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Catch Your Breath

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What happens when you die?

Bit of a question for the ages, isn’t it? It’s one of those questions that’s followed my ancestors around ever since the first one dropped dead of a bad banana or something, and it’s pretty hard to say that there’s ever going to be a definitive answer. I’m not convinced that that Far Side cartoon was right, what with the surgeons faking out some poor guy under anesthesia, but whatever the cliché Hallmark thing that’s supposed to happen after death is, it didn’t happen to me.

Well, actually, since my family was varying degrees of Protestant Christian or Buddhist or some variation in between (don’t ask), I don’t think we really came to a consensus other than to say that we’d probably be reunited with grandpa and grandma and everyone else that died before us. Given that I was twenty-going-on-twenty-one last I remember, I figured I’d have a lot of ancestors probably demanding to know why I didn’t have a boyfriend yet, or maybe others wanting to know why I only got three-fourths of the way through a non-medical degree before dying. Sure, I wanted to be a teacher and got pretty close for being only two years out of high school, but I’m not sure my distant ancestors really cared and I’m almost glad I didn’t meet some of them—every family has its crazy people and some of them scare the crap out of me to this day.

For the record, my death was boring, pointless, and probably had people huddling in groups and nodding to each other about how expected it was. Doesn’t matter too much what it was—fact is, I still don’t know what happened. I was sitting at home watching TV, and then nothing.

That’s all in the past now, anyway. After all, I’m dead. Didn’t end up meeting any of those relatives—and I’m regretting some of that—before being dumped into some warm, if boring and occasionally thumping, darkness to await judgment day. Maybe? I’m not particularly religious in any organized sense—never have been—but I figured that’d be it for me and I’d…I dunno, just hang around. Maybe get ground up into the force which moves the planes of reality—yes, I’m a passing fan of Dungeons and Dragons and you can shut up now, because the fate of the Faithless is no goddamn joke when you’re possibly qualified for it. It was boring, but probably better than eternal damnation for not being a particularly good or bad person. Purgatory doesn’t seem to involve a lake of fire, and I’m okay with that.

Or I was. I guess I never really considered three really important points, in retrospect.

One: Never assume a given religion had it right. I’d made the assumption of figuring that all those stories about Grandma watching over us from heaven were true. Turns out it was the wrong family belief system to go with, at least for me.

Two: Infantile amnesia only works out if you don’t actually have the mental capacity to remember things. Hence, infantile amnesia and not general, all-purpose amnesia. I would kill to take this second fact back to whoever made it up and throttle them with it.

Three: Any unexplained physical sensation after death should be investigated. I mean, now I know that the constant, faint itching sensation I felt must have been the development of my internal chakra circulatory system. It was building me up, so one day I’d be able to pull off the insane ninja magic bullshit that made this world work. The itch stopped being so intrusive later, when my coils stabilized from the rapidly developing stage they were in before birth. It was sort of like the development of neurons, I think—you’ve got the potential storage space for everything you’re ever going to have room to learn when you’re born, and they don’t grow back. If something had happened in utero, like what I now suspect happened with Rock Lee, I’d be permanently crippled as far as chakra goes. I always feel a little like there’s warmth under my skin that no one but me can know about, now. I can feel the same thing in other people, but it’s probably less because I’m actually talented in my new life and more because, when you get down to it, chakra was foreign. Like having an extra limb or the sudden ability to see the entire light spectrum. Magic ninja bullshit wasn’t exactly a staple of my old life, so of course I’d be extremely aware that now it was.

Er. Would be. I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Imagine this as an adult—suddenly the warm darkness is getting a bit too tight, a bit too unstable, and then there’s a pulsating wall of muscle forcing you to move around or be squished like a grape. It’s a little like how I imagined being eaten by a snake would be like, when I’d been five and too young to understand how snake jaws didn’t detach that much. All I knew at the time was that it was too small and I was too big and I needed to get away before I was turned into taffy. Funny thing about that, though, was that none of my limbs seemed to want to work the way I wanted them to and I ended up getting pretty squished regardless. And then I was out.

One of the things that I read about, before, was that a baby’s instinct was to inhale immediately upon feeling air on his or her face. It works pretty well for porpoises and whales, who are pushed up to the surface for their first breath by their mothers, but it was one of those things that nearly killed me twenty years early in my old life because the nurses hadn’t gotten the fluid off my face completely. My parents told me that story a lot growing up—I think they were amused by the whole situation, after the fact, even if they were terrified at the time. Now I got to experience it myself because my lungs weren’t quite listening to me just yet.

It is fucking terrifying.

But between the fact that the nurses here had been careful enough to clean me off and clear my airways, the warm if scratchy towel, the swaddling, and a bunch of hands on my body that were absolutely huge and lifting me up, my lungs got a pretty good workout with my first scream. I was genuinely terrified, even when the hands carrying me didn’t end up dropping me. I think I kept screaming even when I was placed on my new mother’s chest, until I started suckling. My body, unsurprisingly, still wasn’t listening to me.
I was effectively blind—though my vision in my old life was actually worse than what I could see now, with less light sensitivity and more depth perception—my hearing was hypersensitive due to what had been months of effective sensory deprivation, I could feel everything from the swaddling blanket to the heat of my mother’s skin, and my sense of taste was pretty much nonexistent.

And I that was how I was born again, more or less.

I’ll skip over the whole thing with potty training and stuff. Frankly, I’m almost glad that I didn’t have any control over my body then—the developing human brain isn’t designed to have the nerve impulses of a twenty-year-old human running through it anyway. I could at least justify the memories of needing an adult’s help for everything as being due to true helplessness. It made me feel more grateful and less humiliated. My memories of that time are about as detailed as if I’d been an actual adult, but the sheer boredom means even my not-quite-physical adult brain and memories sort of lets it all bleed together. It’s like anything else after enough time goes by—nostalgia essentially means filing off the edges of stuff that was boring or dull or mediocre, leaving only extreme highs or lows in its wake. So, out of it, I mostly got a deep need to be in control, to never be helpless again, and a fierce love for my parents for putting up with my needs for so long.

And a very strong conviction never to have children of my own, but that’s not exactly new for me. I’m still quietly terrified by the idea of being solely or jointly responsible for the future survival and happiness of another human being, but now I just added the whole issue of diapers to the pile of reasons to use birth control.

More on that later, though.

Originally, I’d been a fairly quiet child. I mean, I cried since that’s what babies do, but you weren’t going to be finding me screaming my head off at three in the morning as an infant in my last life unless something was really wrong. I guess I had my parents trained to respond to the little squeaks I made, sort of like how cats get their owners to do things for them. Here, I was still pretty quiet as a rule, but the feel of my chakra settling in my coils never stopped being there. It’s sort of like someone poking you every ten minutes or so, just to remind you they’re still around. Or maybe like having someone lean on your shoulder. It was annoying and only occasionally comforting, so I think I was a bit noisier out of sheer temper more than anything. I still tried to have a proper screaming match with the world only when I actually needed something, to save my parents’ sanity.

Mom was…I think she was ill somehow, honestly. As my vision improved and I could actually see the person carrying me, I’d look up and see Mom holding me most of the time. I’d gurgle at her, to say hello, but her smile back was always a little strained. She was paler than I remember myself being, once upon a time—and since I didn’t get out a hell of a lot, I think I might have been an expert on it. She was pretty, though. She seemed a little thin and waiflike, but her eyes were dark and kind when they weren’t sunken due to my periodic wakeup calls, and her hair was a straight black curtain around her face. She was delicate. I still loved her, though, in a way only children can, because she and Dad were my world and she loved me back.

Dad seemed older, a little wearier with gray already in his hair and scars on his jaw. He had a wider, more solid build and darker features, but I was wearing him down as surely as Mom just by being a baby. It was only because of him that I realized my predicament at all. He’d been holding me, since Mom was in the hospital again for some kind of post-birth follow-up thing. I had an idea of what that could entail, in all its gory detail, so I don’t think I would have asked even if I could have made my vocal chords work voluntarily. Dad was making faces at me, trying to get me to copy him, and I was waving my little fists around just because I could.

And I guess my vision was finally good enough for me to look at what I was holding, once I grabbed it. I had his forefinger in a chubby fist and I wasn’t about to let go, whether he tried gently pulling loose or not. It was an accomplishment! Baby steps toward success and independence happened all the time, and as an adult in a baby’s body I was going to enjoy as many as I could figure out.

Not like I had anything better to do, anyway.

It took me a while to recognize the vest Dad was wearing as a flak jacket, even when I was looking right at it—hell, if I hadn’t been familiar with the Naruto series as a whole, I doubt I would have realized what it was—and I only really got the totally unintended message when I caught the gleam of metal on his forehead. I couldn’t tell what symbol was on it, though—infant eyes aren’t good for distances of more than about eight inches or so.

I don’t think I panicked, but the thing with being a baby is that there’s only one reaction for anything negative. I started sniffling. Dad started panicking. Guess there was a reason Mom was the one who held me most of the time.

Gekkō-san, daijōbu desu ka?” someone asked, and my dad’s head turned toward someone else. The rest of the conversation passed by a little too quick for me to keep up.
I was only a week or two old, all right? Cut me some slack for having trouble with a language I never learned before. Most of the other stuff I’d chalked up to just the fact that my new ears were a little sensitive and my brain was probably scrambled from being born. The fact that I know any Japanese at all is a miracle of coincidence and annoyance—watching subbed and raw anime wasn’t compensating for the fact that in my old life, English was my first language and my old memories were not helping me adapt at all.

They might actually be getting in the way.

Daijōbu ka, Keisuke-chan?” Dad said, presumably to me.

…Yep. That’s my name: Keisuke Gekkō, born on July 10th. I even have the baby footprint and birth certificate to prove it. I found out later that Mom’s name was Miyako and Dad was Wataru. I get the feeling that my parents wanted a boy first. Don’t you? I also had the sudden feeling I would grow up a very angry child, like a boy named Susan or something. Maybe it would lead to me trying to destroy the world, like Mandark. I’d have to convince people to call me Kei or Keiko for the rest of my life.

Or maybe I could grow up into ten feet of anger in a five-foot frame for other reasons entirely!

I’d bet on the latter, personally.

Chapter Text

The thing about chakra is that it is everywhere. Sure, most of what sensor-class shinobi can perceive is generally human chakra, and that’s what makes them so useful. It’s all that most normal shinobi can sense, either, if on a lesser scale. But thanks to the Sage of Six Paths and the Ten-Tailed Beast, the entire world is infused with chakra that, if you touch it without the proper training, is going to mean being turned into a stone frog. The normal stuff is plenty dangerous for most people, who tend to stick to what works for them and won’t backfire horribly if they’re shinobi, and tend to go along in their boring lives without ever noticing it if they’re not. I can’t sense natural chakra, by the way. I only know it exists because I watched a certain TV show way in the past.

Anyway, how is this relevant? The fact is, though I don’t have any particular aptitude for natural chakra (and holy crap am I glad for that), I’m constantly aware of my chakra. While my body’s had it since before birth, hence all the itching, my mind keeps saying that this is not normal. I need to focus—a bit—in order to use my chakra, where most people just do it automatically. I’ll need to train as I grow in order to be able to do some of the other crazy ninja bullshit people like, say, Sasuke can do without even so much as thinking about, but I think I might have an advantage as far as initial control goes.

It’s a lot easier to manipulate something when you actually know exactly how much you’re messing with at a time. It’ll be an advantage later on, but as a toddler it just pissed me off.

Anyway, as a baby, I ate and slept and cried a lot. I mean, I love my parents here and I’m sure they made my infancy as comfortable as possible, but it didn’t make it any less boring. I couldn’t do anything on my own, other than babble like a brook.

This, eventually, led to me coming up with my first words. I think I was six months old—the same thing happened last time around. Unsurprisingly, my first words were “Mama” and “Dada.” In that order. Mom was serenely proud, in a kind of smug way, while Dad seemed to want to do some kind of victory dance because I’d actually addressed him on the same day.

I was sorta…toddling around by about a year old. I could only tell because of the birthday bash they threw for me—when it comes to babies, the waking world is pretty hard to keep track of. Days blend into weeks into months, mainly because not a whole lot happens from a deeply bored adult’s point of view. I was trying to get into things like cupboards or bookshelves, like children are supposed to, but Mom and Dad had apparently thoroughly child-proofed the house. The living room was the only place where I had the ability to roam, and certainly no one was going to let me do so without supervision—Dad’s a ninja, after all, and I sometimes saw Mom pull a practice sword from above the kitchen window.

I would gum someone to death for the opportunity to read something just for a distraction, even if relearning how to read would probably be triple the pain it was the first time. Didn’t have teeth yet, then. Also? Teething is a pain and should never be voluntarily undergone a second time. Most people have infantile amnesia to thank for never having to deal with that. And I don’t.

A lot of toys got gummed to death, mostly to solve the issue of teething but also because I was bored out of my tiny toddler skull. Learning to read would be a bitch. Being a toddler at least gave me the option of stalking my parents and pestering them to read to me, though it’d be a while before I graduated from blocks.

Speaking of the birthday party, I guess Dad and Mom are pretty popular. I didn’t know the names Miyako and Wataru Gekkō from before, but they knew everyone with a kid around my age, or so it seemed.

The birthday party involved cake, though it had a kind of red bean filling that I know I hadn’t liked before being reborn. The adults stood around and talked shop, because that’s what adults do when the kids are apparently safe and well out of range of any weaponry, and I spent the party gnawing on one of my presents. Literally. Still teething and all that.

I think, in total, I ended up with a whole set of those pompom hair tie things, a teething ring, a rubber kunai (hint hint) that would probably also be used for chewing on (hint failed), three sets of baby clothes in varying shades of purple and pink (could be worse, like orange), a stuffed tiger I privately named Tigger (who was not orange), a new bottle, and a set of block puzzles. What anyone would want with that last item, I have no idea—I didn’t like those things when I was growing up the first time, either.

There were other kids there, too. I didn’t recognize Genma until his mother called his name—he’s around four or five—and I ended up crawling over and demanding that Ebisu play blocks with me. Not that he agreed gracefully—he’s three—but he could make a steadier pyramid than I could and tried to show me how it was done. I think he had the knack for teaching, even when he was little, though he was a little pompous about it.

Still ended up knocking the pyramid over, though it wasn’t his fault at all. Being a year old means being clumsy.

There were other children there, too, but I don’t remember seeing them often after the party. I guess Ayumi-chan and Miyuki-chan and Tatsuo-kun all decided to stay civilians. At least, I hope they did—the idea that they died is too ugly to linger on.

I think I might have seen Sakumo, Kakashi’s dad, show up and leave within a ten-minute period. I don’t think his social circle and my parents’ one really overlap, but he’s apparently a nice enough person to stop by and offer balloons and steal cake. Kakashi, if he was there, was probably the little white-haired bundle I only caught a glimpse of.

Balloons are the best thing in the world and no one can ever tell me otherwise. Especially when Dad did the helium trick and made all the adults burst out laughing.

As a side note? I’d figured out what time period I’d been born into.

When I burst into tears in the middle of my own birthday party, Dad panicked again and tried to soothe me while Mom politely ushered everyone else into the kitchen and then the yard, saying I was just tired from such a long and exciting day. It was even true, in a way, but that was nothing compared to the sheer magnitude of the situation I found myself in.

It’s one thing to think I’ve been reborn into a shinobi world, even with the sheer overkill certain people can sling around like nothing. It’s another to be born into Konohagakure, where most of the main plot of the series seems to gather. It’s another thing again to be born during the gap between two Shinobi World Wars.

It’s another thing altogether to realize that my age group is going to make up the front ranks of the Third Shinobi World War.

Incidentally, that was the day I discovered my ability to suppress my own chakra signature down to below my parents’ sensing threshold, which freaked them out plenty when they realized that their kid was kind of a chakra void when upset. I think that after that, they started to realize that I was going to be a really, really weird kid.

Maybe that was why they tried for a second one.

Chapter Text

I was waddling around the house at age two and some months when I finally got a good look in a mirror, and could see the person I would be. Before that, my hair hadn’t even bothered to grow in for some stupid reason, meaning that the only way I could tell what my hair color could even be was by looking at my parents and making a guess. I mean, I obviously wasn’t going to be blonde or a redhead, but I hadn’t been last time around either and I was curious to see what I was built to be.

My hair was short and kind of tufty, even if Mom had pulled it back into this dumb little ponytail that sat at the top of my head like a palm tree with pompoms. I wasn’t as pale as Mom, which makes me think that either my parents’ coloring was averaged out to get mine or that Mom really, genuinely was sick with something. I had a wide face, mostly because of the baby fat, but the way my face was developing would probably mean that I would have an average look to me, aside from my jet-black hair and dark eyes. Dad’s body type didn’t seem to be dominant, exactly, and it was hard to tell with toddlers anyway.

Oh well. I guess I’ll see when I grow up.

That was about when I heard Mom drop something in the bathroom. I toddled over to figure out what had happened—partly because I was worried but mostly because I was curious, as all children are, and said, “Mommy?”

Mom didn’t answer. Mom always answers, and yet this time all I got was a sob.

I probably don’t need to say how much that scared the shit out of me.

I headed for the bathroom as fast as my stubby little legs would carry me, bouncing off a wall or two along the way, calling, “Mommy? Mommy!”

I found Mom sitting on the floor of the bathroom with her hands over her face. On the floor in front of her was an open box, as well as a white-tipped stick that was starting to send a rather suspicious feeling through me. I wasn’t quite sure what to think, though, because Mom was both crying—a little—and smiling as she scooped me into her lap.

“Isn’t it great, Kei-chan? You’ll be a big sister soon!” Mom said into my hair.

I scooted around in her lap so I could hug her properly, listening to her heartbeat and imagining the heart of my new sibling—or siblings, if there were twins—beating along with hers and mine. “Does that mean Mommy and Daddy are going to love the baby more?”

“Of course not!” Mom said fiercely, surprising me. She pushed me back into the crook of her other arm, so she and I could look eye-to-eye without having to let go of each other. “Mommy will love you both with her whole heart! But I don’t want you to have to play alone anymore.”

It was strange, to be afraid of this new life as much as I wanted to hug it. I was a bit lonely—I can’t actually remember any point in time when I was without my brother, before I died—but it’s a child’s need to be reassured that kept me there, clinging to Mom. I did love her, because I could guess why she’d been crying—she was afraid that being pregnant again could endanger her and the baby, but she wanted to keep us all safe and happy so much that my heart was breaking for her. I didn’t want her to have to give up her life for that—it seemed selfish, I guess, because she obviously wanted the baby.

I honestly don’t even know what I thought at the time—in the end, it became more of this massive jumble of feelings that didn’t really end up proving anything to me other than that I was incredibly indecisive.

Still, if Mom wanted the baby, I wasn’t going to say no. I kept turning around and expecting find someone who wasn’t there, now that I was old enough to walk and wander from room to room. I kind of hoped for a brother, despite the ways it could all go wrong (excluding sibling fights, which were expected and normal).

In the end, it actually didn’t.

By the time I turned three, Dad had managed to get me to the point where I could read on my own. This was mostly because I had taken to bugging him half to death about it every time I could, since knowing that a sibling was on the way only increased my need to know about the world I was slowly getting big enough to explore. I’d babble about how I wanted to teach my little sibling everything ever, including what kind of book had the best pictures and which way was the best way to stretch and where the really nice food vendors were—the kind that would give free food to cute kids, of course. I was going to be the best sister ever.

I might have wanted a hustler for a little brother. Nostalgia was biting me pretty hard.

Dad was starting to teach me other things, too. Little exercises—cat’s cradle, stretches that I probably wouldn’t have managed to pull off in my old life, and so on—designed to test and enhance fitness. Though I think the whole cat’s cradle thing was for dexterity, and with hand seals being a priority for ninjas, I kind of wondered why I’d never thought of it before. It would be easier with a sibling to practice on, since Dad’s hands were so big, but it was fun anyway. He even gave me a picture book on more of them, and it wasn’t long before I was pestering him with new questions for the exercises in the book.

I think he started me on the chakra control exercises solely so I’d wear myself out. He was a ninja after all, and it can’t be fun to come home to a babbling three-year-old with severe word vomit after a long day at the outposts. I was in the “why” stage, even if I saw some civilian children who turned it all up even further than I did.

When it came to Mom, I noticed that she got tired more often and quicker than she used to. It scared me because I knew she wasn’t especially healthy, but she went to the doctor often and there didn’t seem to be any real problem. If I’d really been three, I think the other main thing I would have noticed was how Mom’s belly kept growing and her lap kept shrinking, until I couldn’t sit in it anymore and Dad would have to bounce me on his knee until I got dizzy.

On the due date, Mom went into the delivery room alone and Dad sat with me outside. I had my toys with me—I still liked to chew on rubber kunai, for some reason—but I just sat there and stared at them for a while. Even my book about the Sage of Six Paths and the Tailed Beasts (censored to hell and back, of course) seemed boring with all this nervous energy in the air.

I yawned, rubbing at my eyes and feeling my toddler body start to succumb to the inevitable—mainly an early bedtime I’d never managed to get around, since I had ninjas for parents. Well, at least one ninja—I’d never seen Mom in a chūnin vest.

“Keisuke-chan, bring that book here and I’ll read a story for you.” Dad said. I crawled up onto his leg, book in hand, and he opened it to the page on the Sage and his two sons.

I was probably asleep before he finished the first page, but I woke up again when Dad carried me to see the new baby.

Only we didn’t end up in the maternity ward. We went to the Neonatal ICU.

Mom was there too, and though she was paler than normal and was being wheeled around by a nurse all in white. She looked okay, even though it must have been less than an hour since the birth, so what was wrong couldn’t have been with her. She’d be in the normal Intensive Care Unit or something otherwise. Instead, we all turned to the window and looked into the room full of incubators, though only three were occupied, and Mom held my hand, even though Dad was still holding me.

Dad said, “Keisuke-chan, do you see the box on the far right?”

I looked. I couldn’t read the writing on it from this far away with bad lighting, but I could see a tiny form in the plastic. There were two ports with gloves attached to them, so no one would get close enough to make the baby sick with adult germs, and I thought I could see enough of the wires and tubes running into the box to make a guess that something was very wrong.

“That’s your little brother, Hayate.” Dad said, and Mom let go of my hand so he could lift me onto his shoulders.

“Why’s he in there?” I asked, leaning over with my tiny hand fisted in Dad’s hair. “I wanna see him!”

Besides, the name Hayate Gekkō was setting off warning bells I hadn’t even known I had.

“He’s…he’s having a little trouble breathing right now. He’s a new baby—they’re pretty fragile.” Dad said, hesitant. “We’ll take him home as soon as he’s better.”

Little Hayate started coughing, sending the medics in the room into a frenzy of activity I couldn’t follow.

Of all the things I remember from my first life, the clearest memories involve my family. It’d taken two weeks before I even realized I was in Konohagakure, and some of the earlier details about the plot of the series had sort of fallen through the cracks. I knew that, for example, Kakashi was pretty important to the plot in a lot of ways—I have my favorites among the cast, after all—and that the story was ultimately Naruto’s, and so on and so forth. But if you asked me in my old life about some of the minor, one-shot ninjas—especially if they showed up in filler arcs or movies—I’d have probably needed a minute to exercise my Google-Fu and figure out who you were talking about.

But with the breathing tubes and the incubator, and the strange echo of a lower, more insistent cough running through my head, I knew then that my baby brother was the same person who ended up being the first named Konoha-nin killed for Orochimaru’s Chūnin Exam invasion, in the far future. He’d be a lamb to the slaughter, despite his skill and speed, and all for knowing just a bit too much. The man who killed him would become an ally, and no one would ever know he’d done it.

I don’t think I ever really knew what hate was, until that moment.

Or fear.

Chapter Text

I started having chronic nightmares not long after we finally got to take Hayate home.

Children generally don’t become the center of their own unconscious narratives until they’re eight or so, when the world of me versus not-me is clearly defined and suddenly it seems like everyone decides to be the hero of their own story all at once. I still had the occasional dream where I was just watching the world go by, like clouds, but when Hayate finally replaced me in the nursery was when the dreams of my old life started coming back with a vengeance.

I don’t blame Hayate for it. He couldn’t help having sensitive lungs or being a baby. He couldn’t help being a part of my memories from before I died. The fact that my imagination wanted to combine my baby brother and the sight of the dead special jōnin on the rooftop, with blood everywhere and crows pecking at his thoroughly mangled corpse? Wasn’t his fault, but it ate into my brain all the same. Sometimes I’d wake up in the middle of the night, shaking with grief and rage too big for my body, and I’d creep into the nursery to make sure he was still breathing.

Mom and Dad both noticed that I wasn’t getting a lot of sleep—it’s pretty hard to get anything past a ninja when you’re barely capable of speaking in complex sentences—but I think Mom was just glad I wasn’t jealous of all the time she and Dad spent with Hayate as he got bigger. A normal child would have fussed, or whined, or maybe demanded a refund (which is really more my memories of my old life talking than anything). I wasn’t a normal, fussy little girl around Hayate.

I didn’t want to be a burden when Hayate needed them all hours of the day. I couldn’t do that to any of them.

Knowing my brother would (or perhaps I should say could) grow up to be a dead man walking killed any envy before it could pop up.

That said, when the all-consuming worry eased off a bit—which was mostly when I was awake and could see him wiggling around on the living room rug as he figured out how to make his limbs listen to him—I was hopelessly attached. Hayate wasn’t a big child at seven months, and he wasn’t quite as solidly built as I was, which might have been due to me being a first-born kid who’d had our parents’ undivided attention for almost three years. But he was curious and sharp-eyed despite the amount of time he kept himself and everyone else awake with his persistent little cough.

God, I hoped it wasn’t whooping cough. The doctors hadn’t freaked out the last time my parents took him to the hospital, but I’m also not sure if they know what whooping cough is. Granted, I’m not totally sure I do either, but suddenly all of those vaccinations I got as a baby started being really, really relevant and worrying in their vagueness.

“Haa-chan?” Getting his attention could be a pain, sometimes. He was sucking on a rubber kunai not unlike my old one, mainly because it was too big to choke on while I was around and could get it out of his mouth, and occasionally gumming on it. If I’d really been three, I wouldn’t have been at all trustworthy when it came to my baby brother’s safety, but I wasn’t and my parents apparently figured that as long as one of them was in the house, we’d be okay.

Man, when he started teething for real it was going to be hell.

And all I wanted was to see if I could get him to grab onto a rattle. I figured, hey, he’s squirming around on the carpet and trying to grasp things with his tiny fingers anyway, so it had to be worth a shot. If I could get him to stop focusing on the kunai, anyway.

He looked at me at the sound of my pet name for him, at least. It was better than what Dad had managed—I think the way I’d been so hyper-aware as an infant had spoiled him on the whole child development thing. Hayate was probably at least a few months from being able to speak actual words, if he followed the normal progression for boys (as far as I knew, anyway).

“Rattle.” I said, waving it. He looked at me, then at the rattle. Then back at me.

Hayate made a complicated, indecisive sound around the kunai.

“Haa-chan, what?” I asked, and he spat out the kunai to wiggle after the rattle. I didn’t move it much—it’s not fair to tease someone who doesn’t really have any motor skills, even if he is my brother and will probably grow up to be a pain in the ass someday.

You know, if he doesn’t die before that. That thought scares me so much I can’t think sometimes.

“Kei!” Hayate said.

I blinked, pulling back a little. Had he just…?

“Haa-chan?”

“Kei!” Hayate said, starting to turn a little bit red from frustration since the rattle wasn’t in range anymore. I immediately gave it to him and he stopped pouting, waving it around as well as he could given that he was still a baby. I scooted over so he could reach me if he wanted, and he ended up drooling into my pajama bottoms a bit when he abandoned the rattle to gnaw on the kunai again. I didn’t really mind.

Okay, so maybe I was wrong about the talking thing. Hayate is officially a genius in my book.

“Mommy! Haa-chan talked!”

That night, at least, I didn’t dream about Hayate’s death.

Chapter Text

During peacetime, the minimum age to enter the Academy is five. Or, failing that, a student has to turn five within the next calendar year. Generally, only students with parent endorsements head there that early, meaning that orphans, civilians, and people who just don’t want their kids to end up on the front lines before losing their baby teeth (i.e., most people) join later, with less experience. Most of the rest of us join at around eight or nine. Early graduation is possible, though uncommon, and passing by a ridiculous margin was the main reason for it. People like Yamato and Kakashi could do it easily, and I was worried to some degree because, while I grew up with ninja parents, I still didn’t consider myself especially fit or intelligent by the freakish standards set by people like them. The only reason I even considered the Academy at all was a result of a few thoughts colliding in my brain, when Hayate turned two and I was five-plus-a-few-months.

One: Even though I was probably being slowly driven insane by recurring nightmares of Hayate’s death, I couldn’t just let it happen. Not without fighting it. Hayate might have been just an unfortunate casualty of the plot a lifetime ago, but here he was my little brother and I would kill anyone who dared touch him. The ferocity of my love and protective streak surprised me at first, because in my old lifetime I’d been on more-or-less equal terms with my brother and never really needed to defend him from anything in the peaceful world I remembered. But the more I thought on it, the more it stayed with me.

Two: I didn’t want to be helpless anymore. Five years of essentially complete dependence on my parents had put me off the concept for good, even if Mom was starting to teach me kenjutsu using a pair of practice swords out in the training fields. I wasn’t great, but between that and Dad starting to teach me the basics of the Academy taijutsu, I was off to something of a head start.

Three: Despite what some members of the village could get up to, I really did love it in Konoha. It wasn’t the strongest village—that title belonged to Iwagakure or Kumogakure—but it was one of the vanishingly few places that didn’t fuck up quite as thoroughly as, say, Sunagakure. Konoha wasn’t perfect by any means, but I didn’t know enough about the other villages other than their treatment of their jinchūriki to really tell how they behaved. And that Minato Namikaze would end up slaughtering most of them en masse. I wanted to protect the village my brother and I would grow up in, because there was a spark here worth protecting. Hopefully I wouldn’t die in the attempt.

It’s probably one of the worst motivations for becoming a ninja: fear. It was still mine.

By the way, when I said I wasn’t great at kenjutsu or taijutsu, I’m not really sure what “great” even means. I’d never seen a shinobi younger than the age of eight in the field, even though I knew a couple of people who would be just that when they got to that age, and definitely no one with extensive kenjutsu or taijutsu experience. Hell, if it wasn’t for my parents, I have to wonder how I would have gotten any physical conditioning done. I’m more prone to worrying myself silly than training myself into a coma, as a rule.

On the other hand, Mom brought Hayate to training one day—apparently the supply of genin babysitters was running low, no matter how horrible that thought is—and that changed things up quite a bit. Not because of anything Mom or I did, though.

I’d only been training for about a week in kenjutsu, so we weren’t exactly going all out. I mean, I was completely getting my ass handed to me every single moment of it, and Mom wasn’t even winded, ever, but it was still clearly a step in the right direction.

“Again, Kei-chan, we’re sticking with shinai at this point.” Mom said, holding her shinai up like a teacher’s collapsible pointer. Mom didn’t look pale and tired like this. She looked like a female samurai, all pride and power and I-will-beat-the-shit-out-of-you-if-you-look-at-me-cross-eyed. I think saying that I wanted to learn kenjutsu put fire back in her, though my backside would probably live to regret it.

“Yes, Mommy.” I said, but I kept looking at Hayate, who was sitting underneath a tree and holding a shinai the approximate size of a wakizashi. He was swatting at the leaf litter with it. Mom’s shinai slashed through the air in front of my nose, nearly as fast as a real sword, and I squeaked.

“Here and now I am your sensei, Kei-chan.” Mom said seriously. She held her shinai in a ready stance. “If I didn’t think you could handle this, I would have let your father continue teaching you only chakra control and basic taijutsu, but as my daughter, I think you have what it takes to go all the way.”

I felt my face heating up at the praise. Yeah, I could do this. It’d be hard and painful, but I couldn’t give up!

“We’ll move on to bokken as you advance,” Mom continued, “because even if the bokken isn’t a katana, there’s plenty you can do with a solid length of wood and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

“Yes, Mo—er, Sensei!” I chirped, excited. Sure, she’d probably beat me silly again, but that was part of the training.

“Good. Now, let’s see your stance.” Mom said.

The thing about kenjutsu—or at least the version that shinobi used—is that you need to be highly mobile. There is a starting stance, for the beginning of formal duels and for centering yourself, but by the time a shinobi was using a sword out in the field the rigid swing-snap-retreat routine was useless except for moving meditation. It was mainly used to build discipline and strength in new students, but the average genin was likely to have double or triple the physical strength of a non-shinobi once chakra enhancement came into play. There was no other way that we could send genin on bodyguard missions from bandits, given the average age of an academy graduate nowadays—they’d get slaughtered.

Feet apart, with the right leg ready to lead, hands placed well apart on the shinai’s handle for leverage, and chakra quietly reinforcing my muscles. That was the only way to practice, even if I wore myself out more thoroughly that way. I’m sure that any actual aspiring-shinobi kid wouldn’t have bothered with the chakra part, mainly because most of them couldn’t even feel it backing each and every one of their movements, but I need to make using it second nature.

I figured I’d actually move on to the mobile stuff once I had the basics down.

“Strike-one!” Mom barked.

I jumped to obey. “Hah!” I shouted, snapping the shinai out sharply and making it emit a slapping sound as the bamboo slats touched each other from the force of it.

“Strike-one! Block-one! Duck! Backstep! Backstep! Backstep! Strike-two! I didn’t hear a snap on that last one, Kei-chan! Strike-two!”

Mom was kind of a drill sergeant.

After a while, there was sweat pouring down my round face and I was breathing harder than normal. I wasn’t really fit—sure, I was more active than I had been the last time around, mostly because there was nothing else to do unless I wanted to move into a freaking library for the rest of my continued existence—but I was also five. I had a right to the baby fat I had, okay? And Mom was making me work myself to the bone for, hopefully, a bit of an edge when it came to the Academy.

Basically, my endurance wasn’t great and Mom called practice to a halt just before I collapsed.

“Well done, Kei-chan!” Mom said brightly, patting me on my probably sweat-soaked shoulder. I was wearing a training gi, but that meant pretty much nothing when there was lots of physical activity and Konoha had the kind of summers I was never going to like. Hot summers, to be specific. With no air conditioning in sight. “For someone who’s just started, you’re doing great.”

“T-Thanks, Sensei.” I said, panting.

“Hah!”

Mom and I both blinked at the sudden intrusion of a higher voice and automatically turned to see where it was coming from.

Hayate stood under the tree—somewhat wobbly, but he’s two and could be forgiven for many things—and snapped his little practice wakizashi out again. “Hah!”

The sad thing? His form, given time and another foot of height, would be better than mine. I could tell even then.

“Haya-chan?” I was incredulous. He was a toddler learning kenjutsu.

“Kei-nee! Mommy!” he called, running over to us unsteadily.

Mom picked him up automatically, smiling widely. I took the shinai out of his hands, so he wouldn’t make Mom see stars, but it was clear that she didn’t care too much about that. She lifted him higher, twirling and making him giggle.

“You want to learn kenjutsu too, Hayate-chan?” Mom asked, as she nuzzled his face and he played with her long black hair.

“Ken…?” Hayate asked, pausing in his ruffling of Mom’s ponytail. “Wha’s that?”

“Swords, Haya-chan!” I broke in, grinning. “You’ll be a big boy soon, and you’ll get to learn kenjutsu with me and Mommy!”

“I can!” Hayate said, though I wasn’t sure he knew what he was agreeing to.

“Mommy, let me show Haya-chan what to do, when I learn more! I wanna help!” I said firmly, more sure of this than anything in my life.

“Of course, Kei-chan.” Mom said, and hugged us both.

I don’t really know how much I’d ever really be able to teach him that he couldn’t surpass me at in short order. But I guess that the true mark of mastery is whether or not you know something well enough to teach it to someone else, right? Even if that someone else is my two-year-old brother who’s probably a blade prodigy and will be more dangerous with a katana than I ever will.

I was feeling pretty good about my goals in life, then. The Academy was going to be cake.

Then Hayate started coughing again and the magic was gone.

Chapter Text

Lessons with Dad got more focused the closer we got to the year I actually joined the Academy. Sure, after a certain point he pronounced me sufficiently durable and skilled to keep up with the non-major-clan kids and flipped to focusing on chakra control, but I think he had his reasons, and those reasons probably revolved around not wanting me to graduate too early. I don’t blame him for it. The idea of being sent out on infiltration missions as a kid—and I hoped no one had ever looked at a six-year-old and thought they could do it, though with people like Kakashi and Yamato running around I really wouldn’t put it past the creepier assholes around here—scared the crap out of me. I was still planning on enrolling when I turned eight, and my parents seemed okay with that. That would give me anywhere from a year to three years to graduate, depending on both the how compressed the curriculum became as war approached and on my own completely-not-legit brilliance.

Anyway, around the time that Dad got around to asking me what I thought I wanted to do with all this chakra control, I’d been mulling the whole ninja thing over pretty much on continuous loop. Dad had noticed my very cautious use of chakra and eventually asked why I spent such a long time gathering it before ever even trying the leaf-sticking exercise, to which he got the answer of hyperawareness. I guess if Hayate got to be a kenjutsu prodigy—and as time went on and he soaked up Mom’s lessons like a sponge, I think any doubt about that faded from my parents’ minds—I could be a half-decent genjutsu-type kunoichi.

Er, shinobi. Let’s not get into how badly I suck at kunoichi-specific stuff just yet.

I was thinking about a possible specialization, since Dad asked and I hadn’t really thought about specifics before, and I ended up looking possible options up in books before I gave him an answer. Being a genjutsu-type shinobi, or a sensor, seemed well within my potential. If I had a sword for backup, then I could probably figure out how to take out an entire opposing team. A sensor’s range wouldn’t compete with a Hyūga’s Byakugan, but there were only so many Hyūga clan members in active positions, so I’d be able to find a spot for myself if I wanted. I was studying on this for about two days total, with the thought always in the back of my mind, when I got a wake-up call.

I’m not sure what brought it on. It could have been the heat wave we were having, or something in the water. I still don’t know. I wish I did.

Hayate and I shared a bedroom, once he was out of the nursery and my parents decided to revamp it into a playroom. It mostly meant getting rid of the crib and buying another bed for Hayate in my room. I slept across the room from him, still dreaming of his death every time my brain said he wasn’t breathing loud enough—blood everywhere oh god what happened to him no Hayate-chan please wake up—but it wasn’t as bad as before. I wouldn’t have to get out of bed to make sure he was still alive.

But one night, I was woken up in the middle of a perfectly normal dream. It was so hot then, hot enough that I’d asked my parents for a bamboo mat to sleep on since the sheets were sticking to my skin, and Hayate’s breathing was a little more labored than normal. Mom got a mat for him, too, and a thin sheet so he could feel like he was covered up, and we suffered through it together.

Waking up from stage three sleep is a pain normally, but my heart was pounding in my ears that night. It wasn’t like I was sleeping well when the weather turned muggy, but it still shouldn’t have involved jolting awake like someone had stuck a needle in my foot.

I rolled over, sticky with sweat and feeling in dire need of a bath to wash the stress away, and looked over to Hayate’s bed. “Hayate-chan?”

Hayate was coughing again. I got up and walked over to him, feeling his tiny childish chakra blaring an alarm that must have been too subtle for my parents to detect. I brought a faint blue glow to my hands, which was kind of like my night-light, and looked at him. Then I turned on the light.

I screamed.

Hayate has weak lungs, relative to what you’d expect from the son of a pair of shinobi. He catches a cold every time any of our neighbors’ kids get one, and his is almost always worse. His breathing is abnormally shallow, though I’m not sure my parents can hear it with the same precision that I can. I’m the paranoid one when it comes to my little brother.

All I know is that Hayate was rushed to the hospital within two minutes by Dad. He even spent his third birthday in the hospital, sick with something that sounds like whooping cough crossed with pneumonia and maybe poison. His lungs were giving out on him and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it. Mom looked paler and gaunter than ever, like all the life she’d shown in training had been sucked out as surely as Hayate’s breathing hitched, and Dad seemed stretched-out and helplessly angry.

I sat by his bedside more often than not, reading either aloud or to myself. He had an oxygen mask on, with little tubes running all over his skinny chest and a couple in the back of his left hand, and he was unconscious most of the time, but I read anyway because even if he wasn’t able to hear my words, I thought he might be able to hear my voice. I tried telling myself it was like back before he was born, when the only things he’d really hear clearly were Mom’s heartbeat and the voices of those close to her, like me. Mom sat with me, picking up the story when my voice cracked, and Dad stopped by every hour on the hour, looking more and more haggard as he demanded to see someone or something. I couldn’t really keep track of it all.

I was six years old. My brother’s hand was so small and pale in mine.

Normal doctors didn’t have any real way to fix what was wrong with him. They prescribed medicines and hemmed and hawed about, but ultimately what they do isn’t healing. It’s an attempt to kill the possible bacteria or viruses that were killing Hayate, but he was three. The bacteria and viruses probably had a stronger hold on life than he did. I hadn’t been there for his vaccines so I had no idea what he was supposedly resistant to and no one was going to tell a six-year-old civilian girl anything.

Hayate was there for a total of two days before a medic-nin—I could tell by the headband, after—stomped into the room with a glare that was two degrees short of making things spontaneously combust. “What’s going on here?”

I squeaked and my free hand went scrambling for the shinai strapped between my shoulders before Mom’s hand closed over mine.

“Yamaguchi-sensei, is there anything you can do for my son?” Mom said sharply. I’d never heard her voice like that, all steel behind the weariness and stress. She had a champion glare, too.

Also, where the heck did she know this guy from?

“Hand me that chart.” Yamaguchi-sensei said, rather than answering. Dad snatched it off the foot of the bed, shoving it into the medic’s hands.

Yamaguchi-sensei’s eyes swept over the charts and all the notations, marked only by the occasional grumble. My parents’ eyes never left his face, but I turned back to Hayate and squeezed his hand. He didn’t wake up, but I thought his eyelids might have twitched a little. Heck, he was probably under so many different kinds of sedatives that nothing would wake him up.

“Yes, I can.”

Those were the magic words I’d been waiting—praying—for.

What happened next was a blur, due as much to my exhaustion as the medics’ speed. I was still a child, despite my adult memories and thought processes, and Dad had to pick me up so we could all get out of the way. What I remember involves four medic-nin bending over my unconscious baby brother—each with their hands glowing with pale green chakra that hummed to my advanced chakra sense—the tubes in Hayate’s chest being removed for some reason or another, and my parents leaving the room with me still in Dad’s arms.

I don’t know how long I was asleep—or possibly unconscious, given how hard I’d been pushing myself to stay awake beforehand—after that. But I do know that when I opened my eyes, it was because Hayate had stuck a tissue under my nose and was tickling me. He was sitting in Mom’s lap, while I must have been in Dad’s. There weren’t any tubes in him anymore, and just a few wires remained connected to monitors that were beeping steadily and without stress.

He looked paler than Mom and more worn-out than ever, his eyelids drooping, but his breathing sounded miraculously even. He was smiling at me. He let me hug him as hard as I could, even if I sort of made him squeak for air by the end.

When we could finally bring Hayate home—again—I resumed my ninja lessons.

“Daddy?” I said, as we worked on calligraphy on the kitchen table. Calligraphy was like art, and I think my handwriting here was better than it had been back before I’d been reborn. Even if I got ink everywhere unless people put newspapers down first.

“What is it, Keisuke-chan?”

“I wanna be a medical ninja.”

Dad didn’t argue with me about it at all. He got me books, since he wasn’t a medic himself, and Yamaguchi-sensei would at least stop by the examination room every once in a while to give me pointers when we brought Hayate in for check-ups. I wasn’t going to be the next Tsunade, but if I could keep people alive long enough to make it to a real medic, that’s what I’d do.

Chapter Text

So, here’s the thing about medical ninjutsu: It’s all about control.

Not even joking. While some of the bigger techniques for worse injuries can require a medic-nin to pour chakra steadily into a patient for up to four hours at a time, the important part of rituals, seals, healing techniques, and the anatomical considerations involved makes everything come down to chakra control crossed with mental discipline.

“Kei-kun, stop bullshitting the fish test.

“Yes, Yamaguchi-sensei.”

Mental discipline is not exactly something I have an abundance of. Neither is chakra, primarily because my physical body was still seven, and mixing my abundance of spiritual energy with my physical stamina basically had a lack of the latter as a limiting factor. Assuming that the levels of my spiritual energy remained consistent throughout my lifetime, as the lopsided data was likely based on my adult soul, I’d have to wait for another eight years before I was anywhere near my old potential power. It was worse than trying to figure out phosphorus fertilizer proportions necessary for maximum crop yield.

Not that I needed to know that in my new life. Or my old one. It was just a relevant thought. Making a mockery of science tests is fun.

Speaking of which, medical ninja training involves slightly less paperwork, studying, and knowledge of human anatomy than becoming an orthopedic or emergency room surgeon. I was only a year in, and I could already see my sanity going down the drain worse than usual.

I still had the dreams, which always ended in blood and screams and death. Maybe the familiarity was wearing some of the edges off, but at least my waking hours were less affected than they had been in the past. I had a feeling that it’d be the best I could do on my own.

Anyway, back to the fish test.

One of the earliest exercises in becoming a medical ninja involved trying to keep a fish alive out of water for about five minutes. A wannabe medic-nin ought to be able to keep the fish alive, healthy, and capable of returning to the water with no ill effects. We weren’t trying to raise the dead, which usually meant the damn thing was flopping around everywhere because that’s what fish do. It was smelly and slimy and an animal that didn’t want to die of asphyxiation.

Which was why I’d come up with what Yamaguchi-sensei called “bullshitting the fish test.”

I removed my hands from the trout’s gills and the water I’d held against them splashed uselessly to the ground. The fish immediately flopped out of my hands, off the table, and back into the lake I’d pulled it from.

Cupping things—especially water, for me—with chakra was a basic exercise in what amounted to expulsion and molding. Most people chose water or dirt since those things stuck to skin anyway, and since fire or lightning would involve getting layers of skin or nerves being put through hell with no benefit in a medical sense. Wind would have been the easiest and likely the most useful in the field for medical purposes, but I used water because my subject was a goddamn fish.

Keeping the water oxygenated had been as easy as agitating it with my chakra. I wasn’t perfectly aware of the CO2 levels of the water in my grasp, but I could adjust the cycling speed and watch my “patient” for a reaction. Was I doing it right? Was I killing it?

That said, because medical ninja were supposed to be able to pull oxygen into the fish’s lungs and blood manually via chakra control alone, my method was a cheat because I was making my fish do all the grunt work of respiration. I was only enabling it.

Oh, and sedating it, with my chakra slowing the transfer of signals in its fish-brain, so it didn’t freak the fuck out and flip all over the place. I didn’t have any interest in having to chase my fish around the shore.

Technically, I suppose that what I was doing might have been considered more advanced because of the multitasking I was doing, but it was still cutting corners somewhere.

“Begin molding chakra in your core, again.” Yamaguchi-sensei said. “Do not form any seals until I tell you to.”

I nodded and closed my eyes to focus. I also shrank my chakra signature to almost nothing to reduce the…well, the best way I can describe it is “noise.” In the electronic sense. Like radio static, or that stuff on a TV screen that says your signal’s shit and the digital device of your choosing needs a thumping. It was a lot easier for me to focus my own chakra to a knife’s edge when I wasn’t constantly feeling the random discharges my coils were prone to when I wasn’t paying attention.

“If there’s one thing you should take away from our lessons, Kei-kun, it’s how to approach a new case.” Yamaguchi-sensei said, walking around me as I stood at the table. I could feel the odd tingling sensation that made up his chakra signature as he went—he had a lightning affinity, he’d said, and he had to work around it every day he went into the Intensive Care Unit. “You will be thorough, you will be precise, and you will be right. You don’t get a chance to screw up in the field! If you do, someone could die.

