as usual plus Asuma.

Speaking of. Leaning towards Asuma, he whispered, “What’s with the ‘hime?’ Are you telling me she’s some kind of princess?”

“In a way,” Asuma replied, matching Ichigo’s tone. “She’s the granddaughter of the first Hokage. You know, the guy who founded this village?”

“Is that good?”

“It certainly gives her a good reputation. But honestly I think the entire Hokage’s relatives thing is a bit blown out of proport—”

Tsunade’s voice lashed over them like a whip. “What’re you two whispering about over there!?”

“Ah! Nothing ma’am!” They squeaked in unison.

Letting the glare she’d shot them over her shoulder linger several beats longer than necessary, Tsunade made her way into the hallway without so much as a goodbye.

Ichigo released the breath he’d been holding. That woman seriously gave off dangerous vibes.

“Kakashi-kun,” Rin said, making him look up. Her eyebrows were knitting together in a rare genuine display of emotion, the kind she typically reserved until it was just the four of them. “Are you really okay?”

Maito nodded along to her question with feeling.

Obito’s scowl twitched, once, twice. He peeked at them out of the corner of his eye.

“You were in the emergency room for a long time,” she went on. “And after that, they wouldn’t let us visit you for hours. We thought something really bad must have happened to you.”

“I...” Was he okay? He’d gotten abducted. Exposed to the kind of horrors he’d only seen in sci-fi movies, pushed way passed what his body could handle, almost died again. Was he really okay? Would it matter if he wasn’t?

 

“There’s nothing wrong with feeling Kakashi,” Bushytail’s voice echoed in his mind.

 

He still wasn’t sure. “Sorry for making you worry. I’m okay,” he forced a smile, the most cheerful he could manage. “It’s good of you guys to drop by like this. Really. It’s nice to see you all.”

The worried atmosphere shattered, replaced by joy and sincere smiles. To be fooled so easily, they really were young, weren’t they? Made him feel bad for lying like this, but he didn’t want to talk about what had happened. Not here, not now.

 

67: 

 

They didn’t stay for long, not with the way the sky was growing dark outside the window. Ichigo had suffered under the dreaded curfew for the entirety of this life and the last, so he meant it when he hoped they wouldn’t get in trouble over this. Despite that, he’d be lying if he said he didn’t wish they’d stayed a bit longer.

With them gone, the emptiness around him was highlighted. No smell of Yuzu’s cooking, no sneak attacks from Goat-Chin, no sound of Karin’s snores. Would he ever get used to this empty feeling in his chest? A part of him didn’t want to. It felt too much like forgetting.

The rest of him just wanted out of this hospital. This place reminded him too much of the Kurosaki clinic. The smell of antiseptic, the plain walls, the hospital bed; the similarities were making it hard for him to relax. To avoid. He’d rather sleep his injuries off somewhere else. Anywhere else.

Kicking off the blanket, he sat up. Peeled the tape off his wrist and tugged out the IV. Blood welled up on his wrist but he didn’t pay it any mind, already crawling over to the window and yanking it open with one decisive tug. It wasn’t hard to figure out why the window had budged so easily. Honestly. Why did shinobi have to act like they were allergic to doors?

Rolling his eyes, he swung his bandaged feet outside the window. He was sizing up the two-story jump when he heard it. A whine. It was the years spent caring for his sisters that had him turning before he could process why.

Through the weak rays of light filtering in through the window, he watched Tag-along sit up and extend a tiny hand towards the window. Extend it towards him.

“You’re up,” he said, surprise momentarily blocking out the sheer need to get out of this place.

Tag-along crawled out from under the covers, clumsy in a way only a small child could be. He grabbed the edge of the bed, moved as if to lower himself to the floor. And proceeded to fall headfirst over the side.

“Ah! Hey!!” Ichigo was crouching by the boy not a minute later.

Tag-along placed a hand over the sizable knot already forming on the crown of his head, looking completely baffled by this turn of events. As though the concept of falling in itself was foreign to him.

A bead of blood rolled down the arm he’d raised, and with a jolt, Ichigo realized the IV had gotten yanked out during the fall. Crap! He looked the room over, honing in on the gauze that had been placed on the end table between their beds. The same gauze he’d pilfered from that masked shinobi by the looks of it. Guess that would have to do for now.

He rolled it around Tag-along’s wrist twice for good measure, couldn’t find anything to cut it with, gave up and rolled it two additional times, polishing off the gauze altogether.

Tag-along raised his now bandaged arm to inspect, turning it around and giving it a swing. Oddly enough, he was still yet to cry. Even if he wasn’t in pain, that fall should have scared him at least. At this age, Karin and Yuzu would have been inconsolable.

So why did Tag-along seem more interested in the gauze than the injury itself? Not for the first time, Ichigo wondered how long the kid had been in that tank, but aloud, he said, “You’re not going to stay here if I leave, are you?”

Finally looking up from his arm, Tag-along blinked.

“Okay. That’s all right then,” he ran a hand through his spiky silver hair. “You can just come with me.”

He’d be lying if he said he was fine with leaving Tag-along alone anyways. Someone needed to be around to protect the kid in case Orochimaru showed up again. Nodding along to his flawless logic, Ichigo scooped the two-year-old off the floor and walked over to the window.

Giving the ground outside one last considering look, he slid his toes onto the ledge and jumped. Pain shot up his ankles upon landing, jittery and stinging. He didn’t let that stop him though, drawing in a breath through gritted teeth and readjusting his hold on Tag-along. The frost-covered grass soothed the burning in his feet if nothing else.

If Tag-along minded the sudden drop in temperature, he gave no sign of it, too busy playing with his bandaged arm. This, along with their current choice in wardrobe, earned them a number of odd looks as Ichigo carried him through the village, but nobody tried to stop them.

It didn’t take long for the path to empty, stars peeking out from between the clouds, vibrant in a way they had never been in the polluted city sky. He didn’t mind giving his throbbing feet a rest because of this, sitting in the center of a weathered staircase.

“Look,” he said, raising a finger towards the stars.

Tag-along followed the gesture, wonder widening his eyes until Ichigo could have sworn the kid’s dark irises were reflecting the stars. Without looking away, he raised his gauze-wrapped wrist to his mouth and resumed the very important task of trying to stuff the entire thing into it.

Ichigo huffed out a laugh. Guess the kid liked them too.

Now, if only Ichigo could remember how to reach the Hatake compound from here. It was like... a left at that street up ahead. Maybe. Then a right. Possibly. Darn it. Why did he have to be unable to channel chakra into his feet now of all times!? This would be so much easier if he could get a higher vantage point!

At this rate he was gonna have to wander around all night until he found somewhere familiar! As if summoned by the thought, a spike of pain shot up his legs. Hissing out his next breath, he ran a hand over his right ankle, immediately regretting it when the swollen appendage burned in response.

“Ow!”

“Kakashi-kun?”

Ichigo peered over his shoulder. Blinked. “...Genma-kun?”

 

X

 

x

 

What Tsunade didn’t tell the Hatake brat was that the other children were barely clinging onto life. The real reason the nurses caved to that little tag-along’s demands was to keep him from seeing in case they... didn’t make it. Orochimaru had done quite a number on them.

Knowing that her former teammate had been responsible for this, knowing that he had gone behind her back and desecrated the memory of her late grandfather to do it, she should be surprised. She should be. She wasn’t.

Orochimaru had always struggled to see the obvious when morals came into question, without her or Jiraiya around to tell him what was what, of course he’d slipped through the cracks. She never could have predicted this, never in a million years, but it didn’t surprise her. It did, however, infuriate her beyond all rational thought. That was the real reason she gave in to her former sensei’s request, why she was currently sitting in the place she’d been doing her best to avoid since the Second War concluded.

When she got her hands on that snake he was going to be sorry! She was going to slaughter him!!

Rage flared through her and the pen in her hand snapped. She glared at the pen like it was its own fault before tossing it across the room and into the trash bin. The THUNK that rang out made a few of the sweaty, sick children stir, but they did not wake. Probably for the best.

Tsunade fished a spare pen out of her pocket, making a mental note to be more gentle with this one. She only had two spares left.

Sitting on the floor surrounded by textbooks and medical files, Tsunade balanced her clipboard on her lap and reread her notes. Swelling, rashes, shortness of breath, high fevers, shaking, full-body pain.

It wasn’t the Mokuton cells themselves that were killing the children, it was their own immune systems. Their bodies had identified the Mokuton cells as foreign agents and were trying to eliminate them, sending their chakra to levels their coils could not handle and raising their body temperature to deadly elevations.

They’d already taken samples from the boy who’d acclimated in an attempt to figure out how, but it would take weeks to arrive at any conclusive results. These children didn’t have that long.

She’d gone over a number of possible solutions during the last four hours, and she felt no closer to an answer than when she’d started. If she had received these children within a day of the procedure that caused this entire mess, she may have been able to reverse it, but at this point, the cells were too mixed in with the children’s DNA for her to safely extract them. Tsunade may be renown for her losses at the gambling table, but even she knew such a procedure would be a sucker’s bet.

The fact of the matter was, those children wouldn’t survive it. For every single Mokuton cell she managed to pull out, she’d wind up taking double the amount of normal cells alongside it. Cells those children very much needed to stay alive, now more than ever.

Which was unfortunate, because if she left the Mokuton cells in their bodies, they’d die anyway. Even while she sat there brainstorming, the Mokuton cells continued to reproduce and spread, making whatever procedure she came up with all the more risky. Again, the pen began to bend beneath her fingers.

It didn’t matter where Orochimaru hid, she was going to track him down and—

The pen was arching and creaking and cracking along the sides when she realized. Track. Tsunade’s gaze drifted to her hand. Her grandfather’s cells. That was it!

What if she made a seal capable of tracking down the Mokuton cells and eliminating them? If she added her own DNA to the seal as a guiding factor... Her DNA may not be a perfect replica of her grandfather’s, but it would be enough to influence the seal’s path, to make it target the cells similar to her own. If she engineered it right, this seal would be enough to tip the odds in their favor.

Now. What would it look like?

She was halfway through the initial blueprint when one of the patients, a girl who couldn’t have been any older than two, got her IV snagged in the covers, causing it to tear out of her wrist.

Tsunade was at her side in an instant, a fresh needle already in hand and. And. There was blood. Oh god Tsunade couldn’t stand the sight of blood. Not since the war. Not since Dan.

Going over it in medical theory and actually seeing it were two different things. Her entire body was shaking, shaking as though she too was going into shock. And yet. And yet!

Nawaki’s smiling face burned behind her eyes. She remembered the way he used to wake her whenever he had a nightmare, remembered the way he would puff out his lower lip and try to act tough despite the tears glistening in his eyes. ‘It looked like you were having a bad dream,’ he would lie, and she would smile and flick him on the forehead. He used to get so indignant when she did that.