“Hell, even if you get everything right, you may not be able to do a damn thing. You may fail to save a patient in the field—you will fail to save someone in your career. Failing is a part of life. Sometimes there just isn’t anything to do, and your patient is too far gone for anyone to save.” His voice went low then, like he was remembering something painful. “My goal is to make it so that you don’t make a habit of it.”

“Yes, Sensei.” I said, keeping my eyes closed.

“We will begin hand drills now.” Yamaguchi-sensei said, as though my voice had pointed him in another direction to rant. “On my mark, and do not channel chakra.”

“Yes, Sensei.”

“Dog.”

I folded my left hand under my right.

“Tiger.”

Thumbs together, index fingers raised with the tips touching, and the rest of my fingers interlaced.

“Ox.”

And so on. There are twelve basic hand seals, though anyone who pays attention to shinobi in fights (or is an Uchiha with a Sharingan) will notice that individual shinobi have their own particular variations. While these tend to vary based on village and clan, real modification of seals tends to mean something special. Techniques such as the Shadow Clone Jutsu use what I refer to as the Cross seal, while Haku Yuki’s claim to fame was his ability to use half-seals in combat as thought they were full ones.

What Yamaguchi-sensei understood, and what I did for different reasons, was that hand seals were primarily mnemonics.

The most dangerous advanced shinobi barely need to use seals for their favorite techniques. Orochimaru hadn’t needed the use of his arms to take on the other two Sannin and get away alive (with considerations made for drugging and phobias). They can pull off the same thing by merely molding their chakra the same way as a shinobi using seals. While undoubtedly slower without the memory aids, it had the distinct advantage of making it damn near impossible to predict or copy the technique involved unless one was both equipped with a Sharingan and either a sensor or blessed with a Byakugan.

So I guess that the hypothetical offspring of a Hyūga and an Uchiha would have a better shot at deciphering Orochimaru’s techniques than most.

I was learning, even at age seven, to dissociate seals from chakra molding. Not that I wouldn’t have probably done it anyway—my chakra sense made me all too aware of how my chakra was supposed to move for the techniques that I knew. Eventually, I might have been able to basically bullshit the seals to any technique as soon as I had the feel of it down.

You know, if I managed to live that long. Or avoided pissing off Yamaguchi-sensei too many times.

“Rat! Come on, Kei-kun, you can do it faster than that!”

Or if I managed to get through his training without wanting to murder him.

Chapter Text

The thing about the Academy is this: while students do learn all of the necessary skills to become rather crappy genin, it’s also boring as hell.

Don’t get me wrong—ninjutsu (what there is of it), taijutsu (if your family style doesn’t blow it out of the water), and kunai throwing (which is something I resolved to learn, since Mom wasn’t exactly teaching me to throw things anywhere Hayate could see and then copy me) are all very important to a shinobi. The thing is, any kid with decent clan backing and enough ambition can cheerfully substitute the math, the weapons training, the taijutsu, and the chakra control exercises with their homemade schedule. The Uchiha clan’s training regimen—particularly when it comes to kids with a high chance of developing the Sharingan—is completely insane. Kakashi probably got trained by his dad starting from whenever he learned to walk. I don’t even know what the heck was up with Yamato and I really don’t want to.

It’s just that I was twenty-eight years old (if you counted both lifetimes) in my head, and an adult mind crunches through the text-based stuff way faster than the average eight-year-old. I wasn’t as quick when it came to things like taijutsu, since I sure didn’t have any memories to fall back on aside from Mom’s training, but that was okay. Everything else I could learn from Dad or Mom or books.

That’s what I tell myself, anyway. There are genuine geniuses here. I’m just not one of them.

I don’t think the other students knew what to think of this strange girl who could sleep through half the lessons and still ace the tests. Fact is, I wasn’t all that concerned with the tests—the only penalty for failing was in the class standings, not in real life just yet—and instead focused on my constant sleep deprivation. Even if I hadn’t been doing well by the books, I’d have needed to take naps to make up for all the nightmare interruptions I had to live with. When it came to naps, at least, I was home free. I don’t think I had enough time to drop into Stage Three, given the whole class schedule thing and the fact that the lunch was only an hour long.

Of course, someone had to stroll along and break the monotony that was my school life, and he did it by tripping over me as I snoozed on the playground. Eventually, I would get used to sleeping in trees solely so people didn’t trip over me ever again, but that wasn’t the day.

Anyway, the first indication I got that trouble was coming was when I felt a sandal scrape across my foot and totally twist it the wrong way. As a side note, I’m kind of a crappy sensor when I’m sleep-deprived. Which is all the time. This isn’t really saying much about my sensing abilities, now that I think of it.

Both of us ended up yelling “Ow!” at the same time. I pulled my foot back, because a tweaked ankle is no fun when taijutsu training is later in the day, and pulled my sandal off so I could get a better look at the damage. About a second later, I realized I probably should also take a look at whoever had just face-planted into a tree root or a swing, and was greeted by the sight of a boy’s butt sticking up in the air as he tried to get his face off the ground and do his own assessment of his injuries.

“You okay?” I asked. My hands were glowing a faint green as I preempted any swelling from my ankle—I was good enough with medical ninjutsu to manage that much, at least. I’d probably be able to make sure Mr. Awkward Landing was all right, too, assuming he hadn’t knocked a tooth out.

Then again, we were eight, so maybe that wasn’t even much of a big deal.

At the sound of my voice, he rolled over so he was sitting on the ground, clutching his face. He even had dirt in his spiky black hair. It was like instead of going for a faceplant, he’d tried to be an ostrich. “Ow... Man, if I didn’t have my goggles that would’ve been bad!”

My experience with fashion is and probably always will be limited. I nonetheless maintain that snowboarding goggles are not actually a reasonable accessory in Konoha, which hasn’t seen a snowfall in the course of known shinobi history. Land of Fire and all that.

The boy continued muttering, “Though I didn’t need goggle lines on my face like that…” All of a sudden, he glared at me and said loudly, “Hey! What were you doing sleeping here anyway?”

“I’m tired, the tree provides shade, and people usually don’t run around it too much, because of all the roots.” I suggested, looking over at him with half-lidded eyes. I was tired all the time, true, but that didn’t mean that I wasn’t aware of things when I had to be. “Anyway, are you okay?”

Sure, people tripped over me, but as far as I was concerned that was more their problem than mine. I wasn’t exactly napping in the middle of a hallway, after all.

“I’m fine!” he insisted, waving his arms for emphasis. “It takes more than a pratfall to defeat the great Obito Uchiha!”

Oh what the fuck.

On one hand, the kid in front of me was a genuinely well-intentioned if clumsy person. He was probably, at the moment, the only explicitly identified Uchiha alive (since I couldn’t remember if Itachi had been born yet) who wasn’t some kind of arrogant douche. He was kind, thoughtless in a kind of endearing way, and trustworthy unless it came to paying attention to a clock.

On the other hand, Obito could grow up to be Tobi.

For about five seconds, I just stared at him like he was from another planet.

I was also solidifying my reputation as a total space-case. Oh well. I don’t think Obito even noticed, and I think it was because his goggles had dug uncomfortably into the bridge of his nose, and he got distracted by the pain again.

“Seriously, though, that hurt!” Obito said.

I frowned. “Take those goggles off so I can see what’s wrong.” I said, getting up onto my knees.

“What? No, there’s nothing wrong!” Obito insisted. He might have tried crab-walking away from me if it wasn’t for the fact that the root he’d hit was in the way.

“If you want me to heal that, you have to stay still.” I said. He froze. I continued, “I know it’s probably not serious, but there’s taijutsu later. It’s no fun to fight when you’re getting a black eye.”

“What, seriously? Oh man, I didn’t know it was that bad!” Obito fretted, pushing his goggles up so he could touch his nose. Bad idea. “Ow!”

“Stop that.” I ordered. It must have looked odd to outsiders, if there’d been anyone looking at us. The playground was always busy with tag games, though. I wondered what Obito had been doing before tripping over me, but I never asked. “I’m gonna make it look less like you got in a fight, okay?”

It seemed, even then, like Obito had to be held by the hand to avoid hurting himself. I’m still not sure if it’s a boy thing or just an Obito thing—most of the boys I knew later had different takes on the whole self-destruction thing.

“Okay, fine.” Obito said sullenly, pushing his goggles up on his forehead.

It wasn’t really that bad—like with other bruises, it was just a matter of closing up burst blood vessels and urging the body to clean up the now-useless extra blood. It was only a bit worse than my foot, even if Obito’s issue was way more colorful. I was just speeding up what his body would do naturally over the course of a week, and it didn’t really take that much chakra to accomplish that on something so minor. At least he wouldn’t look like a panda, like me.

“That feels funny.” Obito said, closing his eyes against the green glow of my chakra.

“It’s supposed to feel better.” I said, taking my hands away. I felt drained—it took chakra to heal, and as an eight-year-old I didn’t have much in the way of reserves just yet. I would, though. Even if I had to train to exhaustion.

“Well, yeah, it feels better too.” Obito said. He opened one eye, seeming to check if I was done poking him, and then poked at his nose experimentally. “Oh! It doesn’t hurt at all!”

“And the bruise is mostly gone.” It would have been a pretty interesting bruise, too. Oh well. “You can check in the bathroom mirror later or something.”

“Nah, I trust you!” Obito might have been a bit too trusting, really. I hadn’t even told him my name. “So what’s your name? We can’t be friends until I know what I can call you!”

Obito wasn’t one for patience, I guess.

“Keisuke Gekkō.” I said, a little stunned by how fast he’d turned around from being a sullen klutz. After a moment, I added, “Though you can call me Kei, if you want.”

“Keisuke?” Obito paused, wrinkling his nose. “I don’t remember you being in any of my classes.”

“I’ve been sitting in the back of the room a lot.” I admitted. It’s easier to sleep there, without fear of someone shooting spitballs into the back of my head.

“Oh, you’re the guy who’s always asleep! Man, I know class is boring, but I thought it was just in class!” Obito said. He pouted. “But you’re higher in the class rankings than I am!”

Wait. What.

“Hey, do you want to play? I mean, it’s not much of a game of tag if we only have two people, but I’m sure I can find something else that we could both do.” Obito continued, oblivious to my growing dismay. He grabbed my hand, pulling me to my feet. “I think there’s still wooden kunai in the play shed and no one’s using the targets, and even if there are we can run them off.”

My expression went a little flat. “Obito, I’m a girl.”

That, and I still needed to put my sandal back on before I went running off into the wild. The rest of the world has splinters in it.

Obito has one of the most luminescent blushes I’ve ever seen. “Oh, uh… But you have a boy’s name…”

“My dad wanted a boy first. Though I don’t mind playing with you anyway; it was an honest mistake.” I added, feeling my lips turn up into a slight smile. Even though I was tired, he was pretty funny. “Where’d you say the kunai were again?”

At my easy dismissal of his major faux pas, Obito grinned brightly and tightened his grip on my hand. Blarg. Sandal. Wood chips! “This way! Come on, I’m sure we can get Rin-chan to join, Kei!”

Huh. The other aspiring medic-nin in the class. I hoped Rin wouldn’t mind us crashing her jump-rope session.

Rin Nohara—Obito’s only love, the lynchpin to the Plot, and all-around nice girl in a bad spot. I didn’t expect to like her at all, given how little I knew about her other than the fact that she was probably going to be in the same graduating class and how her death made everything go straight to hell.

“Rin-chan, wanna practice kunai throwing with us?” Obito called out, bouncing over to her with me hopping on one foot in his wake. Sandal!

Rin, bless her heart, agreed despite how utterly weird we both were. And I eventually did manage to get my sandal back on, finally.

So, that’s the story of how I made my first friends at the Academy.

That night, I had a nightmare about Rin’s death and Obito’s psychotic break. My subconscious was officially becoming unmanageable. So instead of just carrying on as usual, I went to Dad.

Dad didn’t really have a study or a lab or anything, even to practice his sealing work. Dad used fūinjutsu only to make explosive tags, mainly by copying the mass-produced ones down to each separate stroke. He used his blood, or sometimes Mom’s, in order to get better results than the market standard, but he never did anything else with it. He didn’t have a summoning contract with any animals that I’d ever seen, and I think Minato and Jiraiya were some of the few people to really innovate when it came to seals. Nonetheless, Dad was up late all the time, just polishing up his equipment for a mission or reading things in a mission file, or other stuff I wasn’t really supposed to see.

I guess if I hadn’t been a chronic insomniac, I never would have known.

“Dad, what do I do when I can’t stop dreaming about things that haven’t happened?” I asked, rubbing my eyes in the lamplight. Another sleepless night and I’d probably collapse in the middle of class. Not that me being less-than-conscious in the Academy was new, but I didn’t like the idea of not being able to choose when to drop off.

Petty, I know, but after five years of weekly or bi-weekly nightmares that never seemed to lose their edge, I think that I probably earned whatever sleep I did get. About the only thing I can say is that the really bad ones only happened occasionally, though as long as Hayate didn’t have a crisis of some kind I could usually get at least six hours. Nine was a blessing, when it happened.

I was so going to be a stunted adult.

“What do you mean, Keisuke-chan?” Dad asked.

I’d never really told Mom and Dad the real content of my nightmares. It was easier for them to believe that I was afraid of things like the first day of school, of shots, or of visiting the dentist.

“I’ve been having nightmares since…I don’t know. Forever?” I was hiccupping. “Daddy, I want them to stop.”

“What are they about, Keisuke-chan?” Dad asked, picking me up and settling me in his lap. “Are you having a tough time at school?”

Forever, to a kid, could mean anything from a day to the rest of their lives. Children are prone to exaggerating so much as an hour-long car ride, because not being able to move around and affect the world is incredibly boring.

“No! School’s fine, b-but I can’t stop…I can’t stop seeing things,” I started crying. Dad, thankfully, didn’t panic like he used to. Much. “Haa-chan…”

“Does something happen to Hayate?” Dad asked, rubbing my back. I looped my arms around his neck and buried my face against his stubble, even though it tickled my face.

“They killed him!” I sobbed, “I keep dreaming he’s a grown-up and dead and I can’t stop! H-he was there, and they sensed him, and they fought and there were traitors and he died!”

It was like five years’ worth of fear and rage and grief were trying to tear out of me all at the same time.

Dad ended up taking me to see the Yamanaka clan the next day.

Chapter Text

One of the questions to ask yourself, when you’re awake at night and unable to get to sleep, is “what am I really, when no one’s around?”

It’ll keep a person awake if they’re anything like me.

This isn’t due to anything like guilt—I was eight, and it’s hard for an eight-year-old to be responsible for much when there aren’t even any pet fish in the house. If I felt guilty, it would be because I hadn’t told my parents what was worrying me to death and thus worrying them by proxy. It might have saved us all some sleepless nights, especially me.

It stuck in my head because everything I used to define my “self” in this world—Keisuke—was tied to other people, to this world. The rest—the laziness, the knowledge, the maturity? That was the stuff from before. And I’m not sure Keisuke Gekkō as everyone else knew her would have been the same without the rest of me.

Anyway, Yamanaka mind jutsu tend to leave the victim—or patient, in my case—unconscious. When they don’t want you to know what they’re doing, they don’t bother to knock and say hello or use mental manners in any way before tearing your brain open. Granted, most people the Yamanaka use their jutsu on are enemies, or maybe each other for the sake of practice, so politeness was never the first course of action. Killing stuff was.

I guess the first sensation I felt after I “went under” was the feeling that someone was knocking on my mind. It’s weird to be pulled out of the day-to-day workings of the body, like breathing and stuff. I knew the Yamanaka clan jutsu weren’t actually supposed to be lethal on their own—it was what the jutsu did to you that was the real killer—and so I tried not to worry about the basic functions of my body while my mind was off being analyzed.

Speaking of which, my mind is actually pretty boring. I mean, how many people really have a mindscape that looks like a completely white room, with random images floating through the air and a Freudian couch, coffee table, and high-backed chair in it?

“My brain is weird.” I said aloud, listening to my voice echo. It was actually a pretty cool effect, if I ignored how empty it made everything seem.

“I’ve seen worse,” said Inoshi Yamanaka. I think he might be Ino’s grandpa or something, though he actually has visible pupils and his hair is dark blond instead of Ino and Inoichi’s spun gold. It’s very pretty all the same, though. “Though I have to ask—why are there two of you?”

I blinked (insomuch as I could without real eyes) and looked over at the couch, where Inoshi was staring. And there, lying on the velvet, was a smaller version of me. She was about four or so, looking exactly like I had at that age, and seemed fast asleep. A mirror floated by at just that moment, spinning lazily, and I got a look at my reflection.

I was an adult, with a fairly average, nondescript build. My face was somewhere between what I would look like as an adult in my real body (based on what I could understand about artificial aging and what I knew about my parents’ bone structure heritability) and a bit of what I’d looked like before, with the mole under my left eye that I’d had before I’d been reborn. I wasn’t especially sickly-looking, though I did have noticeable bags under my eyes, and my face seemed to have naturally downturned lips. I looked a little like a college librarian, if librarians wore Konoha flak jackets, had swords strapped to their backs, or wore bandanas with the metal hitai-ate plate on them.

Also, when the hell did I get glasses again? I must be the intellectual half, though fuck if I know how exactly there ended up being an intellectual half.

“I didn’t know I even had a split personality.” I said, frowning. “Or am I supposed to be the fake?”

“Neither half of a dissociation event is ‘fake’.” Inoshi corrected me. He looked very patient about the whole thing, considering that he’d gone into an eight-year-old child’s mind and found two different beings in it. “Now, how long have you been having these dreams?”

As if on cue, a dream fragment floated by. I caught it with one hand and brought it in front of me, flipping the planes of its surface so I could see it properly and not through a distortion that seemed like a TV viewed the wrong way.

Hayate, eavesdropping on Kabuto and Baki after Gaara obliterated Dosu for being a pest. Normally, that scene was the start of one of my most common nightmare episodes. Hayate would be discovered, Kabuto would disappear, and the fight would start. It only ever ended one way, and I never wanted to see it. But it was like watching a movie while my eyelids were taped open or cut off—nothing I could do could change it. It just went on and on, forever, and every time I saw this future I woke up crying.

Sometimes I wondered what it would be like to have normal nightmares, about dinosaurs and tornados and things.

But when I was like this, feeling and looking like an adult, the memory didn’t reach out and try to consume my consciousness. Instead, the younger version of me started to whine in her sleep.

“Since Hayate was born.” I said. I let the dream slip out of my hands, watching as it floated away to join the others in a great cloud of images and sounds floating high above our heads. On the couch, my younger self fell silent. I leaned against the raised back of the couch, tapping my lower lip in thought. “I never even looked to see how much other shit was here. I kept worrying about Hayate instead.”

“You’re eight, Kei-chan.” Inoshi said, “Despite what you appear as right now—though somewhere between a grown kunoichi and a child may be accurate in terms of ‘what you are’ in a literal sense. As a child, you can’t be expected to see too far beyond the present and the immediate past. It’s how most children are.”

“Except for the fact that I obviously had a psychotic break when I wasn’t paying attention.” I replied, looking up. One of the dream fragments was falling. “Can you even have a personality older than you are? I never read anything about this before.”

“Normally, shinobi with dissociative identity disorder don’t develop their first split until after a mission gone bad. The alternate selves tend to be younger or older, depending on the trauma and which age group might be better able to handle it. People vary.” Inoshi replied. The guy was completely unfazed. I guess that as a Yamanaka, that was the whole point when it came to mental stuff like this. “Otherwise, the cases we see have to do with children exposed to extreme violence at a young age—the kind that a, say, four-year-old is entirely unable to handle. The split happens to protect the child’s mind from the trauma.”

“…I guess constant nightmares about my brother’s violent death could do that.” I said, and I caught the other dream fragment as it landed.

This one featured Rin’s death. ANBU, Chidori, Wood-Release-wielding Obito and everything.

“This one’s about a pair of kids I just met, when I was awake.” I said, sending it spinning off toward the other side of the blank white space with a flick of my wrist. “But the other one was all about Hayate. The rest…I mean, how the fuck is it that I have that many triggers? I don’t even know a kid with white hair!”

It wasn’t really a question. I knew exactly why the visions were there. But even if I couldn’t lie in my mindscape, misdirection isn’t impossible. There was a reason the mind could be represented as a maze. And technically, I’d never met Kakashi. But I did know of him—it was hard not to know about the Hatake genius, who entered the Academy and graduated within a few months, and who made mockeries of all the clan kids in his year.

Little-me started to stir. I decided to call her Id. Most of the Id is sleeping under the influence of the Ego and Superego, after all.

“The subconscious doesn’t deal entirely in facts.” Inoshi said mildly. “How do you know who the subjects of your dreams are?”

“I just…know?” I paused. That didn’t feel quite right. It wasn’t a lie, exactly, but it wasn’t accurate either. “…Even in my dreams, I’d know Hayate anywhere.” True. But not Truth. “Wait, no… I think I recognize him by his chakra. The feel of it…it’s part of what makes him Hayate and not some asshole under a genjutsu or a transformation. I know who he is.”

Inoshi nodded. “And do you know yourself?”

Shit. This was how I imagined meeting Socrates would be.

“No.” I said. “I’m eight. Or at least I think I am.” I waved my arms, gesturing mostly at myself but also at a passing memory, of my eighth birthday party. “This version of me is twenty-something and she’s four. And our body is eight.” I paused. “This is so confusing.”

“The mind is always a puzzle.” Inoshi said. “Do you have any idea why?”

Because I’m the subject of a botched reincarnation? I didn’t say. I’m not sure he would have believed me. Then again…wasn’t this my mind? And wasn’t my current appearance that of an older kunoichi version of me?

“I keep getting these dreams,” I said distractedly, as an image—grainy and warped—passed by our faces. I think it might have something to do with the Fourth Hokage, but I didn’t get anything more out of it than that. “They don’t feel like dreams—they feel like memories, because I can still picture it all even when I’m awake. Dreams fade. Memories—visions—don’t work the same way.”

Nightmares didn’t fade the same way, though. Fear stays in the mind longer than anything other than pain, because the brain tries to remember so the cause of the pain and fear can be avoided in the future. It’s useful for survival in terms of inducing a kind of threat-oriented mindset, but PTSD still has a major toll on mental health and the quality of life that follows after it develops isn’t really all that great. And it degenerates into paranoia all the fucking time, even though ninja are only paranoid when all of their enemies are dead. It’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you.

I closed my eyes. “I wonder, am I supposed to be…acting on them, somehow? I might be protecting myself from the pain…maybe I’m just a defense mechanism, and this is a warning for someone other than me. If I knew what was causing them, I’d be able to tell who the hell this is supposed to go to. Maybe they’re visions of a future. Maybe they’re nothing but utter paranoia.”

“And if they’re just anxious dreams?” Inoshi asked.

“Then I wish I didn’t have them.” I said, rubbing my eyes. Next to me, Id stirred.

“But you don’t believe that.”

“No, I don’t. There has to be a reason.”

I guess it was more accurate to say that I hoped there was a reason I had to remember all of this. Why couldn’t I have been reincarnated normally, and been born an average girl in an average world? Why here? Why now of all times?

“I wonder, am I supposed to see the future? Or is it just a possible future?” I mused aloud, with a sigh. “Is it just a fucked-up dream? Is any of this shit supposed to be real?” I waved a hand, gesturing to all of the cloud of memories and possible visions at once.

I was getting distracted. Id brought me back to earth, reaching up to grab my wrist without me noticing her move. I looked down.

For being a four-year-old version of me, she looked so tired I almost wanted to tell her to go back to sleep, but this was her mind too. Instead, I picked her up and held her, balancing most of her weight on the shelf of my hip. She clung to my neck.

“I don’t have any idea what I’m doing.” I said. I ran my fingers through Id’s hair as she sniffled. “But I don’t want Hayate to die. Or Rin, or Obito, or anyone else I might dream about. Maybe the stance I’m going to take is a selfish one—I’m really only protecting myself from pain, at the end of it all—but I don’t want to just sit on my hands and do nothing.”

Inoshi made a noncommittal noise.

He was the best sounding board ever.

The sad part is that, as the only soul of this body, I’m the one who created Id to protect me. She’s the child, the innocence, the carefree part of me who clings to her parents without ever thinking of the life I used to have. She’s the one who loves Hayate with a child’s understanding and easy affection. I love him with the fierce, defensive love of an adult with responsibility for his life. The same translates outward into the rest of our relationships with other people, because splitting our reactions means there’s no middle.

Both of these things are a part of me. I just partitioned them off like they were different countries because I’m an idiot and because I’m under stress.

I think.

“I wish I could take all of these and just…I don’t know, put them in an album or something.” I said, looking up at the seething mass. The cloud of visions and dreams seemed to titter, as though the murmur of a crowd had suddenly increased to a proper speaking volume. “That way I’d be able to take them out, in order, if I wanted to see something. I mean, some of them could be like alarms, when they’re coming up, but some of them are just trying to turn me into a sobbing wreck.”

Not that they really needed to work at it.

God, I wished there was some kind of manual for being a half-assed retroactively precognitive crazy person. Though the fact is, if anyone else did manage to write it, I’d be too busy feeling sorry for them to read it. I’m terrible like that.

Then the cloud above our heads began to roar, as though a thunderstorm was building. There was the clashing of cymbals, along with the sound of a trumpet blast, and a line of the floating menagerie of images extended outward from its main mass. As I watched, the line morphed into a swarm as the rest of the visions followed along, almost as though something was sucking them away from the flock.

The lead vision was heading right for us, leading the horde.

I raised my free hand to meet it.

Inoshi and Id’s hands joined mine.

Pain’s Almighty Push turns Konoha into a crater…

The Ten-Tailed Beast’s attack strikes the Alliance headquarters in Kumogakure, killing hundreds…

“Sakura. Thank you.”

Kurenai’s eyes widen as Shikamaru tells her of Asuma’s death…

“…or your son dies at the ripe old age of one minute…”

“I’ll take care of the mess…”

I blinked. The white room’s customary haze of memory and prophecy was fading, leaving me sitting in the high-backed shrink’s chair without Id, feeling inexplicably shorter and glasses-less. The younger version of me was nowhere in sight. Inoshi was, though, and he sat on the couch with his legs crossed in front of him.

“Well, that was something.” Inoshi said.

I made a mild sort of noise and kept looking around for both the missing cloud and Id. There was this stupid fog everywhere. “Yeah, and now the other me is missing. Hey, Id!”

Hello.

Oh holy shit.

The result of the…storm, I suppose, wasn’t what I expected. I’d expected that Id would be there, and she was. It was just that there was also a new girl there, hovering in the center of her personal light-show—almost as though she’d picked up the Fourth Raikage’s Lightning Armor, if the armor could be made up of light, colors, and sounds that hit me like slaps to the face. She was older, looking around eight or nine, and she actually looked like what our real body was supposed to, if I could mentally subtract the light show, the way her eyes glowed gold, and the way her feet didn’t quite touch the “ground” of this mental world. And yet she was still Id in the way her energy still had that childishness that mine lacked.

I’m the Dreamer. It’s nice to finally meet you.

“…I’m just gonna take a guess and say that you’re basically everything I haven’t really been managing that well.” I said in a strangled voice.

Yes and no. Neither of us are the ‘true’ Keisuke Gekkō, but she’ll make herself known in time,” the Dreamer replied. She didn’t move her mouth. It was a little disconcerting. “I am hope for the future. And your dread.

I looked at Inoshi, who shrugged. I had no idea if this kind of thing was supposed to be normal.

“Okay, between the visions and the memories and the sleepless nights, I guess I should have figured that something else was going on.” I admitted. “So, which one of us is going to be the one to wake up?”

You, of course.” I blinked at her. “You’ve done well. I’ll hold your visions back until they can be useful, and in return you’ll help me analyze them for clues.” The Dreamer smiled sheepishly. I couldn’t help but think that the expression didn’t belong on her face. “Two heads are better than one, right? I can’t claim to know everything that goes on when you’re the one doing the thinking.

“Yeah, but usually the two heads in question aren’t in the same head.” I sighed, scratching at the base of my ponytail. “Why are you offering me anything?”

You gave me love.” The Dreamer’s smile became sad. “All of your love is mine, too. And I’ll help you protect our precious people.

“…oh.” I said in a small voice.

After all, I’m a part of you, too.

I nodded. Everything in the mind was representative of something, whether how someone viewed him or herself to deeply hidden and reviled issues. It was all symbolic, mostly, but I had a feeling that the Dreamer was more or less what I ought to have had a handle on to start with. She felt friendly, but she was young and despite holding my memories back, I knew that there had to be a reason for it.

I think she was supposed to represent my attachment to this world. All of it, good and bad alike.

“Inoshi-san? I think we have it together now.” I said, turning to the Yamanaka in our midst.

“Yes, that’s probably enough for now.” He held out both hands, offering. “Ready to come back to us?”

The Dreamer and I grasped one hand each at the same time.

I woke up in Dad’s lap just as Inoshi was pulling his hand back from my forehead. I smiled tiredly. “Hi, Dad.”

“Doing better, Keisuke-chan?” Dad asked, pushing my bangs from my forehead so he could take my temperature, even if I didn’t have a fever. I guess that between my instability and Hayate’s chance of a relapse, Dad was always worried about at least one of us.

Was I really? Well, between the spiritual trip and meeting my other self, I think I managed pretty well! Sure, I wasn’t ever going to be a normal kid, and I’d probably worry my head off all the damn time because of both being a ninja and what generation of ninja I was going to be, but I was…okay. Yeah. It sounded right. No one else here fit my old definition of normal anyway, so I guess I was in good company.

“I’ll be okay, Dad.” I said.

(Or rather, I was pretty sure I would be. As soon as I knew for sure that what Inoshi had seen hadn’t been entered in any secret shinobi archives for later perusal by the Hokage. Except that I never would get that reassurance. Even confirmation was a long time in coming. Almost too long. But that can wait for another time.)

That night, I didn’t dream. Not a normal dream, anyway.

Ready to give it a shot?

“You bet.”

Chapter Text

I didn’t have a plan.

I mean, I knew broadly that there was a point A (wherever I was in terms of the timeline) and a plethora of point B possibilities (the various visions). I even knew the details of some of them. But it had been so long since I actually saw some of the non-nightmarified quasi-future that I could only read them as though out of a book. Sometimes the specifics were missing. Sometimes very big details were entirely gone.

I still didn’t know when the Third Shinobi World War started.

The Dreamer’s job was partially just to hold back the stream of unnecessary images that had been driving me completely crazy over the past five years. The other part, which we worked on together, was in hammering out some kind of plan of action in order to make sure that we and everyone we knew made it out alive.

I mean, sure, the thing about life is that no one does, but I’d at least like to make it to twenty again. It’d be a shame to fail so hard at this ninja business that I couldn’t even beat my old record of time spent alive.

Sharing the burden over two people helped. I wasn’t drowning anymore. Someone had thrown me a lifeline.

We’ll be okay.

I sure hoped so.

I went back to school the following Monday, since Dad and Mom declared the next few days and the weekend after a family extended weekend. It was really just an excuse for them to watch me for any changes, but I had fun drawing with Hayate anyway. He was getting a lot bigger, and soon he’d be quicker on the draw than I was when it came to kenjutsu. About the only thing he couldn’t seem to figure out how to do for himself was cook, but since he was about three feet tall and I didn’t like to move the footstool, I didn’t mind taking over for him.

Besides, the day I let my five-year-old brother near a stove uneducated is the day I trip down a well and drown.

“Kei!” Obito shouted, bounding into the classroom well over ten minutes late. I wondered what he’d been doing beforehand that was so distracting, but it didn’t really matter. Obito was reliable in that he could always be counted on to be doing someone a favor. “Oh man, we haven’t seen you in forever! Were you sick?”

I guess the teacher was a bit too busy to note Obito’s entrance, even when Rin drifted over to us as though pulled by some strange gravity. After all, the Inuzuka in class was being overexcited again. Koga was excitable in a totally different way than anyone else, though.

“Sort of.” I replied, resting my chin in one palm, elbow on the desktop. “I’m better now, though, and I don’t feel quite so tired anymore.”

“That’s good.” Rin said. “I was really starting to worry—I mean, we only met a week ago, but you seem like a nice person and it would be terrible if you were sick or hurt and we didn’t have any idea.”

I have a hard time believing that I’d be so openly compassionate about someone else a week into knowing them. But then, that’s why Rin’s Rin and I’m me. Rin’s too nice to really dislike, even if I wanted to.

“Thanks, Rin-san, but it wasn’t really anything big.” I said mildly. At their disbelieving looks, I added, “Dad just wanted me to take the rest of the week easy. And I haven’t fallen asleep randomly since!”

“So does that mean you’re actually going to listen in applied chakra theory period now?” Rin asked.

“No.” I replied. I’d done more chakra control exercises than the Academy could cover, period. It helped that I was aware of it, and the Dreamer tended to help just by pushing back at me so I’d have a better understanding of what and what not to do. It was like wearing training weights, but in my head.

Rin sighed, but Obito grinned. “Oh come on, it’s not like we’ll need to know how to stick leaves to our foreheads in the real world.”

I made a neutral noise and unloaded my school bag as Rin frowned. I was starting to think that having a conciliatory personality, when it came to being friends with someone like Obito, might not be the best tack to take. I wasn’t especially confrontational either, but that was more because of laziness than a desire to please everyone, most of the time. It just wasn’t worth jumping down Obito’s throat about things.

Then again, we were eight, and none of us were especially set in our ways (with an exception made for me and my habitual laziness).

“But Obito, it’s the first step toward learning some of the more useful exercises.” Rin said, looking a little disappointed that someone else wasn’t taking their studies seriously. It must have been trying to have two apparent slackers as friends.

My grades said otherwise, giving that I was sitting at the top of the charts. Obito’s…not so much. He’d just never been especially intellectual, from what the Dreamer and I had surmised. I theorized that he learned better through movement than books or lectures, like a few other people I’d known.

Of course, he could be genuinely slow, but I doubted it.

“I started there.” I offered, flipping my book open to the page on chakra pathways. I planted my elbow in the middle of it. “But Dad had me move on once I managed to do three at once and got bored.”

“Wow! You learn fast!” Rin said, surprised but pleased. I’d given her an easy explanation for my boredom in class. “How far are you now?”

“I was starting to work on tree climbing, but I don’t have enough chakra to do it much.” I admitted. My reserves weren’t ever going to be all that great. While I did have shinobi parents, and very good chakra control, someone like Obito—who was descended from generations of ninjas—or Kakashi—who’d been training since he could walk and had the goddamn White Fang for a dad—would easily outdo me. Rin probably wouldn’t need huge reserves, though as an orphan it was hard to determine if she’d ever get them anyway.

Anyway, it wouldn’t be until we were about nine or ten when our cores started to really stabilize, according to the book.

“So, how long have you two known each other?” I asked, since I knew I hadn’t seen either of them when I joined the Academy.

“About three years now!” Obito said brightly. “Me and Rin joined the Academy when we were five!”

And yet I’m in the same class as both of them. Apparently my teachers paid attention only too well during the entrance examinations. I know I sure hadn’t been paying attention to the year ranking.

Don’t look at me.

“Huh. And I only joined a month ago…” I murmured, staring at my book without really seeing it.

“Really?” Obito sounded genuinely surprised. “That’s weird—I thought everyone joined up at five!”

“I think my parents held me back.” I said, though I’d been aware of it and had agreed at the time. I could see why they would want to—the older I was when I went into the field, the better chance I’d probably have of making it to being a sane and stable adult. I guess when it came to children from ninja clans, especially in wartime, the bars got set differently. Everything was about prestige and showing up everyone else.

That’s a lot of pressure on a five-year-old. No wonder people snapped.

“Huh,” said Obito. “Well, you caught up really fast! I wouldn’t want to have to teach you stuff just so you could catch up to our age group.”

“Obito!” Rin said, lightly scolding, and Obito wilted.

“It’s okay, Rin-san.” I said. “Neither of you knew. And I didn’t know it was a big deal.”

Actually, I was mostly interested in graduating by eleven. I probably should have taken it easier, though I don’t know how I could have. I was the class sleepyhead, after all.

“Well, we’re in our final year.” Rin said. “So you’ll be graduating with us, right?”

“I think so.” I said.

“It’d be so cool if we could be on a team!” Obito said enthusiastically.

I didn’t want to burst his bubble, but… “I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a team with two kunoichi on it. Not to start with.”

“That’s just because fewer girls pass than boys.” Obito said dismissively. “You’ll do great!”

I doubted that. Rin and I either had or would have some of the same specialties—mostly in medical ninjutsu and genjutsu—and putting us both on a team with Obito would probably lead to a disaster of some sort. And Obito and Rin, at least in my head, were destined to end up on a team with Kakashi and be subject to all of the shit that would follow. With Rin, Obito, and Kakashi on Team Minato, they made a pretty good generalist/fast response team, which was pretty rare. Most teams specialized, like the Ino-Shika-Chou trio and Team Kurenai’s scouting setup, or even Team Gai’s close combat assault team. But rapid response teams weren’t common.

I wondered what type of team I could end up on.

“I hope so.” I said. “It’d be a shame to skip three years and then fail the graduation test.”

“Hey, if you can skip three years, some lousy test is nothing!” Obito said.

“We’ll all do great.” Rin said, and we all shared a smile.

“NOHARA, GET BACK IN YOUR SEAT!” Takahashi-sensei yelled.

And then the magic was gone, but it didn’t die. Rin, Obito, and I were fast friends, and when it came time to fight over seating placements again the next morning, we all sat together.

Chapter Text

On nights when, normally, I’d be due for another nightmare according to my once-a-week bout with precognition, I was dragged into my mental world. I honestly thought that I’d probably had way more conversations with the Dreamer than that, but like normal dreams, only certain things stuck with me. I think we put our heads together at night solely so I wouldn’t crack horribly in the morning, and the Dreamer paid me back for contributing to the collective and sharpening our abilities for the days ahead by erasing my explicit memories of the sessions after the fact.

If I’d remembered everything clearly, it would have been no better than the visions themselves. Less terrible, but no less taxing overall.

This is one of the ones I remembered:

The mental world I’d made had gotten a few new features since the last time I consciously recalled visiting. Where the floor had been a badly-defined white void that happened to let everyone feel like there was a floor to stand evenly on, with physics and everything, something had apparently sprung a leak. Where once there had been a white void, there was the usual setup of chairs and coffee table, but they were surrounded by soft blue-white light and the lowest six inches of everything happened to be underwater. There was the sound of dripping or sloshing water, everywhere.

Since I hadn’t learned the art of floating inside my head, I would have been wet up to the middle of my calves if this was real.

How much do you know about the way that the world works?” the Dreamer asked, perching on the top of the high-backed Therapist Chair. Gravity, momentum, and the conversation of matter and energy sort of went out the window when it came to my dreamscape. Then again, dreams are weird in general. That’s the point. Neurons fire randomly when humans are asleep just to keep in practice, and then dreams follow.

After creating the Dreamer, I was starting to get more of those. Not visions.

I sat on the couch, legs crossed in front of me and Id’s head on my thigh, and said, “For a while there, I thought I knew at least a bit. Only being reincarnated and stuff threw that right out the window.”

I didn’t mean cosmology, precisely. I meant this one. You know, the world you’ve been having visions about? That you live in?

“Are we talking events or just the way this place is put together?”

The latter.

I lowered my chin into my hands, thinking. “The only reason this place is so weird is because of chakra, and that all came from the Ten-Tailed Beast. So, if it wasn’t for a giant unknowable monster whose death-slash-sealing became the source of all things natural energy, physical, or spiritual chakra, this would be like my old world.

“And yet, the Sage of Six Paths had to have figured out something beyond special to do anything at all to it, unless chakra’s somehow the local equivalent of radioactive fallout from the Giant’s existence, pressing down on the world and warping its structure. He had to have been the first—the Bruce Banner of the shinobi world.” I paused, thinking that over. “He made the beast’s energy his own. Only, from what I’ve seen, Tailed Beast chakra isn’t human enough to be used by humans unless there’s some kind of filter. Otherwise…”

The image of Naruto’s skin cooking off and regenerating and then burning again floated by, unnecessarily. And that was only from four out of the Nine Tailed Fox’s signature nine tails, and he’d been its jailor since he was born.

I didn’t want to imagine how much damage the Ten Tailed Beast could do just by existing.

As though on some kind of cue, a vision of the Tailed Beast Ball vaporizing Allied Shinobi HQ collided with the first image. The problems with thinking out loud in one’s mindscape were becoming obvious.

True, the existence of the Ten-Tailed Beast did change this world from what we’d refer to as ‘vanilla mode,’ but its real value was in how it changed the creatures that live here,” the Dreamer said. “All humans are born with chakra. All beasts, birds, and fish are born with chakra. The air has chakra. The plants can grow exclusively off of it. This world is dependent on it, much like how life originally adapted to the expansion of oxygen supplies. If there is a resource, it will be exploited. Life finds a way.

“Please don’t quote Jurassic Park at me.” I mumbled, massaging my temples. It would be some kind of world-ending paradox if I managed to get a headache inside my own head. “So, the world runs on chakra. We can’t say for sure, but if this world runs on chakra, there’s gonna be bad things if it suddenly doesn’t have it anymore.”

Yes. You already know one form of it as chakra exhaustion. Or ‘death by chakra exhaustion,’ anyway. We won’t be allowing that to happen to us.

“I don’t exactly have a large chakra supply.” I pointed out.

That’s why I’ll be acting as your reserve.

I blinked at the Dreamer, not quite comprehending. “Chakra is a mix of physical and spiritual energy. Like gas and oxygen, not enough of either or the wrong balance of both and there’s no ignition. And you don’t exactly have a body and it’s not as though either of us knows how the Yin Seal works.”

You’re thinking of it a bit too narrowly,” the Dreamer said. “What are the elemental forms that chakra can take? Keep in mind that my being the storage center for your more detailed visions doesn’t mean I’m explicitly preventing you from using them if you want.

Having the Dreamer in my head had reduced most of the visions to a feeling instead of a collection of possible triggers attached to a million flashbacks that kept going off every time my brain found a neuron to flip to On. If I focused, I could remember things like the first time I ever rode a bike. If I didn’t, I could still remember how to ride a bike, though there weren’t really any bikes in the new reality I found myself in. It’s the difference between an explicit and an implicit memory.

“Water. Fire. Wind. Lightning. Earth. Then there are the advanced kekkei genkai fusion setups, like Ice and Wood. Or Dust Release, for a three-way connection and stupid levels of destruction.” Some of the kekkei genkai weren’t advanced nature manipulation. There was Kimimaro’s Dead Bone Pulse, along with Sakon and Ukon’s freaky not-actually-conjoined twin act. I’d never figured out the name for that one.

You’re missing the two big ones.”

I frowned. “Well, there’s Sage Mode and natural energy and sage chakra, which can turn you into a frog if you do things wrong.” Yeah, not testing that. “It’s also used by the curse seals because of Jūgo.”

Off by a mile.

“What, then?”

Try looking a little further back. What did the Sage of Six Paths use in order to distribute his human-filtered chakra? What was he so famous for, barring the creation of ninja techniques?

A picture of the Sage, wreathed in darkness, with his hands glowing red and blue with chakra that didn’t look like any of the normal elements. A Hyūga clan member, likely a jōnin Neji, setting up for Eight Trigrams Sixty-Four Palms on a background of the Taoist Taijitu.

“Yin-Yang Release.”

And I am almost entirely composed of Yin chakra. Yours, yes, but I’ve been saving it up.

“I thought you were a mental construct.” I said, dumbfounded.

That too. This is your mind. It doesn’t have to make sense except in the most roundabout, half-assed, illogical way possible.” She shrugged. “I am the multipurpose, artificial personality-slash-mental-construct whose whole purpose is to make up for the fact that your soul wasn’t scrubbed out right. You run the body.

I’m pretty sure she was insulting my Wikipedia-esque thought patterns. I go on mental tangents and get lost a lot. Along with my existence.

“What would we be if I’d been incarnated normally?” I asked.

I wouldn’t exist and you’d probably dead by twenty.” The Dreamer said it so matter-of-factly that I almost felt chills. “This isn’t an insult to your intelligence, but we’re not particularly driven people when apart. Or ambitious. With no outside pressure, there wouldn’t be any visible or tangible need to improve. We’d be behind the curve eventually, and then probably die.

“Oh.” I said. At least she was being nice about it. “So. Yin chakra.”

The birthplace of all genjutsu and medical ninjutsu. It’s about getting something from effectively nothing. Or making it look like there’s something. Honestly, if we had a proper chakra storage seal, I wouldn’t even need to multitask like this.

“What’s that actually mean for us? I was already going to be a medical ninja, even if I stab people on the side.” I pointed out, ignoring her complaints.

With a year’s worth of Yin chakra saved up, I could create a very complex genjutsu,” the Dreamer suggested. “Or maybe heal broken bones. You really don’t have a lot of chakra to spare, so I’ve been trying to only take what isn’t used and won’t be missed.” And letting go only when she felt like it, probably.

“I’m nine.”

And growing up will help. But we don’t really have that much time.

I knew that much. If Tsunade could get away with keeping her Yin Seal intact for decades or however long she had, and could release it complete with hilariously overpowered regeneration capacity and super strength, I wondered what we could be with four years’ worth.

Except that I was never going to be one for punching. Stabbing, maybe.

Of the pair of you and Rin, I’d say she’s the combat-capable medic with emphasis on the medical half. Or she will be—it’s hard to be certain of something when we never saw anything about her other than the Kannabi mission and her death.” The Dreamer sighed,“You, on the other hand, will be a combat medic with the emphasis placed on combat.

Well, I’d already known that. I hadn’t been a doctor in my past life, or a biology major, or even a particularly interested chemistry student. I’d been a psychology major with an interest in ecology, history, teaching, and half a dozen other major fields. I wasn’t one for technical details in anything other than my field, and learning cellular energy processes in high school had nearly bored me to tears. I didn’t have enough of an inclination, even with my external motivators of a) death and b) possible death were strong enough to change the basic fact of the matter. I didn’t have a brain geared toward medical ninjutsu the way Rin did. Mine was all analysis, for some reason. Cross-discipline.

And Yamaguchi-sensei noticed that. He knew I was motivated by my brother, not myself. It wasn’t quite what he was looking for in a full-time apprentice, and therefore I wasn’t one. I learned on weekends only. It wasn’t like kenjutsu, where Mom drilled me into the ground every day and I was happy to let her.

Counterintuitive, but it can work.

It’s just somewhat depressing when your optimism shuts you down.

“So, I guess that means no Hippocratic Oath.”

For the enemy, no.

I paused. “Also, did you ever say why you were gathering all my excess spiritual energy and converting it to Yin chakra, or why it was even remotely necessary?”

It’s because of your situation.

Bwuh?

I’m not sure if you noticed, but your brain and the age of your soul have never matched up.” The Dreamer sighed again. I think I was the kind of person who drew frustration out of people. “If the reincarnation cycle had scrubbed your memories clear properly, it wouldn’t even be necessary. But how, exactly, did you think that you kept your adult mind when your baby brain wasn’t remotely capable of handling either the thought processes or memories?

…I’d kind of just chalked it up to soul-body dissociation in the vein of Yu-Gi-Oh! and let it drop. I hadn’t had a lot of time to think on it, since I’d been a bit busy just trying not to freak out.

“So, chakra—one way or another, has been supporting my existence.”

Chakra does the impossible. You’re an impossibility. The connection is a little obvious.

The problem with arguing with yourself is that even if you win, you still lose. The other problem is that, because of the immense mental resources that had been entrusted to her, she was also coming to conclusions faster than I could. We were different, but the same pool of general information was there. I’d apparently handed analysis over to her for the course of this conversation.