Oh. God. How she missed him. And the thought of seeing even one more child die...

Tsunade drew in a breath to steady her shaking hand, and the needle dipped into skin.

 

X

 

x

 

Sakumo didn’t look at the Sandaime as they walked. The chilly air had done wonders for quelling his fury to a manageable level but he had not changed his mind. He knew the Sandaime wanted to dissuade him from pursuing Danzō—the fact the man had decided to question Kakashi himself was proof enough he wanted this matter handled discreetly—and Sakumo understood why.

Conflict within the village was the last thing they needed. Already, students were being funneled out of the Academy at a faster pace, the Council desperate to fill the gaps that had been left in their ranks from the previous war. They couldn’t afford to look weak, couldn’t afford to be weak, not with one of their strongest shinobi now a missing-nin. Not with a war brewing on the horizon.

Sakumo understood this. But he also understood that a single rotten apple could spoil the rest of the batch. If these charges were true, Danzō was dangerous. Dangerous, insubordinate, and downright treasonous. The Sandaime would be a fool to turn a blind eye to this. They may be weakened without Danzō but they were better off without the threat of a knife sliding into their backs.

The Sandaime paused outside the door to Kakashi’s hospital room. “Sakumo-san,” he said, and by his tone, Sakumo could tell there was more he wanted to say. A beat passed, two, three, the Sandaime lowered his hat as if to shield himself from the onslaught of fluorescent lights overhead. “I’ll return tomorrow at zero seven hundred hours to get Kakashi-kun’s side of the story.”

“I’ll see you then, Sandaime-sama,” Sakumo said, and if his tone was a little icy, who could blame him?

The Sandaime didn’t need another hint. With a polite nod, he walked passed Sakumo and vanished around the corner. Sakumo wasn’t naive enough to believe this would be the end of the matter. But that wasn’t important right now. His son came first.

Shoving his concerns aside, he grabbed the handle of the door his son was surely on the other side of and pulled. A second after, the intense feeling of wrong that smacked into him was enough to snatch the wind from his lungs. No sneak attack. Kakashi always ambushed him after missions. Always.

Most people would be relieved at the absence of a foot rocketing towards them, and maybe he should have been too. Maybe he should have known it wouldn’t happen this time. Not when his son was in the hospital. In the hospital because Sakumo hadn’t been there to protect him, because Sakumo had failed him. And yet, somewhere in the back of his mind, he had been waiting for it.

At some point, he had begun to associate those little ambushes with coming home, had refused to allow his tense shoulders and twitchy hands to relax until a blur of silver had slammed into him, welcoming him back in its own awkward way. Now without it, without that brand of normalcy, Sakumo’s world was thrown off-kilter once again. This feeling was not helped by what he saw. Or, well, what he didn’t.

A gust of air heavy with the smell of frost filtered in through an open window, brushing against the rumpled sheets his son should have been resting underneath. Should have been. Kakashi wasn’t there. Why wasn’t he there?

Sakumo blinked, once, twice. Stepped backward into the hall. Checked the number on the wall. This was Kakashi’s room. Of course it was, the Sandaime had personally escorted Sakumo here. So where was—?

The next breeze carried the smell of iron as it rustled through his hair. Not an uncommon smell in a hospital, but a splotch of red against otherwise colorless sheets hinted that this time was different. Because the blood was in this room. In this room where it should not be.

Sakumo was at the bed in an instant, fingers dipping into it. The blood was cold and sticky in texture, but it was liquid enough to return with his finger. It’d been here for at least half an hour.

Raising his head, he located another splotch on the windowsill, smeared in such a way, it was clear somebody had stepped in it. The scene didn’t improve from there. The sheets on the second bed were tossed onto the floor in such a way someone had obviously knocked them onto the floor. There had been a struggle.

The IV resting across the floor supported this notion, the needle still stained with blood. From the looks of it, it had been ripped out carelessly, and the patches of blood around the room showed the injury produced hadn’t been patched. Whatever fight had occurred here had been brief.

In his ears, a ringing not unlike the aftereffects of an explosion began. His hand rose on its own, sharp canines easily breaking the skin on his thumb, fingers moving in a motion that had long since become second nature.

POOF!

Smoke overtook the room, dispersing just as fast. Shiro stared up at him, attentive. He’d gotten better about summoning her around the compound after the scolding she’d given him, but Shiro never entered this plane of existence with her guard lowered. That was something he loved about the husky, her quiet ferocity and sharp intelligence. He knew he could always count on her whenever he found himself in a pinch. Like tonight, for example.

“I need you to find Kakashi,” he said, exhausted mind revving back into full-blown mission mode.

Had he been thinking rationally, he would have remembered the Sandaime assigned an ANBU squad to guard Kakashi. Had he been thinking rationally, he would have realized a scuffle of this degree would have been heard, whether by a nurse or the patients in the neighboring rooms. He wasn’t though, wasn’t thinking at all as he relived the panic and fury from hours ago when Kakashi’s friends told him his son was missing.

Shiro, bless her, didn’t ask any questions, only lowered her nose to the floor and got to work. When she leaped through the window, Sakumo was right behind her.

 

X

 

x

 

68:

 

An achy, itchy pain shot up his foot and Ichigo stumbled, grabbing the wall for support. Throb throb throb. The pain medicine had definitely worn off at this point.

“You still hanging in there?”

His forehead stuck to the wall a bit when he turned his head to Genma, who was toeing off his sandals by the front door with Tag-along perched in his arms.

“I can manage.”

“You look like you could use a hospital,” Genma remarked, eyeing him up and down. “If you go back on your own the nurses will show you mercy.”

Keeping a hand against the wall, Ichigo forced himself to take another step. “Speaking from. Experience?”

“Maybe. My mom—” He broke off, expression turning every bit as pained as Ichigo’s own. Or it was, until Tag-along grabbed a fistful of his hair and yanked. Genma yelped.

Probably for the best. Nearly getting scalped by a toddler was an excellent distraction if nothing else.

Ichigo took that next step, grabbing the doorway to the kitchen and hauling himself inside it. Collapsed with his back sliding down the frame. Should have gotten his prescription filled on the way back. Hold on. Did Konoha even have a pharmacy?

“Where do you want the little terror?” Genma asked with a meaningful look at Tag-along.

“You can just set him down right there,” Ichigo said a tad absently as he tried to recall for the life of him if Bushytail had ever mentioned any pharmacies.

Genma squinted at him. Proceeded to lean against the wall and most certainly didn’t put Tag-along down. Wait, was he going to—?

Ichigo’s hands flew up. “You don’t have to do that! Really! It’s fine, you’ve already done enough just by getting us here!”

Genma raised an eyebrow at his bandaged feet. “You’re going to take care of him?”

On cue, Tag-along’s stomach rumbled.

Genma shot him a look as if to say ‘see what I mean,’ before pushing away from the wall and sweeping into the kitchen like he belonged here.

Ichigo, to his credit, only hesitated for a second before hauling himself up and following. “Are you,” he winced against a stab of pain. “Sure? About this?”

“I’ve been living at the orphanage for a couple days now, I can handle a toddler or two.”

“The Orphanage huh? How’s that been?” Then he realized. “Wait. Wait you just called me a toddler, didn’t you!?”

“Me?” Genma’s impassive expression didn’t change as he tugged the fridge open. “I would never.”

Grabbing onto the counter for support, Ichigo cast him a glare that showed exactly how he felt about that. “Something tells me your full of it.”

“Well if the genius says so it must be true.”

“You know what, I liked you a lot better when you weren’t talking.”

Shrugging, Genma peeled the tin foil off a bowl of leftovers. A horrid smell wafted out, soon followed by a purple miasma. Despite his dealings with the afterlife, Ichigo never had the misfortune of smelling death itself. Until now. That was most certainly a miasma of concentrated death.

The fridge door was gently closed. Now sliced in two, the remnants of the purple miasma spiraled towards the ceiling.

Genma backed away, one step, two, three, bumped into the counter, all the while shaking his head from left to right. As if he couldn’t believe what he had witnessed. As if he didn’t want to.

For several heartbeats, the kitchen stayed silent.

“Rice,” Genma finally rasped. “Do you have any rice?”

“Top cabinet,” Ichigo said, unable to pry his gaze away from the fridge. Could a miasma of death melt through fridge doors?

He really hoped not.

Genma set Tag-along down, grabbing a chair and carrying it to the cabinet. This was enough to break the trance he’d fallen into, and with one last suspicious glance at the fridge, Ichigo pointedly turned away from it.

Talk about a rough day. Now that he’d had some time to process everything, he couldn’t help but wonder what else had happened. For starters, where the heck was Jirichio? And Orochimaru, had they caught him yet? If not, what about those masked shinobi he’d fought? Had they taken them into custody? Would he hear about it if they had?

He wished he could say it was his physical age that had him worried he’d be left out of the loop, but in his last life, people had made it a habit to never tell him crap until he was already knee-deep in trouble. If they told him. Otherwise, he was forced to find out the unpleasant way, and by unpleasant, he meant nearly getting chopped in half by a power-hungry maniac then having to listen to the guy monologue for the next five hours. That kind of unpleasant.

“You know,” Genma said, hopping to the floor with a box of rice. “It’s strange. Even though you’re the talk of the village I’ve never heard about you having a younger brother. Where are the pots?”

“Drawer next to the fridge.” Also, wow. What a way to call him a social pariah. “You’re a real comedian, you know that? And he’s not my brother.”

Genma froze with the pot pulled halfway out. “Tell me you didn’t just swipe him off the streets.”

“Of course not, I’m not some weirdo!” He glanced at Tag-along, watching as he opened and closed the drawer, ‘oohing’ each time it shut. “I swiped him from the hospital.”

“Right, my mistake,” Genma deadpanned, filling the pot with water and placing it on the burner. “That totally makes it okay then.”

“I’m glad you see it my way.”

Rolling his eyes, Genma stepped beside Tag-along and closed the drawer with his foot, holding it in place. “For real. Whose kid is this?”

Ichigo was trying to think up a non-traumatizing way to explain Tag-along’s situation when the toddler in question let out a frustrated whine. That whine was all the warning they got before he banged his pudgy fists onto the floor and a spike of wood shot from the cabinet, inches from Genma’s foot. It didn’t stop there, polished wood stretching like putty in invisible hands, twisting and rolling until a tree the width of his thumb was jutting into the air, needle-thin branches diverging along the sides like ribs. Probably should have seen that coming.

Genma jumped back, face bleached of color.

Tag-along, on the other hand, stared up at the tree with wide, adoring eyes. Reaching up, he coiled his chubby fingers around the trunk, pulled it and—

Skrrk, came the drawer. Released it and bang, went the drawer.

Ichigo dropped his face into his hands. Well wasn’t this great? “First I get freakin’ abducted and now I’m gonna get grounded. Thanks a lot kid.”

Tag-along threw him a smile, “Ah!”

Genma blinked. Once, twice. Shook his head. “Your family’s crazy.”

“Can’t argue that,” he said. Of course, a beat later the implications reached him. He was about to remind him that, again, Tag-along wasn’t his brother when the smell of frost reached his nose.

Which shouldn’t be possible. He would have heard the front door open, and there was no way someone opened a window. Genma had been with him this entire time, and Ichigo had—

Wait. Had he reactivated the seals?

He thought back to limping through the gate, to the way his left foot had snagged on the right, to the way he had stumbled. He’d spent the rest of the way insisting he was fine. So. He hadn’t reactivated them. He doubted he’d even closed the gate. Which meant literally anyone could have walked inside.

Heart speeding up, he turned towards the kitchen doorway. A shadow came into view, stretching across the floorboards outside the kitchen. Ichigo moved.

Sliding a cleaver out of the knife block, he pulled Tag-along away from the drawer and ducked out of sight. Genma’s head snapped over to him, eyes widening. Before Ichigo could tell him to do the same, he was already in motion, drawing a senbon out of practically thin air and dropping into a crouch. He didn’t speak, didn’t ask any questions, only nodded. The anxious twitch in his fingers gave him away though. This was probably his first time in a real combat situation.

Promising himself he’d keep an eye on the kid, Ichigo crept along the side of the counter. Genma went the opposite direction, stopping at the edge and shooting him a look. Ichigo raised his hand, using the Wait signal he’d learned in class, held it.

Footsteps entered the kitchen, one, two, three, four, each step bringing the person closer. He adjusted his grip on the cleaver on the fifth step, splaying his fingers evenly across the hilt. Readied his knee on the sixth. Then came the seventh.

Making the Go signal, he grabbed the edge of the counter and flung himself over it, using the top as a springboard to shoot himself through the air, slashing where a throat should have been. Should have been because his attack was sidestepped with room to spare, the flat of a hand redirecting his arm and, in turn, his momentum, making him spin until his back was to them. Right as he started to fall he was snagged out of the air, one hand sliding under his knees, the other around his shoulders.

Room spinning, feet aching, he jerked his head up to find—

“Dad!”

Bushytail didn’t respond, too busy looking him over with a sharp glare Ichigo had never seen on the man before. Ichigo was shifted into one arm, Bushytail drawing his tantō with the other, facing the rest of the kitchen as if he expected an army. When all he saw was Genma, he blinked. Gave the kitchen another once-over.

“Shiro?”

Shiro? Pulling himself farther up Bushytail’s shoulder, he peered at the doorway, finding Bushytail’s summon sitting there with her tail tucked neatly over her paws.

She tipped her head. “I don’t smell anyone dangerous.”

Bushytail lowered his tantō. Gave the kitchen another once-over. Blinked. Then he was pulling Ichigo into a crushing hug.

For the first time since the hospital, he felt himself relax. The muscles in his shoulders loosened, the stress and worry that had been gripping his heart relinquished its hold. It was going to be okay now.

He knew it was a bit childish, the belief that a parent could fix anything, that they were larger than life, but after everything that had happened, it felt nice to give into that childish side of himself, just this once.

“Kakashi. I’m home.”

“Welcome back dad.”

 

69:

 

Trotting further into the kitchen, Shiro rolled her eyes. “You can put the poor pup down now boss.”

“Kakashi isn’t supposed to be walking,” Bushytail said, and had Ichigo not known the man so well, he would’ve missed the tinge of panic in his words.

That was when the guilt set in. Okay, so admittedly, it was possible sneaking out of the hospital within a day of having been abducted wasn’t Ichigo’s best idea. Maybe. He could have at least left a letter. He could have even coded it like Rukia would’ve done!

At the memories of misshapen bunny-like creatures that flooded his mind, he reconsidered. On second thought, scratch that.

Still. He should have done something. “Bushytail. I—”

“Should I be worried?” Bushytail interrupted and Ichigo couldn’t hide his wince. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you’re really trying to kill me now.”

Oh. Ichigo looked at the cleaver still in his hand. He meant that.

Forcing the guilt aside the best he could, he said, “Yeah right, like you’d have to be worried even if I was trying to kill you.”

“I don’t know, you’re getting better every day,” Bushytail remarked, raising his gaze to the ceiling as he feigned thought. “And look, you’re starting to wisen up, recruiting strange children to help you.”

That was when Ichigo noticed the senbon pinned between Bushytail’s fingers, positioned as if he’d snatched it out of the air. Turning his head, he found Genma standing by the counter, staring at them with such horror written across his face, Ichigo would have thought he’d accidentally tripped the Sandaime.

Bushytail smiled. “Good evening Genma-kun.”

Genma flinched. Jerked into a bow. “I’m sorry for intruding Hatake-sama!”

Sama? What the heck was he being that respectful for? It was only Bushytail.

A huff from Shiro echoed the sentiment as she scanned the kitchen from side-to-side. She moved towards the fridge.

“There’s no need to be so formal,” Bushytail said.

“Hatake-san,” Genma corrected, straightening up.

A nod. “Genma-kun. Kakashi,” he said in the same tone anyone else would ask about the weather. “Care to explain why there’s a tree in my kitchen?”

Ichigo winced. He’d actually managed to forget about that during the chaos. “Right, that was my fault. I’m sorry.”

Bushytail looked about as confused and exasperated as any sane person would after having their child confess to bringing an actual tree into the kitchen. He blinked hard as if to clear his vision. When the tree remained unmoving and very much real, he sheathed his tantō and said, “Explain.”

On cue, a high-pitched squeal sounded out, coming from the other side of the counters. Where Tag-along was.

Confusion vanishing without a trace of having been there, Bushytail’s expression smoothed into an emotionless slate.

Aw crap he was getting mad! Abort!! “W—” Ichigo averted his gaze. “What? I didn’t hear anything.”

“In that case, how do you know I heard something?

Darnit he was good!!

In a flourish of white, Shiro swept around the counter, carrying Tag-along by the back of his shirt like a disobedient puppy.

Bushytail tensed, and for a second, Ichigo thought he was seriously about to get grounded. But instead of dishing out punishments and scolding him furiously, his dad’s voice grew frantic with worry. “Kakashi,” he said. “Please tell me you didn’t steal someone’s child!”

Genma snorted.

“Wha— I—! Look I didn’t steal him, okay!? Why does everyone keep asking me that!!?”

Bushytail didn’t seem comforted by his words, watching Shiro set Tag-along down at his feet. “It’s pertinent.”

“Like hell it is!!”

“Language.”

Hss hss hss, the boiling water began to bubble over the sides of the pot, startling them both into silence.

Genma gestured vaguely to the stove. “I’ll just—”  He hurried over to it.

While Genma resumed his task of cooking rice and Bushytail prodded at Tag-along with his foot like the startled toddler was a strange creature he had never seen before, Ichigo pinched the bridge of his nose against an oncoming migraine. Why did things always have to turn out like this?

 

X

 

x

 

The nameless shinobi sat on the floor with her legs tucked neatly under her. Though she remained idle, her mind most certainly was not, gaze traveling the room, taking stock of her surroundings. White floor. White wall. Bright lights that refracted off them, creating a sense of disorientation and a sharp stab behind her eyes.

Logically she knew there was a door, but it was not visible, just as despite there being a window, she could not see through the other side. She was an insect pinned beneath a microscope. She was trapped, helpless as captors she could not see observed her every move.

Her fingers twitched, the only sign she was bothered at all. Normally, even this much wouldn’t have slipped out, but there was a smell in the air not unlike boiling sugar, a smell that had her eyelids drooping and her limbs uncoordinated. Her kikaichū were much the same, skittering across her drunkenly, falling off her skin asleep. They were being poisoned. Not a deadly dosage by the feel of it, but enough to leave her vulnerable. This room must have been designed for shinobi like her.

Folding her hands over her lap, she thought about her training. Thought about torture, the lessons, what Shimura wanted of her. After their initiation into ROOT they had been given strict orders to end things should a situation such as this ever come to pass. While the cursed seals on their tongues ensured they could never outright divulge anything concerning the foundation and their many missions, there were other ways an interrogator could extract what they wanted. Especially in a village filled with Yamanaka.

Unfortunately, her captors had taken her suicide pills. She supposed she could always bite her tongue in half and choke on the blood. Or maybe she could remove the gauze from her shoulder and let the blood run freely?

Despite the ideas buzzing around inside her head, she did not move.

The gauze. An image of the young Hatake flashed through her mind, the brief glimpse she had gotten of the boy before unconsciousness took hold of her for good, the glimpse of him unraveling a roll of gauze and reaching for her.

She did not want to remove this gauze. She did not want to bite her tongue. Somehow, the thought of doing so felt like an act of betrayal. Her chest hurt, hurt as though her heart had skipped several beats. Drawing in a breath, she pushed it down into her lungs with force and held it for several seconds. That should have been enough to send her heart back into rhythm. So why did it still hurt? And. Why had the boy saved her life?

In the distance, a chakra signature belonging to a fellow ROOT agent vanished. They had done their duty. In another minute, the signatures belonging to the other captured members would also vanish. To pull this off, they would have to be fast, they would have to act before their captors realized what was happening.

She knew this. The knowledge wasn’t enough to make her move.

Maybe it was the faint memories of her time before ROOT—the constant buzz of insects, wind rustling her hair, mochi sticking to her fingers, the way her mother’s smile parted her lips into a graceful crescent—and the pain in her chest sharpened into a stab that felt of wanting. She had forgotten what it felt like. To want.

What should she do? By remaining stoic, she was disobeying orders. ROOT agents did not disobey orders. And yet. She couldn’t will her body into motion.

A young boy she owed, a woman she longed to see, pain at the thought of failing to accomplish either task.

The rest of the chakra signatures vanished. The nameless shinobi closed her eyes. Still, she did not move.

Chapter Text

X

 

x

 

Jiraiya stared up at the sky, so dark, it was as though a crow the size of the planet had wrapped its wings around the moon and stars. A wisp of clouds had blown in twenty minutes ago, stretching across the darkness and glinting in the faint moonlight like the edge of feathers. Overhead, dark branches shook in the wind, but it did little to banish the image his mind had constructed. Yatagarasu, a crow with many legs.

In all the folktales Jiraiya had read over the years, Yatagarasu had been the only creature that could make the famed toad sage shudder. Yatagarasu represented change, represented divine intervention. Nobody could fight that sort of thing. Nobody could escape it. He would know, he was currently trapped in the torrents of a prophecy of his own, one that would determine the fate of this entire world.