“I give up.” I muttered, hugging my knees to my chest. I sighed. “So, we keep storing Yin chakra. We keep looking forward. We keep practicing. We keep hoping for the best.”

At this point? Yes. It’s all we can do.

With no actual evidence of anything, it’d be hard to convince anyone with actual power to act on my visions. Even Inoshi, who’d seen some of them almost a year ago, hadn’t seemed to really think anything of them. I didn’t even know if they’d stay accurate—you could be off by as little as half a degree, or less, but in the long run that was still a possibility for major changes. My visions wouldn’t change over time to reflect my existence. They weren’t, on their own, entirely reliable.

I could build on what I knew wouldn’t change. That was all. Everything else I’d have to play by ear.

Chapter Text

“Obito, what happened to your face?”

Not the most tactful thing to say, I guess, but I’d never seen Obito come to school with a bruise before. Especially not one in the shape of a hand. I mean, even in class spars we weren’t really going for knockout blows yet, since everyone involved was a kid and we were all future comrades. The bruise was bigger than my hand, which was on the upper range of fist sizes for our class, so it couldn’t have been a kid.

Not a kid our age, anyway.

“Holy—uh, Kei, did you want something?” Obito asked nervously, carefully angling his cheek away from me. I probably wouldn’t have even noticed the problem if he’d made a habit of sitting on my other side, but he was in Rin’s seat.

“I want you to show me what happened to your face, Obito. It looks like it hurts.” I said firmly. Rin wasn’t in yet, which I think was the only reason I got the obstinate expression out of him instead of a nod. He’d set his jaw and after that, only Rin would be able to get him to do anything.

Actually, the fact that Obito wasn’t late ought to have clued me in before I saw his cheek.

“No way! I’m fine, Kei.” Obito insisted.

“Then let me see your face.” I said.

“I’m fine!”

“No, you’re not!”

“What’s going on?” Rin’s voice came from practically nowhere and both of us jumped, though Obito immediately covered his cheekbone with his hand. “Obito?”

“It’s all good, Rin-chan!” Obito said.

“Then put your hand down.” I said.

Obito scowled, leveling a glare at me that looked more like a pout. “No!”

Every once in a while, I would forget that we were still eight, given that we were learning how to become killers while in school. Rin could be mature and modest, and Obito could take stuff seriously when he wanted to. And I was me, in spite of any craziness. Then stuff like this would happen.

“Obito, please don’t hide from us.” Rin said in a deeply disappointed voice. Obito wilted. “I’ll take care of you.”

Well, that could sure be taken a couple of different ways. I was suddenly glad that Rin was eight.

“Hey, I fixed you up the first day we met, too. Do you think we’re going to make fun of you or something?” I wanted to know.

“I know.” Obito groaned. At least he lowered his hand so Rin could get a look at it. “But it’s embarrassing.”

“I offered to beat up anyone who said anything about cooties.” I said. And I would, even if I had to smuggle my shinai into the classroom. Obito would just have to cough up the names.

Obito flushed, which looked pretty bad with the bruise. “That’s not the point!”

“This looks like you tried to block.” Rin said. When Obito tried to jerk away from her, she grabbed his chin. “What happened?”

“Uhm…Rin-chan…”

Owned.

Obito ducked his head. “It’s really nothing.”

I poked him in the side and he flinched. Bruised ribs, too? Had to have been a pretty bad beating. “That isn’t nothing, Obito.”

Obito tried to glare at me, but he gave up. He grumbled, without looking at either of us aspiring kunoichi, “It’s my asshole cousins, okay?”

At the word ‘cousins,’ I got the impression that the boys—probably boys, anyway—were older than Obito. They probably were embarrassed by Obito’s status as the class loser, ranked dead last in the academic standings, and of course decided that beating the crap out of him sometime before class was the best option to change that.

Sometimes I was really glad I wasn’t a part of one of the big clans.

Rin’s look made me think that she didn’t really know what was going on. As an orphan, she wasn’t exactly going to be missed if she died in the field—another thing that made me think that the ninja world was irreparably fucked-up even though it shared that with my old one—and she didn’t really have any major expectations riding on her shoulders like an albatross or a millstone or something. Heck, I didn’t really have any major discrepancy between my parents’ expectations and my accomplishments, unless you counted exceeding them in basically every way. Being better than expected was, while not perfect, a hell of a lot better than being worse.

Especially in the Uchiha clan.

Neither Obito nor I really wanted to have to explain it.

“You might have to go to the nurse’s office.” I said, my hands glowing green. I could fix a mild bruise like the one on his face without the teacher even noticing, but if Obito had any cracked rubs or damaged organs, well, I was out of my league. Granted, he probably wouldn’t have gotten to school at all of that’d been the case, but I still didn’t want to take any chances.

I also wanted to track those Uchiha punks down and beat the shit out of them, but that would have to wait until I was strong enough for my revenge impulse to be worth the name and not just a get-myself-killed impulse.

“I’m fine. I can skip if things get to be too much.” Obito said stubbornly. “Just don’t tell Sensei why.”

“If you skip, I’m dragging your sorry butt to the hospital.” I said flatly. I remembered only too well where it was.

“Like you can.” Obito snapped back. He really must have been in pain. Obito usually didn’t snap at anyone—he just yelled.

“Between the two of us we might be able to take care of it.” Rin said after a moment.

Honestly, I thought she’d be the type to call on Sensei right away. Even if Sensei was an overworked chūnin who had so much trouble controlling thirty kids that he didn’t even notice the three of us conspiring in the back. He wasn’t even the first sensei we’d had, since the first three had been called to the front and killed or something.

“I don’t want this getting back to the clan.” Obito muttered sullenly. He didn’t look at either of us.

“…In that case, let’s ditch after lunch.” I suggested. At my friends’ looks, I explained, “Yamaguchi-sensei’s known my family since I was little, and he’s been the one teaching me how to heal. He might be a medic-nin, but he’s all ninja first and confidentiality agreements will help us.”

Obito asked, “Do you think he’d help us? Really?”

“I think so.” I said. I couldn’t really offer anything better. I tried anyway. “At least he’s better at healing than the school nurse or I am?”

“If we’re caught, we could say we were doing some extra work to polish up our scores.” Rin suggested. “Having a medic-nin cover for us would work, if we could convince him.”

Obito groaned. “I don’t have any choice in this, am I?”

“Nope.” I said, deadpan. “Just surrender to the loving care of your girlfriends and maybe we won’t break out the ribbons and glitter.”

“Kei-chan!” Rin said, half scolding and half laughing and all blushing.

Obito pouted, cheeks almost glowing red. “Kei, that’s mean!”

“I’m cruel to be kind.” I said loftily. Still, my expression softened. “We’re friends, so we’ll all look after each other.”

“Well, duh.” Obito said, rolling his eyes. “You two win this round.”

It turned out that Yamaguchi-sensei was pretty willing to take care of Obito for us, even if he didn’t exactly approve of the whole playing hooky thing and he was technically on his lunch break, too. We met him on the hospital roof, where he generally had his smoke breaks, and hiding from other people in the forest of drying sheets made it less embarrassing for everyone.

“I don’t even want to know what kids like you are getting up to nowadays.” Yamaguchi-sensei said, with Obito sitting on the concrete next to the chain-link fence that bordered the roof and kicking his feet idly. Rin and I hovered like overprotective parents, though we really weren’t being all that useful.

All the energy we had made us feel like sitting still was even worse, though.

“All right, so the obvious injury is the one on your cheekbone—I assume it was a sucker-punch.” Yamaguchi-sensei said.

Obito mumbled something indistinct under his breath.

“If there really had been four of them, I hope you would have chosen to run instead.” Yamaguchi-sensei said, frowning. His cupped hand glowed green and Obito’s bruise disappeared under his fingers as we watched. “Unless you couldn’t.”

Obito shook his head minutely, scowling.

I wanted to shake him until his baby teeth rattled out of his head so I’d know who’d punched him and then would be able to plan my revenge. A few years down the line, anyway.

“Um, Yamaguchi-sensei, what technique are you using?” Rin asked.

“Mystical Palm Jutsu,” he replied, though absently. He wagged his finger under Obito’s nose and said, “Okay, you take off your shirt so I can see the rest of the damage. I don’t have enough chakra to heal broken bones at the moment, but I’m sure I can find someone who does and make them do it.”

As Obito grumbled but still shed his jacket and T-shirt, Yamaguchi-sensei continued, “I’ve been teaching Kei-kun here as much as she can handle for the last few years, but it’s always slow going with civilian children.”

It was my turn to scowl at him.

“You aren’t a ninja yet, so don’t you dare give me that look.” Yamaguchi-sensei said. He turned back to Rin and went on, “I take it you’re interested?”

Rin’s eyes lit up. “Oh, yes! If I could be as good as any medical ninja we have, that would be amazing.”

“Well, if you’re interested, I could spare some time. Kei-kun meets up with me on Sundays, mostly, but I could free up Saturday afternoons if you want. Unless you want to join her?”

I wondered how long it had been since anyone had given Rin a chance to learn one-on-one, and immediately tried not to think about it. Dammit, as an orphan Rin wouldn’t be missed by anyone other than us if she died, and that was so much less than the love she deserved. She deserved to reach for the stars like any kid, and Yamaguchi-sensei had offered her his regard inside of five minutes of meeting her.

I told myself not to be jealous. This wasn’t my show. I was not the center of the universe.

I felt envy anyway, since I always got a little possessive of people, which was stupid and irrational but still true. I’m still childish in some ways.

Obito gave a hiss of pain and I immediately stopped the pity-party to see what was wrong. And I winced.

Obito looked pretty bad. He had bruises on the outsides of his arms, on his back, and even one a little below his ribcage. He looked like someone who’d been knocked down and kept getting up despite or because of the curb-stomping session he’d been in.

I immediately started making the hand signs for the Mystical Palm Jutsu, even though I wasn’t exactly much in terms of chakra capacity, but Yamaguchi-sensei grabbed my hands and shook his head.

“This looks like it must have been one hell of a fight,” the medic said casually, already numbing the pain with medical chakra.

“Yeah, you should’ve seen the other guy.” Obito said, though most of his signature bravado was forced.

Uchiha clan kids are such shitheads.

“And I see you mostly managed to protect your face and ribs. It’s better than it could be.” Yamaguchi-sensei frowned suddenly. Given the harsh angles of his face and his gray eyes, it looked a little like a death glare without a target. “Let me see your hands.”

“Uh…” Obito hesitated, which meant that Yamaguchi-sensei grabbed his wrist and turned his hand palm-down. His knuckles were scraped up, but not as much as I’d expect from someone who punched training posts only every once in a while. There was blood under his nails, though.

I mentally smacked myself for not noticing earlier. Check for defensive wounds, idiot!

Obito wasn’t trained enough to punch people silly, though he’d be able to stand up to totally untrained idiots, and it confirmed my suspicions that the entire affair had been more of a desperate attempt not to get stomped to death. Obito would have been able to handle himself against pretty much everyone except ninjas. I was starting to see why the Uchiha clan had gotten such a shitty reputation in my visions, if this bullying was something they didn’t even bother to discourage.

“Officially,” Yamaguchi-sensei said in the driest tone I’d ever heard, “I’d have to tell you to go easy on training. Unofficially, I’d like to see what happens when Yoshi and Matsumaru Uchiha end up in the hospital in the future and spend their time strapped to their beds due to being a pair of flight risks.”

Obito flinched. “Ah, Yamaguchi-sensei, it wasn’t…”

“The two of them are thirteen years old and genin.” Yamaguchi-sensei said flatly. Okay, his glare was almost worse without a target to aim it at. Brrrrr. “They should be disciplined enough not to pound on someone four years younger than they are who hasn’t even received his hitai-ate yet.”

“How’d you get their names?” I asked, crossing my arms.

“Some people come to the hospital with interesting injuries; nail marks, bites, that sort of thing.” Yamaguchi-sensei looked at me and said, “And you, Kei-kun, shouldn’t be spoiling for a fight you can’t win yet.”

Busted. I subsided, grumbling.

“Yamaguchi-sensei, um, what were the seals for the Mystical Palm Jutsu, again?” Rin asked.

Yamaguchi-sensei shrugged. “It depends on who’s using it. Personally, I use a modified Ox seal and then move to Tiger, but everyone I know bases it on what feels correct. Seals are just a shortcut in some jutsu, and when you have enough control over your chakra you can more or less do what you want. I’ve seen techniques with forty hand seals reduced to four.”

I was suddenly reminded of the Water Release: Water Dragon Bullet technique that Kakashi and Zabuza used against each other, and that the Second Hokage had been able to use without even really trying. I wasn’t sure if that meant that Zabuza, Demon of the Hidden Mist and master of the Silent Killing Technique, wasn’t inclined toward water-natured chakra, or if that something funny had happened when Kakashi had hypnotized him. I supposed I would never know.

“Wow.” Rin said.

“And if you’re asking, you probably have pretty decent control already.” Yamaguchi-sensei went on. He nodded at me. “Kei-kun has similar levels of control to a chūnin or low jōnin, and she’s smart. While you’re somewhat shyer, I think you’ve got the same potential.”

One of these days, I’m going to stop talking about school friends to anyone who’ll listen. I didn’t expect Yamaguchi-sensei to remember the stuff I said about Rin and her possible awesomeness. Heck, Dad didn’t generally even remember that kind of thing, and I lived with him! Not to mention bringing Rin over a lot, both to collaborative studying and just to eat dinner with us.

“R-really, Sensei?” Rin’s lip was wobbling.

“You can do anything, Rin-chan!” Obito said, and I noticed that all of his bruises had faded to almost nothing. Yamaguchi-sensei was good.

“If nothing else, I can teach you enough to stand out.” Yamaguchi-sensei said. “That should alsobe enough to make sure you make it to genin alive. And even if either you or Kei-kun washes out of the Academy, I’d be happy to take either of you as apprentices as long as you keep striving toward fulfilling your potential.”

Well, given that I had no goddamn idea what I was doing, that sounded like a neat backup plan for me. It was also a perfect out for Rin, if something happened. She’d never be without a path toward the future. Maybe Rin would do better at it, ultimately—at thirteen, she’d been able to transplant Obito’s Sharingan into Kakashi’s eye socket without any tools and in a combat scenario. She’d be a genius if she had a chance to be.

“T-Thank you, Yamaguchi-sensei!”

“By the way, what’s your first name anyway?” Obito asked.

“Akihito. The name’s Akihito Yamaguchi.” The medic shrugged. “Who knows? I may even apply for sensei this year. I am a jōnin, after all. Anyway, back to the Mystical Palm Technique…”

So, he and Rin hit it off right away and he gave both of us pointers toward what would, eventually, become mastery of the Mystical Palm Jutsu. Rin wasn’t allowed to use Obito to experiment—Yamaguchi-sensei recommended fish and small animals, between each application of healing chakra— and I was still supposed to be volunteering in the hospital before he’d let me heal people on my own, but I think we learned a lot.

And Obito learned that we’d go the extra mile to look after him.

Chapter Text

I missed about a week later that year, maybe three and a half months before the exams. It wasn’t because I was sick (since I had been known, even in my old life, to show up at school come hell or high water or family crisis), or because Hayate had a crisis again, or even Mom’s apparent anemia. I wasn’t pulling out of school due to financial problems, there hadn’t been any injuries, and my mind hadn’t decided to fracture again.

But a little after I turned nine, Dad died.

Later, I found out that his rotation at the border station had been overrun by shinobi from the Land of Earth. Not all of them were Rock ninja—some were from Kumogakure, apparently—but the reinforcement team dispatched from Konoha didn’t get there until the fight was long over. It was part of the reprisal attacks for things that happened a couple of years back, apparently, and ultimately marked the beginning of the Third Great Shinobi World War. Dad and his team were all killed, even if we got the bastards who did it and tore them to bits after. All of the bodies were recovered, though that didn’t mean much for the families.

There was barely enough left to cremate, in the end.

Mom held Hayate through the ceremony, and I think he was just old enough that he understood what had happened. All of us dressed all in black, and while the sky didn’t open up to cry with us, it was shadowed by dark, heavy clouds and I made up for it in gross sobbing—it was Dad who’d been reduced to just a picture in a frame, with flowers from us and his friends and fellow shinobi. I’d grown up practically on his knee, learning everything I could from his low, scratchy voice and feeling his warmth when I was inconsolable to Mom. Dad wasn’t mine like Hayate was, because ultimately I couldn’t be responsible for anything about his life, but he was family and now his place in my heart was empty and the hole was bleeding.

It’s not possible to go through a life like ours without losing someone, unless dying young was in the cards. The life of a shinobi is full of pain and loss if you live long enough. I just didn’t ever want to feel that pain, even if it was inevitable.

It was naïve.

The hardest part was being back in the house after the memorial service.

“Sis?” Hayate said as I drifted from room to room, like a zombie. He followed me on my circuit of the house, quiet as a cat except for his voice, and I stopped at our parents’ room. My hand formed a fist on the wood of the door.

“Yeah, Hayate-chan?” I sounded exhausted even to my own ears.

“Daddy’s not coming back, is he?” Hayate asked.                                                

“No, Hayate-chan. Dad’s not coming back. He’s gone.” I replied, listening to Mom cry through the door.

I turned away, picking up Hayate on the way back to our room. With Mom like that, it seemed that it fell to me to explain things to my brother. She’d recover, but Hayate needed an explanation now and I was just on the odd little neutral zone between being all out of tears and collapsing into bed to sleep off reality. I could do it.

We both sat on my bed, up against all the pillows I used to throw at him when we were younger, and he curled up against my side.

“Where’d he go?” Hayate asked, and he looked like he was going to cry again. He understood when things changed permanently, but I guess he didn’t quite get the permanency that came with death. Not just yet. It was sinking into both of our minds, like water through the ground.

“He’s dead, Hayate-chan.” I said, squeezing his shoulders. I tucked his head under my chin, so he wouldn’t see me start to cry. “I don’t know if he went somewhere better, but Dad died protecting us and Konoha. And he won’t forget us and we won’t forget him.”

“Why couldn’t Daddy protect us and come back?” Hayate asked, sniffling.

I squeezed him harder. “That…I don’t know. They tell us in school that there’s always someone faster, stronger, or smarter than we are and,” I swallowed, “Dad couldn’t do everything.”

Hayate buried his face in my neck. “I wish he could. Then he’d be here.”

“So do I, Hayate-chan.” I whispered. “So do I.”

We’ll survive. The journey of life is not painless—but with luck, we’ll be okay. Cracked, but okay.

I closed my eyes and buried my face against his hair. The Dreamer was right, but I didn’t want to hear it then.

“It’ll be okay, Hayate-chan.”

Privately, I resolved to graduate the Academy that year. Mom was still listed as inactive because Hayate was so little, and no one thought they could let a nine-year-old Academy student take care of a younger kid. I could exceed that admittedly low bar, but not for the months a chūnin could possibly spend on a mission during wartime, and not without some desperate scraping for money. Mom would need to get a desk job despite how her skills were all for combat, and we’d still be in trouble, since Dad’s tag-making had been a pretty significant part of our income. We didn’t have any extended family to fall back on in tough times, just friends with their own problems.

It’d be easier for us to survive if I was a genin and had my own income. So that’s what I resolved to do.

I went back to school on Monday. I must have looked terrible, slumped over on my desk, and not showing half of the exuberance necessary to keep up with the rest of the class. I barely felt like I could breathe—the Dreamer stuck with me, whispering reassurances, but it felt empty. It felt like I was drowning by inches, even though I had so much I still had to do.

“Kei, where have you been?” Obito asked.

“We haven’t seen you in a week!” Rin said. “We thought something happened to you.”

I lifted my head out of the bowl of my arms.

“Oh no…” Rin said, looking horrorstruck at my expression.

“Kei, what happened?” Obito asked, much quieter this time.

“Dad died.” I said with my voice barely above a whisper. “It’s…it’s been a hard week.”

“How?” Obito asked, dropping into the chair next to mine. Rin sat at my other side, hand on my shoulder, and I sank lower into my seat.

“The border station got attacked. No one made it out after the hawk got sent.” I don’t know how my voice stayed steady. I felt like I was drifting in place, as though the world wasn’t quite real. “We got the news on Tuesday.”

I was drowning.

“Oh, Kei.” Obito didn’t quite seem to know what to do. Eventually, he settled for a one-armed hug around my shoulders. “Rin-chan…?”

“We’re here to support you, okay?” Rin said firmly. “If you need anything, come to us.”

“Thanks, Rin-chan, Obito.” I murmured. I put my hands over my face.

“You’re going to graduate with us, right?” Obito asked.

“Obito!” Rin began, but Obito scowled.

“I’m serious! If you graduate with us, we’ll look out for you, okay? No one will ever, ever say anything bad about you or your dad while we’re around!” Obito insisted. “That’s a promise!”

Rin nodded. “Right.”

There was no way I deserved such amazing friends.

You’ll pay them back by doing what you can to save their future.The Dreamer seemed to sigh. We already knew we weren’t going to let them go it alone.

“You two are the best.” I told them gratefully, hugging them both. “No matter who ends up on what team, I’ll hold you to that.”

The rest of the school day seemed to pass us by, even though it was one of the review days and there were pops and smoke from imperfect Transformation and Clone jutsu going off all the time. And when I went home that day, they followed me.

“Hayate-chan, this is Rin-chan and this is Obito-kun.” I said later that night. “They’re my friends from school.”

Hayate held up both of his hands. “I’ll show you where you can wait! Dinner’s almost ready!”

Bless them, neither almost-genin minded being led around by a kid who wasn’t yet six. And Mom, while not happy, exactly, seemed more animated when there were people to take care of.

For the first time since Dad died, I was smiling again. It was a little cracked and a little broken, but it was a smile nonetheless.

Chapter Text

After all the drama of the year, the final exam was practically a cakewalk. Unless I horribly failed the practical—and I wouldn't, given that I'd practiced with Rin and Obito and…and Dad, back when he was alive—my scores would carry me through. I was easily within the top ten percent of the class in books and ninjutsu. My taijutsu wasn't as strong, but I hadn't been allowed to bring my shinai for the class sparring sessions. The teachers said it wasn't fair, even if the two Inuzuka clan kids were allowed to bring their dogs. The only thing I had trouble with, other than taijutsu, had to do with the special kunoichi classes, mostly due to lack of interest. In the last month, though, I had Mom and Rin help me polish up my feminine skills.

Hayate might be a bit traumatized in the future, given that I used him as practice for putting hairclips on someone else. Mom's hair was too full of ribbons.

Rin was less skilled in the physical realm, but she was better at the Clone Jutsu than I was. I think her brain was just generally more oriented toward genjutsu than mine was, while I had my former artist's brain backing me up for the Transformation Jutsu. Replacement was less than perfectly stable for either of us, but Obito had that more or less down.

Actually, the only one we were really worried about was Obito, since his test scores sucked.

He did have a very low intelligence rating before. The Dreamer wasn't being especially productive in her opinions, since we were rapidly approaching a pretty dangerous gap in our information. We needed to meet up properly and reassess our understanding of everything that happened or would happen over the course of the next year. I couldn't think of much.

Rin and I waited anxiously outside of our classroom for him, since his last name meant going way after either of us. Both of us had passed, so he was just keeping us in suspense.

On the other hand, Rin and I were sporting fashionable new headgear—we'd both passed easily, and while Rin had chosen a traditional hitai-ate, I preferred the bandanna style. It made me feel a bit more grown-up and fit better with my distinctly boyish hairstyle.

Hey, if I was gonna be named Keisuke for the rest of my life, I might as well get some amusement out of the endless misunderstandings.

"I'm sure Obito passed." Rin said, sounding unsure despite her words.

"He'd better hope so!" I said crossly, to cover my anxiety. After my test, all of the worry I'd failed to use on myself was apparently stored up for Obito's sake. "After everything you two have done for me, we're supposed to graduate together!"

And at just that moment, Obito exploded out of the classroom in the midst of a victory dance. "I PASSED! I told you I could do it, Rin-chan, Kei! Isn't this great? We might even get on the same team tomorrow!"

I punched the air, graceless in victory. Rin laughed with relief.

"So, ready to find an awesome sensei and join Team Awesomeness?" Obito asked, bumping shoulders with both of us.

"Is there even any room on Team Awesomeness for us?" I asked.

"You bet!" Obito laughed, throwing his arms into the air. "Come on, I'll buy us all lunch!"

"Buy me strawberries and we'll be even." Rin said, "It's too early for lunch."

"Dango for me." I said. "I'll even pay for enough for all of us."

"You haven't paid for any lunches yet." Rin teased.

"Strawberries and dango? Sure. I like those too. Sounds like a picnic! Anyone got a spare blanket?"

Remember, these are the moments we're fighting for.

Obito kicked the Academy doors open and we stepped out into the bright sunshine together.

In the Academy yard, there was a huge crowd of proud parents, siblings, and various other relatives. Since Rin and Obito were orphans, we'd agreed ahead of time that we'd all be celebrating together. I just had to find Mom and Hayate in the sea of people, while Obito would make his way back over to use whenever he calmed down enough to remember. He and Hayate would be the only boys. It was a good thing that Hayate liked him.

Speaking of which, it was pretty easy to find my family because Hayate was sitting on Mom's shoulders, putting him well above the average height of the crowd. Hayate had his child-sized shinai in his hand and a grin on his face, while Mom seemed to glow with pride. I danced my way through the crowd so I could greet her without making her set my brother down.

"Mom!" I called, waving my arms. "I passed!"

"I knew you would, Kei-chan." Mom said, and she looked a bit misty-eyed. "I just wish…"

"I know, Mom." I said. I didn't need to hear the words to know Dad would be proud, too.

Mom blinked a couple of times and finally let Hayate down. He bopped me with the shinai, but not very hard, and Mom said, "Hayate-chan, your sister is a real ninja now. Isn't that something?"

"I'll be a ninja too!" Hayate said. Bop.

"Hello again, Hayate-chan." Rin said, having decided not to risk bowling people over when it came to greeting my family. "Will you be joining the Academy soon?"

At age five, I suppose that Hayate could have joined, but I'm not exactly sure I would be content to just leave him alone if he did. On one hand, he'd be learning how to be a ninja. On the other, he'd be learning how to be a ninja. And earlier than I had, to boot.

If Mom hadn't taken any chances with me, she probably wouldn't with Hayate.

"Maybe." Mom said, discreetly directing Hayate's shinai away from Rin's face with one hand. "I like to be sure my students have the skills to be successful before I send them running off into the wild."

Unspoken: Academy teachers don't bother, figuring the rest is up to the jōnin leaders of each team to make sure you all survive. Fuck them.

"Hayate-chan will probably be ready before I was." I admitted. "Give him a year and he'll probably be better than I am now."

"But he'll still be able to learn things from you." Rin reassured me. She was just a reassuring kind of person, I think. It certainly explained why Obito went after her.

Obito, as though called by the siren song of his name and the idea of things happening without him, appeared in a blur of blue and flailing limbs.

"Mom, we're gonna go get a snack. Can I bring Hayate-chan with us?" I asked.

Mom, occupied by Hayate's tug-of-war with the shinai, said somewhat distractedly, "Where are you all going in such a hurry?" she asked, "I thought that we'd have a proper celebratory dinner at home later tonight…"

"I'll be home in time and I won't spoil my dinner," I said, "but we're going to celebrate our last day of classes first, okay?"

"Well, I suppose that this is the last day before team assignments." Mom said. She sighed, "Dango?"

"Exactly!" I said.

"We'll try not to keep her out too long." Rin said.

"Yeah, Kei will be home before you know it!" Obito said, bouncing back into the conversation. "I promise!"

Are you marrying them or something? This sounds familiar. It ought to involve porches and shotguns and cars and meeting the parents…

"You both suck." I said flatly. "And Obito, you never get anywhere on time anyway! Don't talk to me about schedules."

Mom said, "Try to be home by five, and stay safe." Mom punctuated this by taking Hayate's shinai from him, but handing me a pouch full of kunai. "Run along now."

We did.

Later, sitting a riverbank next to what would, eventually, be the Team Minato training grounds, we had eaten our way through three sticks of dango each, along with a giant carton of strawberries. I'd have probably gone for ice cream, preferably of a green tea flavor, but we were content to watch the world go by otherwise.

"You know, as ninja we're going to be dealing with some pretty heavy stuff." I said after a while, the last dango stick still in my mouth. I liked having something to chew on, if possible. It was an easy distraction, and being able to throw stuff shaped like senbon as actual weapons, like Genma, sounded pretty cool.

"So what?" Obito scoffed. "We're Team Awesomeness and there's no way anyone can stand against the power of our teamwork!"

"I wonder who our sensei will be." Rin said mildly. She sighed. "We don't even know if we'll end up on the same team…"

"They're probably still going to stick with the two boys, one girl format. I think we have enough girls graduating for that, at least." I suggested.

What I didn't say was that, as the top two kunoichi in our year, Rin or I would probably end up with Obito one way or another, just because of tradition. I kind of hoped it would be Rin—she had the personality to deal with Kakashi and Obito without wanting to murder either of them despite the way they grated on one another. I loved Obito like a brother, but that didn't mean he wasn't capable of pissing me off with his antics. And Kakashi would probably drive me up the wall just by being himself.

Yeah, it'd be better if Rin dealt with the boys, and I stayed by the sidelines to help when asked.

Except if she did end up on Obito and Kakashi's team, she'd be dead before fifteen.

Fuck.

I was glad that Hayate had found the river utterly fascinating, because I didn't need him to see my utter failure to keep from breaking out into a cold sweat. I kept an eye on him and an ear on my friends, because the idea of Hayate drowning on my watch? So many levels of terror were involved there that I didn't have words for them.

"Well, even if we end up on different teams, we'll still be friends." Rin said.

"You're both allowed to come over to my house whenever." I said firmly. "Mom and Hayate-chan have pretty much adopted you two anyway."

"And you?" Obito teased.

"I wouldn't put up with you if you weren't pretty much family." I replied. Wait, no. "Well, actually, if you were enough kinds of crazy or asshole or both, I'd drop you like a hot iron and then beat the crap out of you."

"Aw, you can tell she loves us." Obito laughed. Rin giggled.

"Cruel to be kind, you said?" Rin mused. "It's amazing that we can even find you under all of those spikes."

I stuck my tongue out at them.

"So, if you're a sea urchin," Rin began, making Obito laugh and me smile, "what does that make us?"

"You're a stuffed animal, Rin-chan." I said. "With a set of lock-picks and a brick in it."

"Then what am I?" Obito asked.

Rin and I looked at each other.

"I don't know. He kind of reminds me of a tomato." I said.

"Hey!" Obito didn't seem quite sure if he was supposed to be offended or not.

"Um…maybe a puppy?" Rin suggested.

"You mean incredibly lovable and huggable?" Obito asked.

He's got it bad. And puberty hasn't even happened yet!

"Sure, let's go with that." I said.

Obito pouted.

Then it was time to go home. I fished Hayate out of the shallows, where he'd shucked off his sandals and been wading around chasing fish, and let him roll around in the grass until his feet were dry enough to accept shoes again. Obito packed up the picnic blanket and Rin took the basket, while I grabbed my brother's hand and we all walked to my house for dinner.

Like hell I was gonna leave anyone I cared about alone.

Chapter Text

The next day, the only real reason to head to school was the prospect of team assignments.

I didn’t sleep well that night. Despite the Dreamer’s help, I couldn’t help having nightmares of Team Minato’s last mission as an unbroken team (no Obito please don’t die). And its last mission, period (Rin Kakashi oh god I’m so sorry). And I thought, when I woke up, That isn’t going to happen to me.

I didn’t really have any idea how to make that a reality, though.

Since Rin slept over at my house, we both wandered around to make sure Obito wasn’t going to be late. Mom had given us huge lunches, because of the chance that we’d end up on separate teams and possibly have to share with our less-prepared teammates, and aside from the usual business of herding Obito around, and we were feeling pretty optimistic.

“At least one of us will be with Obito.” Rin said, as we headed into the Academy. Obito hadn’t been spotted running errands for anyone, so we assumed he’d be more or less on time.

“Yeah,” I agreed.

“If I didn’t know better, I’d swear he was trying to stay at the bottom of the rankings just for that.” Rin said.

I shrugged.

To my surprise, Obito was actually there before either of us. He waved, grinning. He was also almost vibrating in his seat from sheer excitement, which was slightly contagious. Rin and I sat on either side of him.

“So, this is the big moment.” Obito said, almost uncharacteristically serious. I guess he was a bit nervous too.

“PIPE DOWN AND GET YOUR BUTTS BACK IN YOUR SEATS!” Sensei shouted, because Sensei was an asshole who lived solely to shout at pre-genin brats and couldn’t actually control them worth a damn.

Considering that Rin and I weren’t exactly early, and since the rest of the classroom wasn’t full, I could only assume that about half the class had failed. Obito might have had reason to be nervous, but he had passed where some of our classmates had not. I couldn’t even feel any of their chakra signatures anywhere near the building, which was about the maximum range I had at age nine, so I wasn’t expecting any last-minute additions. Actually, if anyone had shown up late, I would have automatically guessed Obito, if it wasn’t for the fact that he had decided to be punctual for once in his life.

I folded my arms on the table and rested my head on them. The other shoe was going to drop regardless of whether we freaked out, so I decided not to worry too much.

“We’ll be great.” Rin said, smiling.

“Of course we will!” Obito said, though there was a twitch in his voice that indicated he wasn’t nearly as confident as he acted. It’d been there for most of the time I’d known Obito, but now it was more pronounced. “Right, Kei?”

“Yep.” I said, though my voice was muffled by my elbow and somewhat distracted.

There was someone else nearby, and I didn’t recognize the chakra signature.

While normally I’d probably run into about thirty to eighty people per day and not actually bother memorizing their chakra, I could recall all of our classmates and our teachers, as well as my neighbors and everyone I considered myself close to. It’s like recognizing a face or a voice, though without using conventional senses. Everyone’s feels a little bit different, and I had an easier time distinguishing between people I’d mentally marked “unsafe” or “safe.”

Given that Konoha was a ninja village, the list of unsafe people was pretty fucking long. I hadn’t developed an actual ability to sniff out hostility, but anyone who felt anything like Orochimaru, Danzō, or too powerful to accurately gauge was automatically put on the “avoid at all costs” subsection of the list. I’d never actually met the former, but I figured that I’d know what his chakra felt like eventually and had a whole space in my head allotted for it. The latter I’d seen a grand total of once in passing, and I resolved to avoid coming to his attention more due to what I knew about him than anything I felt.

Yeah, relying entirely on foreknowledge or chakra sensitivity wasn’t going to happen. I’d use both and the Dreamer to figure out what I was doing. Even if it meant floundering around like an idiot without a lifejacket in a hurricane. Or even with a lifejacket—I’d need a real lifeline to make my way out of some of the shit I could get into as a ninja.

After about ten seconds of contemplation and suppressing my own chakra down to practically nothing to account for interference, I pinpointed the stranger in the hallway outside of our classroom. Whoever it was had more chakra than most of the students in the room, sans maybe the Akimichi kid, and the kind of focus that none of us did.

I memorized the feel of his chakra, prickling and sparking like a battery, and returned my attention to the teacher.

“Didn’t sleep well?” Obito asked me.

“Not really.” I said. “Nightmares.” I tapped my fingers on my arm; that chakra was making me restless, because I really wanted to go out and interrogate the interloper and maybe make him or her stand around holding water buckets for an hour for trespassing. It was annoying, like a fly buzzing around my head.

Never let it be said that I didn’t have it in me to do some pretty stupid stuff once I set my mind on it. Or, more likely, not doing the smart thing due to laziness.

Sensei had started reading out the names while none of us were really paying attention. All I’d been listening for were names, and only with half of my attention. So I was surprised when I heard, “…Satoshi Inabi, Rin Nohara, and Kōji Aida. Your sensei is Akihito Yamaguchi.”

Oh what the fuck. I thought, sitting up.

Well, we did realize this could happen.

“Dammit.” Obito said, dropping his head onto the desktop. Thunk.

“It’s okay, guys. I’ll be fine!” Rin said reassuringly.

I nodded. I didn’t know either boy that well—Satoshi had been decent at taijutsu and pretty good at all of the weaponry tests, while Kōji was pretty laid-back for a kid sitting barely above Obito in the class rankings. He was gifted with a large chakra supply for a kid, which mostly translated to insane endurance, but I didn’t think that either boy was really enough of a standout to be worthy of being on Rin’s team.

I might have been horrifically biased—Rin was kind of like a little sister, after all.

Obito slumped at his desk, not quite feigning crushing despair, but I ignored him and reached across his back to give Rin a reassuring squeeze on her shoulder. She smiled hesitantly back.

I wasn’t really worried about Rin—she could have made friends anywhere, with anyone. The fact that she chose to hang out with Obito and me was a blessing, and I was sure she’d be successful in the future. Besides, she had Yamaguchi-sensei as a new teacher. She’d be okay.

Eventually, more and more names were called and more teams were assigned.

Obito’s name didn’t come up, and neither did mine. The teacher even rolled up his list and chucked it into the trash bin, where it was promptly eaten by the remains of the previous day’s pranks and lunches and things. I think we were the first people in some time to feel their stomachs drop simultaneously. We could have made a synchronized sport out of our reactions to sheer dread.

And that strange chakra’s buzzing sensation didn’t abate in the least. I narrowed my eyes in its direction—I did not need a headache ever, but especially then.

“Keisuke Gekkō, Obito Uchiha.” Sensei began, as the rest of our classmates started to drift out of the room.

My head snapped up. “Yes, Sensei?”

I didn’t like the guy, but he’d had his fun. We probably both seemed like ADD-ridden slackers (despite my scores), but we’d passed, and therefore we needed some kind of team structure.

“After lunch, you’ll meet your third teammate and your new jōnin-sensei,” our teacher said. “I’m just not supposed to spoil the surprise.”

So he’s testing us this early? Bastard. I bet I know exactly who it is, too.

Not that I didn’t want to meet Minato and probably Kakashi, but I also kind of wanted to kill them both right then. There was no reason to test us before we even got to meet them. Especially considering that nearly everyone taught by the Third Hokage or Jiraiya or someone taught by their line tended to go with the goddamn bell test.

And then Sensei left, leaving us to our devices.

“Fuck it.” I muttered under my breath, standing even if I was in a pretty annoyed slouch. I was up, conscious, and had managed to quell my brief flare of impatience. “Come on, Obito. The roof’s nice this time of year and Mom packed me a gigantic bento.”

Obito sighed. “Dammit, I wish we’d gotten Rin and not some mystery kid.” He paused, as though reviewing his words and his attitude in his head, and added, “Though you’re with me, so that’s pretty cool. I think we’ll make a pretty good team!”

“So do I,” I said, and we headed out of the room. “Thing is, we don’t train much together normally.”

“Yeah, but only because your mom doesn’t want you to break people’s arms.” Obito said. “As if I’d let you.”

I stuck my tongue out at him. “It isn’t about letting me do anything, Obito. I’m a girl. I do what I want.”

Obito snorted. “Oh, we’ll see. I’m too awesome to stay down for long!”

In the hallway, the crackle of strange chakra was stronger. I paused for half a breath, determining distance, angle, and strength, and noted that the stranger had moved to the roof. There was the faintest trace of chakra smoke in the hall, though Obito was too distracted to notice, and I bit the inside of my cheek in thought.

On one hand, we could avoid it and no one would notice unless it was some kind of unspoken test. On the other, biting the bullet appealed to me somewhat.

“What’d your mom give you?” Obito asked, distracting me.

“Dunno. I’ll check when we get up there and unwrap it.” I replied. “But you don’t get to complain because Mom packed it.”

“Like I’d ever complain about your mom’s cooking! She’s really, really good and she always makes the fish just right.” Obito replied, almost drooling at the thought.

I didn’t ask why he didn’t have a lunch.

We headed up to the roof, mostly chatting idly. While I was never going to be as close to Obito’s goofy open heart as Rin, I’d also never totally leave it. They’d known each other for years longer than I’d been in the picture, and I couldn’t begrudge them that. That said, Obito and I knew each other well enough to know what topics were safe and what was probably not worth talking about. As a result, most of what we talked about came down to current events.

“So, who do you think our third teammate is?” Obito asked once we’d spread the cloth cover of my bento box across the concrete between us. Mom really had packed a giant lunch—I’d never be able to finish all of the rice or fish alone, let alone the pickles. Why anyone would ever need so many pickles was totally lost on me. Luckily, Obito would eat anything.

“Maybe an older genin.” I suggested, spearing a slice of salmon because I was too lazy to eat it properly with two chopsticks. “You never know what kind of stuff goes down out there.”

“So you mean basically someone who was too stupid or useless to keep his comrades alive.” Obito said around a mouthful of onigiri. Mom had made them in the shape of a triad of pandas, apparently because even the family eye-bags were worth memorializing in food.

Mom had a strange sense of humor sometimes.

I felt the sparking chakra flare up as though in annoyance. I turned my head in its direction, briefly ignoring Obito, and said, “You can stop hiding anytime you want, you know.”

There was a sensation that read, broadly, as surprise. Obito blinked at me and said, “Kei, who are you talking to?”

I ignored him again. “Sparky, I don’t know if you’re stalking us, but it’s not polite and we have a third onigiri panda if you want it.”

Obito narrowed his eyes at me, apparently for lack of any better targets. “Where is he?”

Behind us. I thought, and didn’t jump when a hand swiped our last panda while we weren’t looking. I could tell he’d done it, because Obito’s squawk of indignation was loud enough for anyone, and because my chakra sense let me know that he’d been within a foot of me when he’d done it.

“Thieving bastard!” Obito shouted as our third party member finally appeared in full view.

He was…small. Smaller than I remembered or expected—he was shorter than Obito, actually, even counting his spiky silver-white hair. His eyes were like river stones set in a pale face (or what I could see of it, anyway). He wore his signature mask, which had a bit of rice stuck to it, and wore a sleeveless navy blue shirt with what I would hesitantly categorize as arm-warmers. Man, I knew autumn in Konoha wasn’t exactly worth breaking out the sweaters for, but he dressed more like a girl than I did. He also had a kunai pouch strapped to each thigh and a pocket for scrolls on his shoulder.

“A ninja should be more aware of his surroundings.” Kakashi said. His expression—what I could see of it, anyway—was flat and unimpressed.

I rolled my eyes, chin in hand.

“So you’re the one who’s supposed to be our third teammate?” I could hear the scorn in Obito’s voice. It sounded weird—there generally wasn’t anyone for him to look down on in the Academy, and he didn’t even dislike most people enough to bother. He was too busy being excitable or ignoring the way other people mocked him.

Apparently Kakashi was exceptional in many different ways.

“More like I’m your babysitter.” Kakashi replied.

First impression of Kakashi Hatake: He’s a pint-sized jackass.

Then again, he was also a chūnin with hundreds of missions under his belt, who’d probably been killing people for longer than I’d been contemplating ninja-hood. He was, in a way, a stellar example of what happened when the shinobi system worked exactly the way the elders wanted it to—a powerful, competent child prodigy who could be sent to the front lines early and survive long enough to actually gain experience from it all. He’d never be ambitious the way that Danzō was, or even the slightly loopy way Naruto was, and he’d always be loyal to Konoha despite what being a shinobi would cost him over the next twenty years.

It made me feel slightly ill, even though I knew what I’d signed on for. Or at least I thought I knew.

“You’re not a genin, are you?” I asked, though I knew the answer. “And by the way, I’m Keisuke Gekkō.”

Kakashi’s eyes narrowed a bit. The sad part was that I could manage a marginally better glare, almost solely due to the shape of my eyes and the persistent shadows under them. I kind of reminded myself of someone with a hangover when I looked in the mirror. “No. How did you know?”

“I guessed, since I don’t remember seeing you around before.” I said. “Also, a name would be polite. It’d be sad if Obito and I had to call you ‘you’ forever.”

Kakashi made a noise that made me think he didn’t particularly like the answer, but he wasn’t allowed to punch me for more information. “Kakashi Hatake. Chūnin.”

“Well, I’m Obito Uchiha!” Obito broke in, scowling impressively. “And I don’t like your attitude.”

Double fuck. Did they really have to start this now? I knew that Rin had a crush on Kakashi as a member of Team Minato, possibly starting some years beforehand, but I had thought that with me on the team and not Rin, they’d be less polarized. I didn’t want to have to choose between my best guy friend and the new kid on the first goddamn day.

“Hey!” I said. They both sent sidelong looks my way. “Seriously, hold off on the fights until after lunch. We’ll have loads of time to beat each other black and blue later.”

The siren song of food worked its magic.

Obito made a face. “But… Oh, fine. Your mom’s cooking’s too good to miss over a bastard like him.”

That was not what I wanted to hear, but at Kakashi’s thoroughly disdainful huff, I supposed it wasn’t being taken seriously anyway. I had a feeling I’d be spending a lot of my time and energy keeping the two of them from killing each other. Or rather, I’d be preventing Obito from trying to kill Kakashi. I wasn’t sure if the homicide attempts on this team would be mutual.

I pointed my chopsticks at Kakashi. “You ate one of the pandas. You have officially been recruited to the traveling circus in penance. Join us.”

“Aw, Kei, he doesn’t have to, does he?” I couldn’t tell if Obito was complaining on his behalf or on Kakashi’s from the way he phrased it. He still had a pretty amazing pouty face, though. I wanted to pinch his cheeks and tell him he was just adorable, but that I wasn’t going to fall for it and that he still owed me an unloaded dishwasher and a new bike.

I’d had cousins like that, before. They were terrible.

“You’re insane.” Kakashi said flatly, but he wasn’t running away. He ninja-poofed onto the railing between is, perching there like some kind of gigantic misshapen pigeon. It also put him well within food-swiping range, which I didn’t mind but Obito did, from the way his chakra flared.

“I’m a girl.” I replied, snagging the umeboshi before Obito could get it. He was too busy glaring up at Kakashi. “It’s the same thing.” I’d be on a team with two boys anyway, so it wasn’t like they could really dispute my claims without tracking down someone else as a counterexample who wasn’t Rin, and Minato would start dating the craziest kunoichi this side of Hidden Mist sooner or later. So sue me.

“…You’re a girl?” Oh, the deadest deadpan yet. I liked dressing as a boy.

“Bastard! It’s obvious that Kei’s a girl! You take that back!”

I decided not to say anything about Obito’s nearly identical faux pas a year back. It didn’t seem like the right moment, and I didn’t mind.

I gathered my thoughts as Obito was only barely dissuaded from attacking Kakashi via the sudden discovery of red bean mochi in my bento. Kakashi, for his part, had stolen a pickle via spearing it on the end of a kunai. It was not remotely hygienic, but I supposed that Kakashi had seen or eaten his way through worse.

I said, “Since you’re our new teammate, I guess your sensei is ours now, too. What’s he like?”

There was the briefest flare of subtle chakra, almost like a breeze had blown through the area, and a yellow flash of light.

Our new guest was tall enough that even my head (since I was the tallest of the kids in the area) only came to about the middle of his ribcage. He had a crown of blond spikes, along with two longer sections framing the sides of his face. His eyes were a clear, sky blue and he wore a standard jōnin uniform, with additional white bands at his wrists and just below his elbows, to minimize wind resistance. If I had to guess at his age, I’d say he was about nineteen years old to our nine.

“Making new friends already, Kakashi?” asked Minato Namikaze.

"Sensei!" Kakashi almost chirped, and it was instantly clear that he respected his teacher far more than Obito or I had ever respected anyone. His tone was some odd combination between eagerness and embarrassment—I mean, I knew that Obito and I weren’t exactly impressive, but we really weren’t so terrible that even being seen with us was a bad thing. Unless a classroom had recently blown up, but that was never my fault.

I mentally equated Kakashi to a puppy, following his sensei around like he was always out for an extra treat or ear-rub, and left it at that. The mental image would make me laugh if I thought on it for too long.

Obito was openly staring, eyes flicking back and forth between on our new sensei’s face and Kakashi’s attitude, and his mental gears were clearly turning.

And then Kakashi caught himself and the magic died. He cleared his throat. “Keisuke Gekkō and Obito Uchiha, Sensei. Brats, this is my sensei, Minato Namikaze.”

Well, it was nice to know that he could figure out to how to be an awkward human being for small stretches of time. The rest of the time was going to involve me trying to separate the boys, I thought.

Also, he was a bit of a hypocrite.

Obito growled, “Who are you calling a brat, you bastard!” He was already on his feet, fists clenched, and I concluded that I really ought to look into making friends with less excitable people.

I was kind of glad that I had my bokken strapped to my back. According to Mom, it was amazing how much being confronted with a solid length of wood and sufficient skill could make even the most annoying people back down long enough to talk.

And if it didn’t, you could always hit them with it.

“Can we please go back to eating like normal people?” I wondered aloud.

The answer was probably “no.”

“Easy, Kakashi.” Minato said, but I thought it was a bit late. “Obito, you too. We’re all teammates here, and it isn’t worth getting worked up and drawing battle lines on the first day.”

Not that I really knew that much about being a boy, but I couldn’t help but think that Minato didn’t have a lot of experience with people with Obito’s personality type. Kakashi seemed to be his only student, ever, and he was a miniature shinobi, not a child. This team was going to be a mélange of opposing forces, with punched and kicks and possibly bokken-strikes everywhere. Maybe an explosion, too.

Obito scowled and sat back down, next to the half-finished bento, and resumed eating. After a minute, I grabbed the last pickled slice of daikon and ate it. And then the rest of the rice just kind of vanished, which made me wonder if both of our new acquaintances-slash-teammates were food thieves. Mom would be happy to know that everyone found something they liked.

“Anyway, now that we’ve all met, I think we ought to have a chance to get to know one another better.” Minato went on, leaning against the railing and folding his arms. “So, what should I know about you before we start on the path to being shinobi together?”

I heard Kakashi scoff, but didn’t bother rising to the bait. Obito ignored him mostly because he was deep in thought, obviously wondering what great secrets he had that could be revealed to someone he’d met less than five minutes ago.

“You know what I’m talking about, right?” Minato added, “Likes, dislikes, hobbies…?”

I thought about it.

I’m Keisuke, though I mostly go by Kei. I have a second personality hidden in my head that’s composed of all the memories I have from before I died, any relevant information about this world that I can’t seem to remember consciously, and my attachment to things like friends, family, and country. Oh, and did I mention that I died? Because I did, and then I reincarnated, only I kept my memories and thus I have a mental age of about thirty. It’s why I have this urge to chase people around and mother them instead of acting like a normal Academy fangirl wannabe-kunoichi. I like dogs, cats, my family, and my best friends. They’re Rin and Obito by the way, and the former will be dead before she turns fifteen while the latter is probably going to go supervillain if that happens. I dislike a whole bunch of people you’re probably not going to live to meet and/or kill horribly, and I live in terror of the day that my brother gets eviscerated by a Sand-nin who probably hasn’t even made chūnin yet. My dreams for the future include locking myself in a room with a couple of therapists and maybe driving them crazy with all of this baggage.

Yeah, that probably wouldn’t go over well without some serious censoring.

“Well, I like dango.” Obito offered. “I also like my best friends, Rin-chan and Kei. I like making people smile—and as a shinobi, I can do more about that when I’m in the village than I could without training.” I had a sudden suspicion that we’d be doing D-ranks for a solid month. “My hobbies include helping people out when they need it, training, and hanging out with my friends. I don’t like stuck-up bastards like him”—here, Kakashi snorted—“or when I have to go to the hospital.”

A flash of amusement appeared on Minato’s face at that last comment.

“And you, Keisuke?” he asked.

“Um.” I thought my answer over again, mentally adding some things and subtracting the unhelpful sarcastic confessions. “I like Obito and Rin-chan, too, since we were all friends in the Academy. I also like my mom’s cooking, dogs, naps, and playing with my little brother. I don’t like swimming, or the hospital, or getting up early.” I clicked my chopsticks together a few times, thinking. “I have a lot of hobbies, but the ones that come to mind now are practicing medical ninjutsu, learning kenjutsu with my mom, and reading.”

Do I even have any dreams or goals that don’t have to be censored to hell?

“Eventually, I hope to get strong enough to become a jōnin.” I concluded.

"I want to be able to be Hokage someday! I’ll be the greatest Hokage ever!" Obito added. He turned to me. “What do you think, Kei?”

As a member of the Uchiha clan, I didn’t think it would be possible for Obito to get within ten people of the position in the current atmosphere, but I didn’t say anything about it. Politics and political alliances were something I didn’t need in my head at that age. Even if the Senju-influenced structure of the village and its leadership wasn’t a thing, there wasn’t much chance for Obito to be the next Hokage, who was basically sitting in front of us like a parent crossed with a cat-herder. Maybe there’d be time in the future, but not the near future, and not with the current batch of asshole elders running the show.

“I think if we’re thinking long-term, then fine.” I said. “We both have a long way to go before anything big happens.” I hoped.

Kakashi made a noise that said exactly how much he thought of our chances for achieving either of our dreams. And of how likely it was that he’d introduce himself the way we had.

“It’s good that you’re already thinking of the future.” Shinobi didn’t often actually get one, though. Minato went on, “As for me, I like inventing new jutsu, training as a team, and most of all, my girlfriend Kushina Uzumaki. You’ll meet her eventually.” He leaned forward. “Now, personally, my dream is also to be Hokage someday. I don’t know if we ought to make it any kind of race, but if I get the hat, I’ll be sure to have you all around as my lieutenants if you want to be.”

“…I think I’d pass on the responsibility, Sensei.” I said honestly. I was barely capable of being responsible for Hayate without scaring myself silly. The sphere of “things I feel like I can handle looking after” had just barely expanded to include Rin and Obito, and mostly took the form of harassing them into letting me make sure they were both healthy.

Having to look out for the well-being of the entire village would probably result in chronic ulcers by the time I turned fifteen.

“I wouldn’t! That sounds awesome.” Obito said.

I bit the inside of my lip and didn’t say anything. Responsibility: my greatest weakness.

Aside from possibly shrimp. I still hated them.

“Anyway,” Minato continued, “We’ll be having your real genin test tomorrow morning. Go to bed early and come prepared for a mission, all right? I think you’ll do fine, but it’s always worth seeing if our new genin have what it takes to work in the real world.”

Triple fuck. It just had to be the bell test, didn’t it?

“I thought we were already genin?” Obito protested.

“Yes, but if you fail, you won’t be working with Kakashi and I.” Minato replied. “Genin who prove that they can’t pass their jōnin-sensei’s test either have to tough it out and find their own mentors, or they’ll be a part of the reserves forever. If you can’t hack it, we won’t be taking you into the field at all. There’s no sense in adding to the list of the dead for no reason.”

Rather chilling.

I nodded like I understood the whole idea, though it was possible that Sensei’s test would be different from the one that Kakashi had created for Team Seven a lifetime ago. Sakumo Hatake had died recently and I didn’t know how much his ideals had sunk into the village as a whole or Minato-sensei in particular. It was cold to think of my new teammate and possible friend’s dad that way, but I didn’t know Sakumo. I knew my dad, and that they’d once been close enough that Sakumo had brought me balloons in congratulations for surviving to one year old.

This was going to involve tons of good memories. I could just tell. I made a mental note to speak with the Dreamer about it when I got a chance to meditate properly, because being kept up all night by visions probably wouldn’t be much good for my performance in the morning. I needed to clear the clutter and have enough information to focus on, but not be distracted by.

“We’ll do great!” Obito said brightly, and I smiled somewhat hesitantly.

What can I say? I’m not much of an optimist.

Chapter Text

So, it turns out that Minato is a bit of a troll. Or maybe he just enjoys watching his students flail.

More on that in a minute.

On the day of the test, I walked halfway across the village to get to Obito’s before our new team was supposed to meet up. Technically, I could have used the shinobi “skyway,” also known as roof-hopping shenanigans, but if the bell test was going to happen later that morning, it would be best to save my chakra. Besides, I’d probably need to remember the way to the Uchiha clan grounds at some point or another from a ground-bound perspective.

Obito’s apartment was actually located on the far side of the Uchiha District from where I first entered. I’d had to stop an MP to get that much information—I’d never actually been to his place before. Not sure why. Just hadn’t.

Anyway, once in the Uchiha District, it paid to play it like a civilian. Generally speaking, only the Konoha Military Police or ANBU used the rooftops when in residential areas. It kept roofing tiles in place and road dust from picking up, and littering citations from having to be put on everything. I didn’t want to be the subject of any unusual attention, so I decided to hoof it. It took way longer, but by casting my chakra sense out as widely as I could and searching for Obito’s cheerful warmth, I could at least cut down on the time I spent searching for his chronically tardy ass.

(Sadly, shinobi are still human. That means trash finds its way everywhere.)

As I walked, I looked around a lot.

I knew, intellectually, that the Uchiha clan was one of the four noble clans of Konoha. It was in the history books (no matter how shitty those books were), as were the rough histories of the Hyūga, Akimichi, and Senju clans. Of course, clans with unique kekkei genkai—such as the Sharingan or the Byakugan—generally remained isolated at least in terms of marriage. Most of them lived in the district, as much because their clan liked to keep tabs on everyone as anything else. The further you lived inside, the higher rank you held and the older your family probably was. They weren’t especially social when compared to the Akimichi clan, who owned shinobi-approved restaurants all over Konoha, and it was said that the Uchiha clan signature popped collars were symbols of their arrogance. I personally thought they looked a little like the anti-bite cones people back in my old life had put on dogs, but I was never going to say that much to any Uchiha on pain of death. In their own way, they were worse than the Hyūga, despite the fact that the gene for the Sharingan seemed to be recessive to the Byakugan’s dominant.

And vanishingly few Senju still used their family name, so they were less a clan and more like everyone’s cousins. I think that, if I’d had an extended family, they might have been part Senju or something. Just about everyone from a shinobi family (but not a clan)in Konoha had some old clan blood somewhere, though the Byakugan could be seen six generations after the initial ancestor and most everyone else’s genetics were a little subtler.

For my part, I theorized that Mom wasn’t from Konoha initially. Konoha shinobi usually used kunai and shuriken unless they had special training or weaponry at their disposal. A ninja with a katana could be trusted to know how to use it, but most of our styles were sort of…well, we didn’t do schools. Ninjas taught their apprentices or maybe their genin teams, if the students had the knack for it. Otherwise, the style generally died with the ninja who wielded it.

Either Mom had learned from a school, given her method for teaching me, or she had learned from someone who had. It was also possible that she had developed her own, but it felt too polished for that. Too finished. A ninja, after all, was always learning. And probably compensating for having various extremities removed.

Anyway, this line of thought kept me occupied for most of the walk to Obito’s place, in between noting that my house was a hell of a lot smaller than most of the core Uchiha clan ones and wondering if there were any houses for sale. The buildings were older, the people more settled. No one seemed inclined to budge, in any sense of the phrase.

I felt like I was walking through the ninja equivalent of a gated community. It was probably about accurate, anyway.

Still, I could feel Obito’s chakra about a street before I actually turned and saw him. Noble clan or not, very few of them could suppress their chakra to the point that I couldn’t sense them. Obito was not one of those select few and I doubted he ever would be.

He was standing on the stoop of one of the larger buildings, the kind with three floors of apartments and a small Uchiha fan painted on the front gate, and speaking to a pair of older shinobi—they looked like genin, maybe, with unscarred hitai-ate and distinct swagger to their movements. Obito was an orphan within the clan and he didn’t have any siblings. I’d only found out by accident, but it explained some of the loneliness I felt from him, when the school yard grew quiet and Rin wasn’t around. He didn’t have a lot of peers who would hang out with him.

(I didn’t either, but I was a self-admitted freak, so who cares?)

I waved. “Obito!” If the other boys he was talking to were friendly, I’d know. Sure, their chakra supply altogether was actually smaller than Kakashi’s had been yesterday, shenanigans included, but killing intent and malice aren’t exactly subtle. Obito wasn’t broadcasting fear—he seemed uneasy, sure, but that could have had any number of causes.

He jolted, chakra spiking in clear dismay. The other two boys turned to face me, too. I thought I recognized some of their facial features, relative to Obito’s, but resemblances between cousins are somewhat hard to quantify and may mean nothing. I didn’t look like any of my cousins from my old life, for example. Given that there were two of them and Obito didn’t seem happy to see them, I took a mental leap and assumed that the unidentified genin in front of me were Yoshi and Matsumaru Uchiha. Also known as Obito’s asshole cousins.

Well, crap.

There were many ways I could play things. I could freak out. I could attack. I could do any number of things that would mean a morning spent in the nearest police department and not with our new teammate and sensei. All of them would suck and get us in trouble with too many different people.

Or I could give Obito an easy out.

I ran up to them, focusing all of my attention on Obito even as my chakra sense picked up the indignation from the other two Uchiha boys. “Obito, we’re going to be late!”

“Wait, what time is it?” Obito asked, as though he’d entirely forgotten about the other two. I knew he hadn’t, but I was a convenient change of topic in some ways.

“It’s eight forty-five.” I said flatly. I was pretty sure he’d genuinely forgotten, given that Yoshi and Matsumaru were terribly distracting. “We’re supposed to meet Sensei and Kakashi with all of our equipment at nine, remember? The one by the Memorial Stone.”

Obito’s expression shifted from mild surprise to “oh, shit,” in about half a second. He whirled on his two cousins, with a rapid, “Sorrygottagonowpeoplearegonnakillme.”

And then we ran like hell, chakra-enhanced speed and all.

We didn’t stop until we were well out of the Uchiha District, when both of us had to stop for air and explanations.

“So, were those the two assholes?” I demanded, once I got my breath back. While I was better than I’d ever been at running in my previous life, I still didn’t consider myself blessed with much stamina. At least I had room to improve, I supposed.

“Wha—oh. Yeah. Sorry you had to see that.” Obito said, wiping his face on the inside of his sleeve. He shook himself. “Anyway, what time is it, really?”

“Eight forty-six, now,” I said, glancing at a clock on the wall of a nearby shop.

Obito’s mouth dropped open. “Wait, you were serious? Oh man, we’re going to be so late.”

I wouldn’t have been, if I’d been able to trust that Obito would make it to the training grounds on his own and on time. But then his cousins got in the way, so I guess we were just going to have to be late together.

“We could use the roofs.” I suggested.

Obito nodded quickly. “Okay, yeah. You lead.”

I had a sneaking suspicion that Obito didn’t know that there even was a training field next to the Memorial Stone, but I didn’t ask. We were both too busy bouncing from rooftop to rooftop like over-caffeinated gerbils to bother wasting breath on it.

We arrived a grand total of fifteen minutes later, meaning that we were about a minute late. I think it was pretty much a record for Obito.

Kakashi, of course, was there to greet us.

“You’re late.”

Of course.

I rolled my eyes and returned to breathing on manual mode, trying not to feel the unaccustomed burn in my thighs and calves. Roof-hopping was a lot harder at age nine than the prodigies made it seem. I could only imagine that it would come with practice, and made do in the meantime by walking around to cool down. Obito, meanwhile, had dropped more or less onto his face and had raised the middle fingers of both hands in Kakashi’s general direction without looking.

Minato-sensei appeared in a burst of yellow light about thirty seconds later. I had no idea how someone with teleportation abilities could ever be late.

Sometime afterward, I realized that Minato had marked the inside fold of Kakashi’s hitai-ate with a Flying Thunder God targeting seal. At the time, I could only think, What’s the bombshell, Sensei? Because we’re fucked anyway!

While Obito and I weren’t going to fall for the bell test’s most obvious trap, mainly because Obito valued my friendship too much and because I was cheating outrageously with my precognition (as well as being far too lazy to try and fight my teammates in addition to our sensei over cat ornaments), I didn’t know what sort of trick Minato would have. Kakashi, as a jōnin, had preferred outright lying, trolling, and being a jackass to his students. Minato-sensei had been straightforward, so I didn’t really know what to expect.

“Now that we’re all here,” Minato-sensei said with his arms hidden behind his back, “we can get started.”

I braced myself for the bad news. If I could feel the spike of chakra from the Flying Thunder God Jutsu, I could probably feel and interpret any kind of rising amusement with our inevitable fated beatdowns. I thought so, anyway. Obito, who was sitting next to where I was standing, mumbled something rebellious that I didn’t catch.

“Here you go, Keisuke-kun. And you, Obito-kun.” I blinked. The next thing I knew, I was holding a manila folder in my too-small hands. “Our test today will be in information analysis and in forming conclusions.”

“Keisuke Gekkō” was written across the top in large black characters. The one Obito was holding had “Obito Uchiha” written on it.

Okay, I give up, said the Dreamer.

Well, at least I wasn’t the only one who thought this was kind of surreal. Kakashi also had one, though I’d totally missed the moment when Sensei had handed it to him. Going by the look on Obito and Kakashi’s faces, neither of them had expected the folders in the slightest.

“Sensei,” Kakashi began, but Minato clapped his hands.

“Right! So, the first thing we’re going to do today is check out the Hokage’s assessment of our skills.” Speaking of which, Minato also had a folder. “It’s like a report card for real life, in some ways.”

I suddenly know why this man was so eager to become Hokage. He is the paperwork ninja.

This is what I meant when I said Minato was a bit of a troll. I got all worked up over the idea that he’d probably give us a sadistic bell test, and here he was, handing out report cards. It was very, very strange, not to mention off-putting.

I opened my file. The top left corner of the first page was taken up by a picture of me, sans my new headband, that had been taken immediately after I passed the final genin test. It was a fairly lousy picture, since I hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before and my eye-bags were more prominent than ever, but it was apparently only for a year before the file would be updated. The photographers for our ninja registration paperwork were kind of overzealous, meaning that even Obito had managed to get his paperwork done yesterday before school, since the paperwork ninja in charge had probably been chasing him around to get it.

I sat down to read.

Name: Gekkō, Keisuke

Age: 9

Height: 120.3cm

Weight: 28.1kg

Blood type: O

D.O.B.: July 10

Gender: Female

Ninja Registration: 010871

Ninja Rank: Genin

At this point, I got bored and started to flip through the pages in the folder. I already knew my basic information, aside from my blood type. Since Hayate had AB to my O, I could only assume that our parents were heterozygous for types A and B, though I’d probably never have to know the specifics unless it was time to donate blood to someone. Unless it came to plasma—blood was almost never given whole in transfusions, since if O was the universal donor in terms of blood cells, AB was the universal plasma donor. It had something to do with antibody vs. antigen generation, and I wasn’t really interested in the details.

I kept flipping through the pages until I came to an octagon chart. I was strongly reminded of a stat block for Pokémon, and I glanced at the rest of the page to confirm that it was supposed to be a breakdown of our scores in all relevant and easily-quantifiable shinobi disciplines.

So this was how the Naruto databooks were supposed to be relevant to our lives.

I looked at the chart, and then at the total. It didn’t seem possible to have that much of the octagon in red at my age. But the numbers were right there, staring back up at me.

It was one of the few times that the Dreamer and I were in perfect agreement and synchronization. Holy fucking shit.

Part of me, which I was pretty sure had to be Id or maybe an unnamed fourth personality, was gibbering in a corner of my mind and making a noise like “mimble-wimble.” Or maybe that was me. The world was retreating and I could see my future flashing before my eyes. It was going be short and explosive.

“Kei? What’s so surprising?” Obito asked, leaning over to see what I was looking at. He held up his chart for comparison, though I didn’t look at it then.

After a few seconds of my thunderstruck mumbling and some quick math on Obito’s part, Obito’s eyes went wide and he said, “What the hell? Eighteen?”

I made a whimpering noise and shoved my files into Obito’s hands. I didn’t want to look at them. Internally, I continued to freak out. Gotta keep it together, gotta take deep breaths. Just because my scores are insane doesn’t mean I’m going to have to take the Chūnin Exams! I don’t want to die on the front lines! I hid my face in my hands.

Yeah, I was panicking over getting an awesome score. Go me. The thing is that, well, I didn’t want to be a super special ninja princess sparkly bullshit-meter-breaker. I wanted to have a chance to survive to see thirty, being an average cross-discipline shinobi the whole way, and maybe have enough strength to be useful to the people I cared about and keep them alive. People who stood out got knocked down like bowling pins, and I could name more examples than most.

I didn’t want to be Kakashi, in short.

(Sans the princess comment, anyway. He’d look adorable in a dress at this age, even if the mask would break the outfit’s synergy like a fortune cookie.)

“…This wasn’t exactly the reaction I was going for.” Minato-sensei said after a moment.

Kakashi made a dismissive noise that could have meant any number of things but probably came down to “I’m surrounded by idiots.”

A hand landed on my head. Going by chakra signatures, all of Team Minato were sitting within a five-foot radius of each other. Kakashi was probably reluctant, but I think he’d live with it.

“Easy, Keisuke-kun.” Sensei said, patting my head as though I was some kind of pet. I guess that’s what I get for being a kid. Still, he was just a teenage jōnin, so the fatherly angle didn’t work so well, and I didn’t have any idea what having an older brother would feel like. “Mind telling us what’s wrong?”

I groaned. I didn’t want to talk about it.

Look at it this way: Those are yours and mine, as well as that of our parents and teachers, the Dreamer suggested in the empty echo chamber of my mind. I wasn’t coming up with any clever ideas then, that was for sure. You’ve been keeping up with everyone by putting your mind to things, I’ve been helping most of the time I’ve been properly awake, Mom taught us kenjutsu, Dad taught us taijutsu and chakra control, and Yamaguchi-sensei taught us medical ninjutsu. We are the sum of our pasts, and three awesome teachers.

Okay. I could think of it that way if I tried.

“I don’t think I really deserve that score.” I mumbled, seeing the numbers dance on the insides of my eyelids. No one here knew how much of a leg up I’d been given. “I had more teachers than anyone.”

Ninjutsu: two out of five, due to medical training. Taijutsu: two, supplemented outside of the numbers with kenjutsu. Genjutsu: two-point-five, because it was hard to put a genjutsu on someone whose chakra was aligned to both cast and cancel them, based on sensitivity to foreign chakra. Intelligence: three-point-five, due to my adult mind and nighttime sessions with the Dreamer. Strength: one-point-five even with general chakra boosts. Speed: Two. Stamina: one-point-five, ignoring the Yin chakra I could probably borrow from the Dreamer if I had to. Hand seals: three-point-five, because of loads of extra practice and hyperawareness of the way chakra moved in my body. Total: Eighteen.

I was all sorts of paper tiger, I thought.

“I noticed that, and I wrote a report to the Hokage on the topic of rotating specialists in the Academy, if that’s the result you got.” Sensei said. I looked up, and he didn’t seem disappointed or anything. To Obito and Kakashi as well as me, he said, “But it’s time that we break down our scores, now that we’ve taken a look. First, though, we’re going to pass our files around. Don’t worry if Kakashi’s and my files have a lot of redacted information.”

I rubbed my eyes and nodded. I hadn’t cried, but I needed a second.

We passed our folders to the left, which meant that I got a chance to look at Obito’s file first.

I memorized his blood type and birthday, which were O and February 10th, respectively, before looking at his assessment.

The first thing I thought was, That is way too low.

Ninjutsu and stamina were solid twos. Obito’s taijutsu, genjutsu, and strength scores sat squarely at one-point-five, while his speed and hand seal ratings were two-point-five each. His lowest score was intelligence, which sat at a rather dismal score of one. All in all, his score was fourteen-point-five. Even the test scores were calling him an idiot.

That is exactly what Naruto’s score was when he graduated.

Of course she would know that.

Personally, I was pretty sure there was a particular reason for Obito’s low scores, and it wasn’t just because he was slow. Obito could be remarkably book-dumb, but he was an awkwardly affectionate, sensitive person when he cared about someone and learned far more quickly when we were still attending taijutsu lessons at the Academy. He didn’t like reading, he didn’t like studying, and he didn’t like to be talked down to by people who did. But given that I’d managed to boost my scores through tutoring, I think it was more about what resources Obito lacked than any brainpower.

Obito, who was looking at Kakashi’s folder, scowled thunderously. Even though I knew Kakashi had to be impressive.

On second thought, that was probably the problem.

“What does it look like, Obito?” I asked, leaning over and passing Obito’s folder to Sensei.

Obito shoved it under my nose. Wow, he really was in a bad mood.

“Keep in mind that scores mean very little in the field.” Sensei said, as I scanned Kakashi’s file. Mine was in Sensei’s hands. “Numbers based on a single point in time can’t explain or really assess the effects of fighting under real battlefield conditions. There’s no place in these for willpower, determination, or the effects of morale levels.”

Kakashi had a total score of twenty-two-point-five, with three separate scores (intelligence, speed, and hand seals) rated higher than three. Barring strength, which was probably dependent on the fact that we were all nine years old and had the same one, none of his stats were lower than two. I doubted the numbers encompassed the stupid levels of experience he had even given how long he’d been a chūnin, but his mission records were entirely blotted out with black ink, so I couldn’t be sure.

“Here’s an example, Obito-kun.” Sensei held out my file, turned so that we could both see it. “See this? Keisuke-kun has high intelligence and hand seal scores, which make it easier for her to pull her nin- and genjutsu scores upward by learning them quickly. On the other hand, her physical scores—speed, strength, and stamina—are actually lower than yours when you add them up.” He flipped the folder over and handed it back to me, extending his hand for Kakashi’s file. “Now Kakashi was rated as less intelligent than Keisuke despite the fact that he’s been in the field longer than both of you, while you and Kakashi were both afforded the same strength and stamina score. Keisuke shares your strength score, too, which means that the physical limitations of your bodies are the problem, not you. You’ll all grow out of it.”

Kakashi rolled his eyes. I had no doubt whatsoever that he could take both Obito and me in a fight with his eyes closed.

“…Okay, Sensei.” Obito mumbled, and Sensei smiled.

“I didn’t set these out for you to fight over.” Sensei said. He flicked his fingers and all of our files vanished. His was still on the ground. “They’re not necessarily accurate, and can seem arbitrary based on things like observer bias and whether or not any of you were holding back for one reason or another. But the general trends—such as the fact that Kakashi needs to work on his genjutsu and Keisuke-kun has some trouble with her stamina, and that we can polish up everyone’s taijutsu? That gives us a place to start setting goals.”

That made sense. I just hadn’t expected that the future Hokage would be so obsessed with number-crunching.

“What are your scores like, Sensei?” I asked. After seeing what we were capable of, I had to wonder what Sensei could do.

Minato-sensei picked up his file and handed it to me. “Take a look.”

Turns out that they don’t just hand out jōnin report cards to anyone. Sensei’s stat chart had been left entirely blank, with only a lonely little number in the corner informing us that he had a total score of thirty-two.

I had a hard time believing that he wouldn’t make mincemeat out of literally everything once he got going.

“For today, we’re going to set goals and begin working out how to achieve them.” Sensei continued, “We’ll finish our training today with some sparring sessions so we can all get a feel for each other. Sound good?”

We all nodded, though I was pretty sure none of us really wanted to.

I’d hated setting goals before. It implied work.

You set goals with me.

That’s different.

The results of the planning session ended up being this: I’d be running up and down trees until I had more stamina, Kakashi would be trying to cast and dispel genjutsu while paired off with Obito, who also needed to work on his genjutsu, and then we’d have a three-way fight between us kids while Sensei corrected our stances and refereed to make sure we didn’t all kill each other.

(Given that Obito and I were completely okay with doubling up to take on Kakashi, this was a more equal prospect than even Kakashi had thought.)

Before we knew it, the afternoon was upon us and we were all hungry, dirty, and tired enough to stop. Except for Sensei. The guy always looked like he could go five more rounds and then kill a dragon at the end of it as a cool-down. It was surreal.

“At this point,” Minato-sensei said, pulling Obito and I back to our feet so we’d stop keeping Kakashi in the world’s most complex and pointless joint-locks, “Kakashi and I usually go grab a bite to eat before we work on meditation and strategy. Want to join us?”

Obito nodded, though not without a sidelong glare at Kakashi. “Sounds good, Sensei.”

For my part, I cast a glance the Memorial Stone. “Um. I’ll be along in a second. Gotta do something first.”

“Wha—? Oh. I’ll wait.” Obito said instantly, giving me a concerned look. I was grateful that he seemed to have forgiven me for my stupid display earlier, and silently promised to do everything I could to help him improve.

“It’ll just take a second.” I repeated, holding up one finger, and I walked over to the stone.

The Memorial Stone is one of several monuments to shinobi in Konoha’s history. There used to be an older version here, I’d heard, dating from the days of the First Hokage and the First Shinobi World War. It was just an oversized headstone, with plain stone sides and a space for names in the middle. The one that occupied training ground three, which had been put up since the previous one had started to crumble and had been moved to just below the Hokage Monument, was black marble polished to a reflective sheen. It was shaped like a kunai blade, standing on a three-sided brace of black stone surrounded by concrete and granite, flanked by silver flagpoles. The flat face of the blade had what seemed like hundreds of names written on it.

I could see my reflection looking back at me, around the shadows cast by the small, solid characters spelling out Wataru Gekkō. I placed both of my hands together and bowed my head.

Sometimes I couldn’t believe it had already almost four months.

I’ll make you proud, Dad. I’ll look after everyone, like you did for us. Don’t worry about Hayate and Mom. None of us will forget you, and we won’t make you cry.

Love you.

I wasn’t sure if he was listening. I wasn’t sure if he was even there. But I felt like, if nothing else, I could at least try.

Prayer finished, I turned around and headed back to my team.

“Ready?” Obito asked.

I slung an arm around his shoulders and squeezed, conveying a wordless I’m sorry and You’re still my friend. “Yeah. Just had to say something to Dad.”

Kakashi, I noticed, was looking pointedly away from me. Sensei had his hand on Kakashi’s shoulder. I knew why, and felt like something was squeezing my heart.

Minato-sensei sighed, but he didn’t seem unhappy. “All right. There’s this ramen bar I know…”

Chapter Text

I’ll be perfectly honest here: the only standards by which the brand-new Team Minato would not be considered a walking disaster were those set by the as-yet-unborn members of Team Kakashi in the future. I was pretty sure that the Sannin had a better record than we did at the moment, since if every minute of Team Hiruzen’s existence had been a disaster, they probably would have all been dead by twenty despite their skills.

Obito hated Kakashi. It was almost a given. Kakashi was stronger, had graduated younger, had apparently held the affection of every girl in their age group back when he and Obito had actually been in the same class (including Rin), was an arrogant little shit, and spent almost all of his time either talking down to us or beating the crap out of Obito. He’d kind of given up on pounding on me after I asked Sensei for permission to use my bokken, since it gave me range on him and Sensei hadn’t given Kakashi the okay to use his dad’s tantō. Obito, on the other hand, hadn’t received any specialized weapon training and was prone to getting the brunt of things because he was a boy and because of his personality.

Personally, I didn’t have anything against Kakashi. Most of his vitriol toward life in general was actually a reflection of how much of a fucked-up little kid he still was. But I didn’t like the way he treated Obito, and unfortunately my loyalty tended default to chronological order. Ergo, I’d protect my brother before Obito and Rin before Kakashi before anyone else (since most of the rest of the people I knew and cared about could take care of themselves). During practice, I’d have to remind myself that hitting the resident prodigy with a vertigo genjutsu while he was concentrating on Obito was not actually a good thing to do.

I don’t think Kakashi hated either of us. It would have required him to view us as more than bugs. Or maybe babies, I suppose. True, he didn’t lash out at me as much as he did with Obito, but I’m not sure if it was because I was a girl, because I was a prodigy in my own right, or because I just didn’t have Obito’s personality. I think he figured he had my measure and then more-or-less erased me from his personal universe.

On the other hand, Obito made Kakashi pay attention to him, if only because he hated being ignored slightly more than he hated Kakashi in general.

It took less than two weeks for Kakashi to give Obito a concussion. We weren’t even taking combat missions yet.

Sensei had to knock me on my ass to keep me from hurling myself at Kakashi when Obito just dropped, because all of my impulses were saying kill him and not holy fuck someone call an ambulance. Then, scooping Obito up from where he’d been lying dazed on the ground, Sensei vanished in a burst of white chakra smoke.

Well, I guess it was possible that Sensei didn’t have the hospital marked with a Flying Thunder God seal already. I bet he’d change his ways after this, though.

I sat there for a moment, staring blankly at where they’d both disappeared, and then I stood up. I grabbed my bokken off the ground, tossing its sling on over my shoulder. I dusted myself off. I readjusted my hitai-ate on my head.

Then I walked over to where Kakashi was standing, apparently not quite sure what to do at Sensei’s sudden disappearance. It was possible that he didn’t even know that head injuries were extremely serious, that anything more than a momentary stunning needed to be looked at in case of brain damage. I wasn’t sure what books Kakashi had read, or if he’d really even dealt with brain injuries. Most of the time if shinobi got stunned or knocked out in the field and there wasn’t any help nearby, they died. Sometimes horribly.

“Come on. We’re going to the hospital.” I said.

“Why should we? We can continue training just fine without them.” Kakashi said, eyebrows knitting together because of the “you’re a prodigy too” and “why do you even hang out with that loser” in his tone and the way I was frowning back.

I had this urge to introduce my bokken to his face. Or maybe my face. I wasn’t sure who I was angrier at.

I held out my hand instead. He and Obito hadn’t made the Seal of Reconciliation after the match, but I could at least offer it. It’d keep me from doing something stupid, at least.

“I wasn’t fighting you.” Kakashi said.

“If Sensei hadn’t been there, you would be.” I informed him.

Kakashi’s eyes narrowed.

Still, he did complete the seal. I think he had enough respect for shinobi traditions to at least allow that much between comrades, even if we weren’t friends.

“Anyway,” I began, shoving my hands into my pockets as soon as he let go, “I need to get a second opinion about something.”

Mainly, whether or not I’d be able to learn how to use chakra scalpels from Yamaguchi-sensei now that he had his own team. Unfortunately, this little episode proved that I was too aggressive when it came to people around me when I was stressed by someone else’s injury—too much Kabuto and too little Shizune, in a way. To protect people, I liked the idea of fighting more than I liked the idea of patching people up after, or even in the middle.

The best defense was a good offense and all that.

Kakashi grumbled something as we left the training grounds. We walked about four feet apart and he trailed behind me, apparently to give the impression that we weren’t really walking together. I wondered if he didn’t want to be seen with me or something.

“Sorry, I didn’t catch that.” I said over my shoulder.

“I said, ‘don’t you already know medical ninjutsu?’” Kakashi said, more clearly. His tone still implied that I was a lily-livered wannabe ninja more than a peer.

“I know the Mystical Palm one, yes.” I said. “Along with a couple of minor healing jutsu, and lots of chakra control exercises.”

Someday, I was going to find a way to make the Bullshitting-the-Fish-Test Jutsu relevant to my life.

“What about you?” I asked, because it wasn’t as though there was anyone else to talk to.

“What about me?” Kakashi parroted, probably to be annoying.

I frowned, though he couldn’t see it. “I mean, do you know any stuff that’s particular to you?”

“Nature manipulation,” he said tonelessly. “Lightning.”

That actually brought up another point I hadn’t really considered.

I knew Sensei had developed the Rasengan as a teenager. There wasn’t really any other timeframe where he could pulled it off, given how he’d died in his early twenties, and even after making a stupidly destructive A-ranked technique that was literally all chakra control, he had to have known that his goal of a Wind Release version was years of refinement away from completion. Kakashi had developed the Chidori in a failed attempt to create a Lightning Release Rasengan variant, if I remembered right, even if he only demonstrated it as a teenager.

I wondered if Kakashi knew the Rasengan even at age nine. I also wondered if Obito or I would ever be able to learn it.

More than that, though, I was concerned that I was the only member of my team with no elemental ninjutsu. Obito had Fire Release jutsu to play with as a member of the Uchiha clan, even if he wasn’t particularly good at the Grand Fireball technique yet. Sensei probably had a little bit of everything, but mostly Wind Release. I already knew Kakashi was lightning-natured, both from my foreknowledge and the fact that his chakra felt like a sparking wire.

It was kind of weird to realize that I had no idea what my own chakra nature was.

Is that the boy?”

I put my thoughts on pause, wondering why that voice had jumped out at me at all, vehement and yet whispered as it was. Being in the village meant that background chatter was a fact of life, and with Obito as a friend whispers had been following me for a while now, but I’d actually felt Kakashi’s chakra shrink back into his skin a little as soon as we left the training grounds behind.

“Such a pity…”

I looked back at him. “Kakashi?”

Kakashi’s body language was stiff, locked-up in a way that it never was when Sensei was around. He stared straight ahead, eyes narrow and dark with some unknown emotion, and he didn’t acknowledge me. He seemed to be looking at something over my left shoulder, and he kept putting one foot in front of the other and walking right past me when I stopped.

Apparently Obito wasn’t the only one with All of the Other Reindeer syndrome, even now.

Kakashi’s dad was barely six months dead. I didn’t know the exact date of the mission that went FUBAR, and I’m pretty sure even now that my parents had kept me close to home because they didn’t want me to see the fear, the resentment, and the rampant rumor-mongering that went on in a village that existed because of its secrets. I just knew that in the end, there hadn’t been anyone there to stop him from taking the only way out he had left.

Not even Kakashi.

I didn’t want to know the specifics.

But I couldn’t let him stew in it.

“You know,” I said lightly, “I never really wanted to punch people in the face until I met Obito.”

That was a complete and total lie. It was also phrased so ambiguously that only people who knew me would be able to see the truth in it. I’d never hurt Obito. I’d come pretty close to hurting the people who hurt him several times already, though.

And only the Dreamer had a handle on just how many people I wished dead, and how much.

Kakashi gave me a sidelong look, trying to gauge my honesty.

“And since I’m probably going to if we keep going this slowly, I offer you a proposition.”

One eyebrow went up.

Whack! My open hand smacked into his shoulder, shoving him off balance. And I had my revenge. We were teammates, after all. Comrades. Putting him in the hospital didn’t seem like the right thing to do unless our team had suddenly morphed into the Sannin while no one was looking.

“You’re It.” I informed him.

Kakashi was faster than me. A lot faster, if he wanted to be. That was how I knew that, even as I leapt onto the nearest market roof, he wasn’t really trying to catch me.

It did give him an excuse to chase, though, and therefore an excuse to leave the whispers behind.

I wasn’t all that great at the kind, compassionate, serene temperament Rin could pull off as easy as breathing. I didn’t know how not to be mildly insensitive and prone to flashes of irrational anger. I didn’t know how to leave stuff alone.

Oh well.

We made it to the hospital within five minutes. I only got tagged twice, and I was still It when we skidded to a stop outside the door. Just being near the hospital was enough to put me on edge. Aside from the one time Rin and I had brought Obito to see Yamaguchi-sensei, I didn’t have a whole lot of good memories of this place. Hayate’s crises, periodic childhood shots, and having to follow doctors around like a nurse-capped duckling weren’t really the types of things that made up a good impression.

Going by the way Kakashi eyed the doorway, I guess he picked up on my apprehension. It was also possible that he expected Minato-sensei to swoop down on him like some kind of bird of prey and start lecturing him about Not Being A Dick.

Personally, I wasn’t convinced that it would take. Ever.

I walked up to the front desk and said to the receptionist, “I’m looking for a patient—Obito Uchiha.”

The receptionist glanced up, recognition in her eyes, and said, “Oh, Kei-chan. I didn’t know you were coming back.”

“Well, I’m not coming back to stay, but I am looking for my teammate.” I said, shrugging. “Sorry, Shirohana-san.”

“Oh, it’s no big deal.” Ayako Shirohana was one of the receptionists who had been around long enough for her to recognize me from my volunteer hours over the previous year. She wasn’t a ninja, but she was studying for her own internship as a civilian nurse and was at least ten years older than I was, with teal hair and brown eyes. I rather liked her, even if she did insist on making me fetch her coffee for her. “Uchiha, Uchiha… Ah! Here we go: he’s still in the waiting room. It’s just down the hall, though we’ve got so many people there at the moment that there’s interference everywhere. I’m sure you would have found him otherwise.”

The thing about coworkers is that they find out a bunch of your secrets, if you’re like me. I’d told Ayako that I was a chakra sensor mostly so she’d stop messing with the intercom when she wanted someone to take over for her when she went on break. All she’d have to do once I was around was flare her chakra in a shave-and-a-haircut pattern, and then I’d pop in to take her place for ten minutes or whatever.

Though we’d had to stop doing that once the head nurse found out that she was letting an eight-year-old sub for her.

“Thanks, Shirohana-san. It was nice seeing you again!” With that, Kakashi and I wandered down the hall. I knew exactly which waiting room Ayako had been talking about—I’d only had to clean blood and senbon and kunai out of the linoleum four or five times.

Mini-ninjas make pretty good manual labor, I guess. At least the major combat cases didn’t spend a lot of time in said rooms. Else they’d probably all die.

The waiting room was…well, I’ll put it this way: the waiting room to my old pediatrician’s office was worse. Slightly, and only because the place had involved clown wallpaper. This particular waiting room in Konoha General was almost offensively beige. The only spots of color were the bits where someone had apparently decided to stick free bandage samples, crappy outdated magazines, and a painting of a bowl of mangoes.

Almost all of the available chairs were occupied by someone in bandages or looking somewhat dazed, and Minato-sensei and Obito were on the couch. Obito had his eyes shut and was leaning pretty heavily on Sensei. Sensei, for his part, didn’t seem to mind all that much, but I noticed that he squeezed Obito’s arm to keep him awake. And that there was a bucket nearby, in case Obito had to throw up.

Concussions were nasty business, and the thing with head injuries was that they were a little too complex for my level of medical ninjutsu expertise.

“Hey, Sensei. How’s everything?” I asked, keeping my voice low.

Obito groaned. “I’ve got a killer headache, I’m tired, and I keep seeing stars. And I feel horrible.”

“All right, at the moment.” Minato-sensei said to me. “To be honest, I almost expected something to go wrong sooner.”

“You suck, Sensei.” Obito grumbled without looking. “You suuuuuuuuck.”

I was starting to see why Mom had insisted that Hayate and I train our butts off before we ever met our jōnin-sensei. I hadn’t realized that Sensei was still learning, too. He’d been promoted twice by the time he was fourteen, but it didn’t change the fact that he was still a teenager training kids.

I sat down to Obito’s left, while Kakashi flanked Sensei. He didn’t sit down, though. I wonder what his problem with hospitals was.

I bumped Obito’s shoulder, gently. “Well, we are training to be ninjas. Since you didn’t black out, I think you should probably be fine.”

Obito buried his face in Sensei’s flak jacket to block out the light, but I still heard his muffled, “Thanks, Kei.”

“You’ll forgive me if I want a medic to take a look though, right?” Sensei asked, teasing.

I shrugged. I knew my limits. “Okay.”

“By the way, Kakashi, you never did complete the seal.” Sensei went on, poking Kakashi with his free hand. Kakashi muttered something incomprehensible, sitting down next to Sensei to sulk, but Sensei said, “Come on, don’t be like that.”

I reached over, behind Sensei’s back, and poked him. “And you’re It again.”

Kakashi gave me an incredulous look. “What, you’re still doing that?”

“I never stopped.” I said.

“When did you two start getting along?” Minato-sensei asked.

“We didn’t. I just decided to bug him.” I replied. “In the name of vengeance.”

Obito snickered, though it was muffled by his mood and Sensei’s vest. “Your revenge is Tag?”

“Yep. If I beat the stuffing out of him before you could, you’d complain.” I said.

“Like you could.” Kakashi said.

“While I think the idea of fewer unsanctioned fights is a great idea,” Sensei began, “could you two please wait until we aren’t in the hospital anymore? The last thing I want to see is how much you can escalate things.”

“Oh, yeah. We can save that for training.” I agreed.

Minato-sensei snapped his fingers, as though remembering something important. “Speaking of which, Obito. No training for at least a week.”

It was Obito’s turn to mutter something distinctly unhappy and sullen.

“And if you fall asleep on me, it’s going to be two weeks.” Minato-sensei said. “Not because I don’t like you, but concussions are not something to fool around with. The last thing I want is to see if you can be the youngest patient in the hospital with a brain hemorrhage.”

“Yes, Sensei.” Obito mumbled.

“And as for you, Keisuke-kun, keep a handle on that temper.” Minato-sensei said. I blinked. “Don’t think I didn’t notice.”

Ehehe. Whoops.

“I’m not mad anymore.” I said.

“Well, no, or else I would have expected murder instead of Tag.” Sensei said. “But I have to ask, what set you off anyway?”

“Um.” I began. Shiiiiit. I looked at Obito, who didn’t look exactly conscious.

“He’s mostly out.” Sensei said, sounding a little exasperated. “We’ll start again with him in two weeks. Anyway, like I was saying…”

“Obito gets bullied a lot.” I said quietly, uncomfortably rubbing the insides of my arms. It hadn’t even been my intention to find out about his home life in the first place, but when he was one of my best friends, it happened anyway. “It didn’t exactly stop after he made genin, but…um. He shouldn’t have a record for it, but Rin and I had to drag him here to get healed a couple of times.”

Kakashi frowned. “The Nohara girl?”

I was kind of surprised that Kakashi even remembered her, but I just nodded. “I worry, okay?”

“Is that why you always show up together?” Sensei asked.

“Yeah. Obito gets distracted easily and he helps people with chores and stuff all the time, which means otherwise he’d be late.” I said. I looked at the floor. “And the first day, I…um. I cut in and dragged him away before it got bad.”

I wanted to rush back to the Uchiha District and beat the hell out of Yoshi and Matsumaru anyway. It had been a while, but it didn’t make the urge any less powerful.

“So that’s what I’ve been doing.” I concluded, hoping Sensei and Kakashi wouldn’t ask anything else. I only had speculation to go on past that point.

“…I’m going to have to talk to the clan about this.” Sensei said under his breath, though I could hear him perfectly well.

Ahahaha. No.

“You should probably ask Obito first.” I urged him. “He knows that I know and Rin might, even if she hasn’t said anything, but there hasn’t been as much trouble since we graduated.” Maybe it was just my habitual distrust of everything showing again, but I didn’t trust Obito’s clan at all. I didn’t really trust any of the big clans, actually, since that would require assuming non-hostility or acceptance from hundreds of people under one big, fat umbrella and, well…no.

That, and at seventeen, I wasn’t sure Minato-sensei had all the answers. Actually, I rather doubted it. Even though he was a jōnin and I was just a kid.

“I…I don’t know much about clans. Or about having a big family.” None of us did, actually. And I hated myself for stumbling over the words, “But for now, I’ve been dealing with it. Obito’s been dealing with it. It’s working so far.”

“It won’t work forever.” Minato-sensei said.

“I figure it’ll stop once he grows up into a kickass ninja.” I admitted. I hoped so, anyway.

Minato-sensei sighed. Kakashi looked away. A very small nurse (or perhaps an assistant) walked into the room with a clipboard, calling the next patient into the exam room.

I wondered if they were thinking about Sakumo.

“Kei-senpai?” It was the nurse-like figure, all dressed in white and…wait. That was Rin’s face and her purple tattoos.

I grinned. “Rin-chan! How have you been?”

Rin smiled. “Pretty well. You?”

“Okay. But, uh…” I made a helpless gesture at Obito.

To Rin’s credit, she immediately looked at Obito before anyone else. She actually ignored Sensei and Kakashi entirely, eyes dark with concern, and I pinched Obito (subtly) in an attempt to get him to wake up and say hello.

He blinked, but he mostly looked unfocused and annoyed and oh god why did we let him fall asleep.

“Rin.” I said.