That scared him more than he’d like to admit. Especially right now. How could Jiraiya teach the child of prophecy to save the world when he himself couldn’t save a single friend?

Something wet and coldcoldcold slapped into the center of his forehead, dragging his attention away from mythical crows and the sky that bore down on him like an omen. Scrubbing a hand along his forehead, he smeared a fleck of snow across his brow, making his already chilled skin burn.

Another fleck of snow danced to the ground. Then another. Then another. As though a dam had burst open, snow began to rain from the heavens.

But Jiraiya didn’t move. Didn’t shield himself, only flicked his eyes to the side as he finally acknowledged the reality he’d been desperately trying to ignore. That his former teammate was a little ways away, bloodied and unconscious after taking on the brunt of two full ANBU squads and Jiraiya at the same time. He’d held his own well, better than most would have, but after several long hours and two casualties, they’d finally managed to overwhelm him.

Pressing his hand against the lukewarm spot on his stomach, he pulled it back to find his palm drenched in red. Orochimaru really hadn’t held anything back, and despite the way every single fiber of his being had cried out in protest, neither had Jiraiya. After all, Sakumo was his friend and Kakashi was his friend’s son. There were certain things Jiraiya couldn’t let slide, and someone hurting the kid was one of them. He wasn’t that far gone just yet.

Not that it made this any easier. This wasn’t some nameless shinobi, this was Orochimaru, this was someone he’d known for his entire life!! Rolling his head across the ground, he forced his gaze to the long, dark hair strewn around Orochimaru’s motionless form. He still couldn’t look at his former teammate head-on, it was too much, too painful. He’d thought if he just kept his eyes on that girly hair instead he’d be able to keep his cool. He’d miscalculated. That stupid hair just made the memories come back faster.

A twelve-year-old Orochimaru quietly lost in his own thoughts as he stared up at a peaceful azure sky. Jiraiya messing up how much chakra was needed for a simple katon jutsu and panicking when the scalding heat rose up his throat. He’d shot around to ask his teammate for help but rather than words, a roaring jet of flames had burst from his mouth, missing Orochimaru’s head by mere inches. Unfortunately, it had not missed the entire left side of his hair.

Orochimaru had stared at him dumbly as the left side of his hair disappeared into ash and the ends curled into sizzling bits below his ear. Jiraiya, on the other hand, had processed that turn of events in 00.01 seconds and booked it for the village gate with plans of resettling somewhere far, far away and starting his life anew. He hadn’t been fast enough.

It was hard to associate the image of Orochimaru (teammate, brother, friend) chasing after him with a ridiculous haircut and promises to maim him with the one now laying on the ground.

‘Who are you,’ he wanted to ask.

When had his love for jutsu turned into this? When had his fear of death become an obsession!? When had his friend changed this much? Become someone unrecognizable!? Someone he didn’t even know anymore!?

His eyes stung but he tucked the emotion away with practiced ease. Now wasn’t the time for this. He was a shinobi with a mission and he’d be damned if he didn’t finish it!!

A chakra signature spiked at his left, making him open the eyes he hadn’t realized he’d squeezed shut. Rat was hobbling over to him, mask covered in scratches and blood pouring from a nasty bite on their calf. Orochimaru’s snakes had done quite a number on them. Darn it.

“Boar and Tiger are spent,” Rat said, voice thick with pain. “They need medical care.”

They weren’t the only ones. Nobody had left this fight without any scars. Teeth grinding with enough force to make his entire jaw ache, he slammed his fist onto the ground. The hardest part of the mission had been accomplished, so why? Why did Jiraiya feel like he’d failed!?

 

X

 

x

 

70:

 

Ichigo rested his arms on the table as he watched Bushytail bump Tag-along up and down on his knee. In turn, Tag-along looked more relaxed than Ichigo had ever seen him, weight leaned fully into Bushytail’s chest, visible eye drooping more and more with every soothing tune Bushytail hummed.

Ichigo smiled at the sight. At times like this, it was hard to see Tag-along for anything besides for the toddler he was. No weird green stuff, no crazy scientist, just a toddler who should really be in bed right now.

He shot the Sandaime a scowl at that. Not only had the old man shown up at their doorstep at ass’o’clock in the morning, he’d ordered Bushytail to round them up at the kitchen table. Even Genma had been forced out of bed, hair a mess and practically drowning in the oversized t-shirt and pants they’d lent him to sleep in.

“Does little man always grow trees when he throws a fit?” The woman—Adzuki, she’d reminded him no less than a minute ago—asked, looking far more amused by the saplings poking out of the kitchen table than Ichigo felt was necessary.

As it turned out, Tag-along did not take kindly to being roused at this hour. And as that turned out, rather than kick his feet and throw a tantrum, Tag-along preferred to express himself through the exemplary science of botany. Which meant trees. Lots and lots of trees.

Ichigo was so not in the mood for this. Following that train of thought, he elbowed Genma under the table.

Without so much as blinking, Genma said, “Who knows.”

At the head of the table, the Sandaime set his cup down with a clunk that succeeded in drawing the attention of exactly no one. A beat passed, two, three, the Sandaime lowered his head and sighed. “Kakashi-kun. Although a great many of my shinobi like to engage in the practice, you are not permitted to leave the hospital before you’ve been officially discharged.”

Not for the first time since being rudely awoken, a silent battle of wills was initiated between the two of them, the Sandaime staring, waiting for Ichigo to submit, Ichigo staring at him and decidedly Not Doing That.

The Sandaime may possess the kind of stone-faced edge that came with years of combat experience, but Ichigo had spent years in the public schooling system so not only had he lived through hell, he’d had to get up every morning and go there willingly.

Genma yawned, jaw stretching wide enough to nearly dislodge the senbon he was... chewing on now. For some reason.

The Sandaime’s gaze snapped to him. “And Shiranui-kun, by lending Kakashi-kun aid in that situation, you are just as much in the wrong.”

“M’ sorry, Sandaime-sama,” Genma mumbled tiredly, clearly not meaning a word. “Next time I’ll just leave them out there to freeze to death.”

Ichigo cast him a surprised look at that. Genma was taking up for him?

Again, the Sandaime sighed. Then he shot Bushytail a look that clearly said ‘control the children.’

Without taking his eyes off Tag-along, Bushytail said, “Genma-kun, classes will be starting soon, why don’t you start getting ready? There should be an unopened box of toothbrushes under the sink, you can pick one to use whenever you’re over.”

Genma blinked, visibly startled. But whether it was from the prospect of his escape or the fact he now had a toothbrush here, Ichigo couldn’t tell.

Genma opened his mouth, closed it, nodded wordlessly. Without any further preamble, Genma slid out of the chair and fled into the hallway.

Once he was out of earshot, the Sandaime shot Ichigo a look he knew well.

“What do you wanna know?” Ichigo asked with a sigh of his own.

 

71:

 

“So you really can punch ghosts? Pretty dope little dude.”

Ichigo glanced at Adzuki. Her scarlet lips were slanted in the same cocky smirk she’d walked in with and she was twirling a strand of hair that’d slipped out of her ponytail. She kinda reminded him of Yoruichi—even the hair color was the same—but where Yoruichi was dark Adzuki was pale, and her eyes were more olive than yellow.

“Basically,” he said. Then to the Sandaime, “I thought this was supposed to be classified?”

The Sandaime wouldn’t have let her stay if she wasn’t already in the loop, but still. Too many people already knew about the otherside as it was. This stuff was kept secret from humans for a reason, the Quincy were a prime example of just how wrong humans knowing about the spiritual world could go.

“Adzuki-san is the leader of T and I and more than qualified to have knowledge of any S- rank information within the village.” 

“Qualified as in it’s a part of my job kiddo,” Adzuki cut in with a wink. “And I take any and all breaches in village security not caused by me very seriously.”

Ichigo blinked. “So you like. Handle information or something?”

Adzuki’s eyes snapped to his with such speed, he nearly flinched. A beat passed, two, three, her vicious smile loosened into something lazy. Despite that, the sharp glint didn’t leave them. “Sorry brat, that’s classified information, but hey, maybe I’ll tell you after you’ve been properly potty trained, yeah?”

Ichigo’s eyebrows twitched into a scowl. This lady was seriously starting to get on his nerves. “You’re hilarious.”

“I try.”

Well, that line of questioning had cleared up exactly nothing. Taking advantage of the ensuing silence, he mulled over his next words. “That guy, Orochimaru, he said my power was more than just a— a—”

A... What was it again? Daikon radish? No. No, that didn’t sound right. Tofu!? No! Neither of those were right and why was he so stuck on food!!?

As if to answer him, his stomach rumbled. He gave up, gesturing vaguely with the hand he wasn’t leaning on. “—something.”

The Sandaime took a sip of his tea. “A Dōjutsu?”

“Yeah. That.”

“It is not unheard of for a child to instinctively tap into their kekkai genkai when they feel as if their life is in danger,” the Sandaime began. “There could be more to your power than we initially realized.”

Ichigo tried his best to look like this applied to him in some way. Honestly there was no point in speculating over it; he already knew what had happened to him and it definitely wasn’t a kekkai genkai.

“There are also known cases of kekkai genkai evolving whenever the host is put under a traumatic amount of stress, and even of individuals possessing more than one of them. Would you walk me through what happened when he noted this in further detail, Kakashi-kun?”

Ichigo would really rather not. This must have shown on his face because the Sandaime shot Bushytail a look.

Bushytail, unfortunately, was much too busy rocking Tag-along. Clearly this was a task that required all of his attention.

The Sandaime’s eyebrow twitched. He tried Ichigo again. “I was told there were third-degree burns inside your chakra coils, as well as signs of stretching in the passageways inside of your arms.”

“Yeah.”

“Going by the injuries that were found on the shinobi we detained, the knives you claim to have manifested could not have been a Genjutsu, and yet, you said Orochimaru could see them as well?”

“Yup.”

The Sandaime set his mug down in favor of running a tired hand down his face.

Apparently taking pity on the man, Bushytail caught Ichigo’s gaze, held it, then flicked his eyes towards the Sandaime. Ichigo got the message. Ugh.

“He said something else too,” he grumbled. “He asked me what I could see with my ‘shinigami eyes.’”

The Sandaime went still as a thread of something deadly flooded the air. It wasn’t directed at him, that much he could tell, but the glare he was sending his cup of tea was no less unsettling.

Adzuki seemed to agree, angling her body away from the Sandaime like he was a particularly dangerous animal. “Does it taste that bad Sandaime-sama? I know Sakumo-san’s culinary skills border on blasphemy but I’ve always found his tea tolerable.”

Bushytail’s too-busy-to-notice-anything facade cracked enough to allow a glimmer of offense to shine through.

Ichigo snorted. While the tea may be innocent, the fact of the matter was, Orochimaru shouldn’t have known he could see spirits at all, let alone those shinigami creatures. It was top tier classified, right? And Ichigo hadn’t exactly been running his mouth off about it.

At Adzuki’s words, the Sandaime seemed to remember he had company. Glare evaporating alongside the feeling in the air, a grandfatherly smile broke through his previously deadly expression like the sun after a storm. “The toddler will be brought to the hospital for further tests at a later date, but for now, keeping him secure is the village’s top priority.”

Ichigo blinked. That was a little out of the blue.

“Orochimaru has displayed an interest in both of the children and such a thing cannot be taken lightly. I will be assigning them an ANBU guard until we are certain that the threat has fully passed, but due to our limited resources, it would make things much simpler if the children could be kept in the same place. That is if you are up to the task, Sakumo-san?”

Bushytail didn’t bat an eyelash. “And the toddler’s identity?”

“It is still unknown. Should you accept temporary guardianship over the boy, it will be up to you to decide on a name for him.”

Bushytail lowered his head, studying Tag-along’s peaceful face as he slept. His blank features softened a bit. “His name will be Yamato. Written as great harmony.”

A little on the nose given the toddler’s current expression, but considering he’d literally named Ichigo scarecrow, it could have been a lot worse.

“Adzuki-san, take Sakumo-san outside and finish hashing out the details in private.”

With a dramatic sigh, Adzuki slammed her hands onto the table and slunk out of the chair. “Come on Sakumo-kun, let’s head out to the garden and talk business. First order of business—playdates. I have a little one around Yama-chan’s age back home, and socialization is imperative for a child’s psychosocial development. Her name is Anko and god knows she and that Umino boy could use a good influence...”

As her voice faded down the hall, Ichigo straightened in his chair and turned to the Sandaime.

The Sandaime had pulled out his cigar pipe and was thumbing at the end absently. “Orochimaru’s knowledge will be thoroughly examined.”

He didn’t seem willing to divulge any more of the matter to a five-year-old. Ichigo scowled at this. “So you caught him then?”

The Sandaime moved as if to light the cigar pipe, but one narrow-eyed look from Ichigo had him setting it on the table with a sigh. “The recovery team returned with him roughly an hour ago. Despite his incarceration, however, all signs point to him having had an accomplice, maybe even multiple. You and Yamato-kun will be kept under guard until this case is concluded indefinitely.”

Ichigo considered this. He thought about Aizen, thought about his ever-smiling shadow and a man with a face set in stone. Those three had spread chaos and confusion throughout Seireitei for years without the others catching on. If a band of soul reapers could do that, what could people actually trained in the art of subterfuge pull off? Nothing good, he reckoned.

“There’s no way Bushytail and the others told,” he agreed, though his mind was worlds away.

“Perhaps not with the intent of causing harm,” the Sandaime said, fingers curling around the mug as if to soak in its remaining warmth. “But after everything that has transpired, it will be in everyone’s best interests for me to investigate the matter thoroughly.”

Ichigo could get that. But speaking of thorough, “What about those kids? What’re you going to do with them?”

The Sandaime’s gaze drifted to him for a moment before returning to the spot on the wall he’d been watching for the past five minutes. “They’re currently being prepped for a procedure.”

Okay, that was probably a good sign.

“And should the Mokuton cells be purged from their bodies,” he continued. “The village will take responsibility for Orochimaru’s actions by locating and returning them to their families, should they have any. If not, they’ll be granted citizenship in Konoha and allowed to stay at the Orphanage.”

Good. That was good. But— “But what if those cells can’t be ‘purged?’ What’ll happen to them then!?”

The Sandaime closed his eyes.

That was answer enough. Ichigo’s breath caught in his throat. They were barely even two-years-old.

 

“And?” Orochimaru’s bored tone echoed inside his head. “Their lives are of little importance.”

 

Ichigo’s fingers curled into fists that shook. If only he’d gotten to them sooner. While he’d been living it up out here those kids had been suffering!! A voice in his head that sounded suspiciously like Rukia told him there was no point in blaming himself, but he couldn’t help it. He knew he wasn’t a superhero, knew there was no way he could’ve known, and yet the guilt remained.

“Do not fret, Kakashi-kun.”

With a startled flinch, Ichigo’s head snapped up to find the Sandaime watching him.

The hard lines on his face softened. “If it wasn’t for your actions those children wouldn’t have been given this chance at all. No matter what happens, I am grateful for that. Do not forget.”

On that note, he bowed his head so low, Ichigo could see the top of his hat.

Ichigo’s thoughts stalled to a grinding halt. The Sandaime was bowing his head. To him.

“Wha— I— Cut that out, don’t bow your head to me!!” When the Sandaime didn’t move, Ichigo forced his fists to unravel. Drew in a breath to compose himself. “Look, I really didn’t do anything all that special! Anyone else would have done the same in my shoes, so as far as I’m concerned, you have nothing to thank me for.”

The Sandaime’s head stayed lowered a second longer before he raised it with something terribly sad in his eyes. “You have more integrity than men double your age, Kakashi-kun. Should you think of anything else to add to your report or should you need my assistance for any reason, my door will always be open.”

Ichigo opened his mouth. Closed it. “All right then,” he decided. “I wanna talk to Orochimaru.”

If the way he visibly balked said anything, the Sandaime hadn’t expected that.

“Please,” Ichigo pressed. “Could you do this for me?”

A beat of silence, two, three, four.

The Sandaime drew in a breath that sliced through the silence. “I’ll consider it.”

 

X

 

x

 

Tsunade popped a soldier pill into her mouth, crushing it between her teeth with a grimace as the vile flavor flooded her taste buds. She couldn’t complain about the efficiency though, and efficiency always beat flavor when it came to these kinds of things. Already, she could feel her chakra restoring itself, pressurized and sturdy as it’d always been.

With this, the odds of her pulling off this procedure were much higher but. Still. Nothing was guaranteed.

A frustrated growl rose to her throat, one that had the nurses she’d ordered to prep the children pausing to shoot her anxious looks. That did little to quell her fury. In fact, it made it spike.

“What are you lot staring at!? Quit goggling at me and get back to work!!”

“Yes Tsunade-hime!!”

Clawing a loose strand of hair away from her face, she returned her glare to the scroll. The final design for her seal met the look evenly, an inanimate drawing and already much braver than the nurses in this cruddy hospital.

This had better work. This had. To work. If this seal failed, if her calculations were even slightly wrong, the seal she’d created to save them would kill them.

There wasn’t enough time to test it, wasn’t enough time to work out every single kink in the diagram, no, an hour ago, the children’s conditions had spiraled for the worst. If she couldn’t get those Mokuton cells out of their bodies before sunset they weren’t going to make it.

Wait and they die, do it and they could die, either way their blood would be on her hands. When the stress started to edge near intolerable, she reminded herself of Nawaki’s smile, of the way his nose would scrunch up and his hazel eyes would twinkle. Failure was not an option.

Promising herself copious amounts of booze once all was said and done, Tsunade rolled the scroll up and drew in a breath deep enough to raise her shoulders. Then she moved, walking until she was in the center of the room and stopping with a click of her heels against the tiled floor.

The nurses responded instantly, straightening their spines and turning to receive their next set of orders. That was more like it. No more hesitation. No more fear. No more doubts.

No more hiding. Tsunade had some brats to save.

 

x

 

X

 

72:

 

For all that this place was hailed as the Land of Fire, it certainly didn’t look it right now, what with all the snow on the ground. Despite that, their guests didn’t seem to mind in the slightest, feet ghosting over the snow without leaving so much as a scuff behind. He wrapped his arms around himself to ward off the chill as he watched. With their audience finally gone, he should probably tell Bushytail about his request to the Sandaime. He should. But, well, he didn’t want to worry his dad more than he already had.

Besides, he had more pressing matters than Orochimaru weighing on his mind. “Hey, Bushytail. Tell me something, will you?”

Bushytail was standing beside him with his shoulder leaned against the doorframe. He’d changed into his uniform at some point, forehead protector glinting in the sunlight and Yamato having long since been tucked into bed.

“I will if it’s not classified,” he said, crossing his arms loosely over his chest when Adzuki spun on her heel to give them an exaggerated two-handed wave.

On the other side of the gate, the Sandaime tugged his hat down, shielding his exasperated expression from view.

Ichigo rolled his eyes. After the gate was shut, he turned to Bushytail again. “Be honest with me. They aren’t going to return Tag-along to his family, are they?”

A beat passed, two, three, Bushytail didn’t reply. Then faster than Ichigo could react, the man’s hand was shooting out to ruffle the hair Ichigo had just managed to comb into a semblance of order, darn it!!

“Hey!!”

When Ichigo finally managed to free himself from the merciless attack on his person, his spiky hair was leaning dramatically to the left and Bushytail was smiling. There was something sad about that smile though, something that had Ichigo freezing with his hands still shielding his hair.

“You picked on that. Good job, Kakashi, there may be hope for your observational skills yet.”

Ichigo lowered his arms, gaze never leaving Bushytail’s face.

Bushytail’s dark eyes flickered back to the gate. “No, I can’t imagine they will. You and Yamato-kun are not in too different of a situation at the moment. Matters of village security aside, it would be too dangerous for him to live outside of Konoha with an active mokuton, both for himself and for others.”

Ichigo spluttered. ”You mean they think he’s dangerous!!?”

Yeah, he got that people might target the kid, but calling a two-year-old dangerous just seemed crazy!!

“He is dangerous, Kakashi.”

“Uh?”

“Yamato-kun is in possession of an active kekkai genkai he has little control over. Whether he will eventually learn to control it is still up in the air but it’s just not possible for him right now. He can’t be left unattended around civilians.”

“What about when he gets older then? If he gets older and learns to control his powers, what happens next?”

“Then if he wants to find his family, we’ll help him. But only then.”

We’ll, Ichigo’s mind replayed. He couldn’t help it, he smiled. “Got it.”

Pulling his flak jacket off the coat racket, Bushytail slid an arm through the right sleeve-hole then the left. “I’m heading out for a bit,” he said, shuffling the jacket until it had settled evenly over his shoulders. “Minato-kun agreed to swing by and watch you until I get back, he should be here within the hour.”

“You asked Minato-san to babysit me!?”

“After the stunt you pulled at the hospital, you’re lucky a babysitter is all you’re getting,” Bushytail said, voice turning stern.

Ichigo threw his hands up. “Uggggh , I guess!”

At his pained groan, Bushytail’s frown thawed into something terribly fond. “I’ll be home soon, Kakashi. Try to stay off your feet as much as possible and if you need anything, just ask Minato-kun.”

“Yeah, I got it. Be safe, dad.”