Rin’s eyes went narrow and dark and Sensei was alert inside of a second. Kakashi was booted off the couch because I wasn’t feeling charitable at all and Obito needed the space, and Rin raised her hands. They were already glowing, but not with the faint green of medical chakra. Instead, there was a faint bluish screen between her hands, and she brought it to Obito’s head.

So that’s what the diagnostic jutsu looks like, I thought, memorizing the way it felt.

“…So, apparently Rin’s been busy.” I said, apropos of nothing. Rin seemed too distracted to offer a comment.

“Did she graduate the same time that you did?” Minato-sensei asked.

“Yep.” I was so far past freaking out that I was almost serene. I must have used up all of my anger, fear, and possessiveness earlier. “Though I never did get a clear picture of what happened after. She was one of the top two kunoichi in the class, but she wasn’t placed with Obito and me.”

Because Kakashi was.

“You seem to have had a very busy life as a student.” Sensei commented neutrally.

“I had really good teachers outside of school.” I said, not looking at him.

Mom. Dad. Yamaguchi-sensei. And the Dreamer, given how much I bounced ideas off of her.

“So I see.”

I think I could hear Sensei stepping up his training plans. Agh.

“I think you and Obito should start working on pair training, after he recovers.” Sensei said speculatively.

“What is that and why?”

“It’s specialized teamwork, and because you’ll both get much stronger.”

I was not convinced. Mainly because every time a ninja said “to become stronger” I kept thinking that someone was going to sell their soul to something. Such as a snake demon.

It was at about that time that I felt Rin’s chakra calming down again, so I decided to ignore my impending doom in favor of my friend. Obito, it seemed, had fallen back asleep without so much as a word in greeting.

“Obito will be okay, Kei-senpai!” Rin said, obviously stressed but not actually panicking. I figured that was enough. “It’s true that we don’t like it when concussed patients fall asleep, but it doesn’t seem as serious as it could be.

“In that case, I’ll let this one slide. And I’ll make sure to let Obito know we saw you and you’re doing great,” I said, distracted by another thought, “Also, when did you start calling me senpai and why didn’t I get the memo?”

“Oh! Um.” Rin leaned in, as though sharing a secret. “I’m Akihito-shishō’s apprentice now.”

I had officially blown a hole in causality and changed one of the subsets of my visions by existing. Go me.

“That’s great, Rin-chan! Though I have to hear how it happened.” I glanced back at Sensei and Kakashi, of whom looked amused and the other of the two looking apathetic. “Later. Sorry, Rin-chan. Anyway, these two are Minato-sensei and Kakashi. Though I think you already know Kakashi.”

Rin paused. “You were in our class when we were five, weren’t you, Kakashi-kun?”

So Kakashi still rated a “-kun” while Obito was just that? Crap.

“Probably.” Kakashi said with a shrug.

I sighed. “Anyway, Rin-chan, how long until Obito’s up and about?”

“About an hour, probably, and I would still recommend seeing Akihito-shishō or another medic-nin to be sure. He’ll want to sleep the rest of the day off, though.” Rin looked sad. “Though I have to ask, how did it happen?”

I pointed wordlessly at Kakashi.

Let it never be said that I wasn’t petty.

Later, I did manage to find out that Yamaguchi-sensei had utterly flunked his team. I didn’t hear why, exactly, but the boys went to the Genin Corps while he picked Rin as his personal apprentice. Since my sense of compassion was somewhat truncated when it came to people I didn’t actually know, I decided that the best thing to do would be to support Rin any way I could. She seemed happy, having a purpose in life and something she was really good at, so I wasn’t going to hold her back at all.

I still invited her home for dinner, though.

Chapter Text

I know I’m not sane. I knew it even when I was nine years old and still getting my feet under me.

Thoughts like that don’t just come out of nowhere. The split personality-slash-sanity-preserving-mental-construct that the Dreamer turned out to be hadn’t just come out of nowhere, after all. Neither had Id. Partitioning parts of one’s mind off from the rest is not a sign of a stable, well-adjusted individual. Just look at Dark Naruto or Inner Sakura and the way they were born of a disconnection between inner and outer selves that their originators denied but nevertheless still experienced.

Inner Sakura, I’ll admit, was probably more dramatic and less practical. Hide behind a mask for too long and you start to forget what’s supposed to be underneath it, unless you let it out to play every once in a while.

Dark Naruto had been a justified reaction to systemic rejection by Konoha as a whole. Whatever else I could say about the Naruto in my visions, “happy childhood” was not a thought that came to mind despite his habitual fox smile. Suppressing those feelings had probably been the only thing keeping Naruto from ripping the seal to bits and letting the Kyuubi loose again, other than ignorance. That, and hope that tomorrow would be better.

Precognition is the antithesis of hope.

It’s the precursor to fear.

I don’t think any normal older sister, particularly one who had breezed through the Academy with perfect scores inside of a year, would have reacted the way I did when Hayate and Mom announced at dinner that he’d be joining the Academy the next year.

“Sis, you’re gonna attend my ceremony, right?” Hayate asked,

I couldn’t help it. I froze up. My chopsticks stopped halfway to my mouth. My right arm started shaking so badly that the soba noodles flopped right off the end of them. I couldn’t breathe over the force of my own helplessness. The room was getting smaller, wasn’t it?

GET UP, HAYATE! PLEASE, GET UP!

In hindsight, I suppose it was somewhat fitting that my first reaction was fear and not rage. My first memory of Hayate had always been the worst. It was the fact that all I could do was watch

“Kei-chan?” Mom asked.

I think I froze for about a total of five seconds before I was interrupted.

WAKE UP! the Dreamer screamed at me, giving me the equivalent of a mental slap across the face. This is not the time to get caught in a vision!

I blinked. Mom was standing in front of me, her hands on my shoulders, with Hayate by her side. I blinked at him, too, trying to shake the image of the dead special jōnin he might grow up to be. Then and there, he was too small, his face too round and unmarked, and he looked up at me in blank innocence, as though any protests against his decision to become a ninja were from completely out of context.

Which they kind of were.

Mom let go of my shoulders. “Kei-chan, are you feeling all right?”

“Just a little tired, Mom.” I said, hugging Hayate. He made a confused noise, but he let me do it. “Sensei’s been keeping us busy this whole month, and I haven’t been getting enough sleep.”

He had, actually. Whatever other adjectives could be used to describe Minato Namikaze, “lazy” was not one of them, and he didn’t like to see it in his students either. As for not getting enough sleep…well, I don’t think I’ll ever have enough sleep after a life like this. I’d been pretty bad before, too, but this was ridiculous as well as self-destructive. I’d probably head back my former habit of sleeping whenever I could, wherever I could, and I could already see that becoming a problem.

The visions had never intruded on my waking hours before, though.

The Dreamer replied, I hope you plan on training soon. Holding your visions back is like trying to plug a breached dam with your bare hands. I don’t have enough chakra to pull this off forever at your current level.

It would be really nice to know why the fuck I keep getting them in the first place, I thought viciously.

Setting my chin on top of my brother’s head, I said, “So, the Academy already? I was three years older than you when I joined up!” Funny how that had been only a year ago.

“He’s as good as any clan student at this point.” Mom said, ruffling my hair. She’d apparently decided to let the issue lie.

“I’ll be fine. If you could do it, so can I!” Hayate insisted, and he wiggled enough out of my grip that he could put his head on my shoulder. He squeezed my ribs reassuringly.

“Well, don’t try to graduate too early.” I said. I let him out of my grip so I could poke him in the forehead to keep his attention on me.

“Sis!” Hayate protested.

“I’m serious, Hayate-chan!” I said, “I barely got a year to learn everyone’s names and figure out who might be okay to be on a team with, and I got lucky. You should enjoy your days in the Academy, because I’m gonna help Mom drill you into the ground when you get home.”

“You’re the worst sister ever.” Hayate said, pouting.

“Speaking of drills,” Mom broke in, “Kei-chan, it’s about time that you had your second graduation ceremony.”

I gave Mom a strange look over Hayate’s head. “Um. What?”

“You can’t carry that bokken out into the field, Kei-chan.” Mom said patiently. “I know I haven’t had a chance to teach you much about the difference between bokken and a kodachi or katana, but I won’t allow you to take C-ranked missions without a proper blade.”

“D-does that mean…?” I trailed off, too overwhelmed to speak.

“After one last assessment, I’ll determine which blade you’ll be using and buy one for you.” Mom said, nodding. “It won’t be the best quality in the world, but it should be enough to get you started until you can accept upper-level missions and afford a good one.”

Oh. I’d forgotten about the family money trouble for a while. I’m an idiot. Mom was killing two birds with one stone—with Hayate in the Academy and me as a genin, she might be able to reenter the active roster and actually get something like an income. At the moment, we were living off her and dad’s savings and I had no idea how much was left.

“Meet me at the usual training fields in an hour, all right? There’s still enough daylight to take care of this.” Mom smiled, and after we were all done eating like normal people, she disappeared. I only had to check the slot above the couch to realize that all of the training swords were gone with her.

Was I imagining things or did Mom look kind of bloodthirsty when she’d said that?

And then I realized that she left me with the dishes. Sigh. Mom, really?

Anyway, I grabbed my bokken and Hayate and headed to the training ground. Hayate wasn’t really on a set school or training schedule, so I guess it wasn’t any trouble that he tended to follow me. I figured he’d want to witness his big sister’s ignoble defeat at the hands of Mom, anyway, which would probably encourage him to listen to Mom forever. At least he probably wouldn’t cut his fingers off with his shinai.

…Though I might have been underestimating the ingenuity of small children on that count.

When we got to the training field, Mom was waiting for us in her training gi and the sun was starting to dip behind the tree-line. Hayate climbed one of the nearby maples and sat on the lowest limb, while I unstrapped my bokken and brought it up in front of me in a defensive pose.

“Remember, Kei-chan, this is your final test. Your task is to touch me three times, or else achieve a possibly fatal injury. Got it?”

I was going to get my ass quite thoroughly kicked and I knew it. Still, I nodded.

“You can do it, Sis!” Hayate called, and Mom charged while I was processing it.

Mom was fast. I still wasn’t completely sure of her rank, though at that moment I was thinking “special jōnin with a combat focus” and “oh shit.” Not exactly in that order, though.

I was blocking as soon as I could perceive the strikes, but she had the force of her chakra moving in perfect synch. I was being driven back not just by the weight and strength difference, but by the force of her chakra and her skill. I was practically skidding along the ground, too surprised to compensate by using my chakra to keep traction on the dirt.

Damn it, I’m not losing without putting up a fight.

The Dreamer chose that moment to jump in. NOW!

I focused my chakra into the bottoms of my feet and heaved. Mom was thrown back for a split second by the force of my chakra, but that was all.

I’d only won a second’s reprieve, so I immediately turned and bolted for the nearest tree. I didn’t have strength, stamina, experience, skill, or reach on her. All I had was my brain, and the Dreamer.

That, and a willingness to do a lot of stupid things.

I could feel Mom following me so, without giving her a chance to respond, I ran right up the tree’s bark and past Hayate, weaving between branches too close together for Mom to easily follow. I only needed a second to do what was necessary…

Mom appeared in front of me and crack went the sound of my ribs under duress.

Or, you know, that would have been the sound if I’d actually still been there.

I got a good look at Mom’s stunned face at my seal-less Replacement Jutsu from about three trees over. Suppressing my chakra signature to almost nothing, I used the bare minimum necessary for a camouflage genjutsu. It wasn’t strong, or even particularly useful in most situations, but seeming like I was actually crouching a few inches to my right thanks to simultaneous use of the Clone Jutsu could be a lifesaver.

Mom dropped out of the tree, spotted my clone, and the next thing I knew she was practically in my face, bokken chopping neatly through my illusion.

Yeah, I was really gonna have to work on my speed.

And that was about when I brought my own bokken crashing into her ribs.

Bomph!

Turned out Mom knew how to make shadow clones. Shit.

Thank the merciful creator deities of your choice for camouflage techniques, even if Mom probably knew where I was. Of the various clone techniques, shadow clones remained the only ones that transferred the information they picked up directly to their creators. They also required a massive amount of chakra to create in useful numbers, unlike the various elemental clones, but Mom demonstrated quite handily that most ninjas didn’t need more than one.

Guess Naruto was compensating for his early-series weaknesses, then.

Our mother is too strong to take on directly or without distractions,the Dreamer pointed out unhelpfully. She’s to our right. Ten degrees. Fifteen meters.

I had my chakra running slow and low, almost as imperceptible as natural energy to normal people, and I think that was why I managed to catch Mom by surprise with my second rapid-fire and seal-less replacement with a tree branch. I had enough chakra control for any jōnin, and it just barely made up for my total lack of chakra resources.

I was so out of my depth it wasn’t even funny.

Still. I didn’t plan on losing without a fight.

The second time Mom and I clashed blade-to-blade, it was in midair. I was promptly sent careening into the ground, though I got my feet under me in time and used the momentum to zoom off into the underbrush. The G-forces I pulled then were more than I remembered even in my old life, on a rollercoaster.

The funny thing about shinobi kenjutsu is how much time you spend airborne, really. And how much time is spent setting up or reacting to ambushes. When you get down to it, a katana was actually a handicap for a ninjutsu specialist, because of the basic fact that most shinobi need both hands to do basically anything with their chakra. About the only seal most of us could make would be the Seal of Confrontation, which is supposed to be a half-seal and barely works in any sense of the word, even for activating exploding tags (unless you’re Deidara) or for focusing one’s chakra (unless you’re Deidara).

Or the Seal of Reconciliation, but that’s a ceremonial thing and not really relevant to my situation.

Fuck it. I cast outward with my chakra sense, confirming my mother’s position and that of another shadow clone.

Eleven o’clock, seventeen meters, the Dreamer confirmed.

I killed the clone with a thrown kunai before scurrying off into the underbrush to avoid Mom’s inevitable counterattack.

That was about when Hayate landed on my back, knocking the wind out of me and sending me crashing right to the ground. I actually face-planted in the dirt.

“Get off, Hayate-chan.” I said, my voice muffled by the ground.

Mom was so cheating.

“But I’m going to help!” Hayate insisted, getting off and drawing his shinai. “Mommy’s not being fair!”

Mom came rushing out of nowhere, smashing her bokken into mine as I barely managed to raise my arms to divert it away from Hayate. I was on the defensive, even with Hayate barking at Mom’s heels and swinging his shinai just after she’d moved out of the way or gotten her bokken up to deflect the blows. I aimed a thrust at her ribs, but she turned the tip of my bokken aside with barely a thought.

And then she cracked me in the ribs with it, which knocked the air from my lungs for the second time in five minutes. Hayate immediately went to fill the gap, blocking our mom’s swings with astonishing solidity for a kid.

That said, he was promptly knocked ass over teakettle when Mom swept his legs out from under him.

Okay, my little brother was adorable with his little training sword, but seriously? I was going to die if he kept it up. I didn’t have the skill to defend him and complete my test.

Maybe that’s the point.

…Mom had a bell test.

GOD FUCKING DAMMIT.

I stepped over him, planting my feet with chakra, and met our mom’s slash with everything I had. Behind me, Hayate got to his feet and threw his arms around my waist, bracing me as much as he was trying to just cling to me. He was shaking—he’d never seen Mom like that. I hadn’t either, but I had more of an idea of what to do.

Mom’s and my bokken started to crack at the point of contact.

“Why won’t you dodge, Kei-chan?” Mom asked, almost serene despite the countdown to splinters flying into our faces.

“Like hell I’ll leave my brother alone!” I snarled back, chakra surging to reinforce my muscles. “If I dodge, Hayate gets flattened, or used as a kunai, and I’m not letting you!”

Blood on the rooftop, wind blades whistling through the air, a choked-off scream…

Remnants of red sand and splintered wood, the metallic gleam of a dismembered Melody Arm weapon, the curl of blood and sweat and steel in the night…

“You should have tried harder…”

For a second, I didn’t see Mom. I saw Baki, and I saw Kabuto, and I had enough hate in my blood for any Uchiha including Tobi. “I will never let anyone hurt him!” I threw everything I had into it. It wasn’t going to be enough. It wasn’t ever going to be enough.

But like hell I’d let that stop me.

Mom’s eyes widened.

Hayate squeaked.

I used the Replacement Jutsu. For me and for Hayate.

We both landed back in the clearing, since I’d replaced us with a couple of rocks and trusted that Mom could get out of trouble on her own. I was shaking, reeling from the effects of the vision crossing with my reality and from sparring with Mom at full tilt, and Hayate was sprawled across my ribcage. He didn’t seem like he was interested in moving, given how noodle-like he was acting.

“Sis?” Hayate mumbled into my shirt.

“Yeah, Hayate-chan?” I puffed.

“You scared me back there.” Hayate said, rolling over so he was lying with his head back against my stomach. “I’ve never seen you so mad.”

“I scared myself too, Hayate-chan.” I mumbled, ruffling his hair with my right hand. “And I hope I never do that again.”

Mom reappeared, standing above us with nary a scratch on her. She actually looked worried, and I realized belatedly that I was running worryingly low on chakra. Hayate was still a little unsteady, too. I don’t think he’d insisted on clinging to me so much since we were really little.

“Kei-chan? Hayate-chan?”

“We’re okay, Mom.” I said, sitting up with difficulty. Hayate managed to cram himself into the space between my side and my left arm and latch his arms around my ribs, which made it a little hard to breathe and made me feel like I had some kind of growth attached to me.

That was about when Mom swept us both up into a somewhat strangling hug.

I did end up getting a sword. It was a rather nice kodachi, for all that I was still a ways away from my full growth and full potential. I practiced with it for a week before Mom dared let me carry it without a bokken for backup, because she didn’t want me to cut my fingers off. She didn’t really seem to care if I cut anyone else’s fingers off.

It was a pretty nasty surprise for Kakashi the next time we sparred, though, to my everlasting glee.

Chapter Text

In Team Minato, team practice went a little like this:

Obito and Kakashi always sparred first. I think Sensei was trying to see if he could wear them out before either one faced me, which was nice but probably not entirely necessary. I didn’t need to be coddled. It was a house rule of sorts that we could only escalate the fight to jutsu and weaponry if Sensei said so. And since Obito didn’t have a sword or any training in using one, and Kakashi only had a tantō, I didn’t get to use my kodachi as much as I’d have liked.

So, after Kakashi and Obito beat the crap out of each other, with Obito ending the match with the most developing bruises, I’d spar with one of the boys. If I still had any chakra to spare afterward, I’d also fix everyone up as best I could. Not because I was better than the hospital, but more because I needed the practice and because they were convenient guinea pigs.

I maintained that the only reason I ever won was because I was completely willing to be a cheating little shit and also because I bit people. It was easier than saying or thinking that either of my teammates had weaknesses.

“Well, I think we’re just about ready to take on our D-ranked mission for today,” Minato-sensei said after we finished. We hadn’t actually beaten the stuffing out of one another this time, so we’d probably make it through a D-rank or two without complaining too much.

Still, Obito groaned theatrically. I sighed. Kakashi made a noise in the back of his throat that made his opinion of having to do D-ranks as a chūnin very clear.

All things considered, though, I was kind of surprised that Sensei even stuck around for our D-ranks anymore. While I knew he was still a teenager, if an insanely talented one, I kept thinking that as Konoha’s Yellow Flash, he ought to be in the field doing things. Kakashi was probably used to tagging along as the world’s deadliest puppy, because I couldn’t see Minato-sensei being deployed anywhere without him.

I wondered if having Obito and me around was actually slowing down the war effort, given how deadly Sensei could be. Then again, I also didn’t know yet if Sensei even had his wartime reputation. I knew that he’d earned the nickname and killed probably two or three hundred enemy shinobi by the time Team Minato had their first casualty. That reputation was part of what got him sent on the mission to the front lines while Kakashi, Obito, and Rin got themselves nearly killed in Grass territory.

And that would all come to a head within four years.

It’d be nice to get my hands on a Bingo Book. Even if it was just a copy from Konoha, anyone more dangerous than the average chūnin was listed, just in case. Then I’d have an idea of who would be active and dangerous enough to either avoid or expend all of the team’s explosives allowance to kill.

Not that that would be enough for some of the freaks of nature running around even now. Kisame Hoshigaki kept coming to mind for some reason.

Leaving my worries of the future aside for a while, I trailed the rest of Team Minato as we headed into the mission office.

The odd thing was that, even in wartime, the Hokage always overlooked the entire room. While I suppose that leaving missions of critical importance was generally not the type of thing a chūnin could be trusted with, we were getting a D-rank. It wasn’t exactly a matter of national security, but I supposed even Hiruzen Sarutobi needed to stay in practice. He gave out really important missions from his office, and we hadn’t been called there yet.

Well, I’m sure that Kakashi and Sensei had, but Obito and I were green enough that it probably wouldn’t happen for a while.

“Team Minato reporting for duty, Hokage-sama.” Sensei said once we’d all trooped in. Kakashi’s back was as straight as a plank, always professional in the presence of someone who could call him on failing to meet expectations, while Obito bounced on the balls of his feet and I maintained my habitual slouch. Good posture was for people who thought they had a good chance of reaching thirty, or Kakashi.

I’d actually left my kodachi at home, because I figured—

“Your mission is to report to the hospital and assist the staff in any way necessary,” the Hokage said.

Yep. Chore mission, again.

Obito actually slumped, while I sighed inwardly. Every two weeks, like clockwork, it was time to head back to the hospital and get up to our elbows in trash bins, mops, brooms, and laundry detergent. I hadn’t liked that part of the job much even when I’d been volunteering with Yamaguchi-sensei and learning as I went. Whenever the hospital put out a request for an actual D-rank, though, I knew I wasn’t even going to get that much out of it.

At least we’d probably see Rin there.

When we got to the hospital, Ayako Shirohana met us at the front door. She shoved a mop into Obito’s hands, gave Kakashi a trash bag, broom, and dust bin, and I was loaded down with dirty linens. We were all promptly told to get to work until our jobs were over, at which point we’d converge on the rest of the laundry and beat it to death with sticks and soap. When I looked toward Sensei for confirmation, or at least sympathy, he was already gone. I could still sense his presence nearby, but I kind of wondered if he’d been drafted into patient-transporting duty.

So, all in all it was a pretty typical mission.

That said, I wondered why I was on laundry duty when Kakashi and Obito were more or less both put on cleaning duty, likely with overlapping assigned areas, but I supposed that they’d have to learn how to deal with each other somehow. I wouldn’t always be around to mediate or punch someone, and neither would Sensei.

Frowning, I made a mental note to check on the boys if I went twenty minutes without feeling something or other. I couldn’t entirely trust Obito to keep on task, and Kakashi would probably use his full ninja speed just to finish his assignment faster. So would Sensei, actually, and as far as I could tell he was at least still in the building.

I decided to leave it to him.

I made my way up to the roof about an hour later, gratified to know that at least Obito and Kakashi’s most recent spat hadn’t ended with anyone needing medical attention (because there was only so much damage a pair of nine-year-old children could do with dust-bins and buckets). I still had a basket of linens to hang to dry, and enough clothespins to suspend a small child up from a washing line with little trouble.

It’d have been a cinch if it wasn’t for the fact that there were about enough of said washing lines and linen sheets to qualify as a small forest.

I sighed. Might as well get started.

The Dreamer commented idly, I find it hard to believe that Team Kakashi could enter the Chūnin Exams with dozens of this sort of mission under their belt and vanishingly few C-ranks.

There wasn’t enough training in the world to make up for a total lack of field experience, in my opinion. I hoped Sensei would come up with something to bridge the gap, or else we’d probably all die on our first team C-ranked mission. I had no doubt whatsoever that, as the team partially composed of the walking neuroses eventually responsible for the Fourth Shinobi World War, our missions would not go smoothly once the risk of enemy ninjas became reality.

There was the brief puff of wind chakra and displaced air as Sensei appeared behind me. “Are you doing all right, Kei-kun?”

“Yes, Sensei.” I said without looking, shaking one of the sheets out. It was still damp and twice as heavy as it needed to be.

Flare out, snap, done. Clothespins next…

“You’re awfully quiet today.” Sensei commented.

I glanced at him. He was sitting on one of the overturned baskets that had been sitting up here since who-knew-when, as innocent as a puppy after demolishing its owner’s shoe collection. I didn’t trust that look. I said, “There wasn’t a lot to talk about. Ayako-san expects me to do a good job, Obito and Kakashi are busy somewhere else, and folding laundry means I only have pigeons to talk to.”

As though to illustrate my point, two of the aforementioned birds flew overhead. Thankfully, they did not do the typical pigeon thing and crap all over everything.

Sensei made a neutral noise. “You don’t have to be on the defensive.”

I sighed, returning to my sheets. Shake, snap, flare…

“On a related topic, I was going to ask you something.” Sensei said. I sensed him stand up and walk over to the basket, pulling one of the sheets out to help me. “So, have you considered the idea of doubles training with Obito?”

“I have, though I don’t have any idea where to start.” I admitted. To be honest, training to fight in sync with a specific partner was probably the solution to my problem with Obito’s combat skills. I just didn’t want to depend on anyone in a full fight, and I also didn’t want to exclude Kakashi from what amounted to our “in-group.” Sure, Kakashi didn’t appear to give a damn, but he was nine. Most opponents would be stronger, faster, and have more reach when compared to him at this age. It felt a little like I’d be leaving him vulnerable, even if I knew that Obito and I were the team’s real weaknesses. “The level of understanding we’d have to have, both about our mindsets and our fighting styles… It’s pretty daunting.”

“But not insurmountable.” Minato-sensei pointed out, clipping the sheets onto the line well above my head.

“How many people have you known who have trained for tandem fighting?” I asked curiously.

“A few.” Sensei said lightly. It was not a helpful thing to say. “Most of them had at least one Uchiha or Hyūga involved, but I’ll grant you that it isn’t necessarily common.”

No shit, Sensei. Half of the point of the Sharingan was the ability to predict someone else’s movements, while the Byakugan made it possible to see everything in a range that was frankly kind of ridiculous. I remembered that Hinata, while not exactly having the best detail for an all-Jyūken tenketsu-maiming fight, still managed to see in a range of up to ten kilometers by the time of the Fourth Shinobi World War. “What makes you think Obito and I can pull it off?”

“It’s because you want to be able to do it.” Sensei replied, looking down at me fully. I blinked upward at his suddenly steely blue eyes. “Kei-kun, I know you have some trouble with how protective you are of Obito. But you both need to stand on your own two feet sooner or later.”

“I understand, Sensei.” I said. Sooner would be better, if the Kannabi bridge mission was still in the cards. A thought struck me. “We’re probably going to upgrade to C- and B-ranks soon, aren’t we?”

Minato-sensei paused. “What makes you say that?”

“Kakashi’s too talented to waste his skills cleaning hospital rooms.” I said, flicking another sheet out full-length with a simultaneous flick of my wrists. “And your score on the report alone puts you on par or better than most of the jōnin we’re fielding now, which means keeping Obito and me in the village to hone our teamwork is actually holding the village back a bit. Kakashi probably took missions with you before, and holding both of you in reserve… It’s a waste.”

Sensei’s hand landed on my head. On a related note, I hated being short.

“You’re too hard on yourself.” Sensei told me. “You and Obito both.”

I shrugged. “It’s not being unfair if it’s true, Sensei.”

Honestly, I think it was a little like Team Kakashi in some ways. While, granted, Sasuke wasn’t exactly on mini-Kakashi’s level, the fact remained that Kakashi was almost too valuable then to waste on training a gang of brats. I think it had mostly to do with the fact that, as a prodigy whose whole thing was information analysis and learning stuff faster than anyone had before, he’d probably never actually learned how to break down his techniques for someone else to learn. Teaching other people how to break down his best techniques was probably anathema to him. He had also never seemed super interested in the idea of actually teaching anyone anything, ever, and I wasn’t sure I could really blame him for it.

I’d have probably requested a transfer from Team Seven if they’d been my students.

I went on, “Also, while we’ve been training against each other, we’ve never actually fought anyone, genuinely.” I thought that over. “Well, I’m sure Obito thinks he has, but Kakashi isn’t ever really trying to kill him.” And my mom didn’t count, no matter what form her final test had taken.

Sensei sighed. He seemed like he wanted to ruffle my hair, like he probably did with Kakashi when Obito and I weren’t around, but my bandanna hitai-ate remained an obstacle. “You’ll do fine, Kei-kun.”

I sure hoped so, though I wasn’t at all sure it would go so smoothly.

“Hey, we’re done with the lower floors!” Obito said, bursting out onto the roof. I took one look at him and had to keep from laughing, because there was no way I was letting him anywhere near the clean linens with mop water all over him.

Kakashi, who appeared about a second later, seemed to have had a dustbin upended on his head.

It was nice to see the boys were getting along.

I said, “I hope you’re not planning on getting anywhere near the linen looking like that.”

Obito paused, assessing his condition and Kakashi’s in a quick glance. “Well, no laundry duty for us.”

Kakashi gave him a sidelong glare just as Minato-sensei said, “Go get washed up, you two.”

I made shooing motions with the sheet, just so Obito would get the message. He pouted at me. “Really, Kei? With the sheets?”

“Yep. Get lost.” I said. The boys skedaddled.

I saw Sensei open his mouth to say something, but I wasn’t really paying much attention to him because there was another chakra signature approaching at an insane speed. I snapped my mouth shut so quickly that I felt my teeth click together and turned to face the oncoming chakra monster. From the way it was moving, it was running up the side of the building…

The next thing I saw was green. Lots of it.

DYNAMIC ENTRY!”

Sensei moved, grabbing the intruder out of the air and holding him up by his belt—a red-banded hitai-ate—before he could slam his feet into my face. I’d dropped into a defensive crouch, hand on my kunai pouch before I even really processed what was happening, and then I paused.

Unless there was another taijutsu monster in green running around, Sensei had caught a miniature Gai. The bowl cut and gigantic eyebrows (far dwarfing whatever issues I’d had with mine in another lifetime) made it obvious.

For a second or two, all three of us just sort of stood there like the world’s weirdest statue, and then Sensei dropped the genin Gai on the roof.

“While it’s nice to see you again, Gai-kun, Kakashi is actually a floor down at the moment.” Minato-sensei told the genin, mild as ever. “You just missed him.”

“Oh,” said mini-Gai. He paused, then he bowed deeply. “My deepest apologies for almost committing the unforgivable mistake of striking an unprepared Konoha ninja! I am Maito Gai! Who are you?”

“Keisuke Gekkō.” I said, holding out my hand. One of these days, I was going to contemplate the mystery of how Rock Lee and Maito Gai’s names were always in the same order. Then again, “Lee Rock” and “Gai Maito” just sounded weird. Maybe they were really titles? Hell if I knew.

He took it, shaking it enthusiastically. It almost felt like my arm was about to be pulled off after a certain point. “It is very nice to meet you, Keisuke-san! Are you my rival Kakashi’s new teammate?”

“One of two, yes.” Yeah, I was going to need my hand back sometime before my shoulder or elbow decided to pop out of joint. “How long have you been a ninja, Gai-san?”

“I graduated from the Academy when I was seven,” he replied cheerfully. “And you?”

“Obito and I just graduated in the last month.” I said, shrugging with my free shoulder. “We’re not exactly awe-inspiring yet, and—”

There was a muffled thud from the stairwell. Gai finally let go of my hand, distracted, and I clasped my hands behind my back so he couldn’t see me trying to massage feeling back into my fingers. Taijutsu was clearly his specialty already, if he could cause that without even trying.

“…And we still have our problems getting used to the new arrangements.” I concluded, glancing at the door. “Sensei, I’m not totally sure they won’t kill each other.”

“Then it’s my job to stop them, Kei-kun.” Minato-sensei replied, and he handed me another sheet so that he could do just that and keep me just busy enough that I wouldn’t test out Gai’s Dynamic Entry on Kakashi’s face if he turned out to have hurt Obito somehow. Then he disappeared down the stairs.

I looked at Gai. “Sorry, we’re really supposed to be on a D-ranked mission at the moment. It’s just that Kakashi and Obito are too busy trying to beat the hell out of each other to actually work.”

“Then my eternal rival is slipping!” Gai told me. “He has never been the kind of shinobi to neglect a mission before!”

I held up a linen sheet dubiously and said, “I kind of doubt this is what he considers a real mission.”

“True! My rival has been on much higher-ranked missions before, but he is not lazy and it must mean that you and Obito-san are more interesting than missions, Keisuke-san!”

Well, that was one way to look at it.

About a second later, Minato-sensei reappeared with Obito and Kakashi in hand. Specifically, he was holding Kakashi by the back of his shirt and Obito by one ankle. They looked somewhat scuffed-up, but they were at least dust-free and didn’t seem to have thrown each other out any windows. It was about the best I could ask for.

“Hello again, my eternal rival Kakashi!” Gai enthused, making Obito blink at him even while upside-down. Kakashi just rolled his eyes.

“Kakashi, do you know this guy?” Obito asked in a strangely flat voice. I think he was in awe of the mystique of one Maito Gai, even if it sounded more like total disbelief.

“No,” said Kakashi.

It was the closest thing to a non-hostile interaction between the two boys in a month. Even after Sensei dropped them both and went back to hanging the laundry.

“Again with that cool and hip attitude!” Gai shouted. “I challenge you to a match of your choice! If I lose, I will walk five laps around the village, on my hands!”

I clipped another sheet up. Obito seemed too distracted by their bizarre male bonding ritual to remember that he was supposed to help me. “Go team.” I muttered.

In the end, the Duel of the Day was decided by Rock-Paper-Scissors.

Gai lost. We didn’t see him for the rest of the day.

Chapter Text

It took about two months for us all to get bored to the point of utter insanity. Sensei might not have liked the idea of having us on C-ranks before we could, say, beat the crap out of each other some more, but even he couldn’t deny that he was getting a little restless. Sure, we wouldn’t really be anywhere near the hellish warzone that the Land of Grass was developing into, or the mess that was the Land of Rain, but it would probably be best for everyone to get us out of the village to work off the excess energy.

That said, it wasn’t like the time we spent in the village was wasted. We took and completed dozens of D-ranks, including the dreaded pet retrieval missions. Tora hadn’t been born yet, I think, so at least we didn’t have to deal with him.

I went to Hayate’s Academy entrance ceremony, and I managed not to die of a panic-induced heart attack from sheer nerves. Going by who I’d seen in the crowd, it looked like Hayate was going to be in Iruka and Mizuki’s graduating class. I didn’t really see anyone else I recognized, but I also understood that it’d been forever since I’d seen half the “major players” in the plot and quite possibly wouldn’t recognize them at age five anyway. Since Hayate had elected to start a year late, he was one of the older kids in his year as opposed to the youngest, which really didn’t mean all that much. It made me feel better, though.

Aside from that, I was also able to start contributing to the family funds with all of those D-ranked missions. Sure, the pay wasn’t all that great and I was about two years from being able to afford my own shinobi-grade katana, but it at least took care of the question of my pocket money and took some of the burden off of Mom.

Speaking of which, I’d totally missed the fact that Konoha did, in fact, have a Widows and Orphans Fund. We didn’t quite seem to qualify, since Mom was a ninja too and the damn program had apparently been designed with civilian wives and children in mind, but we got something and it was enough to at least pay for food and basic necessities, while my extra pay and Mom’s savings took care of the more esoteric stuff. I’d never realized how much money went into paying for all the mission equipment I’d need for a real trip.

For reference, five thousand ryō was about the maximum anyone ever paid for a D-ranked mission, and even then it was split between Sensei, Kakashi, Obito and me. S-ranked missions, on the other hand, went for millions of ryō, depending on the specifics. Basically, the difference was generally in the number of zeroes tacked on the end, even aside from the fact that even inexperienced ninjas could generally be expected not to die on D-ranked missions and the fact that S-ranked ones tended to be handed off to jōnin and ANBU.

The fact that both Team Minato (then composed of two jōnin and two chūnin) and the Sasuke Retrieval Squad (with a new chūnin and four genin) would be sent on A-ranked missions anyway did not exactly inspire confidence in the system, though.

Aside from the dread, though, I was actually feeling okay on the day we went in to get our first C-ranked mission. Even if we hadn’t been frustrated, I thought that Team Minato was capable of taking a C-ranked mission and not dying. Obito and I had been working for two months on nothing but coordination, even if we were mostly gaining ground individually. No matter what Sensei tried, he couldn’t quite get us to click as a duo, and we’d almost been killed by each other’s techniques once or twice.

Team Awesomeness (sans Rin) was still a work in progress, but at least we’d refined what we actually had. Obito had figured out the Grand Fireball and was working on the Phoenix Sage Fire jutsu. We’d burned through a month’s supply of straw dummies with that one and my Sensei-sanctioned exploding tags. I’d probably used up my allowance on that count, though.

As for me, I’d managed to get chakra scalpels down well enough that I didn’t need seals to form them. The ones I made without hand seals could only cut through things the way an axe did, though. Because they weren’t precisely solid, since the chakra cost of that would have been enormous, the damage could only be seen if I was able to practice on cadavers and maybe sides of pork. They left the skin mostly intact, but the results on the insides of soft targets were…messy. They weren’t so much chakra scalpels as chakra kitchen knives, but I could work with it as long as no one needed me to do any actual surgery.

When it came to Kakashi, it was hard to tell how much he made progress with. He rarely used anything but taijutsu in spars, even though I knew he had more to play with than just that. I was pretty sure he knew the Shadow Clone jutsu, though, if only because he had to learn it sometime and I knew he had it down by the time he turned thirteen. I knew his chakra capacity was expanding, like Obito’s and mine, but at a slightly slower pace. Then again, I seemed to remember something about how his stamina would never be more than average.

But hey, we’d been a team for about two and a half months and we were all still alive. Go us.

When we arrived in the mission office, the atmosphere was subtly different, even though Sensei still greeted the Hokage with a mild, “Team Minato, reporting for duty.”

We braced for disappointment.

The Hokage puffed on his pipe once or twice, exhaling a cloud of thick white-gray smoke. I narrowed my eyes a little—growing up with a smoker dad in one lifetime and a brother with what seemed to be asthma on steroids in another, I wasn’t exactly approving of the habit. I didn’t say anything about it, though, since it was the Hokage.

“Hm. Today, we have a few C-ranked missions available,” the Hokage said around his pipe. “Minato-kun, do you believe your team is ready for one?”

My heartbeat quickened. Really? A C-ranked mission?

Granted, the only C-ranked mission I’d ever seen in my visions had promptly gone A-rank, but I could at least hope for the best, right?

“I do, Hokage-sama.” Minato-sensei replied seriously.

C-ranked missions could pay up to a hundred thousand ryō. This was balanced by the fact that they were a lot more likely to kill the shinobi involved than D-ranked ones. They were usually assigned to chūnin teams, or possibly jōnin-led genin teams if the mission risk was judged to be lower than normal. The Wave Mission undertaken by Team Kakashi was one example.

Before the missing-nin had gotten involved, anyway.

“Very well. At the moment…” He paused, looking through the scrolls for an appropriate task. “At the moment, we have three C-rank missions that are within your team’s capabilities. However, I believe it would be best if we kept it within the Land of Fire for now. It is your first, after all.”

“Yes, Hokage-sama.” Kakashi, Obito, and I said as one. Then we blinked and looked at each other, because that was kind of creepy.

Sensei snorted with laughter, hiding his mouth behind a hand. When we all turned to glare up at him, also at once, he moved on with a quick, “What are the mission parameters, Hokage-sama?”

“This particular mission is dependent on your ability to locate a band of merchants within the Land of Fire.” The Hokage unrolled it.

I looked up at the ceiling, thinking. In cheerful orange hiragana, someone had made a poster that said, “Do your best, everyone!” There was also a large black character for “shinobi” painted on the ceiling. It was like shorthand for the contradiction of our lives—we could be civilians living in peaceful ignorance, or we could be shinobi whose lives would have actual impact on the world, and probably die in the process.

Can I just say how utterly disturbing that was?

“Chinatsugumi is the name of a merchant caravan that operates within the borders of the Land of Fire. While not tied to any city, her merchants nonetheless provide the village with supplies in wartime and have for two generations.” The Hokage swept his gaze across all of our faces, to make sure we were paying attention. “With Kumogakure and Iwagakure increasing their aggression toward our borders, the lieutenant of the caravan’s operations and head of security has asked that we provide an escort between their home base of Mount Soragami and our village.” He flipped the scroll shut with a flick of his wrist and Minato retrieved it from its place on the desk. “The estimated length of the mission is three weeks if all goes well, and the most likely opponents will be bandits driven out of their usual hiding-places.”

“Not enemy ninjas?” I blurted.

“No, Keisuke-kun,” the Hokage said with a grandfatherly smile. “Mount Soragami is well within the borders of the Land of Fire.” He paused. “But don’t take the risk of bandits lightly. As your first C-ranked mission, you’ll be learning as you go.”

“Yes, Hokage-sama.” I said, bowing.

On one hand, C-ranked mission! On the other, oh fuck, a C-ranked mission.

“How large is the caravan this year?” Sensei asked.

“There are approximately thirty members willing to venture outside of their stronghold at the moment,” the Hokage said. “Though admittedly the numbers may be skewed one way or another and may differ when you arrive.”

Sensei sighed. “All right then. Kids, we’re meeting on the roof in five. Go.”

And we left.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of the Chinatsugumi.” I admitted, sitting on the concrete. The name wasn’t ringing any bells, and the Dreamer wasn’t coming up with anything either.

“Neither have I.” Obito said, frowning.

Kakashi sighed. “The leader’s name’s actually just Chinatsu. The locals around Mount Soragami just decided to call the caravan that because she’s the whole reason they exist. Mount Soragami has a bunch of small towns around it that depend on the money she gets from places like Konoha and Kusagakure, mostly by trading luxury items and food.” He assumed a pose I could only describe as “lecturer mode.” “I’ve taken two missions with Sensei as a bodyguard for that caravan, though we didn’t really end up doing much either time. She sticks to allied villages for the most part, so all we really ended up running into were two-bit bandits and maybe the occasional larger bandit group, since Chinatsu-san travels with up to forty other people, half of whom are normal security forces, and only needed ninja to fill a couple of reconnaissance gaps.” He stuffed his hands into his pockets. “It’s not really a high-risk mission, so you should be able to cut your teeth on it without losing any.”

Before Obito could decide whether or not to punch Kakashi in the face, Sensei popped back into existence in front of us in a burst of displaced air.

“Sensei?” Kakashi asked.

“It’s like before, Kakashi.” Sensei confirmed, which told me precisely fuck-all. Kakashi may have been a condescending jerk, but at least he explained things. Sensei clapped his hands, apparently to get Obito’s and my attention. “All right! This is going to be your first C-rank mission. Despite what the Hokage said, Chinatsu-san is generally pretty patient with new shinobi and doesn’t actually need genin most of the time. We do, however, have an agreement with her that says as long as we send a sufficiently experienced ninja along, we can all share defensive duty. That might not mean much to you right now, but it’s easier on all of us and it’s a gentler introduction to the shinobi world than most of us get.”

I think it was Sensei’s way of being protective of us, even if we were already pretty dangerous. Solely because Obito and I could use chakra and had a couple of jutsu to play with, we could already take on non-ninja fighters with relative ease.

In theory, anyway. Neither of us had ever been in really serious fights and personally, I completely expected to freeze and need someone to save my sorry ass.

“Anyway, you have the rest of today to rest, pack, and polish up your skills. We’ll be using the entire mission after we leave Konoha tomorrow as a training exercise, so we won’t be having our usual morning training. Everyone clear?”

“Yes, Sensei!” we chorused.

Minato-sensei smiled. “Good. In that case, you’re dismissed!”

Then Sensei and Kakashi were both gone.

“Well, that was abrupt.” I commented. I looked over at Obito. “So, want to get any last-minute training in?”

Obito grinned, now that Sensei and Kakashi were gone and we could hang out together. “Sure.”


 

That night, after training was finished, my bags were packed, and I finally collapsed in bed, I pillowed my head in my folded arms and wondered about the future.

I didn’t ever really not wonder about the future, mainly because my odds of survival seemed to be dependent on how much I could predict and counteract with as much precision as possible. But when my future knowledge wasn’t giving me any hints, I didn’t really have a lot of go on other than my own fear.

I didn’t know what Team Minato’s first C-rank had been in my visions, mainly because it had never been shown. I’d only ever seen two missions, both of which had ended in disaster, and a brief flash of two attempts at being promoted to chūnin. Come to that, I didn’t know all that much about Team Minato’s first incarnation, either.

Hell, I didn’t have anything in the Dreamer’s vision archive about Hayate’s life other than the way he died and the fact that he’d been in a relationship with Yūgao Uzuki. I hadn’t had any idea who our parents were, or their fate, or how Hayate had developed his signature cough. And yet, that hadn’t really bothered me since I always thought of the visions as events.

Discrete events could be directly countered. The details could be fudged. Maybe a lucky stroke would keep Archduke Ferdinand from being assassinated—that was the purview of speculative fiction writers. Maybe my existence had shaken up the status quo something fierce, at least for my family and friends. I’d never know for sure.

And yet, World War One would have still happened even the Archduke’s driver hadn’t made that one turn, because Europe had been a clusterfuck of alliances and intermarriages and utter stupid that had started long beforehand. The tensions weren’t any less real just because someone was or wasn’t getting their head ventilated. And twenty years later, there would have been a second World War solely because of how the “great powers” had handled the last one.

Ferdinand Foch once said, “This is not a peace. It is an armistice for twenty years.”

I stared at the face of my alarm clock and the Dreamer said quietly, Can we turn history aside?

I didn’t know.

I didn’t know if having me around would make it possible for Obito to stay safe and sane. I didn’t know if Rin would survive the war, even if she wasn’t on Team Minato. I didn’t know if Madara would be able to find a way to start the Fourth Shinobi World War despite anything I did. I didn’t know if any of the changes I’d made—by existing, or through my actions—would kill people I cared about. There was just so much I couldn’t pin down for sure.

I did know one thing for sure, though: Even if I was so scared I could hardly breathe, I would try. And I’d keep trying, until there wasn’t anything left to try for.

Chapter Text

The next day seemed to dawn bright and early, which put me in a somewhat crabby mood before I even left the house. Though Hayate seemed excited for me, Mom was undoubtedly worried, and she’d given me a sword-cleaning kit to make absolutely sure I was prepared for the next month or so of living on the road. I didn’t know if I’d even end up using my kodachi at all, since Sensei seemed to have mastered the trick of being nearly everywhere at once and Kakashi was combat-tested, but I appreciated the gesture and tucked it into my jacket pocket anyway.

“My little girl is growing up so fast,” Mom said quietly, hugging me.

“Not so fast. I’ll miss both of you,” I said, and as soon as Mom let me go I was hugging Hayate so hard he almost squeaked. “Be good for Mom and your teachers at school, okay?”

“You know I will, Sis,” Hayate said, muffled by my jacket, but I got the message. I love you, I’ll miss you, come back safe.

“I’ll be back before you know it.” Not because I actually would, but people said that kind of thing before heading out on long journeys, so it felt right.

I waved a final good-bye to my family before scurrying off to make sure Obito wasn’t late.

“Obito!” I called, having taken the long way around the district so I could hop on people’s roofs without getting a citation for it. I made pretty good time, and I found Obito on one of the main thoroughfares to the market district, heading back toward his house.

Obito looked up. “Bit busy, Kei!” he called back, and I blinked.

While usually he waited until the afternoon to run around helping people, I guess this was the morning when all of the older people in the district decided to do their shopping. Obito was carrying the older Uchiha’s bags for her, with two plastic bags with vegetables and tofu and fish on each arm. He had all of his mission equipment with him in a backpack that was bulging with its contents, but that wasn’t really the important bit. I hadn’t seen him with Old Lady Sayako while, it didn’t really change the fact that we had about half an hour to meet up at the gates and depart for distant lands.

Well, Mount Soragami was still within the borders of the Land of Fire and we probably wouldn’t be exactly charting new lands, but it was still something!