“Of course.”

 

X

 

x

 

Orochimaru woke with his arms bound behind the back of a chair. He moved his wrists, trying to shimmy out of the cord pinning them tightly together, but his elbows were tied as well, forcing the joints to remain bent. Several cords along his arms kept them attached to the chair, so close, he could feel the metal grinding against his bones.

Somebody had taken his flexibility into account, and judging by the way his arms were already aching, he’d been tied up in this position for over an hour.

Not only that, he was tied in such a way, his bound arms were tugging at the wounds on his chest, making them burn and drizzle lines of blood through his stitches. Because somebody had patched him up. Joy.

The metal cord keeping his legs in place hurt despite the lack of injuries there, the cord itself biting into his skin with enough ferocity to block his circulation. He could barely wiggle his toes. How unpleasant. This must have been Adzuki’s doing.

As much as he loathed that woman, he didn’t linger on her for long. Honestly, he was more irked by the fact Jiraiya had been the one to incapacitate him in the end. He hadn’t thought the former dead-last capable of fighting him with the intent to kill. Jiraiya, after all, was plagued by emotions. Because of that, he typically followed the unspoken rules that dictated right from wrong, the rules everyone except for Orochimaru seemed to be born with.

It wasn’t as though Orochimaru didn’t understand emotions such as remorse.

 

Re·morse

/rəˈmôrs/

 

Deep regret or guilt for a wrong committed.

 

See? He knew its definition. He’d simply never experienced it before, never had it weighing on his decisions and halting his blade. Logically, Orochimaru should have had the upper hand, and yet. Though it wasn’t remorse, he had felt something. A soft breeze had blown through his chest, leaving him terribly... melancholy. It had unsettled him.

He’d hesitated because of this, hesitated to truly inflict harm on Jiraiya (teammate, brother, friend). It was. Confusing. Orochimaru was confused. And trapped in this cell he could not ask Tsunade what that emotion was.

Not that she had been eager to answer his questions as of late anyhow. Not since Nawaki. At the memory of Nawaki’s tiny charred body, the anger Orochimaru had grown accustomed to over the years resurfaced. His cheerful little student, reduced to something he wouldn’t have been able to identify if not for the necklace tangled around his blackened neck like a noose. That wretched thing. Tsunade had given it to him, had filled his head with wild dreams and stupid blinding emotions and Nawaki had responded by trying to the play hero, by disregarding his orders and—

And maybe a part of Orochimaru blamed Tsunade for his student’s death. Maybe he had avoided her just as willingly as she had him. Maybe he had grown to loathe the Senju clan and their worthless sentiments that had not only broken the people he considered his people, but had led to the death of his parents on a bloodstained battlefield. Maybe that was why he’d done what Danzō asked in the end. Maybe.

He might be a genius but he had a difficult time understanding himself. If people were filled with rainbows of color, Orochimaru was missing a shade or two, and after the war, the colors he did possess had grown faded. He’d found himself unable to care for much of anything anymore, and the one area of life that had kept his interest he’d thrown himself into with the same destructive abandon Tsunade had with drinking away her sorrows and Jiraiya had with avoiding them.

Not that he regretted what his actions had led to. His colors were faded, some were nonexistent. He wasn’t capable of things like regret. All he felt was a distant melancholic thrum he had no clue what to make of.

Not that this mattered. Why should he concern himself with such trivialities when there were far more interesting things to analyze? Kakashi Hatake for example. He had spoken of death like someone well acquainted with the topic. He had claimed shinigami could die with the bitterness of a victim.

There was more to that boy. Was he even a boy at all? Or. Was he something else?

 

“‘Thou know'st 'tis common,” Kakashi’s voice echoed inside his head. “All that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity.’”

 

A clear quote, and yet, well-read as he was, Orochimaru had never encountered those words before. Where had Kakashi?

Chapter Text

X

 

x



“I demand that Danzō Shimura be put on trial for the kidnapping of a clan heir, illegal experimentation, mass child abduction, and the potential brainwashing and unsolicited recruitment of other clan members.”

 

x

 

X

 

.

.



.

 

The meeting room in Konohagakure was only slightly larger than the average living room, complete with forest green walls and olive tiled floors. In the center of the room, a sturdy table stretched from one end to the other, so sturdy, in fact, an enraged Tsunade had once thrown a punch at it and wound up with two broken fingers while the table remained unscathed. Hashirama had always been... passionate, to say the least. He’d always taken things farther than what most would deem sane or necessary, and he would do so with his head tipped back in that loud, uproarious laugh. The table he’d crafted with his Mokuton was a reminder of this, as well as his unwavering dedication to Konoha.

At the memory, Hiruzen sighed. Hashirama would have adored the young Hatake boy, who seemed to possess the same uncanny knack for making the impossible become reality. This did nothing to help with the exhaustion bogging down Hiruzen’s mind.

He missed having dinner with Miwako. He missed helping his children train in the early morning light and tucking them into bed after the sun began to set. Why was he craving the old days now of all times? The days where he could place his life in his teammates’ hands and know with every fiber of his being that they would guard it with their own.

He used to have a much better grasp on this. Being the Hokage while being a father, a husband, a teacher, and a friend. He used to have the energy to pull this off. The fortitude, the strength. But now...

His wife and children were distant, one of his prized students was a traitor, one of his prized students was broken beyond repair; unable to even stand the sight of blood anymore. His village would soon be at war, and now of all times, of all people, Danzō was on trial for crimes that made his throat slicken with nausea. Everything was falling apart, had been for a while and he didn’t know if he could keep holding it together. Maybe that was why?

Well, that, and... the knowledge that he was not Hashirama. Hiruzen couldn’t challenge the world with a smile, he could only free fall and hope to god he didn’t let everything he loved slip out of his arms before he hit the ground. This trial was a stark reminder of that fact.

He felt like a rope that was being pulled tighter and tighter until the individual threads began to snap. Snap, snap, snap, with every tug—every new betrayal, every added burden—his resolve grew weaker. His strength grew fainter. It was all happening too fast, too close together, tug after tug, and he wasn’t sure if he could handle another one. One more tug and he’d be through.

Maybe it was time to pass on the hat. Maybe. But that was a thought for later.

Scrubbing a hand up his weathered face, he glanced at Koharu and Homura, who were sitting on either side of him. Their expressions gave nothing away as they sipped at their tea, but surely they were horrified by these accusations as well.

On the opposite end of the table, Danzō was every bit as unreadable, not moving towards the pot of tea in the center of the table or even glancing at the waiting cup.

Hiruzen wasn’t in the mood for tea either, he supposed. His cup was cooling in front of him, untouched as he ground circles into his temples. He just had to get through this trial.

The door opened with a creeeeek Hiruzen refused to have fixed. There was no reason anybody loyal to him would need to sneak through that door, and if someone were to try it, Hiruzen would rather hear them coming. Call it an old shinobi’s paranoia.

Sakumo stepped inside the room, dressed in Jounin blues. His hands were buried in his pockets and he had strapped his tantō horizontally along his lower back.

Having expected Sakumo’s presence, Hiruzen opened his mouth to greet the Jounin, but before he could get the words out, more people stepped into view. The Uchiha, Hyuga, and Aburame Clan heads were behind Sakumo. And behind them, the rest of the Clan heads were standing at attention.

What in the world? Hiruzen was grateful he hadn’t been drinking tea because surely this would have been where he choked on it. The first Hokage killed by tea—that was not how he wanted to be remembered.

Sakumo smiled and the air around him almost seemed to sparkle with an innocence Hiruzen didn’t buy for a second. “Are we late?”

The legs of the chair scraped against the floor as Danzō stood up. “This ridiculous accusation is supposed to be dealt with discreetly—”

Before he could finish, Fugaku stepped fully into the room and cut in, “A man on trial has no right to lecture anyone. This matter concerns the security of our Clans as well as our continued trust in this Council or lack thereof. We have every right to be here.”

Fugaku may be young but he was no fool. Ordering him to leave in front of the other Clan leaders after such a declaration would be political suicide at best and a cause for mutiny at worst.

Hiruzen forced his muscles to loosen. He could make them leave. He could think of a way.

The Head of the Aburame Clan strode forward to stand beside the young Uchiha. “An Aburame was detained without me being notified,” she said, straight to the point. “Why? I would like to find out.”

Hiruzen’s hopes of resolving this trial with minimal stress caught fire and turned to ash at his feet.

Though Danzō returned to his seat without a word, his disapproval was a tangible thing that filled the room.

The Clan heads took their seats without sparing him a glance. Like they’d been invited to come and Danzō was the one out of line.

Hiruzen sighed.

Fugaku was the only person to remain standing. He set a file in front of Hiruzen before looping around the table and repeating this with everyone minus Danzō.

“Forgive me if I’m being forward, Sandaime-sama, but I went ahead and prepared these files for the trial,” Fugaku explained. He cast the table—bare besides the tray of tea—a look. “It seems it’s a good thing that I did.”

Feeling mildly scolded, Hiruzen flicked the file open. Honestly, this child...

Without taking a seat, Fugaku flipped his own file open. “Now, if you’ll turn to page three and lower your eyes to paragraph two.”

Hiruzen paused at the first page. The Uchiha Crest had been carefully drawn in the center of it and the words: Accusations Against Danzō Shimura, had been written inside the Crest in large, neat characters. Had the young man included a title page on all of the files? And had he drawn the Uchiha Crest every single time? A glance at Homura’s stack answered both questions. Fugaku most certainly had.

Hiruzen could already feel his migraine worsening. Knowing there was no way around this, he flipped to the second page. Which was a table of contents. Hiruzen stared at it. The table of contents listed fifty pages. Fifty.

Why was this happening to him? Why?

Hiruzen took a moment for his mental health. When he felt like he’d dredged up enough resolve to continue, he turned the page. And regretted it. “You interrogated Jiraiya,” he said, not asked. The answer was plainly recorded across the page.

The idea of passing on the hat was growing more appealing by the second.

Fugaku turned the politest of frowns towards him. “Yes sir. According to the laws of Konohagakure, all parties involved in an incident are to be—”

“We’re well aware of the village laws,” Koharu cut in. “Get on with it.”

A minuscule twitch of the brow was the only indication Fugaku was irritated by that flippant response. By the time he’d turned to Danzō, it was gone without a trace. “Danzō Shimura, according to Jiraiya-sama you knew the location of the abducted children. Is this correct?”

Danzō didn’t react. “It is.”

Hiruzen could tell who was privy to this information and who was not, eyes sharpening in interest and people sitting straighter in their seats.

Danzō remained stone-faced. “I know every inch of this village. That does not mean I was aware of Orochimaru-kun’s actions.”

At this, Fugaku raised a brow. “And yet, if you look at paragraph five, you’ll find that Jiraiya-sama claims to have seen you with Orochimaru-sama recently. And if you flip to page seven, paragraph four—”

Hiruzen did so. What he found was a sentence of carefully recorded insults towards Fugaku, his family, and his future children.

“Tsunade-sama said similar.”

Hiruzen eyed Fugaku. Similar was a way to put it. Not an accurate way. But. A way.

“Where exactly—?” Koharu began.

Fugaku turned his file around and pointed beside the sentence where Tsunade demanded that he: “Get the heck out of here right now, are you blind!? I’m in the middle of an operation!!” After that, there was a throwaway line about Orochimaru probably talking to Danzō whatever just get out now!

Someone let out a cough that sounded suspiciously like a laugh.

Hiruzen could tell this was going to be a long day.

Retirement. There was a thought.

 

X

 

x

 

Obito could tell this was going to be a long day. Legs bumping under the desk, it took everything he had not to walk out of this class that never seemed to end fast enough. He had no idea how the others were sitting so calmly—well, about as calmly as they could, he corrected, watching as Gai shot out of his seat to answer a question.

Obito ignored this with an ease born of familiarity even as his classmates rolled their eyes and muttered unkind things. He had more pressing matters on his mind. After all, as soon as the Academy let out for the day they were going to visit Kakashi and finally get some answers! Well-deserved ones in Obito’s opinion! Yesterday, Kakashi had gone missing for hours and when he’d finally turned up, it had been in a hospital.

Not that Obito was worried! Because he totally wasn’t! He just, uh, had a right to know. Yeah, that was it.

Frustration crawled down his skin like ants and his fingers curled into fists on his lap. It didn’t matter what the grown-ups said, Kakashi was his friend and if something bad was going on he could help! He wanted to help. He’d never abandon any of his friends. Never.

“You’re looking awfully serious over there,” Asuma muttered, making him startle.

His head snapped to the side so fast, he nearly pulled a muscle.

Chin resting in an open palm, Asuma arched an eyebrow at the display.

Why exactly one of the most popular kids in the village had chosen to sit beside him of all people, Obito couldn’t discern, but he really wished he hadn’t. Obito was a social pariah, the kind of attention he received from people like Asuma was never positive. Asuma may have helped them find Kakashi but he still wasn’t sure if Asuma following them around was some kind of elaborate prank or not.

On the other side of him, Rin leaned over the desk to peer at his face. “Is everything all right, Obito-kun?”

Was she worried? About him? Cheeks growing warm, Obito’s gaze dropped to his lap. “I was just thinking about Bakashi!”

A beat of silence passed and Obito didn’t dare look up, didn’t dare see whatever expression they were wearing.

Then Rin made a contemplative sound and said, “We should buy him a get-well present.”

“Huh?”

“It’s polite,” she explained.

“She has a point,” Asuma agreed, tapping his index finger against his chin in thought. “We were in such a rush it didn’t cross my mind but we were pretty rude yesterday just barging in like that.”

“Uh we were!?” Thoughts of ill-intent and worried best friends fled Obito’s mind as he thought about yesterday. Horror replaced frustration in an instant. “We were!”

“We’ll have to buy two gifts,” Asuma said as if it was a given. “One as a get-well present and another as an apology for yesterday. What type of food does he like?”

“Probably anything that isn’t made by that demon dad of his,” Obito muttered, to which Rin shot him a look.

Obito wisely shut up.

“I know a place that sells good mochi,” Rin said with a smile so bright if anyone else looked over they wouldn’t believe for a second that she’d just finished threatening Obito’s life.

“All right, mochi then,” Asuma said in such a way, it was clear he’d picked up on this and found it hilarious.

Obito shot him a glare. Stupid popular suspicious Asuma.

“You three in the back, stop talking!” Nakamura snapped.

As one, they startled. “Yes sensei!!”

 

X

 

x

 

“Danzō Shimura, would you care to elaborate on what this supposed meet-up with Orochimaru was about?” Fugaku asked, undeterred by the fact several of the other Clan leaders were sighing and shaking their heads.

“I have no need. As I’m sure the rest of the Council will agree,” Danzō said. “Such shaky evidence isn’t admissible in any trial, let alone this one.”

Danzō wasn’t wrong but... “Answer him,” Hiruzen ordered.

Danzō’s narrowed eyes flicked to Hiruzen.

Hiruzen met his gaze and held it.

Without breaking the staredown, Danzō obeyed. “Orochimaru-kun had questions about an assignment he was recently given. That is all.”

Hiruzen detected no deception in those words. Perhaps Danzō truly was innocent? Allowing himself to relax a decibel, he broke the eye-contact and waved for Fugaku to continue.

“I also went ahead and asked Kakashi Hatake some questions—” He was cut off by Sakumo spitting out a mouthful of tea.

As wrapped up in the file as he’d been, Hiruzen hadn’t seen him take the empty cup they’d set out for Danzō.

“Wait,” Sakumo said, eyes wide as a droplet of tea rolled down his chin. “I’ve been with you for most of the day!! When did you find time to interrogate my son!?”

Fugaku seemed more bothered by the interruption itself than the question. When he spoke, he sounded as if the answer should have been obvious. “Hatake-san, the Konoha Military Police Force believe in most of all, a thorough job perfectly done. To simply stand in the hallway twiddling my thumbs while you chat with Jiraiya-sama was something I could not allow when questioning witnesses was a much more effective use of my time.”

Sakumo did not look reassured by this. Nobody did, in fact.

“Right,” Sakumo said. “Of course. My mistake.”

Fugaku nodded as if to say yes your mistake before returning his attention to the file. “Before I get into that, however, I would like to go over the Interrogation Report. Yamanaka-san, if you will?”

“There’s not much,” Yamanaka said. “Shortly after being detained, all but one of the supposed insurgents committed suicide by biting through their tongues. As for the remaining one, the Aburame, she revealed a seal to us that keeps her from revealing any information about her actions.”

That sounded awfully familiar. “What did this seal look like?”

“It appears to be a mixture of the hexagrams ‘kan’ as in influence and ‘ton’ as in concealment and is located on the tongue.”

Hiruzen felt something inside him harden at those words.

“We’re working out ways to get information around it,” Yamanaka was saying but Hiruzen hardly heard him. “Mindwalking, for example, may be possible, though we have to be wary of any other applications of the seal the prisoner cannot warn us of. But with her cooperation, I’m hopeful we can get the information you want by the end of the day.”

That meant by the end of the day, they would know about ROOT.

Despite this statement, Danzō didn’t seem concerned.

Hiruzen made note of that.

“We’ve asked a series of questions to vet what was and what wasn’t allowed by the seal as per Adzuki-san’s suggestion and it seems anything concerning Danzō Shimura and what the shinobi’s work entails is off-limits, as well as any information concerning the seal itself.”

Hiruzen knew this. He had signed off on the Cursed Tongue Eradication Seal after all. If the ROOT agents were to handle the dirtier aspects of the shinobi world, they could not let their actions be known by anyone, least of all their enemies. Their jobs were riskier by nature which meant the chances of them being captured were higher and with the sensitive information they were privy to, it had made sense to take precautions.

Or at least, that was what Danzō’s argument for it had been. Had Hiruzen been deceived? Could Danzō be using that seal to keep secrets from him? After all, this ROOT agent—now that he knew they truly were one—had been captured in the lab after personally trying to capture Kakashi. If this wasn’t the work of insurgents, how many of Danzō’s secrets could these ROOT agents be keeping?

“Very well,” Hiruzen murmured, interlacing his fingers in front of his chin. “I expect any new information garnered to be reported to me immediately.”

“Of course, Sandaime-sama.”

“Fugaku-kun.”

Fugaku straightened.

“Carry on.”

Though his serious expression didn’t change, his eyes brightened at the acknowledgment. With a respectful nod, Fugaku held up his file. “I’ll read over the information shared by Kakashi Hatake now.”

On that note, the trial began for real.

 

X

 

x

 

After agreeing to pool their allowances together and buy one big present as opposed to each of them giving him something small, they wound up visiting a weapon shop in the Uchiha district. Not only could Obito get them a clan discount here—Uncle Tetsuo being one of the few Uchiha to actually include Obito in said clan discounts—but Uchiha weapons were quality.

They weren’t the only clan that had private dealings with merchants and other such individuals, but they certainly had the largest amount. This was due to the fact that unlike the other clans, the Uchiha had no problem sharing some of their bounty with the rest of the village. For a price, of course. Which was how they earned enough revenue to make more deals and request better materials, something his friends were clearly enamored by as they wandered through the shop.

Near the store window, Gai was twirling a set of nunchucks overhead with a grin wild enough to have Uncle Tetsuo’s eyes snapping between him and the window.

Asuma was yet to make a reappearance from where he’d disappeared into an aisle full of brass knuckles and knives. Rin had parked herself by the senbon for just as long, studying the length and design of each one.

She seemed especially taken with the senbon disguised as ornamental hairpins. He made note of that for when her birthday rolled around.

He should bring her and Gai here more often. If he’d known they’d like it so much, he would have invited them sooner. Maybe Kakashi could come next time too?

“Obito-kun.”

At his name being called, Obito returned the kunai he’d been sizing up to the plastic bin with the rest.

Asuma was beckoning him over from the end of the aisle, and with a frown, Obito headed his way.

The others noticed this, and with curious frowns exchanged between them, they followed.

Asuma led them deeper into the shop, bypassing a rack holding different sized swords and turning into an aisle filled with gloves and utility belts. He kept moving until he reached the end where—

“Uh.”

Rin’s hand rose to her lips. “Oh.”

Gai blinked.

Asuma grinned. “Cool right?”

Dangling from a hanger bar and identical to the pair hanging from his neck, a row of goggles stared up at them. The goggles’ lens were the only difference, each one tinted a different color.

This wasn’t surprising. After all, this was the store Obito had bought his goggles from, along with any replacements he’d needed over the years. No, what surprised him was that his friends (could Asuma be included in that?) had taken an interest in this.

Asuma slid several pairs off the hanger rack so he could get his hands on the goggles with silver-tinted lens. “I was thinking we could get him this one! You know, like his hair.”

Obito blinked. “Wha..?”

Why would Asuma wanna do that? Was he trying to make fun of Kakashi!?

Obito’s confusion only grew when Rin stepped forward and started shuffling through the goggles as well, pulling out two additional pairs and snagging one from Asuma. “Why don’t we all get a pair? Then we’ll match!”

Okay, now Obito was really confused.

Gai seemed to share in the sentiment, eyeing the green-tinted goggles she’d handed him as though they were an illusion that would surely fade at any second. When they remained very real and very corporeal, he said, “You want to... match with me, Nohara-san?” 