I thought about Kakashi’s reaction, and Sensei’s. Then I thought about how much time Obito spent just getting to know the people he lived with, and helping them with their problems as best he could.

I hopped down from the roof, backpack straps cinched across my chest and waist, and said, “Need a hand?”

Obito promptly dumped one arm’s worth of bags in my arms and said, “Yep.”

We ended up being about ten minutes late, which was pretty good time for the situation. We both got candy from Sayako Uchiha, who seemed to be very pleasant for a retired kunoichi with a bad leg, but that didn’t really mean much when Kakashi was waiting at the gates to make disappointed eyebrows at us.

Actually, I decided I didn’t care about that as much as I did when Sensei looked askance at us. Nevertheless, I just offered a shrug and commenced trying to figure out how to unwrap a piece of sweet rice candy using just my teeth and tongue. It was like trying it with Starburst, only the rice paper wrapping was edible too.

Om nom nom.

“Sorry about being late, Sensei, but there was an old lady who needed help with her bags, and Kei and I stopped to help because she’d bought too much food,” Obito said blithely, grinning.

Sensei just sighed. Maybe if I hadn’t talked to him in the hospital waiting room, there would have been a lecture waiting. But the journey to Mount Soragami was three days long at even shinobi speed according to a topography map Mom had found for me, and ten minutes meant nothing in the face of it.

“The mountain isn’t getting any closer,” Kakashi said bluntly.

I threw a piece of candy at him.

Sensei caught it. Turned out Sensei had a bit of a sweet tooth too.

“All right, since we’re all here, let’s head out,” Sensei said around his allotment of candy. Kakashi was giving Sensei a weird look, like he couldn’t quite believe that his teacher was giving us any slack at all, and I poked him in the shoulder as I walked past.

He almost instantly poked me back.

“Kids, don’t make me have to turn this squad around before we even get out of the gates.”

Obito snickered, and then I poked him. He squawked. “Hey!”

“Someday I will draw everyone into my web of tag games and you will all rue the day you met me,” I said dramatically.

Obito giggled and threw an arm around my shoulders. “So, what’s the policy on tag-backs?”

I grinned. “You’ll see.”

And then we were off.

“You know,” Obito said about five minutes later. “This is the first time I’ve ever been outside the village. What about you, Kei?”

“Same here,” I said. “There isn’t really a lot you have to head out of the village for, unless you’re on the active duty roster.”

We were moving in an easily-defensible diamond pattern, with Kakashi on point while Obito and I made up the somewhat more vulnerable middle, and Sensei brought up the rear. Granted, we were also moving at a speed of about twenty kilometers per hour, both because the shinobi scale of what made an appropriate overland speed was somewhat advanced compared to that of untrained civilians and because we tended to travel by trees around Konoha itself. At least until the Hashirama trees ran out, anyway—most of the more common pines, oaks, and maples were more difficult to maneuver through. The trees that had, in a way, named our home village were really more like buildings than anything—traveling through them was less like forest exploration and more like an extended lesson in entirely pre-industrialized parkour.

I was still keeping an eye out for basic obstacles and possible trap-setting points, though. There were a lot of ways to horribly maim or kill someone moving at twenty to thirty kilometers per hour even without anyone inventing cars. Most of them, here, involved razor wire. And maybe explosive tags.

Sure, there was no reason there would be any this far out of the village’s range of defenses—I think we used seals for this particular area—and this far from the front lines, but I always expected trouble anyway.

Still, the rest of that day passed mostly without any incidents. Sure, Obito tripped and face-planted when we were getting close to our stopping point for the day, but he was fine and only took a little patching up on my part. We dug out the privy-pit, started a fire (with some happy assistance from Obito’s miniaturized Grand Fireball), and cleared the campsite of branches of rocks as Kakashi hunted for our dinner and Sensei set up a perimeter seal to make sure no one would trip over us at night.

“For tonight,” Sensei said, “Kei-kun has first watch. Kakashi, you have middle watch. Obito, dawn watch. I’ll be nearby in case something happens or you have questions, but this is really about getting into the habit of always having someone looking out for you.”

I gave Sensei a somewhat skeptical look, even though everything he said made perfect sense.

“And if you wake me up for no reason I’m tying you up in an ankle snare for an hour," Sensei informed us.

Obito gulped.

I considered that warning. “Okay, but if we all die it’s your fault.”

Sensei ruffled my hair as soon as I took my hitai-ate off to sleep. I had the weirdest feeling he’d been waiting for it, because it was more a noogie than anything. He didn’t stop until I screamed, “I give, I give!” while laughing madly.

And then, since Obito had seemed like he was feeling left out, Sensei grabbed him too and did the same thing. He caught Kakashi by the ankle and managed to repeat the feat, even though he only had two arms and I hadn’t even moved because I was laughing too hard.

He might have been our teacher, but he was also pretty much an evil older brother.

The next day almost wasn’t even worth mentioning. We’d left the great Hashirama trees far behind, and the next major obstacle was basically hills. I think they might have technically been foothills, even if the mountains they actually represented were pretty far away and probably also volcanoes.

Actually, even from this far away, Mount Soragami—once it had been pointed out to me, anyway—reminded me of Mount St. Helens. In some ways, it was also a bit like Mt. Kilimanjaro in that there were no other comparable mountains nearby and the top was ringed with clouds in a normally-clear sky, but the western face had apparently been blown out sometime in the past by a massive eruption. It had snow on it, so at least it hadn’t been recent.

Hey, Land of Fire. Gotta take what you can get, I guess.

Personally, I suspected that there might have been some kind of hotspot under the continental plate, sort of like the one under Hawaii in my old life, since I wasn’t aware of any other volcanoes in the area. Granted, that could just be ignorance, because I was pretty sure that almost all of Japan, Hawaii, the Aleutians, and most of the rest of the Pacific Rim had been volcanically active one way or another. It was the Ring of Fire, after all.

I wondered again just how big the Land of Fire actually was, because I was pretty sure that even Mt. Fuji had been further inland. Sort of In some ways, a whole lot of Japanese people had more or less been living on it. Or at least the lava plain if it blew its top off, I guess.

Then again, given the magical physics-pretzel-making bullshit inherent to this universe, I had to wonder if Soragami was an artificial mountain. It was still in the classical cone shape of a stratovolcano, with considerations made for the fact that the western face was probably in a hundred trillion pieces and fertilizer for the foothills. I wondered what kind of jutsu could even begin to tap into the power in the world’s crust, and then I stopped.

If Madara could knock a fucking asteroid out of the sky to flatten the Shinobi Alliance, and the Sage of Six Paths had created the fucking moon, I guess the sky really wasn’t even a limit anymore.

Then again, since those things were mostly already there, I think it was more a matter of bringing stuff upward to play with. That said, creating a new volcano was nothing to sneeze at, even for the famed Lava Release users of Iwagakure, and it would probably involve the deaths of absolutely everyone in the area just because volcanoes brought so much else to the surface besides lava. Poisonous gases, for a start, and some of those could actually catch fire once released into an oxygen-rich environment. I didn’t really give a crap if Mei Terumī of Kirigakure had Lava and Steam Release techniques, or if Mū and Ōnoki had Particle Release down pat—a volcano wasn’t something anyone could fight.

Redirect, yes. Fight? Fucking hell no.

Because shinobi are out of their minds as a rule, someone must have tried to do something with it.

“Sensei, how long has it been since Soragami erupted?” I asked.

“Going by the records the Chinatsugumi have for us, longer than there have been shinobi,” Sensei replied.

He glanced at me as we walked, since the foothills were a mite too dangerous to be using our shinobi speed without an experienced Hyūga on point. We could easily land on top of a battlefield or a bandit stronghold if we didn’t pay attention.

So, at least a couple hundred years. It didn’t really make me feel any better, since shinobi records were hilariously spotty because of the Clan Wars era. Still, someone would have noticed a volcano blowing up, so maybe it wasn’t down to overambitious idiots anymore.

I made a noise like “hm” and said, “I wonder how precise their analysis of the surface strata is.”

“What?” Obito said blankly.

“Basically, every eruption throughout history leaves a deposit of ash and other volcanic material on the area around the cone.” I explained, frowning. “I don’t know the specifics, but if you dug down far enough, you could probably find evidence that the dirt we’re standing on was once covered in ash from whenever the nearest volcano exploded. The ash layer doesn’t go away, so you can see basically everything about the geological history if you know what you’re looking for and how fast soil layers accumulate on top.”

Kakashi and Sensei were blinking at me.

I grinned sheepishly. “Sorry. I know it’s not really relevant to being a ninja, but it’s interesting!”

It was my fault for being into volcanology as a kid, I guess. Seriously. I’d been fascinated by everything that could have made my world collapse in ash and fire, for some reason. Norse myths were a favorite for a similar reason.

The interest wasn’t as strong in my new life. I guess I had enough potentially fatal things to worry about the second time through to bother worrying about whether or not the local geology was going to decide to flatten us like ants under a flipped semi. That said, I still remembered.

The lava dome doesn’t seem to have built up again yet. It only took Mt. St. Helens thirty years to get back to full size, pyroclastic flow and all. The Dreamer seemed to frown. Save possibly Madara, Hashirama, and the Sage of Six Paths, there are literally no ninja in the history of this world that could play with a volcano and not get blasted to a fine grit. Sans perhaps Obito as the host of the Ten-Tailed Beast.

Of course, the Tailed Beast Ball makes the entire question rather academic anyway. Who needs a volcano when any hack with a Mangekyō Sharingan can just hijack a Tailed Beast and do the same thing with less collateral damage? Well, assuming no one needed that mountain range anyway.

I was already contemplating the pros and cons of setting a volcano off in the resurrected Madara’s face. I’d die a quick and fiery death, either at his hands or at the nonexistent mercy of a volcano, but the look on his face might be worth it if I could last long enough to see it.

I think Sensei was looking at me funny for the rest of the day, while Obito peppered me with questions and Kakashi pretended I didn’t have the ability to talk at all.

Yeah. Day two was kind of boring.

We did get into what amounted to an extremely vicious three-way game of exploding Tag—literally Tag with explosive notes and Replacement jutsu—in the clearing closest to our campsite. We stopped pretty quickly after Sensei caught us, though.

Anyway, there was always the third day to look forward to.

Speaking of which, the third day was the one where we finally reached the Chinatsugumi compound, about two hours before dusk.

It wasn’t…subtle. Not really. The city the Chinatsugumi used as their base was more of a fortress built on top of one of Soragami’s daughter peaks, with several tiered walls and buildings squished into the interim space. A giant pair of characters emblazoned across the front gates read “Sorayama-no-Sato,” or the Village of the Sky Mountain. The flag of the merchant house—or maybe it was a lot more than a merchant house, given the city-state they apparently occupied—was streaming in the mountain wind from the top of the largest, highest building. It was also written across most of the smaller ones.

At least they didn’t call the damn thing a hidden village, because it certainly wasn’t that.

Minato talked to one of the gate guards, both of whom were dressed like proper non-ninja soldiers and therefore could be easily bypassed the moment any of us felt like it. The guard he was speaking to, with a mustache like a pencil line and a beard to match, gesturing vaguely with his spear, and Sensei beckoned to us.

We trooped up to him in a neat little triangle. I was in the back this time, because apparently the total lack of hostile attention from anything bigger than a mosquito meant that I could at least be trusted with that much.

Speaking of which, I needed to remember to look up malaria and West Nile equivalents sometime soon.

“All right, we’re going to be meeting Chinatsu-san in the longhouse up top. The guards just gave us permission to take the shortcut over the roofs, so we’ll be heading in now.” Sensei told us. “Follow my lead.”

“That’s it?” Obito asked. “I thought there’d be a security checkpoint or something…”

Sensei shrugged. Then again, he had been here more often than Obito or I had just because he actually had been here before, so it was going to be in our best interests to follow his lead. “For now, yeah. Keep in mind that we’re on their territory now, and try not to leave any ration bar wrappers where they shouldn’t be.”

Obito and I nodded anyway. We followed Sensei and Kakashi’s subsequent leaps, though perhaps not quite so high or as easily.

Once at the longhouse—which really looked more like a castle that had decided to sit on top of a slightly larger castle and not a longhouse at all—we were escorted into the inner sanctum of the building. The buildings were wood and concrete with steel struts for support, with high, angled ceilings and interwoven four-by-fours providing the structural integrity of the roof. The main room was long, though that may have been as much a visual effect of the long green rug running the length of it as the real dimensions. Most of the guards seemed to be, while not exactly shinobi-caliber, at least experienced and confident even in Sensei’s presence.

Then again, he was a nineteen-year-old blond with a pretty face, no visible scars, a mild-mannered attitude to people he didn’t know, and a winning smile. The rest of us were nine and, by definition, not very impressive. Even if I carried my kodachi openly on my waist.

At the very end of the room, surrounded by a desk covered in paperwork and two rather harried assistants, was the person I assumed was the eponymous Chinatsu of the Chinatsugumi. Aside from the fact that she wasn’t wearing any kind of headgear—such as the Hokage’s hat or an elaborate hairpiece typical of a noble lady—she looked every bit the merchant queen. Her clothes weren’t overly elaborate, though they were very well-made, and her sleeves had been tied up so that she could work on the onslaught of forms without getting ink into the silk.

I tried to catch a glimpse of her face as we approached, even if it was mostly pointing away from us and at the desk-top. Her hair was lighter than Sensei’s, with the majority tied up in a businesslike knot on the back of her head and a fringe and two long side-locks framing her face. She didn’t seem to get out much, at least compared to Obito and Sensei, and was paler than both. She had calluses and burns on her manicured hands, though I couldn’t imagine where they’d come from.

She looked up once we got within about ten feet, and I blinked.

Her eyes were pale gold.

There were maybe three people I could name off the top of my head with gold eyes in all of my visions. Orochimaru had been one of them, but his had visible serpent pupils. It didn’t seem to be a dominant trait anywhere, really. This woman, however, made me think of a bird of prey. I had the strangest feeling that she was looking right through us, even though she couldn’t have been older than twenty-five and she didn’t seem to be a shinobi.

Also, I had the strongest feeling of déjà vu and I had no idea why.

“Misaki-dono, the team from Konohagakure has arrived,” said the aide on the left. I honestly couldn’t tell if either of the aides was a guy or a girl, and that meant something coming from me.

“So I see,” she replied, gathering up the papers in front of her and setting them aside. She looked back up at us. “You may approach.”

Sensei led the way, again.

“Team Minato, at your service,” he said, bowing.

Misaki nodded, shooing her aides out of the room with a dismissive flick of her wrist. “Hello again, Namikaze-san. It’s been a while since your last visit, hasn’t it?”

“Well, six months pass by quickly,” Minato admitted. “We’ve been a bit busy lately. So, how have the other teams been?”

“Decent, though not spectacular in any respect,” she replied, turning her gaze on each of us kids in turn. “Hello to you as well, Kakashi-kun. I see you have new teammates.”

Kakashi nodded.

Misaki looked from him to Obito and I.

“Oh! I’m Obito Uchiha, Misaki-dono!” Obito said, smiling brightly.

“Keisuke Gekkō,” I said a moment later, noticing how her eyes seemed to linger on me. “Um, I’m a kunoichi.” I added belatedly.

Misaki frowned. “Yes, I am aware of that. Is this a common misunderstanding where you are from?”

“Kinda,” I admitted.

“Hm. Well, no matter. My sister will be here in a moment to show you where you can stay for the night,” Misaki said, and retrieved a sheet of paper from her desk. “This is a copy of the contract for Konohagakure’s bi-annual business agreement with Sorayama as well as the Chinatsugumi. Due to recent considerations and increasing hostility from the forces of Kumogakure and Iwagakure, some aspects may need to be revised. Have you been empowered by Hokage-dono to accept or suggest revisions?”

Sensei’s eyebrows knit together. “Not as such. I was told only that we’d be working on the assigned C-ranked mission, but if you have a messenger hawk I can use…”

“Of course, Namikaze-san.” Misaki clapped twice and another aide, apparently interchangeable with the other two, appeared. “Fetch a messenger hawk for our shinobi guests, would you?”

“Yes, Misaki-sama.” And then the aide was gone. I suddenly had a sneaking suspicion that the aides were ninjas, even if no one else was.

That was about when the door at the far end of the room, the same one that we’d arrived through, opened again. Outlined briefly in the evening glow of the city, the figure strode into the room with long, self-assured strides and arrived at the desk in what seemed like no time at all.

My brain took a minute to work out a few things. One, the person in front of us was female and taller than Sensei by a good four centimeters. Two, she was wearing road clothes—meaning a practical, sturdy set of shoes, plain dark pants under a cotton skirt and wrap, and her hair tied back into one of the longest braids I’d ever seen. Three, her face was exactly the same as Misaki’s, sans makeup.

She also seemed extremely familiar for some other reason, though I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why.

And she was looking right at us. “So, you’re the most recent team to take the mission?”

“They are, sister dearest,” Misaki said, drumming her fingers on the tabletop. Was it just me, or did she sound just the slightest bit mocking.

Misaki’s twin looked at us again after the briefest frown. Then she shrugged. “You’ll do just fine.”

“I’m glad we meet your approval, Chinatsu-dono,” Sensei said mildly.

“I’m sure my approval doesn’t matter as much as you seem to think,” Chinatsu said, turning. “Anyway, come along and I’ll show you where you’ll be staying tonight. We’ll get that hawk for you in a moment.”

We followed her out, but all the while my head was spinning. I’d already confirmed that neither the Dreamer nor I had any idea of what was supposed to happen on this mission. We knew so little about Team Minato’s earlier exploits that everything would be a mystery at this stage. And for all I knew, my sense of familiarity was just because I’d seen a filler episode with this caravan. I probably wouldn’t remember that clearly, right?

After a while, though, I started to notice something else that set me a bit on edge.

Normally, I could sense civilian chakra signatures. I usually didn’t bother because, well, civilians didn’t generally have enough chakra to actually stand out all that much. It was a lot easier and more important to be able to sense anyone who trained their chakra, since that was the kind of thing that usually meant a threat or an ally were around, depending on intent. Either way, I could determine how to act on it.

But in the office with Misaki, Chinatsu, and the interchangeable aides, I’d only felt three chakra signatures at all. All of them had belonged to the aides. It was like Misaki and Chinatsu were ghosts, their chakra blending completely into the background buzz of natural energy.

I felt cold.

Either those two really were ghosts, or they had kage-level suppression skills. I didn’t really know which was worse.

Chapter Text

It was kind of nice to get a chance to stay in a hotel. I mean, I’d been in roadside hotels and motels in my old life, but I’d never been traveling as Keisuke Gekkō before. I’d also never liked camping in my old life either, which meant that sleeping under the stars was kind of annoying. It was all in how much time I had to spend picking rocks out of my things after. I was used to my own bed, even if the mattress was starting to dip a little in the middle and some of the sheets were thinning out due to age.

I’d also never stayed anywhere with a traditional onsen. Swimming pools and hot tubs, yes, and even a hot spring pool once upon a time, but there was something special about being able to walk outside and realize that nature was providing all the hot water anyone would ever need. It was nice.

Of course, the springs weren’t for both sexes and the sides were separated by three-meter walls, but it wasn’t really a big deal to take a bath without my teammates around. Actually, from the ruckus coming from the other side of the wall, Obito had probably discovered that Kakashi bathed with a mask on and engaged in a water fight when he couldn’t wheedle Kakashi into taking it off. Sensei’s laughter made it obvious, even though the boys were loudly trying to drown each other.

Yeah, I was glad I wasn’t over there, even if I was curious about what his face looked like under it. I leaned against the rocks, enjoying the cooler night air and the way the steam from the water made everything seem kind of mystical. I closed my eyes, content.

Sure, tomorrow I’d probably be busy hating everything in existence because caravans were slow, but I could enjoy this moment.

And of course, the day started bright and early again the next morning. It was becoming extremely clear that the world was full of morning people. Evil, evil morning people who were completely willing to literally kick me out of bed if I didn’t get up on time. And then pester me for a goddamn hour to get ready, down to outlining the steps for getting dressed, getting breakfast, brushing my teeth, and putting my damn sandals on. And then jab me with a tantō when I took a swing at them.

As a side note, I made a silent pledge that the first sufficiently large bug or amphibian I found was going down Kakashi’s pants.

Anyway, I really ended up spending most of the morning watching the caravan get ready from a nearby rooftop. Since they took up almost the entirety of the main road out of town, it wasn’t exactly hard to find them, and it did make an interesting version of a traffic jam, in a world without internal combustion engines. Obito sat next to me, a lollipop between his teeth, and occasionally pointed out something interesting or someone falling down.

“Oh, there’s Chinatsu-san.” Obito said after a while, pointing at the blonde as she emerged from the longhouse.

While not dressed all that differently from any of the other merchants, she was still visually distinctive simply by virtue of being taller than nearly everyone while having boobs. I hadn’t met Jiraiya yet because he, along with Orochimaru, seemed to be spending a lot of his time on the front lines, but I assumed that he’d be taller. Probably.

“Is it just me or is she looking right at us?” I asked, staring back. Of course, I didn’t exactly have the Byakugan or anything, but it still seemed like Chinatsu was looking me in the eye even from forty meters off.

Obito squinted, then said, “…It’s not just you. Man, that’s creepy.”

She waved before turning to talk to someone with an apparently bandaged head.

“Less creepy.” Obito said.

“I’ll take your word on that.” I said, and cast my chakra sense out in search of Kakashi and Sensei. Sensei, it seemed, was still inside of the longhouse. Kakashi was in the crowd somewhere, though I couldn’t get a fix on his position because someone else with lightning chakra kept running around and disrupting things. It didn’t quite feel like Kakashi’s loose wire impression—actually, I imagined that it would have been like the results of walking on a carpet with thick socks.

Bzzzt.

Then again, Kakashi was also heading our way, and had finally left the crowd behind to travel on the roofs.

“What are you two doing?” Kakashi demanded once he landed next to us. Neither of us jumped—we were getting annoyingly used to his drill sergeant routine. That, and Kakashi wasn’t quite as good at appearing out of nowhere as Sensei was, since I could always sense Kakashi when he was nearby and Sensei’s Flying Thunder God range was just slightly insane.

“Observing.” I said.

“Providing color commentary.” Obito added.

Kakashi made a complicated expression at us that was only complicated because neither Obito nor I could see half of his face.

“Sit down and pull up a roofing tile.” I suggested. “From the looks of things, we’re not going anywhere for a while.”

“You know you want to!” Obito chimed in, grinning.

“You two are a pair of disgraces.” Kakashi said flatly. He ended up sitting further up the roof, almost on the apex of the structure, and glaring down at the backs of our heads.

“I think we keep scaring him off because he doesn’t want to be overshadowed by our awesomeness.” Obito told me in a stage whisper.

“I think he’s just a stick in the mud.” I said.

“Well, he’s that too.” Obito agreed.

Kakashi grumbled.

Sensei’s chakra finally left the building and reappeared right next to Kakashi. “So, is everyone ready to go?” he asked.

I held up my pack, which hadn’t been used all that much in the past few days. I hadn’t even taken my spare weapons out. Obito grinned and said, “Whenever you are, Sensei!”

“Good. I was just speaking to Misaki-dono, and our treaty with the Chinatsugumi and Sorayama has been revised.” I saw Kakashi sit up as Sensei spoke. Minato-sensei went on, “This means that the Chinatsugumi will be dealing exclusively with Konoha and our allies, even after the end of the war. The hawks went out earlier this morning, so we might be seeing some hostile attention from any Rock or Cloud forces that have made it into the Land of Fire undetected, even if they might have ignored us before. As a result, the mission’s classified as a B-rank the minute we run into trouble. Do you understand?”

I thought I did. “So, does that mean that we’re going to be working on the security procedures with Chinatsu-san’s guards?”

“Actually, no.” Sensei replied. I blinked, and Obito and Kakashi looked surprised as well. “Not more than we already were. Leave that to me and Chinatsu-san to figure out—this is jōnin business.”

“But they’re not shinobi!” Obito said, apparently torn between concern and feeling insulted.

Sensei replied, “They may not be, but there are some things that aren’t our business to interfere in until someone asks. It’s a courtesy thing, for now.”

Kakashi’s eyes narrowed. “Are we going into this situation blind?”

“We’re not blind, Kakashi. We actually know quite a bit.” By which, apparently, Sensei meant that he knew quite a bit and his students got to feel stupid for a while. “I’ll explain more once we’re on the road.”

Sensei was met with the full force of our combined judgmental stares.

“We’ll be fine,” he said.

Given Team Minato’s future track record, I was inclined to increase the intensity of my glare.

Sensei responded to all of this hostility by booting us off the roof in rapid succession. By the time we’d gotten all sorted out from that, it was time to hit the road.

This time around, we weren’t allowed to take the overland route to Konoha. The same things that made it a decent and generally safe pathway for shinobi, moving through the trees or the forest floor at breakneck speeds as we did, made it borderline impassable to large groups of wheeled vehicles. Even if we’d had, say, a cattle train or something, it’d be easier to stick to open land and established roads, which sacrificed stealth and sometimes speed for security.

For our part, that meant the closest thing to a suitable road was the one that followed a river that flowed downward from Soragami and her daughter peaks.

“While it would be interesting to see you attempt to defend a caravan moving at one mile per two days, it’s a pointless and ultimately frustrating idea.” Chinatsu had said dryly to Obito when he complained within earshot. She jabbed a thumb over her shoulder at the lead wagon, which was about the size of a large pickup truck and pulled by oxen, and said, “That? That is not going to get through a gap between trees no matter what we do. I know it’s slow going—a single rider on horseback would make it to Konoha and back twice before we could, but we have cargo and people to move.”

Aside from that one rather pointed comment, however, Chinatsu-san mostly left us to our own devices. She was busy all the time, with various advisors and wagon-leads always popping over to ask for advice on the occasions that we stopped to rest or change the oxen, and eventually ended up handing control over to her second just so she could eat lunch in peace.

Speaking of which, Minato-sensei was in the lead for most of the first day and walking next to Chinatsu’s wagon, to my mild surprise. I think he was trying to get a leg up on negotiations later by listening in then. Once again, Obito and I were on each side of the caravan, with me further toward the back of the train because there were twelve wagons to keep track of. Kakashi brought up the rear, hands in his pockets, and only had to walk a little to the left or right to keep track of everyone else.

The first day on the road passed without incident.

That night, we circled the wagons to make sure the oxen didn’t wander off while unharnessed. Most of the wagons kept to themselves, with the particular merchant families sticking pretty close together even when we had a bonfire going in the middle of our camp. At most, they sent a representative to Chinatsu for something or other, but they always returned to their wagons in the end.

The occupants of the last wagon—a married couple, it seemed—and the biwa-playing man in the second wagon, along with the strawberry blond man who sat next to Chinatsu most of the time, all gathered around their leader regardless of what everyone else did.

“They’re planning on setting up new shops within Konohagakure.” Sensei said, when I asked about the social shut-ins. “Sorayama, despite being protected by Soragami’s peaks and the fact that it’s well within the Land of Fire, isn’t quite the same as being protected by Konoha shinobi. I suppose that they think that Chinatsu may be disappointed in them somehow for making that choice.”

“Why do they live out here in the first place?” Obito asked. I imagined, personally, that a volcano was the kind of place the ancient Uchiha clan might have been interested in.

“It has to do with the seals put in place around Mount Soragami.” Sensei explained. Wait, what? Who the hell would put seals on a volcano? “It’s said that only the seal masters of Uzushiogakure understood the processes involved, but honestly? It’s a blood seal. If the last members of Chinatsu’s clan die, then Soragami erupts.”

Well, fuck, I thought.

“What clan is that, Sensei?” Kakashi asked.

Sensei shrugged. “I don’t know. That said, I also know that if they want, they can set off one of the minor peaks at will to let off pressure. Most people aren’t willing to risk that kind of reprisal and thus they’re usually left alone.”

Double fuck.

“If they can throw a volcano at someone who pisses them off, it’s no wonder they’re still there even with the war.” I said, frowning thoughtfully. “I’ve heard that Iwagakure has Lava Release users, but there’s a whole order of magnitude of a difference between a shinobi and the forces of nature.”

“And that is exactly why we won’t be seeing enemy shinobi for a while.” Sensei said.

That doesn’t help much, if Misaki turns out not to care about a fuckton of collateral damage if she decides to go to avenge her sister.

We’ll just have to make that unnecessary, then.

We ate dinner in relative peace, at least. I mean, Kakashi and Obito sat on top of a wagon together and didn’t try to throw each other off, and Sensei and I sat with Chinatsu and her party of four followers. Friends, maybe? I didn’t really ask, since I was a kid at the grown-up table and I’m not sure how they would have reacted to my weird comments. As it was, I caught Chinatsu staring at me almost every time I looked up. After a while, I scooted closer to Sensei and tried to forget about it. She stopped eventually, at least.

The feeling of déjà vu was still there. I’d seen her before, but I didn’t know where, and the feeling intensified the more the adults talked.

Sensei’s hand landed on my head again. He was getting used to using me as an armrest, I think.

“Easy, Kei-kun.” Sensei said quietly. “You’re safe.”

But everything still bothered me.

And I still couldn’t sense Chinatsu’s chakra.

“Kei, what’s got you so tense?” Obito asked once he made his way over.

“I don’t know, and that’s the problem.” I told him, still frowning.

“Just like an idiot to get worked up over nothing.” Kakashi muttered.

Sensei hooked his foot around Kakashi’s ankle and dropped him on his butt. Everyone over the age of ten tried politely not to giggle while Kakashi sputtered like an angry cat.

“Rikuto, do you have any songs for us this time?” Chinatsu asked once everyone was done eating.

Rikuto, the man with the biwa, was about ten years older than Sensei. He was deeply tanned, which made me think he spent a lot of time on the road regardless of whatever the rest of the caravan got up to, and he had short black hair arranged into loose curls. He also had a goatee, which was a little bit overgrown, and pretty big sideburns. Aside from the fact that he was wearing the caravan “uniform” of sturdy clothes and road dust, he really seemed more like he’d be the kind of person who would be happier on the road alone.

He grinned, showing off a mouth incongruously full of fangs. “What have you got in mind, Chi-chan? A love ballad?”

The strawberry blond to Chinatsu’s left started to choke on his tea.

Chinatsu slapped Rikuto upside the head before pounding on the other man’s back. “Stop getting so worked up over things, Akira!”

“This feels really familiar for some reason.” I said to Obito. “But I don’t know why.”

Obito shrugged. “I don’t know about that. Seems a bit like us, doesn’t it?”

As Chinatsu proceeded to attempt to choke Rikuto to death and Sensei kept snickering so much that I could feel him shake, I glanced over at the other two people at our gathering, who hadn’t said anything.

The impression I got from them was unusual. I mean, I couldn’t sense Chinatsu’s chakra, or Misaki’s, but I could sense something from just about everyone else I’d ever met. The couple I was talking about…one of them felt like ice, while the other felt like static. Neither of them were looking at me, but…

“Oh, and these two are Shirozora and Nanami,” the just-identified and recovered Akira said, indicating the couple I was looking at. “For reference, Shirozora’s on the left and Nanami is on the right.”

Akira, for his part, was pretty nondescript. He had reddish-orange hair, with two braids running down the sides of his head, and a completely average build. He had gray-colored eyes, though they were downturned at the corners. Actually, aside from his hair color, he looked pretty much like any other perfectly ordinary man.

It set my teeth on edge for reasons I couldn’t name.

The just-identified Shirozora shot Akira a dark look. “I can speak for myself, you know.”

Nanami just sighed.

There was something oddly familiar about both of their faces.

Shirozora had white hair, which made me think that his parents weren’t terribly original, and gray-blue eyes. I didn’t see any pupils, but the Yamanaka clan didn’t seem to have them either, so it wasn’t worth worrying over. He had a build that reminded me a bit of Sensei, all long limbs and lean lines. I actually couldn’t see part of his face if he turned toward me, because his bangs were longer on that side, and his hair actually went most of the way down his back in a ponytail. He was also, somehow, paler than even Misaki had been.

Nanami, by contrast, had extremely dark green hair and green eyes. She was all sun-bronzed and actually rather pretty, though she didn’t seem inclined to talk much and hadn’t actually done anything that I saw. She was probably shorter than, say, Mom, and her clothes were a trifle more feminine than anyone else’s, since she actually had a skirt sans pants.

Speaking of pants, I was starting to get some idea of why Chinatsu didn’t wear kimono like her sister. It made it hard to kick people in the face.

I was reminded of Obito and Kakashi all over again.

“It’d be nice if we didn’t all fight all the time.” I said under my breath, sighing.

Obito bumped his shoulder against mine. “We’re fine.”

Yeah, no. We still hadn’t run into any trouble on this trip, Obito and I had only been shinobi for a couple of months, and our team cohesion was in the tank because we couldn’t get any time to practice as a unit. We also spent most of a given day walking some ways apart, which meant that if Sensei couldn’t keep an eye on us we’d be fighting four separate battles the minute we got attacked by something on the road.

You need to stop taking such a negative viewpoint.

I couldn’t really help it.

“Chi-chan…” Akira started. He was doing a rather oddly indecisive dance as he tried to figure out how to get Chinatsu off of Rikuto without actually touching her and flailing around in indecision at the same time.

I think.

“What?” Chinatsu, for her part, was totally casual about having Rikuto in a chokehold.

“Um. You asked for music before, and…” Akira trailed off.

“Oh. Yeah, choking Rikuto to death is probably somewhat counterproductive, isn’t it?” With that, Chinatsu dropped him like a sack of potatoes.

I don’t think Sensei stopped laughing even once.

After everyone had recovered, Rikuto finally started playing his biwa. Shirozora and Nanami produced a set of drums and a flute from nowhere, while Akira disappeared into the head wagon to retrieve a second biwa. I wasn’t at all sure how they could make a tune out of that mess of instruments, but they did.

Back in my old life, I’d been fond of a lot of different types of music. As long as the melody was good, I could listen to just about anything. Country, rock, pop, techno, metal—it was all good, really. I mean, I had stuff I hadn’t been all that fond of before, since everyone does, but I used to immerse myself in music. I used to sing, too, even if I hadn’t been all that great. Music just…it was one of those things that made me content, even if I wasn’t happy, because it was better.

Better than just being left alone with my own thoughts for hours, anyway.

In my new life, though, the main music I ran into was during festivals. Working songs, too, but they weren’t as common in shinobi districts. Civilians had more fun with them.

Before I even noticed what was happening, I was already drumming my fingers on my leg.

Sensei was humming. Kakashi groaned and clamped his hands over his ears. Obito started giggling, probably because of Kakashi’s reaction.

This is the ninja version of Kumbayah, isn’t it?

Even if it was, I didn’t mind.

Chapter Text

The next day, we were in the foothills. Watching the river next to us speed up was pretty interesting, since it reminded me of my once-home, a lifetime ago. There weren’t any salmon in the rivers that ran through the Land of Fire—I think—and the wildlife could get pretty oversized in places, but it was still something! Out here, the trees had turned orange with autumn colors the way they never did in Konoha, and some of the mountains had dark rings of clouds around them that signified snow.

I remember standing on the top of a hill, just looking back at the shadow of Soragami and wishing I could fix that moment in my memory forever.

It was just our second day on the road with the Chinatsugumi caravan, but we were already starting to fall into a pattern. Early in the morning, Kakashi would be on point while Sensei walked behind us the whole way until lunch. Then they’d switch. Obito and I would be wandering up and down the length of the wagon train, slowing down or speeding up whenever it seemed like we were needed. All the while, all of us were keeping watch.

Kakashi had a strong sense of smell from what I remember, so I guess he could have been sniffing our route out for us. Sensei just seemed to catch everything no matter where he was, though I wasn’t sure how. Obito, despite not having activated his Sharingan, was still an Uchiha and had very good eyesight even if his mental focus wasn’t great.

For my part, I just kept suppressing my chakra and searching for other signatures that I couldn’t identify.

The second day passed without incident.

That night, though, I asked if Rikuto knew any songs other than Ninja Kumbayah.

This, in hindsight, was a mistake.

“Well, yeah. I like to tailor my songs to the listener, though!” Rikuto said after we finished dinner. He whistled. “Hey, Za-chan, get off your ass and help me out with something!”

The woman who emerged from the fifth wagon was, in some ways, not all that dissimilar to Rikuto in looks. Like him, she looked like living outside in the sun was her favorite thing to do, and her hair was actually bleached by it—it was a kind of dirty blonde—and she, like Rikuto, had teal-colored eyes. She stared when she saw me, though I honestly was too busy wondering why she hadn’t bothered to emerge from the wagons for more than a few minutes at a time so far.

The reason became obvious when I saw that she was practically waddling. In the back of my mind, I had to wonder who the hell would send a pregnant woman on a trip like this one.

Then again, if she was anything like Chinatsu, she would have made the choice on her own anyway.

“Oho! So someone needs my singing voice, do they?” the woman said, smiling broadly. “About time! I heard that racket last night.”

“Zakuro, try not to traumatize anyone.” Chinatsu said bluntly.

“No promises!” Zakuro said with a terrible grin, and then the music started.

Zakuro took a deep breath.

Seems that I have been held, in some dreaming state
A tourist in the waking world, never quite awake
No kiss, no gentle word could wake me from this slumber
Until I realize that it was you who held me under

I froze. It was so…familiar. And far too close to home. I hardly realized that I was shaking until Sensei pulled me into a one-armed hug. His voice seemed to come from very far away. “Kei-kun?”

Felt it in my fist, in my feet, in the hollows of my eyelids
Shaking through my skull, through my spine and down through my ribs

Rikuto’s eyes were boring into mine. Zakuro was staring at me, eyes wide open.

No more dreaming of the dead as if death itself was undone
No more calling like a crow for a boy, for a body in the garden
No more dreaming like a girl so in love, so in love
No more dreaming like a girl so in love, so in love
No more dreaming like a girl so in love with the wrong world

How did I know them? How did they know me?

My head was full of triggers and I couldn’t make the visions stop. I heard the Dreamer screaming her defiance at the weight of my memories, at something so deep and dark that it was blotting out the real world.

I dug my fingers into my hair, trying to focus on something else. Something was wrong, something was always wrong. The pressure was building.

And I could hear the thunder and see the lightning crack
All around the world was waking, I never could go back
Cause all the walls of dreaming, they were torn wide open
And finally it seemed that the spell was broken

I blinked when the music stopped. Sensei’s right arm was clamped around me and around Obito, who had decided that I needed a hug around my ribcage. Kakashi was nearby, giving me and the merchants a pretty speculative look.

Chinatsu, it seemed, had slapped Zakuro across the face and kicked Rikuto into his knapsack. She had an expression like a thunderstorm as she bit out, “Stop. Traumatizing. Kids.”

I didn’t want to look up to see Sensei’s expression.

Suddenly, I didn’t want to be anywhere near anybody else. Gently, I pried Obito’s arms from my waist and shrugged off Sensei’s hug. I got up, walked away from the campfire, and walked outside of the ring of wagons. Once I was out of sight, I dropped to my knees and slumped against a sack of rice someone had left out.

I needed to take a deep breath, so I did.

I needed to stop crying, so I dragged a sleeve across my eyes and called it good.

I needed a hug, but I’d left that option behind.

I was an idiot.

“Kei? It’s me.” Obito dropped to the ground next to me.

“Hey, Obito.” I said, turning to face him.

“You okay?”

“Yeah, it’s just…” I dropped my gaze for a moment, blinking my kneecaps back into focus. “It’s nothing.”

The look Obito gave me when I looked back at him said that he rather doubted that.

I sighed. “Look it’s…it just brought up some bad memories.”

Obito bumped my shoulder with his. “Like what?”

Might as well tell someone, right? It took me longer than it should have just to think of any words at all, though.

So Obito said quietly, “You don’t have to tell me.”

“No, it’s…I just don’t know how.” I said, “I’ve never…”

I’ve never shared my problems with anyone. I can’t…

I needed to stop assuming the people around me could read my goddamn mind. I had too many things in it for anyone to learn much of anything, much less what I needed.

We sat in silence for a while.

It wasn’t really hard to think of the ways my life could, ultimately, mean absolutely nothing. They say that the measure of a person’s value is in how they affected and improved the lives of those around them, and if the life, once lived and finished, made the world a better place. I knew that Rin hadn’t really done anything especially noteworthy other than be kind to Obito throughout their childhood the last time around, while Obito had carelessly shot his own life’s worth into some kind of infinite negative zone with no way out.

I didn’t know if being around was going to help anyone, and sometimes I felt like I had to do something, all the time, just to feel like I wasn’t being a dead weight. The thing about the world is that it keeps spinning regardless of any individual lifetime, no matter how cruel that sounds, and it was like running on a treadmill just trying to keep up.

Rikuto had stabbed at the heart of it. I wanted to save people from what I kept seeing as their fate, to prevent pain and misery. I wanted to help someone—anyone, even—live a little longer, or a little better. But this wasn’t, in the end, the world I remembered. I was an extra.

But I still wanted to help.

“When I was little,” Obito said, apropos of nothing, “I used to spend a lot of my time in my room. I just…I liked to imagine things. I still do, but I don’t have to do it a lot anymore, since I have you and Rin-chan and Sensei and I can live them.” He drummed his fingers on his leg as I looked over at him, expression blank. “Sometimes, I’d be so mad at everything I wished I could scream. I’d lock myself in my room and just…sulk, I guess.”

I wondered where he was going with it.

“I used to think, ‘I wish someone could see me.’” Obito said quietly. “I used to think, ‘I wish someone would save me.’ Being alone…it hurt worse than anything. So…”

So I wasn’t going to let anyone else suffer the same way.

I thought of dark rooms, of retreating when the world became too much. I thought about reading books about times and places I’d never have lived to see. I thought about the amber light from the streetlamps in my old life, highlighting rain as it fell. I thought about staring at my alarm clock until I was too tired to keep my eyes open.

The difference was that, in my old life and in my current one, someone always showed up in the end to make sure I was okay.

I didn’t think anyone had done that for Obito.

“When you’re upset, someone should always at least ask if you need them.” Obito continued, still quiet and unusually serious. “Even if they have to break the doors down to ask.”

“You’re a really good person, Obito.” I said, rubbing my eyes. “Thank you.”

“Ready to talk about it?” Obito asked. “You don’t have to, but…”

Like I wouldn’t, after you just bared your soul to me.

“Yeah, I…my brother was born when I was three, you know?” I said, looking up at the sky. “He wasn’t really that strong, but it didn’t seem to be a problem. But when I was six, he had to spend time in the hospital and no one was sure he was gonna make it.”

“Wait, is that how you met Yamaguchi-sensei?” Obito asked.

“Yeah. He’s the reason Hayate-chan is still alive.” I said, putting my chin in my hands. “Ever since…I worry. A lot. And I keep getting nightmares.”

“Is that why you asked Sensei for the dawn watch yesterday? You said something about more nightmares happening closer to sunrise.”

“Yeah. It didn’t really help much, though.”

I was such a fucking wreck.

“But…thank you. Obito, you really are the best boy I know.” I said, swiping the tears from my face with my sleeve again. “You didn’t have to come after me.”

“Yes, I did.” Obito said seriously.

Maybe he did.

I didn’t say anything about sensing Kakashi’s chakra eight feet above us, on the roof of the wagon.

But I did refrain from kicking Kakashi out of turn, in the morning.

Chapter Text

On the third day, we were out of sight of Sorayama and Soragami entirely by lunch. Our path had taken us into a valley, which meant that we really couldn’t see all that much of the horizon and that Sensei was on edge all while we were eating. A valley was, if it was any smaller, an excellent point for an ambush. The wagons couldn’t maneuver very well in the hilly terrain, hemmed in on one side by a river and unfortunately burdened by the limits of pre-industrial wheeled vehicles with cargo in unstable terrain. Then there was the fact that, for most of the length of our trip through the valley, it was a twenty-meter drop to the water. And the rocks.

If they went off the road, we weren’t gonna be able to get them back on it. And then we’d all be sunk.

It was about an hour after lunch before anything happened.

We had some warning, of course. I saw Kakashi’s head whip around in pursuit of some scent I hadn’t noticed, felt Obito’s chakra indicate that he was alert again, and I felt the maelstrom that was Sensei’s chakra begin to pick up. More than that, though, I felt multiple approaching chakra signatures, heading for us at a speed I could barely keep track of. They were coming from all directions, closing in on us like a ring of sharks.

And then a scream of rage sounded from the head wagon.

Part of what I’m going to describe was only pieced together after the fact. There are still gaps. I just remember enough to say that I had serious tunnel-vision when the chips were down.

I saw Chinatsu fall out of the first wagon, bearing a man I didn’t really recognize to the ground.

There was a pulse of heat from Obito’s side of the wagon, too intense to be anything like Obito’s Grand Fireball, and the sound of screaming and clashing metal. Behind me, Sensei sounded like he’d engaged half a dozen fighters at once, from the sound of ringing metal and the pop of the Flying Thunder God Technique’s usual displaced air. Kakashi’s segment, the head of the wagon, felt unaccountably cold, and I saw a spiky mass of ice and blood and human body parts fountain into the air.

Five mammoth chakra signatures had all made themselves known at once. One, creeping and merciless like lava from a shield volcano, must have been Rikuto. Another, howling like the Pacific in a full gale, was as much “Alaska” as “Hurricane Katrina,” and registered as Shirozora once filtered out. A third, while subtler, was no less deadly—like a thunderstorm churning the ocean’s surface in open water—Nanami. The fourth was wildly energetic, and I heard a screech like shearing metal from Rikuto’s section—Zakuro.

The fifth I’d never sensed before, but I could pinpoint easily. Chinatsu almost glowed with chakra, the excess wisps of it heating the air so much it distorted and looked like a mirage. The very ends seemed to actually catch fire. It was like watching someone unlock several of the Eight Chakra Gates.

It felt like standing on the surface of the sun.

But I didn’t have time to dwell on any of that, because there were too many enemies. Last count had been nine—the number had doubled since. And almost all of them were shinobi.

My left hand closed around the end of my kodachi’s scabbard, thumb primed on the blade guard. My right was around its handle. My entire body was angled forward, low to the ground, with the curve of my sword facing downward.

I barely even realized what I was doing. Mom and Sensei had trained me only too well, even though my body was so small and fragile still.

The enemy I saw first was older than me by about four or five years, and he was about thirty centimeters taller. He had brown hair and a scar across one cheekbone, a white line against a tanned face. He had black eyes, like mine, and a grin that showed four prominent eyeteeth. He didn’t wear a hitai-ate, but I could sense his chakra all the same. He had curved kunai as primary weapons, and from his stance and chakra I could tell that he didn’t take me seriously at all. There were so many more dangerous people, after all. He thought I was the Achilles heel of the formation.

(I won’t say he was wrong—I was just insulted at the time.)

I drew.

Gekkō-style Leaf Kenjutsu: Hunting Tiger Strike.

Within the Land of Iron, a neutral country defended by samurai rather than shinobi, the most powerful techniques are those that are so fast that shinobi can’t counter them before being cut down. Given the speed of most shinobi, samurai have to use chakra in order to multiply the speed and force of their strikes or else they’d be sitting ducks for other things. Like getting pounded by long-range ninjutsu, which is sort of our thing. And yet the Land of Iron is still there, despite the pressure.

The catch, though, was that ninjutsu, genjutsu, and even taijutsu generally relied on the assumption that the shinobi in question had enough time to use their hands to form seals. Or, when facing skilled samurai on the warpath, keep their hands. Samurai didn’t have time to be slow, or indecisive. They had to pick an opponent out and remove them as soon as possible before the ninja magic bullshit popped up.

Some of the things Mom had taught me made me think that she, or her ancestors, had been samurai.

One of those things led to me cutting my chūnin-level opponent’s fingers off with a single swing. I had the blade flipped around and swinging upward at his throat before either of us really even had time to process anything.