That was a good question. Obito wasted no time nodding his agreement with it because seriously, Rin wanted to match him and Gai? That was crazy! Gai was considered the village freak, and Obito? He was the Uchiha’s freak! Being seen with them in public had to be embarrassing enough but now they wanted matching goggles!? If they actually wore those things, every time someone saw them they would know they were associated with him and Gai!

“Uh-huh,” Rin said, the same way anyone else would confirm that the sky was indeed still blue. She handed Asuma a pair of red-tinted goggles and kept the purple pair for herself. “And you can call me Rin, we’re good enough friends for that now.”

Asuma turned the goggles around in his hands, admiring the way the lens reflected the fluorescent light from the ceiling. “Can I call you Rin?”

“Sure.”

“But— But you want to match with me?” Obito cut in.

Asuma looked between him and Gai with a puzzled frown. “Yeah, why wouldn’t we?”

It was like someone had snatched the words from his throat. Obito didn’t know what to say, didn’t even know where to begin and oh no, his allergies were acting up! His allergies! Yanking his goggles over his eyes, Obito whirled around so his back was to them.

“If— If you want to that’s fine,” he said, voice hitching because of his allergies and no other reason!

Gai had no such restraint, burying his face in the crook of his elbow as he openly sobbed. “Rin-san! Obito-kun! Uh.” He paused for a second before resuming his cries. “And Octagon-kun!”

Asuma threw his head back and laughed, “Who would even name their child that!?”

With a fond sigh, Rin walked over to Obito and held out her hand. “Why don’t we go pay now? We still have to pick up the mochi on the way after all.”

With a hiccupy breath, Obito clasped his hand in hers. “Okay.”

Asuma was their friend! Genuinely! He was tagging along because he liked them! And Rin— Rin wasn’t embarrassed by them! Either of them!

On second thought, Obito wished this day would never end!

 

X

 

x

 

Hiruzen just wished this day would end. Half an hour had passed since the trial began but it felt like days. Horrid, drawn-out days that showed no sign of ending anytime soon. He really didn’t have the energy for this right now.

“Kakashi-kun claims that for days prior to his abduction, he repeatedly got the feeling he was being watched. This checks out with Jiraiya-sama’s claims to have spotted a masked shinobi following Kakashi-kun the day before his abduction. Kakashi-kun also reports to have been alone several times during that day, so why did the masked shinobi wait until after Sakumo-san left the village to strike? There was no guarantee he would be receiving a mission anytime soon, in fact, the opposite is true.”

“Fugaku-kun, may I cut in here?” Sakumo, well, cut in.

With a nod, the young Uchiha folded his hands neatly in front of him.

Sakumo turned his attention to the other Clan leaders. Not to Hiruzen.

It’s not me he’s trying to convince, Hiruzen realized. Had Sakumo already lost that much faith in him? He shot the other occupants of the room a pensive look. Had they?

“Fugaku-kun is correct about that,” Sakumo said. “I’ve spent the past two months on leave with no sign of this changing anytime soon.”

Hyuga scoffed, “Where are you going with this exactly? If you’re here to complain, that decision was far more than what you deserved! If you had even a shred of honor left in you, you would have committed seppuku to atone for the shame you’ve brought on our village!”

“I’m not complaining, only stating a fact,” Sakumo said with the patience of one accustomed to such barbed remarks. “Besides, I made the call to protect my comrades that day and there’s nothing shameful about that.”

There was a story behind those words. With the way their relationship was at the moment, Hiruzen doubted he could ask for it.

Hyuga looked ready to argue but Sakumo went on, “These are the facts. I was ordered to remain on leave, and yet, a messenger bird found me outside my home with a scroll that claimed I had been requested for a mission where my expertise was required.”

Nobody dared to fill the silence that followed.

Sakumo sighed, breath cutting into the steam wafting from his cup. “That was untrue. After disembarking on this supposed A-rank assignment, I discovered it was a simple escort mission—C-rank at best—and certainly, nothing that required my skill set.”

Shikaku Nara, who by all means appeared to have been dozing off until now, made a sympathetic sound. “Sounds like a real drag.”

Shikaku was the youngest among them, only sixteen and already leading his clan after the death of his parents last month. Hiruzen hadn’t expected him to speak up during this meeting.

“It was,” Sakumo agreed. A blink. Then he turned sheepish, “Ah! I mean...”

“Shouldn’t that mission have gone through the Hokage first?” Shikaku asked, sparing the man from his own awkwardness. His dark eyes flicked to Hiruzen.

Hiruzen needed a smoke. “While Sakumo-san is under orders not to embark on any missions, he was specifically requested by a client of high standing.”

Sakumo-san’s reputation isn’t the best right now,” Hyuga argued. “Why would any clientele want to request him?”

Despite the insult, Sakumo was calm when he said, “Because Danzō Shimura personally recommended me to them.”

At those words, Danzō found himself on the receiving end of a roomful of suspicious stares.

What held the most impact, however, was when Shikaku shifted to sit upright and every ounce of laziness drained from his form. “Is that the truth?”

Kakashi had felt like someone was watching him. Jiraiya had seen someone watching him, someone who matched the description of a ROOT agent. Someone Danzō had privately confirmed was, indeed, a ROOT agent, one he had assigned to protect Kakashi despite Danzō being the reason Kakashi didn’t have an ANBU guard to begin with.

Kakashi was abducted without any signs of anyone having fought despite his supposed guard, and mere minutes after Sakumo had been rushed away on a mission he was overqualified for. A mission Danzō had recommended him for. Then he was stolen away to a base Danzō knew the location of by ROOT agents the man claimed were insurgents.

The pieces of this puzzle painted a picture Hiruzen found disturbing. Danzō was ambitious, always had been, but the man loved Konoha. That was why Hiruzen relied on him. Why he trusted him despite their issues.

Had his judgment been wrong? An image of Orochimaru appeared in his mind, and Hiruzen’s fingers tightened around the cigar pipe he couldn’t recall grabbing. It wouldn’t be the first time his judgment had failed him, now would it?

“Is Hatake-san telling the truth?” Shikaku repeated when his question went unanswered.

Danzō moved slowly, raising a hand to his chin as if deep in thought. “It seems the client misunderstood me.”

Killing intent shot through the room like lightning on metal, charging the air with static that had the hair on his arms and the back of his neck rising. The killing intent was reigned in as fast as it’d appeared but everyone had felt it. Everyone had witnessed how furious Sakumo truly was despite his calm demeanor. And. Everyone had been reminded of how dangerous he could be.

“So you deny it then?” Sakumo asked, voice worryingly level for a man who had just let slip how badly he wanted to tear Danzō Shimura limb-from-limb.

Even Danzō appeared alarmed, wide eye glued to Sakumo’s hands as if he expected the man to start flying through handseals. “I do.”

“How on Earth would the client misunderstand that?” Shikaku drawled, tone bored despite the body language that hinted he was anything but. “How would anyone? You had no reason to bring Hatake-san up at all.” When Danzō didn’t answer, “Yamanaka-san, have you confirmed the identities of the deceased shinobi?”

Yamanaka flipped to a page in his file. “I listed out their names on page ten. They were all children from the Orphanage who were believed to be dead.”

Shikaku closed his eyes. “If you’ll allow me, Sandaime-sama, I’m about to jump to some conclusions.”

Hiruzen wondered about that. It didn’t take him long to make up his mind. “Go ahead,” he permitted.

“Let’s say that there’s an organization out there,” Shikaku gestured around them. “And let’s say they’ve been taking children right out from under our noses for years now, children nobody would bother looking too hard for. Orphans, outcasts, children from broken homes. It’s clear they’re not above snatching clan children who fit the bill as well—Kakashi Hatake and the Aburame are clear examples of that.”

The insinuation that Kakashi’s abduction would have slipped through the cracks wasn’t an appreciated one. But. If those children hadn’t brought Kakashi’s disappearance to their attention... if they hadn’t gotten Jiraiya of all people involved... if they hadn’t convinced Jiraiya to speak with Hiruzen directly... Well, he doubted they would have been able to find Kakashi at all, let alone as fast as they had.

Jiraiya may have led that retrieval mission but it was those children Kakashi owed his rescue to. If they hadn’t kicked up such a fuss over their missing friend, Kakashi’s absence undoubtedly would have gone unnoticed until Sakumo returned home hours after the retrieval mission had begun. By then, there was no telling where Kakashi could have been moved to.

Remembering the way those children had burst into his office—his own son one of them—Hiruzen’s need for a smoke increased tenfold.

Fugaku frowned. “What would be the motivation behind this organization’s actions?”

“To amass a personal army,” Shikaku said the same way anyone else would comment on the weather. “Or to experiment on them. It’s possible both are true.”

Shikaku certainly was jumping to conclusions, but his points were not outlandish and Hiruzen could see how he’d arrived at each one. Nara or not, he hadn’t expected to find this level of deduction in someone so young.

Hiruzen turned to Fugaku. “Have someone look into all the disappearances that have occurred within the past five years.”

“I already have Sandaime-sama.”

Sakumo didn’t spit out his tea this time. He did, however, look at Fugaku as if questioning whether the boy was truly human. “You did all that research too? When did you even find the time!?”

Homura opened his mouth, likely to demand they stay on track but Hiruzen raised a hand to stop him. He wanted to know too.

Fugaku sighed as though the question was ridiculous and Sakumo was a simpleton for having to ask. “Was I supposed to simply admire the weather during our walk to each Compound? There are much better uses of my time.”

Sakumo whispered something that sounded suspiciously like, “But I didn’t even see him take anything out...”

All right. This was mildly concerning. What exactly have they been feeding those Uchiha?

Yamanaka was fighting to smother a grin when he asked, “May I ask what page that information is on?”

“If you’ll refer to the table-of-contents, you’ll see it plainly stated that this information is located on page eighteen.”

“Of course. Pardon me.”

Fugaku shot him a look that suggested Yamanaka would never be forgiven for this slight.

Hiruzen finally gave in to the urge to light his cigar pipe. He took a long drag from it, perhaps the longest to date, and only released the nicotine flavored air when his lungs demanded he do so. Ah. Much better. With this, he might actually make it through this trial.

On cue, the doors to the meeting room flung open. Everyone besides Hiruzen shot to their feet, some reaching for weapons, others readying their hands to form seals. Which was probably for the best.

Because standing in the doorway with his foot still raised from kicking the doors in, was none other than Orochimaru. Under one arm he had two ROOT agents piled atop each other and in the other, he was holding Kakashi Hatake by the back of his shirt like a disobedient puppy.

Kakashi Hatake looked sheepish.

At the baffled silence that followed, Orochimaru merely smiled, “If all is well with you sensei, I have some evidence I’d like to present to the trial.”

Without another word, he threw the unconscious ROOT agents onto the floor.