Gekkō-style Leaf Kenjutsu: Curve of the Moon.

There was blood everywhere.

I didn’t have any time to stop and maybe freak out a lot—oh my god I just killed someone—because my opponent’s reinforcements were way faster than he was. Even as I was drenched in arterial spray, which neatly fucked over any attempt I could make to navigate the battlefield by sight.

Enemy closing on your six! The Dreamer screeched, clearly reading my own chakra sense better than I was at the moment, because argh fuck blood in my eyes.

In hindsight, I’d have to say they were chūnin, or maybe special jōnin without a combat specialization. Not that I knew that then. I just knew that someone tried to stick a genjutsu into my brain and the Dreamer was promptly distracted because she had to extract the foreign chakra from my system without any help from me. I was a little too busy trying not to die.

Even blinded, I at least had the advantage of knowing about the movement of my opponents’ chakra. It meant that I didn’t get myself cut in half or stabbed in the throat, at least.

But I also didn’t realize I was being herded toward the river until my foot slipped and I was already falling.

I tried blinking, tried to clear the blood from my eyes, but I didn’t have time. I hit the river hard, the freezing water closing over my head before I could do more than gasp for air, and then one of my enemies landed feet-first on my chest. A cloud of bubbles exploded from my mouth, driven out by the pressure and the shock, and hands closed around my throat.

There are no words for how terrified I was in that moment.

I was nine. I was barely a ninja. I was a girl who’d just killed a teenager with a sword. I weighed less than thirty kilograms. I had never learned how long I could hold my breath.

Can’t breathe can’t breathe can’t breathe can’t breathe can’t breathe…!

For a while, all I did was claw frantically at my enemy. I’d dropped my kodachi in the midst of my panic, my fingers occupied in trying to pry his hands from my neck and dragging bloody furrows in his unprotected hands. I could almost see his face, distorted by the water and the fact that I was busy trying not to drown.

The next thing I knew, I couldn’t move at all.

The blood was finally cleared from my eyes, though, and I blinked in an effort to figure out what the fuck was going on.

Okay, so I was still underwater. I could feel it, and my vision was predictably distorted. However, I was also apparently floating motionless in a bubble of water, while my enemy’s non-distorted arm was in front of my face. The rest of him, though, seemed to be above the surface—sort of, though for some reason my inner ear was still telling me that I was upright. My enemy’s arm was stuck in the side of the bubble.

I was stuck in my opponent’s Water Prison Jutsu.

I hate my life.

My eyes closed.

There are, technically, two variations of the technique. One is used for live captures, and thus automatically filters oxygen from the water to keep the subject alive (see also: Zabuza Momochi, The Wave Mission). The other isn’t, and therefore no chakra is wasted on keeping anything or anyone alive (see also: Kisame Hoshigaki-avatar, Kazekage Rescue Mission).

There are also two ways to disperse the technique. One, which was exemplified in the battle of Team Kakashi versus Zabuza Part the First, was to force the user to disengage and give up maintaining the technique. The other, as demonstrated by Team Gai versus clones of Kisame Hoshigaki, involved expelling chakra from every tenketsu at once in the hopes of disrupting the technique’s cohesion.

I didn’t have the chakra capacity necessary for the latter and I didn’t know if any of my teammates were close enough to do anything to help per the former. The chakra-infused water was screwing with my sensing ability, and I was having a hard time figuring out what to do in order not to die in the meantime.

FUCKING MIST NINJAS.

My brain, which was thankfully occupied by more entities than just me, flew into action.

I wasn’t going to be a helpless little girl. I’d gotten this far—on my illegitimate smarts for most of it, granted, but I’d done it—and I wasn’t going to let it end so soon. I had too much to do, and what I’d accomplished so far didn’t feel like enough. My successes needed sequels. I needed more.

And as a completely relevant side note, I’d finally found a way to make Bullshitting the Fish Test Jutsu relevant to my life.

Making a patient breathe in defiance of the laws of physics and their bodies’ capabilities was just the starting point for medical ninjutsu. I didn’t need to use hand signs for most of my techniques, and I sure as hell couldn’t make any at that moment even if I’d wanted to. No version of the Water Prison allowed movement, though it’d have been nice if this one had allowed breathing.

But as long as I was surrounded by my favorite medium for medical ninjutsu, I could at least take advantage of it.

Even the Water Prison has air circulating in it—only still water doesn’t, and the Water Prison relied on having a rotating sphere of water charged with chakra around the victim. If it was still, the jutsu would be extremely expensive to maintain and to no benefit—without chakra circulation, there wasn’t a lot of ways to maintain water outside of water. Disrupting the technique was based on knowing that much and on taking advantage of it with all the pragmatism being a ninja could offer. While it would be extremely chakra-intensive to force my lungs to accept water as a medium for oxygen transfer—not to mention the fact that I’d basically drown the second I stopped focusing, if I let more water in willingly—it would be much easier to force the air in the bubble to work with me.

I’ll focus on channeling chakra into our tenketsu. Direct it!

I could do that.

Bubbles streamed through the water, directing themselves toward my nose and mouth. I’d have enough for one breath—maybe two—and then I’d have to use that chakra I kept manipulating to fuck with the prison itself. It wasn’t a perfect plan, but it bought me some time to think and my team some time to possibly mount a rescue effort.

I looked out at the rest of the world. Apparently my captor had decided to put me on display like a crystal ball on a pedestal. Or a snow globe, I guess.

Part of the landscape was on fire, though I couldn’t tell if it was because of Chinatsu, Obito, or Rikuto. Half of the attacking group was already dead or in various states of grievous injury. At least one person had been swamped by lava, while the strange man from before had been literally burned to death by Chinatsu (probably). Someone looked like he’d been shocked to death—so was Kakashi a Hei-type lightning user? There were half a dozen dead soldiers around Sensei, who casually destroyed the seventh with an offhanded Rasengan.

I learned later that it had been the first time he had use more than two Rasengan in a single fight, and mostly because he’d been separated from his students.

And then there was the statue of ice and blood and chunks.

I had a sudden vision of November 11 wiping out his traitorous superiors by killing them with the flash-frozen contents of a bottle of scotch. Even if he’d died doing so.

It was at about that point that I determined that I was probably going loopy from oxygen deprivation.

Breath one. Take it and hold it.

Got it.

There was a pause. We’ve got company.

It’s hard to describe a chakra signature without comparing it to something else. Or at least it is for me—maybe other sensor-class shinobi have it easier. They’d been born with their chakra sense, or trained it, and didn’t really seem to have a concept of what it would be like to be unable to sense it at all. Point is, there’s a “feel” to everything and there was definitely a “feeling” that had decided to superimpose itself on the Water Prison, apparently without my captor noticing. It was focused mostly around my waist and back, swirling around counterclockwise to the jutsu’s clockwise.

Looking out at the road, I saw Sensei shout something. I saw Obito and Kakashi behind him, with Sensei’s hand out to hold them back, while Rikuto had a bow—a bow, seriously?—trained at my captor. Chinatsu was still doing her glowing thing, while Shirozora was standing on Sensei’s other side.

I was pretty sure he was the one that kept making gore-popsicles out of people. Having him looking at me was kind of a bad thing.

Then a lot of things happened at once.

The Water Prison jutsu exploded into what was basically a water ball of spikes and death, though I had no idea how or why. I think I saw Shirozora hold up his arms, like a waterbender, but when the water ball broke down due to lack of chakra, I was being held in someone’s arms like a sack of rice. I heard someone scream, though distantly, and the world seemed to pitch sideways. I was suffering from what felt like swimmer’s ear or something, because my head hurt and my lungs burned and my ears felt like they were full of water still.

FOCUS, DAMMIT.

Sound came back in a terrible rush. Everyone seemed to be talking at once, which was distinctly unhelpful for my headache.

Whoever had decided I made a decent stuffed toy had decided let my feet touch the ground, at least. I blinked once or twice and realized a lot of things at once.

One: I had killed someone.

Two: All of the enemy shinobi were either dead or suffering from various states of being frozen, burned, or dismembered. Sometimes more than one of the above.

Three: My team was crowding around me, even though I was just kind of sitting stupidly on the ground with another person for support.

Four: Chinatsu was biting Akira’s arm, and he’d helpfully rolled his sleeve up to let her. It had a lot of bite scars on it.

Five: Sensei was pretty much up to his elbows in blood. Kakashi had blood spattered on him, likely from arterial spray or something, while Obito was just a little scuffed up as though he’d taken a tumble in the dirt.

Six: The guy I’d fought first was lying headless on the ground next to the wagon-ruts. Holy shit.

Conclusion: The entire situation was a lot beyond my solo coping abilities.

“Kei, are you all right?” Sensei asked.

If I’d been a hardened shinobi, I could have probably chalked up my reaction to having exploded eardrums or something considerably less mundane. I didn’t have any real experience with killing, and on my old life I’d only thought vaguely about it. Not in the sense of “I will kill him,” but the more passive, “I wish he was dead.” Or “I wish [insert person here] was hit by a bus for being a waste of oxygen/pity/money/humanity.”

Anyway, my response was to throw myself at Sensei and hug him as hard as I could, burying my face in his flak jacket. And if I managed to get Obito and Kakashi as collateral huggees—which I did, since I was growing just a bit faster and turning out just a bit lankier at the moment—then I could force the reality of the situation away for a bit. Sensei’s arms, in turn, wrapped around all of us. I felt someone’s hand mussing my hair, but that was okay. I needed that.

“First kill?” I heard Chinatsu’s voice ask.

I felt Sensei nod.

“Ah,” she said. “Nanami, did you get her sword and the hitai-ate?” Nanami—apparently my rescuer—must have made some kind of affirmative gesture, because Chinatsu said, “All right, then. Kick the icicles in the river and bury the rest. Also, Shirozora-chan? Stop freezing people. It just makes a mess.”

And on and on. I didn’t care about her anymore. I didn’t care about any of their stupid déjà vu bullshit—none of that meant anything when compared to the fact that all of Team Minato was alive and together.

Though I was gonna get answers when I recovered, make no goddamn mistake. I’d waited long enough.

Chapter Text

By nightfall, we were well away from the battle site. Between Rikuto’s Earth Release jutsu and Shirozora sweeping everything into the river with some strange Water Release technique I could only call “ninja waterbending,” the area was at least clear of bodies and blood. While any tracking-type group would have no trouble finding us, hopefully the bodies they discovered would deter any further attack.

We’d made…a bit of a mess. To say the least.

So, I found myself sitting with my team and Chinatsu’s inner circle when it was time to debrief everyone on the situation late that night. Granted, I was leaning pretty heavily on Sensei, since my childish stamina was pretty much bottoming out, but at least I was attending the conversation. Obito was on my other side, while Kakashi was by Sensei’s left, and the merchants-of-doom had apparently decided to make a semicircle around Chinatsu, who sat directly in front of Sensei.

Chinatsu tilted her head to the side. “Starting from my right, here, let’s have proper introductions this time. Name and kekkei genkai, for the record.”

Shirozora rolled his eyes. “Shirozora Yuki. My clan is originally from the Land of Water and our bloodline is Ice Release.”

The Dreamer mused, I wonder, are we looking at Haku’s uncle here or something?

Haku’s psychotic uncle Mister Freeze, maybe, I thought.

Nanami inclined her head, rather than being rude like her apparent lover. “Nanami Hōzuki. My clan’s ability is known as the Hydration Jutsu, which allows me to liquefy my body at will.”

“That explains how you rescued me.” I said, brows knitting together briefly. “And the strange chakra I sensed before the Water Prison collapsed.”

She bowed again. “Yes. Though Shirozora’s icicle spears dealt the fatal blow.”

“Well, I can go next.” Rikuto said, having raised his hand in a half-hearted wave. “Name’s Rikuto Tetsuyama, former Iwagakure jōnin and wielder of the Lava Release kekkei genkai. Ditched the rest of the world and the forehead plate about eight years back.”

…what the fuck?

“Currently, Konohagakure is at war with Iwagakure.” Kakashi said quietly, but in a very pointed tone.

“More power to you, then.” Rikuto replied bluntly. “I stopped caring and the village can go fuck itself for all I care.”

Chinatsu’s hand lashed out and wham, Rikuto was nursing a broken nose in no time flat.

“Uh…I can fix that.” I said hesitantly. I didn’t really want to get close to the guy who’d been a party to my freak-out the previous night, but I didn’t like not healing people.

“No need. He needs to learn to control his behavior around children sooner or later.” Chinatsu said, glancing at Zakuro briefly but significantly. Then her laser-like golden stare focused on Akira. “Your turn.”

“Ah, right!” Akira looked rather sheepish, actually. “I’m Akira Uzumaki—though really, I don’t have any special kekkei genkai other than a large chakra reserve. I’m not even a trained shinobi!”

Something in Sensei’s expression seemed to momentarily shift to shock, but it was gone pretty quickly. I think he must have been thinking of Kushina and her supposed status as the last daughter of the Uzumaki clan.

As far as Akira went, though, I know I hadn’t sensed him when the fight got rough. At the very least, everyone else in the area seemed to have him thoroughly outclassed. Then again, he was technically a civilian. He mostly felt like warm sunlight, though next to his burning sun of a lover I’m not sure how he could have really compared.

Zakuro raised her hand. “Oh, and I’m Zakuro Suzu, from the Land of Rice Fields. My clan isn’t really all that large or even that important, but our kekkei genkai is actually genjutsu-based. It’s called the Hypnotic Echo.”

Okay, that was a new one.

“What is that supposed to do?” Obito asked.

“Oh, it lets me tailor my genjutsu to whatever my target will find the most unsettling.” Zakuro said cheerfully. “I only have to aim for a mental state and the target’s mind does the rest! I have plenty of other genjutsu that are based on sounds and not hand seals, and actual sound-based attacks! It makes everything very confusing.” Zakuro went on, grinning. “I don’t even really have to hear what my targets do if I don’t want to!”

Are you fucking kidding me?

In summary, my brain had been turned against me and apparently the existence of genjutsu kekkei genkai made my genjutsu affinity fucking worthless. I’d essentially been made an accomplice in my own mind-fuck, which was all kinds of fucking crazyand I kind of wanted to punch someone.

“You used your genjutsu on me yesterday, didn’t you?” I asked, not quite accusing her of anything. I couldn’t keep the irritation out of my voice.

“Well, of course!” Zakuro said, oblivious. “I use it on everyone who travels with us! It’s how we can tell who we can trust or dump in a river.”

I didn’t have words for that.

“Oh, wait! I forgot something!” Zakuro said brightly, and clapped her hands.

Akira’s hair went from strawberry-blond to deep red, while Shirozora and Nanami swapped hair colors leaving him with green-black hair and her with white. Rikuto’s hair turned brown, while Zakuro’s hair reddish-orange.

“I also maintain genjutsu disguises for everyone!” Zakuro concluded.

“Moving on.” Chinatsu said dryly, looking rather like she was contemplating slapping Zakuro again. “My full name is Chinatsu Kasai. My sister Misaki and I are former kunoichi, though we both retired four years ago in order to pursue the success of our mother’s merchant caravan. I’m actually the third generation’s firstborn daughter bear the ‘Chinatsu’ name, though the Chinatsugumi-specific caravans are named after me. My clan’s specialty, rather than ninjutsu, was in fūinjutsu.” She rolled up a sleeve and Sensei leaned forward slightly in completely blatant interest now that the conversation had turned to his area of “expertise.”

Her arm was covered in five-point seals, the ink twisting out from the pentagram on the back of her wrist and curling around under her skin like a nest of thorns. The daughter seals were on her elbow and shoulder, with their own branches of ink. They were all tattooed on.

“A five-point seal.” Sensei said contemplatively. “They’re mostly used for chakra storage, though I guess you could make them work for weapons or supplies if you were really desperate. But I’m sure no one wants metal stuck in their arm, so…”

Chinatsu nodded. “My sister and I have mirrored seals, along the opposite sides of our bodies. My left, her right. Both allow us to store our chakra for long periods of time. Unleashing a single seal is like opening one of the Eight Gates.”

That explained the Super Saiyajin thing I’d seen. And how Chinatsu wasn’t effectively crippled at the end of the fight…though I imagine that she hadn’t been biting Akira just because. Unless there was some kind of sadomasochistic thing going on with them that I hadn’t noticed, I guess.

“Is that why I couldn’t sense you?” I asked, since apparently my tact was all used up for the foreseeable future.

“Yes.” Chinatsu said, though her eyes narrowed a bit. “The shoulder seal allows me to hide my chakra among the natural energy field of the planet. I had them added after visiting a Fire Temple and learning of the concept.”

So, Sage Mode chakra invisibility for the price of not actually being able to use Sage Mode. Good to know, I guess.

Oooookay then.

“Does that answer all of your questions?” Chinatsu asked, one eyebrow going up.

“For now, yes.” Sensei replied, rather than letting us form our own answers. He stood up, and we all took our cue from him.

Then Sensei’s hand landed on my head again. I was starting to think he was getting used to having me for an armrest. His other hand mussed Obito’s hair. “And for you three, Kei is on first watch. Obito, you’re on third watch, after Kakashi. Kei-kun, wake Kakashi up in a few hours and try to be exact about it this time.”

Sensei did not deserve to be a lousy morning person while still making us go on watch rotations.

Then again, I suppose we’d have to get used to the idea of running on little or no sleep if we were going to survive shinobi life. Then again, again, we were nine. I wasn’t looking forward to growing up stunted or maintaining my signature eye-bags for the foreseeable future.

I still ended up taking first watch without complaint, though. Not like complaining was gonna get me anywhere.

About forty-five minutes in, when my team had mostly dropped off to sleep (sans Obito’s drowsy tossing and turning and occasional flopping limb that caught Kakashi in the shoulder), I sat on top of one of the wagons and tried to keep my eyes open. It’d been a long day, and I’d happily go to confront my nightmares if it meant I’d be able to get some shuteye. I just didn’t want to be awake to deal with shit.

There was the sound of a footstep behind me and, the next thing I knew, Chinatsu was sitting next to me, her legs dangling over the edge of the roof while mine were crossed one over the other. I didn’t jump, since she didn’t take me by surprise now that I could sense the chakra from her seals, and neither of us said anything for a while.

When the silence finally bordered on becoming oppressive, Chinatsu said, “I suppose you’re wondering why Zakuro targeted you, out of your team?”

I nodded.

The Dreamer gave me a mental poke. Hey, wait…

“This might require some background. Do you mind?” Chinatsu said.

“No, it’s fine.” I said. I mean, it wasn’t like having less information would help.

Chinatsu sighed. “All right then, kid.” She held up one finger. “Perhaps you’ve felt the first sensation—the strong feeling of familiarity between you and I, as though we’ve met sometime before and made an impression? Nod if it sounds familiar.”

I nodded.

“I’ve felt that déjà vu with nearly every person under my direct command.” Chinatsu said squarely. “In order, Rikuto, Shirozora, Zakuro, Nanami, and Akira have all felt extremely familiar to me since we met, and the feeling was mutual. You see the result.” She made an expansive gesture, clearly meant to include the entire caravan, and possibly its success. “We knew we could trust each other implicitly from the moment we met, like we were tied together by fate. Do you understand?”

I actually didn’t. The Chinatsugumi’s familiarity had actually been off-putting for some reason. It might have been the age gap.

Chinatsu must have seen my expression in the firelight, because she explained, “But when we met you, my sister and I, like our friends, felt dread. I’ve felt unrelenting hatred before, and acted on it, but you…you could be the cornerstone to something great, or a cause of nothing but pain.”

My blood ran cold.

Hey!

“I don’t know which path you’ll choose. I don’t know if it’ll even be a choice.” Chinatsu said grimly. “But my first idea was to ship you off to a Fire Temple and see what they’d make of you once your sensei loosened his control a bit. But it’s clear now that you won’t go.”

I looked at Obito and Kakashi, almost unwillingly.

Kakashi was an arrogant jerk and I wanted to slap him more often than not, but he didn’t deserve to be alone and miserable and hated. I wasn’t sure how much of an influence on him I could really be, given that the catalysts for his attitude shifts had always been the deaths of those close to him, from what I remember. But I had to try, right?

And Obito…dammit, I wasn’t letting him go off and crash and burn without a fight. Ever. Between me and Rin, we might even be able to keep him sane. And maybe alive.

Don’t you remember them? Ask her…

But I already had an idea.

“What would you do, if you had to choose between love and duty?” I asked out of the blue, staring up at the starry sky. I had a hunch…

Chinatsu gave me a strange look. “You’re a pretty weird kid, even for a possible devil-child.”

“Yeah, I know.” I said.

“Well…since I’m here, I’d say love.” Chinatsu said after a moment. “I loved my family more than I loved being a shinobi.”

And she made her own secure world out of nothing… The Dreamer and I thought together.

…Akira the noncombatant healer. Rikuto the earth-aligned archer. Shirozora, king of mood swings and most prone to brutally murdering his opponents. Zakuro, the illusionist… Nanami, the wallflower with water powers…

FUCK.

I knew them. Not on a person-to-person basis, but more in the sense of “Mwahaha! Dance, my puppets!” sense.

While remembering non-Naruto or non-personal aspects of my life seemed to be a thing that came and went depending on what was triggered in my wacky headspace, I’d been a writer the last time I’d lived. Not a great one, or even a decent one with enough luck to get published, but I’d been one all the same. I’d lived inside my own head for at least a third of my waking moments, it seemed, which contributed to my unwillingness to do much in the world around me. I’d been a dreamer. I still was, but my dreams were much more practical than they had been, since I’d be dead by fifteen if they weren’t.

And I’d written the Chinatsugumi.

Not in their current form, not under these names, and not with this exact team composition, but I’d written about people with the same personalities and the same pasts. And their futures, and their children, and their ending.

In another life, I’d literally been responsible for everything that happened to them or anyone they knew. Good, bad, joyous, or fucking horrible. Ultimately.

No wonder we’d gotten a mutual sense of “oh fuck.”

“At the end of this mission, I’d like to stay in Konoha for a while.” Chinatsu said quietly. “You seem like a good kid. I don’t know if my presence will be good or bad for your development, but damned if I’ll let you let yourself destroy the world.”

“…Uh, likewise?” I said hesitantly. “I mean, um, it’s not like I’d say no, but…”

“I’d be staying regardless of whether or not you were some kind of hideous bomb.” Chinatsu said bluntly. “But you’ve made me interested enough to extend the trip. Misaki can get along just fine without me.”

“Uh. But isn’t it called the Chinatsugumi?” For a reason, even.

Chinatsu shrugged. “It can be the Misakigumi for a few months.”

I thought about that. While I had a watchdog for my actions in my head already, for all that I was actually capable of affecting given my age, it’d be…interesting, to see what a supposedly uninvolved bystander would see. I didn’t know if she’d end up reporting to the Hokage or anything, but…

“I think I knew you too,” I said, watching the stars drift slowly by overhead. “But…look. I don’t trust you much. Not even based on a weird feeling.”

“Understandable.” Chinatsu said mildly.

“I feel like I knew you from…maybe a past life or something, but that doesn’t mean that much for this one.” Aha! A near-confession!

“So you’re saying that I’ll have to earn your trust. All of us will?” Chinatsu asked.

I said, “Yeah. Talk is cheap.”

“Talk is expensive if you do it wrong.” Chinatsu corrected me. A merchant to the core, then. “So, what do we of the Chinatsugumi have to do?”

I bit my lip. “Well…there’s this technique Obito and I are having trouble with…”

Chinatsu gave me a funny look. Then she laughed, quietly. “All right. Tell me about this terrible new skill…”

I did.

The next day, when we all took a break for lunch, Obito and I squared off. Rikuto dug his biwa out again, tweaking the strings. Chinatsu’s civilian began to clap for percussion, while Akira, Shirozora, and Nanami primed their own instruments and Zakuro took a deep breath. And then the music started.

We didn’t quite manage to stay in synch, but we were a lot closer than before.

Turns out that, for me anyway, the flash of inspiration for pair-fighting was based on music. It was a lot easier when I had some kind of external timer, and I guess that was why Sensei brought a metronome to our team practices after that.

Obito’s and my hands met in the center of the practice arena, perfectly in time after a couple of practice rounds, and we both grinned.

Chapter Text

We got to Konoha within a week, thankfully. There were no other major distractions, though since Obito and I spent what felt like nearly every waking moment trying to get used to each other’s movements and time our attacks precisely (mostly using Kakashi or Sensei as targets), I could easily have missed something that one of the others saw, assessed, and dealt with. Rikuto’s stock of arrows seemed to shrink every time I turned around, though we ate pretty well with all the game he seemed to bring down as collateral. Not that any of us were incapable of hunting, but he seemed bored and our team was a little busy with multiple accounts of attempted murder.

I mean, sure, technically we were only ambushing Kakashi when Sensei was busy and we weren’t quite as dangerous together as he was alone, while jumping Sensei only took place at mealtimes. There was no actual killing intent involved.

Honestly, I think Sensei wrote it off as typical team roughhousing.

I kind of wondered what his team—the old Team Jiraiya—had gotten up to in the past, since I didn’t know anything about them other than what they had looked like in a team photo. I assumed they were all dead, though. All of Jiraiya’s students sans Naruto ended up dead one way or another, even though it was completely unfair.

And one of them had even ended up killing him. One of Minato-sensei’s students could end up being the cause of his death as well. Sasuke had attempted to permanently kill Orochimaru for power…

I honestly think the only Sannin not to pass down some kind of bizarre murder-succession ritual is Tsunade, though she only has two students total from what I remember.

Anyway, back to our triumphant return.

Sensei got the gate guards to open the door, while the Chinatsugumi and their wagons finally made it back to civilization. So did we, of course, but Konoha was pretty wild when you were a ninja. Not because it was dangerous to live in, as a rule, but there was always something going on and about half of it involved shinobi arts somehow. I could at least guess that half of the shinobi in town were probably training, recovering from training, or preparing for more training. Stuff was probably exploding or being stabbed in every single training area.

It was nice and sunny, though the angle told us that it was past lunch and also well past time to get some good old-fashioned comfort food in celebration of making it back from a B-ranked mission alive.

Or C-ranked. We hadn’t made the rank change official yet, we hadn’t gotten paid, and we hadn’t checked into the hospital to make sure we hadn’t all caught some kind of foreign death plague that only showed up after the infectious phase was over.

Okay, so I was paranoid.

“Obito, Kakashi, head to the Hokage’s office. I’ll meet you there in a bit.” Sensei said, once the last of the merchant wagons had cleared the gates and set off for the market district.

“Sensei?” Obito began, and Kakashi blinked.

That was about when Sensei picked me up by the back of my jacket like I was an unruly kitten. “I’ll be taking Kei-kun to the hospital for a quick checkup. As soon as I know for sure that our misadventures didn’t cause any trouble, we’ll join you.” Sensei waved with his other hand. “Try not to kill each other before we get back!”

And then we popped out of reality and then back in between blinks. We’d apparently traveled the entire length of the village and ended up in the hospital foyer due to the Flying Thunder God Jutsu. I guess it was nice to know that Sensei really did have the hospital tagged, for future reference.

“I hope you have a story for Mom about how I almost died.” I said, still being lugged around.

“As long as you get a clean bill of health, I think that’s your problem.” Sensei replied, carrying me over to the receptionist’s desk. Somehow, it was Ayako again.

“Oh, hello! How have you been, Kei-chan?” she asked, leaning forward over her paperwork. “And you, Namikaze-san?”

“I’m being a dead fish.” I said flatly.

“We just returned from a C-ranked mission and Kei had a mishap with a river.” Sensei replied. “I’d like to make sure my student’s all right before we head in for a briefing—I’ve heard that water in the lungs is a serious risk for pneumonia.”

“Oh! In that case, I’ll get you checked into the mission-priority office right away.” She scribbled something on her paperwork and handed a clipboard to Sensei. “Fill this out in the third room on your right.”

Sensei nodded and I took the papers. He didn’t set me down once.

We were shuttled through the waiting room so quickly that I barely had the time to scribble my name into the Patient Name box. We ended up in one of the smaller examination rooms, since it wasn’t as though either of us were totally at our full growth, and because we were both conscious. Most casualties either weren’t or wished that they weren’t, and there were both stretchers and surgeries waiting for them.

“So, Kei-kun, how long have you been able to sense chakra?” Sensei asked, curious. I didn’t really sense any particular feeling from him, but I also knew that there were ways to get around my chakra sense, now. Mostly because I was inexperienced, but that was really all that was needed.

“Pretty much forever.” I said, shrugging.

Being able to sense chakra, while unusual, wasn’t precisely rare. It kind of depended on what sort of chakra and under what conditions. Most shinobi could, at close quarters, get a fairly accurate reading on their opponent’s level through concrete experience and because chakra could be felt, particularly through blows and through the usage of killing intent. But the range that I had, even if it wasn’t much when compared to a Byakugan’s much more solid and detailed perception, was abnormal. Sensor-type shinobi, at least in Konoha, tended to be Senju, Yamanaka, or Hyūga -descended. I was a kunoichi descended from two non-clan shinobi, and I hadn’t exactly made a spectacle of my usage of my chakra sense. It wasn’t the kind of thing that was, say, on the level of having a kekkei genkai or anything like that. It wasn’t flashy, but it was useful.

I mostly used my sensing ability as a way to make it so my chakra control was limited solely by my attention span, and to tell where people were without looking. It also made it somewhat easier to copy chakra control techniques off of people, since it wasn’t like I was really learning at the same rate or with the same material that my teammates were.

I was starting to see why most new teams were made of genin alone. The differing education and experience levels involved in our team were causes for frustration for everyone.

“Why didn’t you mention it before?” Sensei asked.

“It didn’t seem like a big deal.” I replied. And it hadn’t—most shinobi could tell enough from their environment based on other sensory cutes that my own extra perceptive ability was pretty much just compensating. That said, it was probably a little odd to see that awareness in a new genin, even if the chakra sensing was probably actually stunting my other investigative skills a little. “You and Kakashi do pretty much the same thing, though Kakashi uses his nose and I think you use seals somehow.”

Sensei’s left eyebrow rose. “Obito doesn’t have that ability yet, Kei, since he’s still new. You are too. And Kakashi and I have been in the field for a while.”

No shit, Sherlock, I thought in a burst of petulance. I didn’t want to be in the hospital again. Even if the chances of seeing Rin were higher than normal, and I could see Yamaguchi-sensei again (and get criticized), I was also rather tired of always being told to either explain myself or shut up or something in between.

It’s at times like this that I wonder how old you are, and if you really did work in retail.

“It’s not a criticism, Kei-kun.” Sensei said. “It’s just that I don’t see why you didn’t tell anyone.”

I frowned. “But…”

I stood out for enough reasons already, didn’t I? I was a genius according to other people, my stats were insane, I actually had a weapon specialization, and now I was a known sensor. I’d have happily never have gotten involved in the ninja business at all if I’d been born as, say, the ramen chef Teuchi’s first daughter. But I hadn’t and now I was neck-deep in the mess and a part of my brain that wasn’t the Dreamer or Id was telling me I didn’t have enough to make it.

I have some self-doubt problems. Always have. Seems like I always would.

Sensei patted my head. “Kei-kun, it’s all right. I was just curious.”

No more dreaming of the dead…

I drew my knees up to me chest, even though they’d been dangling off the side of the exam table, and wrapped my arms around them.

“Are you sure you’re all right, after what happened on the mission?” Sensei asked, concerned.

“I don’t know.” I said. “A lot of stuff happened…”

Our team’s first out-of-village mission, my first kill, my first near-death experience…

Man, what a shitty month.

“Does anyone even know what happened?” I wondered aloud, because I didn’t even really remember if I’d told my story during the early part of the debriefing. I’d been too tired to do or think all that much for a while there.

“I have an idea.” Sensei replied. “You engaged an enemy shinobi in combat, and were captured. He was an upper-level chūnin, Kei-kun. It happens sometimes. That’s why we’re deployed in teams.”

No, that wasn’t… “There was another one before him.” I said, swallowing. “I killed him.”

Sensei said nothing for a long moment.

And just as he was about to say something, there was a knock at the door. “Hey, I heard my reckless former student was injured on a mission. Mind opening up?”

Good old Yamaguchi-sensei. But where did he get off calling me a “former” student? As far as I knew, I still wanted to learn medical ninjutsu, and I sure as hell hadn’t quit.

“Sure, you can come in.” Sensei replied for me, and the door opened, allowing both

“Kei-senpai!” Rin said, since apparently she’d also heard the news and decided to follow along. Or maybe she always followed Yamaguchi-sensei around—I didn’t know much about internships, other than the fact that Rin was in one and being an apprentice at the same time. I wasn’t sure if she was taking missions at all or if her apprenticeship counted for a lot of them.

“Hey, Rin-chan.” I said, uncurling from my defensive ball. “How’ve you been?”

“Good, but I don’t think I can say the same for you.” Rin said, grasping my hands in hers. “What happened?”

“Enemy shinobi, mostly.” I replied blandly.

“Somehow I doubt you’d attempt to drown yourself for fun.” Yamaguchi-sensei said dryly, fishing a stethoscope out of a drawer. He looked at Minato-sensei, “And by the way, where were you when my former student was getting herself killed?”

“Dealing with another seven of them.” Sensei said in a somewhat frosty tone.

Yamaguchi-sensei made the sort of face that made me think that he thought that wasn’t a good explanation at all. I guess he did like me. Kinda.

…Well, it wasn’t like this was exactly the Kakashi vs. Orochimaru confrontation over Sasuke, since none of us were psychopaths, Minato-sensei was a combat shinobi while Yamaguchi-sensei wasn’t exactly the same way, and I wasn’t going to go off on a crusade for power to kill a nonexistent older sibling due to a brain-frying tattoo, but I could still feel the tension in the air. Minato-sensei and Yamaguchi-sensei didn’t seem to be buddies at all.

Rin seemed cheerfully oblivious, at least.

“So, how’s your apprenticeship been?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s been interesting! I mean, I’m not out doing C-ranked missions or anything, but I do get a chance to help other teams out with D-ranks and I spend a lot of time learning from everyone in the hospital! Even the civilian doctors are really very good at what they do.” Rin said earnestly. “I’m learning a lot every day.”

I smiled back. “Well, it’s better than what I’ve been learning.”

I was sure I felt a spike of interest from Sensei.

“What?” Rin looked so adorably confused. She really was a nice kid, though she had some pretty major blind spots when it came to Obito.

Obito: Mr. Friendzone.

I was kinda hoping it wouldn’t stay true this time around.

“What, have I been skimping on your training?” Sensei asks.

“I still haven’t learned water-walking yet.” I replied. “It might have helped.”

Sensei’s eyes narrowed slightly. “You…are trying to guilt me into something.”

“Depends. Is it working?”

“Shut up, both of you.” Yamaguchi-sensei said. He looked at me. “And you, turn around so I can listen to your breathing.”

I found out later that, no, I hadn’t swallowed or inhaled harmful amounts of water and that Yamaguchi-sensei thought Minato-sensei was incapable of walking and chewing gum at the same time. Minato-sensei, meanwhile, had the completely accurate impression that Yamaguchi-sensei was an arrogant jackass with a soft spot for maybe three people in the course of ever. He usually wasn’t quite so bad, though I suppose that my promotion to Team Disaster had made my status as his student, as well as my mom’s and Minato-sensei’s, somewhat nebulous.

Then again, I’d been the informal type of student since day one. Sort of like the neighbor kid you taught how not to mow his legs off.

“Do you even want to continue with your lessons?” Yamaguchi-sensei had asked.

“I would, if I could find any time between Mom and Minato-sensei and missions.” I’d said. “Heck, even if I can only learn when Rin is and we have totally different lessons, I’d still do it!”

Yamaguchi-sensei had looked at me for a long moment. Then, “No.”

A cold ball of lead seemed to form in my stomach.

Wait, what? No! We need to learn, for when Obito and Kakashi need us the most!

“Kei-kun, you have mastered chakra scalpels and the Mystical Palm,” he’d explained. “There isn’t anything else I can teach you without having you enter a formal apprenticeship like Rin did, where you dedicate nearly every waking moment to medicine, and it’s just too early to risk your team’s dynamic. You’ve only been a genin for three months.”

“I…” I’d bitten back tears and said in a small voice, “Oh. Okay.”

Yamaguchi-sensei had given Minato-sensei a very cold look. “But for your sake, I’d better not see her in here for at least three months with anything more severe than a head cold.”

Minato-sensei had put his hand on my head. Again. “We’ll be fine.”

Yamaguchi-sensei made a dismissive noise and shooed us out.

Rin had followed, though. “Kei-senpai…”

“I’m not sure I’m your senpai anymore, Rin-chan.” I said around a lump in my throat. I was hard to talk, then. “Not that I was for long, but…”

“You’re still my senpai.” Rin had said seriously. “And you should look after Obito and Kakashi-kun, because you’re there when I can’t be. And I can’t be there for you, either, so you have to take care of yourself better than you have been! A medic-nin can’t die until the last of her team is beyond saving!”

“…I’m not a medic-nin, Rin-chan.” I said.

“You might as well be.” Rin insisted. “You never studied the oaths or the precepts but you’ve still got healing jutsu and that’s enough!”

And then she hugged me.

“Thanks, Rin-chan.” I said. Then an idea struck me. “Should I hug Obito and Kakashi too? Saying it’s from you?”

“Why can’t they be from you?” Rin asked.

“Because I punch them and they’d believe you instead of me.”

“…Kei-senpai, you should be nicer to your teammates.”

“I agree.” Sensei had said. “Come on, it’s time for that delayed debriefing. The Hokage won’t wait forever.”

And then we were gone.

Chapter Text

The Mission Assignment Desk was actually pretty crowded when we got there, since I guess it was the peak season for missions before the far inland parts of the Land of Fire finally realized it was late autumn. The Land of Fire, true to its name, was pretty goddamn warm all year round, but it shared some climate traits with, say, the Andes in some particularly high altitude places. It wasn’t much compared to the Land of Lightning or Earth, where mountains were the geographic feature of the millennia, but we had snow and actual winter in some places. A lot of merchants, not just the Chinatsugumi, were making their last trips of the year, and that meant a lot of money coming into town and a lot more local missions for those shinobi who could take them. There were a lot of genin teams there, along with the occasional reporting chūnin and a few lone jōnin.

I kinda didn’t want to ask what everyone above genin was doing this time of year. While Team Minato hadn’t been deployed to the actual front lines yet, the war was still on. We weren’t going to stay at home forever.

Some of the genin teams looked like they had already been deployed. A couple of them were missing members. Obito, Kakashi, and I were the smallest kids in the room, even if Kakashi had probably seen more action and more battlefields than all of us genin combined.

Sensei stopped a chūnin desk worker and said, “Team Minato, delivering a mission report and requesting paperwork for a mission class upgrade.”

The chūnin, who looked a little like Obito and therefore might have been an Uchiha (though I didn’t see the clan crest anywhere), nodded and pulled the relevant paperwork seemingly out of absolutely nowhere. “Here you go.”

Paperwork ninjas are a breed all their own, I swear.

“Thanks,” Sensei replied, and the chūnin just sort of seemed to disappear into the background buzz of the room. He turned to us. “I have three copies of the mission report paperwork here. While normally Kakashi and I would fill out our own sheets, I’ll be proofreading what we have before we file them. No making yourself out to be some kind of super-ninja unless you actually did something super-ninja-like, and no tangents. Try not to get a paper cut or something.”

Filling out paperwork with no embellishments is possibly the most boring thing in existence. So I’ll quietly skip over that part—it’s not like what happened isn’t obvious at this point, anyway.

After the paperwork was filed, and after Sensei attached a fifth form to justify the bump up in mission grade as well as pay, we all left the office entirely. We could have, technically, been debriefed by the Hokage if our mission had been particularly important, but it hadn’t so we didn’t. Anyway, despite Sensei’s obvious skill, he was a few years away from being made Hokage-to-be and we were a couple of years from being much more than dead weight.

As soon as we were outside in the late afternoon sun, Sensei yawned and stretched. Then he said, “Well, at this point you’re all dismissed. There won’t be any training tomorrow, so rest up for the next big session and the next mission while you can.”

Internally, I was torn between whooping in joy and reflexive cringing. On one hand, I was back in Konoha and that meant my bed was well within walking distance. On the other hand, I was definitely going to have to explain the events of my mission to Mom. I’d tried lying to her before, about minor stuff like chores and the occasional “where did you get that bruise” during my school days, but if nothing I said would fly then, serious stuff never would.

Dah-dah-dah-dah, we’re dead, I thought.

Lighten up.

Bluh. I needed a distraction. Even if I knew Mom was probably gonna kill me for almost getting myself killed (and wasn’t that a stumper), I figured I could at least have one last hurrah.

Well, if my family’s financial straits had improved any I would have probably invited my team for dinner. As it was…

“Does anyone want to meet up later tonight for a midnight snack?” I asked.

“What’s it gonna be?” Obito asked instantly, never one to turn down snacks or sweets.

“Well, we could go out for dango, but I can also get apples in the market.” I shrugged. Personally, I would hit my limit for dango in no time flat if I ate it like Obito did, but I hadn’t gotten tired of apples yet. I wasn’t sure if they were really a favorite food, for me, but I remembered vaguely that Kakashi disliked sweets.

Despite the fact that he and I didn’t get along, I didn’t actually want to exclude him from stuff. It just…kinda happened.

I think that might have been worse, in a way.

Besides, apples were cheap this time of year.

“Well, since you’re buying, I guess you get to pick.” Obito said after a while. I could tell that he was a little disappointed—he knew me well enough to know that I wouldn’t choose dango again.

“Apples.” Kakashi said instantly, and I think it might have just been to spite Obito. Of course, whether it was or not, Obito took it that way and glared.

It could also have just been that Kakashi liked apples more than dango. Slightly or otherwise.

“One vote for apples and two abstaining,” I concluded. “Apples it is. Sensei?”

“That sounds all right. So, should we meet around eight or so?” Sensei asked. “Training Ground Three is still open.

“Sure.”

And then we were all off to our various afternoon tasks.

For my part, that meant stopping by the market district and grabbing apples. I was pretty sure Mom didn’t have any stocked up, since Hayate and I generally were okay with whatever she put on the table and hadn’t really been much for special requests. I also knew basically nothing about buying apples, other than the fact that bruises probably weren’t going to be conducive to a long shelf-life and organic stuff was the name of the game.

Oh well. No time like the present to learn, I thought.

In summary? Listen to the merchant who runs the fruit stall. That stuff is their livelihood, and they’d damn well better be able to figure out what is and what isn’t going to sell well and get them paid. Otherwise they’re lousy and they don’t get customers and they fail.

Also, talk to the old ladies who visit said stalls religiously.

So, I had ten (for safety’s sake) apples in two grocery bags when I made my way home at long last.

“I’m home!” I called as I entered, dropping my bags and my pack by the door. I’d started to kick my sandals off by the time I got any responses.

And it was like I had somehow picked up mole summons. Only they were my family and sticking their heads into the hallway—and Hayate seemed to have picked up a couple of extra voices or something. I couldn’t see the living room from my position, but I could sense extra chakra signatures easily. Hm. It bore investigation.

“Sis!” Hayate shouted, and promptly knocked me onto my back and into a pile of shoes. Now that I thought of it, Hayate didn’t own this many pairs of kids’ sandals and none of his were black heel setups. Even if they were tiny and the heels digging into my shoulders were nothing compared to the combat heels some kunoichi wore.

Now that was interesting.

I promptly noogied the hell out of him. I was learning something from Sensei after all!

“Nooooooo, stop it!”

“Welcome home, Kei-chan.” Mom’s voice said from the kitchen. I guess seeing that I was still intact enough to start play-fighting with my brother had assured her that I was also in good enough condition that she could return to dishwashing duty. “By the way, you can let Hayate-chan go now.”

I did so, and we giggled in the hallway like idiots for a moment. I put my hand on his head, notably not going straight to manhandling, and said, “So, how’s my favorite little brother been while his sister’s been away?”

“I’m your only brother.” Hayate said.

Pah. He’d still be my favorite if I had another brother.

I think.

You’re seriously trying to turn your brain into a pretzel, aren’t you?

“Details, details.” I said dismissively. “So, who are your new friends?” I asked, trying to get a better look at the source of the sudden squeaks I was hearing. Hayate was limiting my movements because he was still sitting on my leg.

“Come and meet them!” Hayate chirped, pulling me to my feet.

Well, he’d sure gotten stronger.

We stumbled into the living room once I’d ditched my sandals and pack and groceries, and nearly crashed into our two guests. Score one for ninja grace and poise—but what the fuck, I was tired anyway and I was torn between wanting to meet Hayate’s new best buddies and maybe collapsing in bed for a nap.

The kids were both about Hayate’s age, give or take months either way, and thus shorter than me by about a head. They were skinny as heck in the way that ninja children tended to be (if they weren’t Akimichi clan kids), and stared up at me like I was some kind of ultra-badass superninja or something.

The first kid, a boy, was about Hayate’s size. He was tanned, like he spent a lot of time in the warm Konoha sun, and had very dark brown hair tied up in a pineapple-shaped tail, sort of like the Nara clan’s signature style. He wore a light beige shirt with ninja wire mesh underneath, and was missing two of his front teeth.

The second kid was a girl, with her purple hair tied up in a pair of adorable pigtails. She was actually bigger than either of the boys by a bit, with dark eyes and super-long eyelashes. She wore a white-and-blue dress with flowers on it, with standard dark blue shinobi leggings underneath.

I had a couple niggling suspicions that I knew these kids from somewhere, but my brain wasn’t attaching names to faces all that well.

“So, I know that you’re my brother’s friends, but I have no idea what your names are.” I began, even as I unstrapped my kodachi and stuck it on its holder well above the grabbing height of enterprising six-year-olds. I could walk on walls, but they probably wouldn’t learn until they were old enough to understand that real steel blades were not toys.

Hence why our family’s wall mounts for stuff were always at least a meter and a half off the ground.

“I’m Yūgao Uzuki,” said the girl, and my brain automatically conjured up an image of a purple-haired ANBU standing in front of the Memorial Stone.

The boy raised his hand, as though he was in a classroom. “Iruka Umino.”

Double dammit.

“Hayate-chan, you’re officially making friends faster than I am.” I dropped my hand onto his head, and he jumped. I grinned as he gave me a pout—he’d been expecting another wrestling match. “So, kids, how’s life been since I was gone? How are classes going? How are your families?”

While the kids talked, I thought.

Yūgao Uzuki, assuming she grew up at all, would be a very skilled kunoichi and eventual ANBU member. Her specialty had seemed to be kenjutsu, which she could have either learned from Hayate, from ANBU, or, in this new reality, from someone in our family. Eventually, she’d surpass Hayate in blade work, and remained a successful shinobi well past Pain’s hideous stomping match with Konoha.

Iruka Umino, as a chūnin Academy instructor, had been instrumental to the lives and sanity of several different kids in the future and more skilled than Anko. Despite being dubbed too nice to be a jōnin, not to mention lacking in any major trump cards aside from his exceptional intelligence, Iruka had been strong.

And my brother had somehow managed to befriend both of them and possibly a number of other kids in his class.

My graduating class was made of cannon fodder by comparison.

I was, of course, assuming that the skills that allowed them to survive the gauntlet of genin and chūnin rank stayed useful even in a warped timeline.

Anyway, Iruka and Yūgao hung around for a while, but I ended up sort of just falling asleep on the couch whenever they and Hayate finally decided to go outside to play. When I woke up, Mom had just dropped a blanket over me and made the couch rock by sitting down by my head. Hayate, it seemed, had taken off with his friends—I could sense his presence, but out in the neighborhood as opposed to inside the house.

“Kei-chan, what happened on your mission?” Mom asked.

…So, I wasn’t as good at acting normal as I thought.

“We got attacked.” I said quietly, wondering what had given me away.

Let’s see. I killed a boy maybe six years older than me, I nearly drowned, and I was mind-hacked by a crazy lady with a genjutsu kekkei genkai and a penchant for friendly fire. Oh, and Yamaguchi-sensei had told me to get lost.

…Yeah, maybe I needed to get a lot off my chest.

So I told her.

The whole time, Mom’s fingers threaded gently through my hair.

“What am I supposed to do?” I asked after I’d finished.

Mom said nothing for a moment. Then, “Kei-chan, you’re younger than I was when I killed someone for the first time. My situation was different than yours, but…” Mom paused. “Listen. And think. Ask yourself if there had been another, practical way to make sure you made it home safe. Think on whether you would trade an enemy’s life for your teammates or your sensei. Then you’ll know if you can live with your decision.”

I said nothing for a long time. And I thought, like Mom asked.

I wasn’t some kind of soldier fighting for some cause of a nebulous country or philosophy I didn’t give a shit about.

I wasn’t some revolutionary.

I wasn’t a mass-murdering psychopath.

I wasn’t a martyr.

I was just a girl on a battlefield.

And I fought for the people around me, so they’d have a better future. I couldn’t control the future, but…but I could do my best, and try to help everyone I could. I could only act in the moment, not the future or the past. I could only defend the people within reach.

I could live with that. I’d have to, but it wasn’t a hard decision on its own.

Besides, if I was gonna be much of a shinobi, I’d need to learn to stuff battle emotions away into a box for later sorting. Combat came with adrenaline and endorphins and fear and pain and anger, and untangling that Gordian knot would take time and practice.

I resolved to talk things over with Mom as much as I could.

Later that day, after I’d showered and changed and eaten a bunch of onigiri that had been in the refrigerator, I headed out to meet my team. I stuffed the apples into my now-empty backpack, took my kodachi from the wall (in case of random fights), and took off.

“I’ll be back by bedtime, Mom!” I called.

“You’d better be!” Mom called back.

Konoha at night is actually rather pretty. I remember reading, somewhere or some-when, that some cities in World War Two used to turn all of their lights off after dark in order to try and baffle enemy bombers. The logic went that only factories kept their lights on, since their products would obviously need to be worked on around the clock to make their way to the front lines, and any bombers flying over cities would obviously target the light-show in order to cause as much damage as possible. It was the days before night vision eyepieces and things, and I’m not sure the strategy always worked.

The reason I mention this is because Konoha, despite being at war, doesn’t really act like it when it comes to the civilian part of the populace. Then again, airplanes don’t exist here and the number of shinobi who can attack from above in any strategically meaningful sense number in the single digits. The civilians were generally safe, if not content.

Besides, most of our fighting seemed to take place well outside the Land of Fire at the moment, despite Iwagakure’s repeated incursions. I don’t think any of the major villages get hit directly with much of anything other than infiltration attempts until Orochimaru’s attempted invasion far in the future.

Barring the Nine-Tailed Fox’s appearance after the war, anyway.

There were more than a few ways to avoid the latter, though they’re just theories and half-formed plans.

I ended up at Training Ground Three at about seven-fifty. No one was there yet, and I ended up hanging out next to the Memorial Stone for a while even if it killed my night vision horribly.

I hope I’m making you proud, Dad.

Miss you.

I had to wonder if Dad would have been proud of me if he could see what I really was. If he had, when he was alive.

I felt the crackle of Kakashi’s chakra long before he actually got close enough to see, in the dark. It made sense that he’d be the first one there, though being anal about mission start times and stuff was kind of missing the point of some of the shinobi regulations.

Ninja life was a long, long string of improvisations, panic attacks, stabbing, and maybe getting away alive.

I put my hand against the cool stone, tracing Dad’s name slowly. My reflection wasn’t clear in the dim light, but I thought I could see a little of him in the way my mouth was always a little downturned and the way my hair spiked like crazy while it was short.

Dad hadn’t managed to make it, but…I’d do my best to make sure I never had to choose between giving my all and coming home. I had to, didn’t I?

“Hey, Kakashi.” I said quietly, not turning to greet him.

“You’re early for once.” Kakashi said in a flat tone, walking up beside me.

I gave him a sidelong look. He wasn’t looking at me, but at the stone.

Sakumo Hatake will never be remembered here.

The Stone was for heroes who died in the line of duty. Most of the time, we’d never recover the body and any funeral was held with the monument and a photograph. If the timeline went the way it had “originally,” the Hokage and Sensei would end up as names under my fingers. So would Iruka’s parents, and Kushina (who I had yet to meet), and Rin, and hundreds of people I’d never meet. Obito would have his name here, too, but survive and twist into something horrible.

Sakumo Hatake was a goddamn hero, and yet at this time, in this place, he was nothing.

Spending too much time around the Memorial Stone was probably bad for my continued mental health, honestly. I knew it wouldn’t do Kakashi any favors later.

So, I tore my eyes from the granite and handed Kakashi an apple.

Our camaraderie was based on an awful lot of meaningful silence.

At least, I think so.

Sensei and Obito showed up eventually, in that order. I threw an apple at each of them as they appeared, and we got to eat together. We didn’t talk all that much—all of us seemed to be spending our time regaining our equilibrium after the mission—but it was kind of nice, all the same. Obito and Kakashi didn’t fight over anything—though they weren’t really talking to each other either—and Sensei and I got really into a game of I Spy after a while, with Obito joining in,

I hoped it wouldn’t take another disaster of a mission for us to be a real team.

Chapter Text

Honestly, most of the next few months were basically a gigantic blur. We squabbled less frequently, we trained a lot more, and we went through a bunch of missions. None of our later C-ranks were turned into unmitigated disasters, though we toed that line a couple of times and we got more rank upgrades over time. While Sensei didn’t say much about it, I could see a line of tension in his back and a certain twitchiness in his movements that told me, at least, that he was more worried than he let on about the war. I was pretty sure that Sensei wasn’t supposed to be handling the bulk of the enemy combatants for a C-ranked mission.

About the only thing that changed for me over that time period, at least in terms of physical ones, was that I had longer hair and my jacket had full-length sleeves. I was also about two centimeters taller and a kilo heavier, which made me suspect that I was going to hit my full size before the boys did. In my old life, it had taken until I was thirteen or fourteen to be essentially finished growing, and I’d been somewhat taller than average. I had no idea how tall I could get, here—mainly because my parents were completely different and I wasn’t completely sure if Dad had been really tall. Being nine didn’t give me much in the way of perspective.

Obito, meanwhile, had also ditched his short-sleeved black jacket for one with sleeves long enough for thumb-holes and sturdy metal hand guards for the backs of his hands. He’d also gotten around to tying the standard dark blue shinobi pants down with bandages, like nearly every other boy did, and he might have been a little taller than he’d been at graduation.

Kakashi had invested in sleeves, too, though the shuriken-patterned scarf was a bit over the top. I couldn’t help but think it was about time—he actually looked more like a boy, now, even if he was practically swimming in his jacket, despite the ninja mesh undershirt. I kind of wondered about the weird trailing half-skirt thingy, though I think I’d seen something similar on Neji when the guy had been promoted to jōnin once upon a time.

One of these days, though, I was going to find out where my teammates bought shoes and go there instead. I could only find the generic ugly shinobi sandals, while Kakashi’s looked like a pair of heels I’d probably owned in my old life. Minus the heel bit.

But hey, at least Obito and I were getting better at that whole sync-fighting thing. We weren’t perfect, but we were learning and conversations with Kakashi had stopped degenerating into fistfights. I think we’d learn to compensate for our respective growth rates essentially as we went, and maybe all three of us could start becoming an actual working team.

And maybe pigs would fly.

It was after one of those mostly-interchangeable winter training days that Sensei, once again, decided to celebrate our success.

I think Kakashi was starting to learn to hate us and Sensei’s indulgence of us and everything else ever.

Sensei brought his hands together in a loud clap, signaling the end of the day’s attempt to give Kakashi third-degree burns. He grinned and said, “You’re all improving by leaps and bounds. I’d say this calls for ramen. We’ll be paid by the end of today for our last mission and it’s a couple of zeroes more than we’ve been getting lately.” Sensei said with a smile. “So, everyone know what they want? I can buy this time.”

Our last mission had been a bit of a clusterfuck. I mean, none of us kids had been in all that much danger, but any mission where Sensei had to solo a pair of enemy jōnin was the kind of mission that require serious decompression after.

Also, Obito had been getting frustrated with his lack of progress—mostly in the speed department—and with no Shadow Clone workaround I was kind of at a loss as to how to make more headway.

“I’ll go with beef this time.” I said instantly. I don’t know how I’d ended up with shrimp last time but I sure as hell wasn’t repeating that mistake. My brain insisted on making a series of connections that went basically like this: a shrimp is an arthropod, which is the same phylum as bugs, crabs, spiders, and lobsters (and I knew that several of the named categories had closer relationships to one or the others, but I didn’t care). I had a thing against bugs. Or anything with a texture that was anything like that of a bug.

I think if I went on vacation in the Land of Waves, Rivers, Water, or Rice Paddies, I would starve to death.

Not to mention possible Death by Aburame For Being a Bug Hater.

“Aw, but shrimp was good too,” said Obito, who had ended up with my order since I was busy being picky as only a child could be, then.

“Then you can have it.” I said. “But I’m not getting it again.”

Shrimp is my nemesis.

I could practically hear Kakashi rolling his eyes.

Sensei looked up at the sky, then at the shadows of the buildings nearby. “I think it’s about lunch time now, actually. If I remember right, there’s a friend of mine who ought to be around Ichiraku right about…”

“Hey, Minato!”

The “friend” in question was a kunoichi Sensei’s age with crimson hair streaming out behind her like a flag from the top of her head, and a grin that threatened to crack her face in half. She was wearing a short-sleeved variant of the Konoha uniform, with the more feminine (meaning skintight) pants available for mix-and-match. She had a hitai-tate tied across her forehead, above a pair of deep violet eyes, with two long side-locks of red hair in front of her ears. And she was moving at top speed.

Kakashi’s chakra was suddenly directly behind me, and then I was flying forward because he’d shoved me square between my shoulder blades. I was almost instantly swept up into a crushing bear hug that had probably been meant for the unrepentant coward behind me.

It didn’t save him, by the way. It might have bought him like, thirty seconds, and he wasn’t allowed to run.

“Minato, how could you hide your cute little students from me?” Kushina Uzumaki—seriously, who else could she be?—shouted, one finger wagging under Sensei’s nose. I was swinging from her other arm like a rather large plush toy, both because I was kind of running out of air and because resistance was futile. “I demand reparations in the form of ramen and foot massages!”

Okay, getting dizzy.

“Kei’s turning blue, you know!” Obito said loudly.

Oooh, pretty colors.

Kushina promptly dropped me. On Sensei.

Okay, so she kind of threw me in his face. Details, details.

Anyway, right after Sensei caught me and turned me upright again, she rounded on Obito and I was pretty sure Obito went almost a whole step backward when he flinched away from her.

She followed, and pinched his cheeks once he was in grabbing range. Obito squeaked, too.

“So you’re Obito! Minato told me that one of his students was an Uchiha, but I can kind of see the resemblance now that we’ve actually met,” she said sagely. “You look a bit like Mikoto, though she’s a kunoichi and prettier and doesn’t get out often enough even if she’s going to be a jōnin sometime.”

Bwuh?

“And you don’t look like Fugaku because he has a funny face and huge stress lines and you don’t.” Kushina went on. “Who are your parents, again? I’ve met pretty much the whole clan at this point even if I’m terrible with names sometimes.”

I wasn’t entirely sure Kushina stopped to breathe at all during that rambling mess of a statement.

“This, by the way, is Kushina Uzumaki.” Sensei said over the top of my head.

“Oh, I never did introduce myself to you two, did I? Whoops.” She let go of Obito, who scrambled behind Sensei and me for safety. “Kushina Uzumaki, chūnin of Konohagakure! People also call me the Bloody Red Habanero when they think I’m not listening, though.”

“Uh.” I said.

But Kushina’s attention was already off on an adventure.

“Kakashi-chan, what are you doing all the way over there?”

I could practically see his expression morph into the perfect example of a nonverbal “oh shit” in the history of this lifetime. I say “practically” because, technically, I still couldn’t see half his face.

Eh. It was a riddle for another time. And maybe adulthood and alcohol and stuff.

And the next thing I knew, Kushina had Kakashi in a bear hug.

I was starting to realize that Sensei’s tendency to manhandle us kids had to have come from somewhere. I just hadn’t realized that it might have been his girlfriend.

Then again, Jiraiya doing the same thing would have ended in a sexual harassment suit or something. Jiraiya was like thirty-seven or something close to that number, while Sensei was still a teenager.

“Anyway, is the plan still to get ramen?” Sensei asked, finally setting me back on the ground. I promptly hid behind him with Obito, leaving Kakashi to his fate.

Some teammates we were.

Actually…

Since Kushina was apparently ignoring Sensei in favor of giving Kakashi the Lennie treatment (Of Mice and Men, 1937), I squeaked, “Uh, Kushina-san?”

“Hm?” Kakashi was looking distinctly like a pissed-off owl—though his hairstyle made it a bit hard to tell, sometimes—but Kushina’s smile was kind of…intimidating, over the top of his head. Basically, if I was given the choice of being glared at by a tiny chūnin or being given a mischievous smile by Kushina Uzumaki, I’d choose to invoke Kakashi’s wrath instead.

But hey, what were frenemies for?

“I think we’re all getting hungry…” I said.

Obito’s stomach gave an obliging grumble. He winced.

“Oh? Sure, we can go get ramen.” Kushina said, as though she wasn’t still squishing Kakashi like a plush toy.

She let go of him eventually. When we all sat down for ramen, all of us kids were planning on sitting together on the opposite side of Sensei from Kushina, just to be sure we had some kind of barrier. We didn’t exactly talk about it, but the intention was there and we’d planned for that, sort of. Or at least we tried to—Sensei grabbed the end seat and Kushina took the one next to that, leaving the three of us to have a quick Rock-Paper-Scissors duel over who got to sit furthest away.

Kakashi won the first round—which I attributed to the constant duels with Gai—and Obito beat me, which meant that I had to sit next to Kushina and be the sacrificial lamb to her affections.

I barely remembered what to order in the face of her overbearing personality.

“So, you’re Keisuke-chan, right?” Kushina asked, slinging an arm around my skinny shoulders.

“R-right, Kushina-san.” I didn’t even really want to correct her when it came to my name.

“I’ve never seen you this quiet before, Kei-kun. Are you feeling all right?” Sensei asked from Kushina’s other side, looking curious.

The Dreamer said dryly, This is our submissive state. It helps us not get eaten by bigger and badder things.

Speaking of bigger and badder, as long as I was sitting this close to Kushina and not being occupied with the possibility of imminent suffocation, I could sense the Nine-Tailed Fox.There was no bigger and badder (chakra construct/beast/person/individual)…thing in the world at the time.

And no, I couldn’t sense it as well as I might have if it—Kurama—had been actively throwing its weight around, but there was definitely an undercurrent of this thing wouldn’t even have to chew to eat me and danger danger DANGER.

All wrapped into the five-foot-something frame of a woman who, if she killed me, would probably do it by accident.

“I’m fine, Sensei.” I forced out.

“Kei-kun…” Sensei said warningly, but Kushina cut him off, saying, “If he says he’s fine, let him be. You don’t need to hover, Minato.”

Actually, yeah, he kinda did. The thing with raising superpowered ninjas was that you kinda had to get them to that point and not get anyone killed in the meantime. Well, anyone you gave a shit about, anyway.

Also…

“Kushina-san? I’m a girl.”

“I thought I told you about this.” Sensei remarked into the sudden silence.

Kushina, for her part, seemed to have finally discovered a social faux pas she actually cared about. She blushed, embarrassed, and mumbled, “I was a little distracted.”

Too distracted to notice that we’re a little girl?

I guess most kunoichi wore skirts at my age.

“It’s okay. Just about everyone makes that mistake.” I said reassuringly, as Obito coughed and Kakashi looked pointedly away.

“Still.” She patted me on the head, which was considerably less suffocating than just about anything else she’d done. “Anyway, your birthday is July tenth, right?”

Um. Yes. It’s the same day every year and we’d just about gotten to Sensei’s birthday (January something or other) without actually discussing birthdays once. I was planning something for Obito’s, which was the month after, even if I had no goddamn idea what.

I nodded.

“Then we’re birthday buddies! I mean, sure, you don’t know me all that well yet, but I think you’re adorable and it’s always fun to celebrate with more people.”

Okay…personally, I would probably be happier if I could just get Obito and Rin and Kakashi all in the same room with Hayate and Mom and blow out candles and then go back to training, without any unannounced fights or catfights or Mom hitting people with a shinai. Partying with Kushina seemed like an unspeakably exciting idea.

And at this time, in this place, “visions” weren’t much of a guarantee that someone would live to celebrate their next birthday anyway. It was kind of why shinobi stopped caring after age fifteen or so.

Kushina is an extrovert.

I am not. At all. I scored a thirty on introversion in my last attempt at Myers-Briggs personality type indicator, at least back when I’d been an adult and had a non-ninja job and stuff. Introversion does not generally come any more blatant.

The only reason I kept hanging out with people in my free time was because I was scared of what would happen if I didn’t.

I was all too aware of how short our lives could be.

“Kushina, I think they might be a little young for that.” Sensei pointed out.

“Well not now, obviously, but I can get like, a cake and stuff.”

“My—er, our—birthday isn’t for seven months, though.” I said.

“Then we can practice on everyone else who has one in between, obviously!”

I think Obito might have winced again.

“Don’t get too ahead of yourself.” Sensei said.

“Says the guy whose birthday is next.” Kushina said, pouting.

Obito heaved a sigh of relief.

Sensei gave her an amused look. “Not what I meant. It’s just that…well, I was planning on entering them in the Konoha Chūnin Exams this month.”

Slow down, hit rewind. What the fuck?

The Dreamer squeaked, What?

How did I not know about the Chūnin Exams?!

“Really, Sensei? You think we’re ready?” Obito was almost shaking from excitement. His eyes were huge.

He nodded.

“YES! Kei, we’re going to be chūnin by this time next month!”

“Who’s going to be our third teammate?” I asked, because even Obito’s normally-contagious exuberance wasn’t making much of a dent in my attitude. “Kakashi can’t be—he’s been promoted for longer than we’ve been shinobi. It would be unfair to the other teams.”

“Oh, right! Hey, that means I don’t have to deal with you for a month!”

“Shut up, you useless idiot.”

“Why’d you hit me, you bastard?!”

To me, Sensei replied, “Oh, you’ll see. I’ve been in talks with another jōnin sensei for a while and we’ll be doing drills with your temporary teammate in the next couple of weeks.”

…Oookay.

On one hand, I was pretty sure that I could come up with something to pass, if the exams were anything like they’d been in the future (and wasn’t that just a mess of tenses). On the other, we weren’t ready. My chakra capacity was still shitty and Obito had consistently failed our shuriken and kunai throwing tests and we’d only been shinobi for about five months…

This was going to suck.

And then the next day…

“Obito! Kei-senpai!” Rin called, running up to us in Training Ground Three, “We’re going to be taking the Chūnin Exams!”

Funnily enough, I wasn’t quite so worried anymore.

Chapter Text

A full, international Chūnin Exam would have been a hilariously bad idea given the current state of affairs between the various elemental nations. If the Exams are supposed to be a substitute for war, and we were kinda at war and needed a whole lot of bodies to throw at the enemy…well. Suffice to say that if the “canon” Exams that Naruto and his fellow Konoha Twelve went through was the full and proper version someone ought to attend after nearly thirteen years of peace (though no Rock teams attended, because they suck and hate us), Team Minato/Yamaguchi/Awesomeness was taking the abridged version.

At least, that was what Sensei had told us. I don’t think he really knew what that entailed, anyway.

Mom’s reaction to the news was pretty straightforward.

“This is a terrible idea.” Mom said, over dinner. Hayate was at Iruka’s house with Yūgao, and had at least given me a quick hug before taking off. It was kind of weird to see him hanging out with other people, but I trusted the Umino family and wasn’t all that worried. He had to grow up sometime, right?

“I know.” I grumbled, propping my head up in my left hand. “But if I don’t enter Obito’s never going to forgive me.”

“It’d be difficult to forgive anyone if you all die.” Mom countered, obviously annoyed.

“Does it help any that it’s Konoha-only?” I asked. Sensei had told me that much, at least. While at war, Konoha didn’t have time to vet its supposed allies.

“Marginally. But none of you are old enough to have gone through sufficient levels of survival training to work well in the training ground most Konoha Chūnin Exams use.” Mom said, frowning over the top of her clasped hands. “What is Namikaze-san thinking?”

I had an idea.

“I think that he thinks we can do it.” I said, and then I paused to slurp up more soba. Training worked up an appetite, but talking about the possibly drastically shortened future countered it. As a result, I wasn’t really any more hungry than normal, but I needed a second to articulate my thoughts. “Maybe Kakashi spoiled him—I know that he passed on his first attempt when he was six.”

“Kakashi Hatake is a once-in-a-generation shinobi.” Mom replied. “Not even the Legendary Sannin were promoted so quickly, and everyone knows it.”

Yeah, that was the gist of it.

She sighed. “And yet…from what I’ve heard from you and what I’ve seen, it isn’t enough.”

I wasn’t entirely sure if she meant that our team wasn’t enough to take on the Exam—which I happened to agree with—or that Kakashi wasn’t going to be able to carry the burden of being a shinobi on the front lines if us genin were counting on him. Of course, it could have been any number of other things, but those were the relevant thoughts in my head.

We were so dead.

Speaking of deadness, I was contemplating my team’s prospects as I walked to Training Ground Three a while later. I had my paperwork rolled into a tightly bound scroll, which I’d stuck in my kunai pouch. I hadn’t even really taken much of a look at it since Sensei had given it to me. It brought up a lot of horrible thoughts about the myriad ways we could manage to die before we turned ten, and I didn’t really need any more.

“Oi, Pint-Sized Prophet. It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

Da-da-da-da, Rikuto Tetsuyama of the Chinatsugumi makes his grand reappearance!

It might have been a bit more impressive if he wasn’t carrying a pair of twin babies in slings, with one infant on his back and the other across his chest. Zakuro was walking next to him, looking distinctly amused even at my twitch of discomfort at being cornered, even if we were in the middle of a crowded street.

I did have a couple of things to ask them, though. Such as, in no particular order, what their kids’ names were, where the nickname had come from, when they were planning on leaving, and if they were planning on leaving at all now that their kids had been born.

So I did. All at once, and in one breath.

Not my finest moment.

“Miyu and Kazuki, because you are one, in about a month, and no.” Rikuto answered, smirking.

Wiseass.

Hey, you did write him.

That was before I had to deal with him.

“I heard the Chūnin Exams were going to be in a week or so, and I asked if we could stay for a bit.” Zakuro said, grinning. “I hope you make it to the finals so we can watch!”

Yeah, I was starting to hope I didn’t.

On one hand: promotions.

On the other: promotions, gladiator matches, and yet more missions Team Minato’s current setup barely allowed for, with a much higher chance of death. All before hitting puberty.

Rikuto gave me a funny look. “What’s the matter?”

“A lot, but not anything you can fix.” I said. “I’m going to train.”

Rikuto made a contemplative noise. “Well, how about I trade you something? A bit of information, in exchange for some advice.”

I looked at him. Did he seriously believe I was a precog?

“Half-Pint, I’ve been getting a weird feeling from you since we met, and I’m sure Chi-chan gave you the short version for easy understanding.” Rikuto said in a voice pitched to be ignored by any civilians. I felt a subtle shift in Zakuro’s chakra and knew that no one would notice us.

I could be dead in the street in half a blink and only a Hyūga would even spot my corpse.

Cheery thought.

“But frankly, I just get the feeling that you know way more than you’re saying.” Rikuto said. When I said nothing in response, he added, “Take it from an old spy, kid. I’ll have a couple more tidbits for you if you do.”

Well…I could tell him a couple of things that wouldn’t compromise the village.

I looked at the twins. One of them—I couldn’t even tell which was which, honestly, since babies are pretty much the same at that age, barring a significant anatomical difference—opened an eye and I saw teal. “I can’t be certain, but…”

Oh, it’s those two.

I looked Rikuto square in the eye. “How many people can hear us?”

“None!” Zakuro said cheerfully.

“Don’t trust Orochimaru of the Sannin at all.” I said bluntly. “The Chinatsugumi has so many kekkei genkai users that he won’t be able to resist going after you. His primary ambition may involve the Sharingan, but he’s got so many irons in the fire that he could build a wrought-iron fence.”

Rikuto and Zakuro paused, exchanging glances.

“I take it you haven’t mentioned this to your sensei or anyone else.” Rikuto said slowly, but he didn’t sound skeptical.

Old spy indeed. Jiraiya was maybe ten years older, and he wasn’t presumed dead.

I’d checked Sensei’s Bingo Book. Rikuto Tetsuyama, also known as the Stoneshaper during the Second Shinobi World War. He wasn’t quite old enough to be a contemporary to the likes of the Sannin or the White Fang, but he’d been a rising star. And then he’d quit the battlefield, taking out thirty Sand ninjas in a suicide mission that had turned out not to be, I guess. Not bad for someone who had to have been about Sensei’s age then.

“Who’d believe me?” I asked rhetorically. “The Legendary Sannin are practically the Founders for the new generation, and I don’t have any evidence other than a lot of disturbing dreams.”

“Hm. Actually, it meshes with a few rumors out of the Land of Rice Fields.” Rikuto said mildly. “I think I’ll have to put out some feelers, but I could easily come up with something for Chi-chan’s sake.”

…Okay then.

“Anything else you’re dying to tell us?” Rikuto asked.

“…Keep an eye on Hidden Cloud.” I said. “They tried to kidnap a Konoha kunoichi less than five years ago for her chakra, and they have their eye on the Byakugan. I can only guess that they’d be after any kekkei genkai they can grab.” What else, what else… “Don’t trust Danzō Shimura either—he might be an elder, and from a big-name clan, but he’s even more twisted than Orochimaru in some ways. He has a thing for traumatized orphans and not a lot of restraint in avoiding making them orphans. And stay safe. You’re the only people I’ve told this stuff to, so I hope you’ll be able to keep yourselves alive to act on it.”

Rikuto patted me on the head.

Apparently I just attracted people who did.

“You haven’t seen how stubbornly people can cling to life until you’ve met a missing-nin, Half-Pint.” Rikuto said. “And here’s my advice to you: Nothing in this exam is worth dying over. You keep yourself alive, too.”

“Also, if you see Akira-chan,” Zakuro put in, “try to remind him that spending time with his cousin is fine, but Chi-chan gets lonely at night.”

Ahahaha, no.

“So, Kushina-san found Akira-san?” I asked.

“Within a week. It was kind of disturbing, really.”

And as though on cue, Kushina rocketed by while dragging Akira by one arm. I think I caught something about “cool jutsu” before they were out of hearing range, with Sensei and Chinatsu determinedly chasing after them. They were all gone in a cloud of dust in less than four seconds.

“This is one crazy village.” Rikuto said mildly. “I like it here.”

Since Sensei was going to be busy for a while, I went to go see what Obito and Rin were up to.

It turned out that the answer was “not a lot.”

Obito was skipping rocks, all while rapidly chattering about whatever topic came to mind, while Rin humored him. If they weren’t training, that meant that Sensei had either already dismissed them or he’d never gotten around to telling them which drills to run today, what with Kushina being the world’s biggest distraction and mobile dust devil.

Or something.

“Hey, can I cut in for a second?” I asked.

“What, are you gonna run away after?” Obito asked, and the rock he’d thrown shot across the water, bouncing a cheerful four times. “Yes! New personal best.”

Simple feats of coordination: Used to impress girls since time immemorial.

“Yeah, I just have a couple things and then I’m gonna go bug someone else for a bit.” I said. I decided not to bother about the paperwork, then. What would happen, would happen. No use getting my team worked up over it.

“What things?” Rin asked, standing up.

“Oh, just a couple of training ideas.”

I hadn’t just been sitting on my ass worrying, after all.

My idea was simple, though that didn’t really mean much for its utility. It’s just that we only had so many options at our age and stamina and we’d never run full combat drills without a target.

But hey, why not?

Obito hadn’t figured out the trick to water walking just yet, while Rin and I had to learn enough chakra control bullshit to figure it out ourselves anyway. So while Rin and I walked out onto the river, Obito stood back and stretched his fingers, waiting.

Anyway, for my plan, we needed a bit of flexibility and a lot of practice. The idea was that, since Obito was the only one of us who knew any ranged combat jutsu, he’d try to box our enemy in and keep them from maneuvering out of my range. I was the best close combat fighter we had—given that Kakashi had been essentially excluded from the roster for this month—and had the longest reach inside of that category with my kodachi. Rin, though she was good at dodging and smarter than Obito, didn’t really have much to her arsenal other than utility jutsu. She would need to stay out of the line of fire entirely.

So, we were learning—or making ourselves learn—the art of dodging fireballs. I knew it could be done, since Obito’s signature Grand Fireball was pretty much useless against faster opponents. It was just a matter of getting used to his timing.

And then using Rin’s and my skills to destroy anyone who was dumb enough to think that fire was all we had to fight with. Jutsu weren’t the end-all of lethal tools in a shinobi’s arsenal, even if they were a pretty good place to start.

We ended up stopping after I dodged a little too late and the end of my fledgling ponytail caught fire. I cut the chakra to my feet and ended up getting dunked, but at least I wasn’t on fire anymore.

I guess I was due for a haircut anyway.

“You aren’t seriously planning to use that in a fight.” Kakashi said as I emerged from the water, shaking myself off like a dog. I mean, it wasn’t effective at all, but then I started wringing out my hitai-ate bandanna and decided I didn’t care anyway.

“It’s a work in progress.” I said, and then I started shaking out the burned bits of hair with my fingers. Blackened, nasty-smelling fragments fell out. Ugh.

Squelching water out of my sandals before taking them off, I made my way back to the bank and proceeded to take off my jacket, my T-shirt, and all of my weapon pouches (including my kodachi). That left me in pants, aesthetic bandages, and an undershirt.

Then I pulled out a kunai and started trimming my burned hair. It didn’t take all that long, really.

“Kei, are you okay?!” Obito shouted, running over. Rin was at his heels, and whipped around to place a glowing green hand against the back of my neck to heal me. I could probably have done it myself, but my brain was running on autopilot.

“Hm? Oh, yeah. I’m fine.” I said. “The water took care of the fiery bit and the fire chakra limits the heat bloom from the fireballs. I shouldn’t get anything worse than nasty sunburn.” I turned. “And thanks, Rin-chan.”

“No problem, Kei-senpai.” Rin replied. “Though I guess this means I should stock up on burn medication…”

I shrugged, as Obito turned red.

I was taking things a bit too calmly.

What, am I not supposed to be keeping you from panicking unnecessarily? Sheesh. That’s gratitude for you.

I’ll be fine, now. The shock’s over.

Also, where the fuck had Kakashi come from?

When a Mommy and a Daddy love each other very, very much…

I took that as a hint to just ignore her.

“Anyway, how’ve you been?” I asked, since I hadn’t seen him for about two days and that was kind of a record since Team Minato had been formed. And also because some retail shit you seriously can’t deprogram. It’s freaky.

“Fine.”

Fucked-up, Insecure, Neurotic and Emotional.

Do they make Adderall for split personalities?

“In that case, Sparky, do you have any pointers for us blundering amateurs? Preferably the easily-applied type of thing that means we don’t die.”

Kakashi gave me a baleful glare.

Then…

“It’d be a pain to break in new genin.”

Hahaha, predictable dickery! I’m onto you, Kakashi Hatake!

He did, in fact, give us a couple of very useful tips. Most of them didn’t actually have much to do with our technique (though he criticized that too), and more to do with the Exams in general and survival strategies. Obito bristled the whole time through, while Rin took mental notes and I continued to dry off, listening in a sort of meditation.

And then Sensei interrupted us. Yay, drill time.

You’ll just have to see what we came up with later.

Chapter Text

In hindsight, it might have been a better idea just to take my entry form for the Chūnin Exam that year and burn it.

Hindsight is twenty-twenty, after all.

Anyway, the day of the Exam dawned bright and horrendously early. I had breakfast with Mom and with Hayate, before he went off to school, and crammed all of my rations and tools into a special storage scroll Sensei had given me the night before, all tucked inside a backpack. All I needed to do, if I wanted my stuff back, would be to drip blood on the central seal while using chakra to activate it, somewhat like using a summoning contract.

“I know I said that it’s a Konoha-only Exam…but try to keep your head on straight.” Sensei had told me. “After the last try we had at an international version, I don’t think you can be too careful of the others.”

Technically, it’d only been tried a few times, and never between the same two nations. The attempts had…not ended well. Assassinations and general infiltration of enemy spies everywhere anyone looked.

I guess it would take the shock of the Third Shinobi World War, in total, to get everyone to sit down and shut up for a while. Shinobi as a social class tend to be paranoid bastards, and cramming a lot of paranoid people in a small space and offering any confirmation for any of the suspicions…

Yeah, I guess the Third Shinobi World War would be a little like World War One. We might (not) get twenty years of armistice for this one, though.

Personally, I would have liked to know how to make my own storage scrolls. Sensei, being one of like three Sealing masters in the village, could make them pretty much anytime he sat down with enough paper and ink, but none of us genin could, and neither could Kakashi as far as I could tell. Oh, I knew that he’d pick up something of the art later, like he seemed to do with everything (like the Rasengan, specifically), but that didn’t actually help us at the moment and I thought I could at least be okay at it. Even if I never learned to use them on the fly, like Sensei did.

Dad had known how to create his own explosives, after all. He hadn’t really gotten me started on much more than just the calligraphy and a couple of basic forms before he died, leaving me without the tools or experience necessary to create my own seals just yet, but it was a thought.

A thought involving the equivalent of the part where, in Jaws, a guy shoots a scuba tank and the pressurized air and metal and stuff blows the shark in half, anyway.

After swinging by the Uchiha district to pick Obito up from apartment, we both grabbed Rin before making our way to the administrative building. There were about ten of them around the Hokage’s Office/Academy/Mission Assignment Building mishmash of a structure, and no one seemed to find any reason to taunt the new prospective chūnin candidates.

I guess Kotetsu and Izumo were unique cases.

Granted, in the “present,” they were probably a year or two younger than my team, and therefore not much of a factor, but their genjutsu came to mind nonetheless.

I kind of wanted to know if that was just a thing for when there were foreign examinees or standard practice.

I cast my senses out as we approached the limits of my range (which was, depending on chakra masking or expression rates and wavelengths, about a hundred meters when in “active mode”), but I didn’t feel any active chakra usage. Well, that’s inaccurate, but genjutsu felt very distinctly clingy, and most of what I could feel was mostly like simmering water—it was probably the other examinees’ chakra agitated from nerves. I couldn’t get a lock on their location, mainly because I was too distracted by my own agitation.

“Nervous?” Obito piped up, making me glance at him. He was smiling, though it wasn’t quite reaching his eyes.

“Terrified.” I said bluntly.

The thing about kids is that they often rise to meet your expectations. They’re not often genuinely stupid; they just haven’t lived as long as adults have. Ignorant, rather.

Now, I’ll grant you that Obito has never been the sharpest kunai in the holster, but he’s not incapable of learning. He’d dealt with my intermittent freakouts long enough to get a handle on the pattern.

“What for?” Obito asked, rather than jumping down my throat about my lack of confidence in his or Rin’s skills.

“I’m a little nervous too, Obito.” Rin admitted. “We must be some of the youngest genin to make the attempt.”

“It’s not the young part that bothers me.” I said. “It’s the fact that we’ve only been genin for five months.”

I mean, shit, Kakashi at least waited for six with his genin team, later.

…Though that was due more to scheduling problems than anything.

“We have each other, though. That has to count for something.” Obito said, “And anyway, the exams are all Konoha genin only, so there’s nothing to worry about.”

It’s not as though Konoha shinobi have major grudges against each other, right? The Dreamer commented sarcastically. I suppose Neji almost killed Hinata by accident.

I could actually think of a few people I’d like to get my hands on, but this just seemed…off. I mean, I’d like to see how far I could push Matsumaru Uchiha, for one, but solving my personal issues with someone who was nominally a comrade by punching them stupid just didn’t seem like the right thing to do. Call me crazy, but I was okay with fighting enemies. They were usually clearly indicated, what with the attempted murder right off the bat. But fighting fellow Leaf shinobi over something as trivial as a promotion…

The Dreamer asked, What will happen if you’re matched up against Rin or Obito in the finals?

…Shit. I didn’t know.

I’ll have to get far enough for that to even be a problem, first. I replied, Most teams didn’t even make it that far.

Seemed a little shallow to me, though. I was putting off the future in case it didn’t actually come around, but the possibility remained. If our team made it to the finals intact—though, granted, we’d have to survive the gauntlet of other genin first—we might end up squaring off against each other. I couldn’t say for sure how that would go, only that it would be difficult to put on a show with my stomach twisting in guilt and I should not be doing this.

What about a sacrifice play?

Also known as the other Big Problem.

I had a theory about the First Exam, even if I didn’t particularly want to voice it then, but the looming shadow of the Kannabi Bridge mission was still there, casting reality in a strange and terrible darkness. But…if it came down to one of us…

“I think we need to have a leader, before we go in.” Rin said as we approached, quietly. “So we don’t argue about what to do.”

“Like Sensei?” Obito asked.

“Or Akihito-shishō.” Rin agreed. “Just to keep us pointed the right way.”

This is going somewhere weird.

“Usually we either argue or Sensei just kinda leads us onward.” I pointed out. “Sometimes Kakashi does, but that doesn’t happen often and we complain when it does.”

Well, mostly Obito did.

“Still, it would make things simpler.” Rin said.

Jeez, Rin must have hated leading more than I did. I usually just went with whoever had the strongest personality, since most of what we dealt with as genin was low-risk enough to allow it. Thinking, management, and social skills didn’t necessarily factor into it. It was easier than making all the decisions and…

Obito frowned in thought.

Then he and Rin exchanged a look.

I had a sudden sinking feeling.

“No.” I said instantly.

“Come on, Kei! You can do this!” Obito wheedled.

“You’re putting your lives in my hands!” I hissed back, aware that we were still in the street and could be easily overheard. “That’s crazy!”

“Who else are we supposed to trust; the other teams?” Rin asked. I snapped my mouth shut so fast my teeth clicked. She had a point, and a look in her eye that was actually pretty scary. Obito probably barely knew that Rin had a core of steel, given that flashback sequence before his Tobi-mask cracked off (another side, another story, and another life). “We’ll all be looking out for each other too, but you’re just going to call the fights before they start.”

“Look, Sensei and—and Kakashi aren’t here.” Obito said, scowling. It must have stung to admit that Kakashi was better at anything, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. His face relaxed. “I know we haven’t been friends for a super-long time, but you can do this.”

I wondered, in a somewhat distant way, if this was what having Naruto reassure you was like. It felt good, but kind of scary at the same time. Naruto was never really relying on the object of his attention/conversion attempt to save his life. Obito and Rin might be, later.

“…We’ll see how it goes.” I said, grudgingly. “I really don’t want to do it, but…”

Rin and Obito high-fived.

“You suck.” I said.

Then we made our way inside the exam building.

I’ll say this for Konoha—we know how to make a reception hall. Must be all the wood.

(Yes, this sounds like I’m damning my own hometown’s construction ethos with faint praise, but there’s a reason the building is important to me. Hang on.)

Honestly, if not for the desks lining one wall, we could have been in my old university’s meeting hall. The room was mostly wide open space, with wooden floors and smooth plaster walls and huge windows to let the sun shine in. Probably saved them a load on lighting bills. There was a raised stage to one side, with a wheeled podium for whoever felt like making a speech or taking cover, and the administration had helpfully put signup tables everywhere so there weren’t long waiting lines for the Exam. The room was pretty crowded despite that, with genin of every age and their jōnin sensei as well, and there was a steady roar of voices that echoed off the walls and high ceilings.

But if you looked closely, you’d see something a little less like a parent-teacher conference and something a little more like what it actually was. The windows had a strange tint to them that I was pretty sure meant shatterproof—or at least storm/jutsu-proof—glass, and there was a mirror against the base of the stage that might have been one-way. The doors themselves, unlike my auditorium of old, were lined with metal and I could see the faintest glimmer of shinobi wire. The building itself hummed with the chakra of well-maintained genjutsu traps in case of rowdiness.

Just from the entrance, I could see Gai and Ebisu with their teams. Gai was actually one of the shorter kids over there, though Asuma and Kurenai were in the room with their sensei as well. Going by the hair and the senbon, I guessed that Genma was the kid hanging out with Bandage-nose—oh, that was Raidō—on the edge of the stage. Hm. Genma wasn’t a chūnin yet, apparently, but Raidō was gonna be one of our proctors, going by flak jacket.

That kid over there seems to be Aoba Yamashiro. Second goofball on the right and straight on until you hit a wall. And…that guy looks like Ibiki Morino. You know, back when he had hair.

Instead of focusing on Aoba or Ibiki, I caught a glimpse of a man with red, ringed eyes that matched Kurenai’s perfectly, though I was pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to see him. There was the shimmer of a genjutsu around him, but my chakra sense and a silent kai had dislodged it. Maybe he was gonna be a proctor?

The Dreamer commented, This is an auspicious time.

Nice of fate to get all our minor players in one place like that.

Interestingly, it was a lot less hostile than I expected. While granted, this exam was pretty insular and I could name about a fifth of the participants on my own, I was still surprised to find that no one seemed to care all that much that rookies were entering the exam this time around. Actually, some of the looks I got from the other teams were downright respectful, which is something I am absolutely sure I could not have done anything to earn in the timeframe I had been a genin.

“Ah, Keisuke-san! Obito-san, Rin-san! I see that you have decided to join our most youthful exam event!” Gai shouted, making his way across the room with the kind of speed I doubted Kakashi could match.

“Hi again, Gai-san. It’s been a while.” I said, stepping forward.

“Far too long!” Gai agreed enthusiastically, taking my offered hand and shaking it every bit as hard as he did the first time we met. I wasn’t gonna have feeling in my fingers soon enough.

“Oh, you’re Maito Gai?” Rin frowned suddenly. “You’re a terrible flight risk at the hospital! The doctors and nurses complain that you always break out to go train more.”

“The power of youth cannot be contained by four square walls!”

“Or restraints, apparently.” I muttered under my breath.

Obito frowned. “Say, Gai, how many times have you taken the exams?”

“Only once, now!” Gai said brightly. “I have no doubt that we shall triumph as only those with true determination can.”

Well, I could honestly say that a lack of determination wasn’t going to mean much. In that giving up seemed more and more attractive the longer I thought of it, and that I was all kinds of dead the second I said as much. At least Gai was distracting.

I managed to spot Ebisu coming before he poked Gai in the shoulder.

Ebisu had grown up in the previous eight years. He was taller, obviously, and his hair was all swept out to one side like a J-rocker or an anime character. His cheekbones were just starting to become the jutting monsters they would be once he was grown up (I kid, I kid), and he seemed to have already started wearing the perfectly rounded shades he was known for.

“Gai-kun, if you don’t mind…” Ebisu said calmly.

“Hello, Ebisu-san.” I said. “Do you remember me?”

He adjusted his glasses with his index and middle finger, sort of like how I used to. “Have we met?”

Kinda-sorta. Same thing with Genma.

I said, “You’re in a picture my mom took of my first birthday. Your mom got me hairbows.”

Ebisu’s eyebrows rose, along with a faint flush in his cheeks. “Sorry, I still can’t recall meeting you before.”

“Since you would’ve been like three, I can see why not.” Obito said under his breath.

“Shush, Obito.” I said.

Gai had apparently had enough of waiting for Ebisu to get back to what he’d been trying to say before I cut in. “Obito-san, I challenge you!”

Obito blinked. Then, “Bring it!”

At least Gai had to let go of my hand to issue a challenge properly. I was really going to have to stop shaking hands with the guy.

“Oi, Gai, don’t go picking on the kids before the fights start up.” Genma called out from the stage.

I glanced his way. “Teammate?”

“Unfortunately yes.” Ebisu said with a sigh. “Our team’s roster has been…shifting, lately.”

Shit. Ebisu had managed to convey more than he thought, just with one sentence. Most of the time, genin teams were made up of kids who were around the same age, in order to account for things like differing promotion rates and (lack of) experience. Exceptions tended to be due to either exceptional skill or casualties—sort of the difference between the Sand Siblings and post-Kannabi Team Minato. Ebisu and Gai were close enough—two years difference, basically—but Genma was around thirteen. Maybe twelve. Raidō was probably fifteen, though I didn’t know whose team he was on. I had no idea if their original teams had suffered normal injuries, career-ending injuries, or worse.

The oldest likely-genin in the room was a Hyūga girl with long, purplish-bluish dark hair. She looked about sixteen or so, and was one of two major-clan genin around—the other was, well, Obito. I had no idea what team she was on, but I wondered if her team had died or simply been promoted without her.

I wondered if that would happen to our team.

“I’m sorry.” I said to Ebisu, empathy making my voice much more emotive than normal.

“It’s a part of life.” Ebisu said, frowning. “But I accept your apology anyway.”

“What are you two talking about?” Obito demanded, even though Gai had him in a loose version of a full nelson.

“Gai-san, let go of Obito!” Rin’s hands were glowing—if she wanted to, she could knock Gai silly for at least twenty minutes with a feather-light touch. That chakra was designed solely to incapacitate, though it had a tendency toward friendly fire.

“Give it a rest, Gai.” Genma said sharply, but no one listened.

There was a crack of displaced air, and suddenly Sensei was standing to Gai’s left. Kakashi was there too, sort of half-hidden behind Sensei, and he looked somewhat peeved. I just wasn’t precisely sure why.

“…Well, you’ve certainly settled in just fine.” Sensei said, apropos of nothing.

“Hello, Minato-sensei!” Gai said brightly.

“Hi again, Gai-kun. Mind letting go of Obito before he faints of oxygen deprivation?”

“I will not faint.” Obito argued, but Gai let go anyway. Obito rolled one shoulder, grimacing, and Rin immediately moved to take care of his (superficial) tweaked joints.

“Because blacking out is manlier.” I muttered, shaking my head. Oh well. “Anyway, Sensei, Kakashi, are you here to see us off?”

“Obviously.” Kakashi said, mostly under his breath.

I raised an eyebrow at him, while Sensei’s hand landed on his head. Sensei smiled. “Don’t worry, Kei-kun. He’s just worried.”

I looked at him. He…didn’t exactly look worried. More annoyed at being caught out being possibly worried because it would damage his street cred.

Is that a blush?

The parallels between Kakashi and Sasuke were looking stronger than ever, then.

“Really.” Sensei assured me.

“…Thanks, then. Anyway, are we gonna do this?” I asked.

“Yep.” Sensei replied.

“FORM UP, KONOHA GENIN!” someone shouted. Everyone in the room—particularly the older genin and some chūnin, who seemed a little keyed up—jumped. Sensei reached over and turned both Obito and Rin toward the stage manually, while I was already looking in that direction anyway. All around us, heads whipped around to where the red-eyed man was standing, center-stage.

He seemed to have kicked both Raidō and Genma off the stage pretty much just because.

“Welcome to the Chūnin Exams,” he said, much quieter now that we were all paying attention. “Some of you may have been here before, whether six months ago or longer. Some of you are new. I am Shinku Yūhi, and I will be the examiner for the Second Exam of this multi-phase single-elimination event.” His red eyes swept the room, searching for weakness. “But first, you must make it past my partner. And most of you will not.”

There was a steady buzzing sound, just hovering on the edge of hearing, and I turned my head toward what felt like a hundred thousand tiny chakra signatures grouped around a much larger one—sort of like ants around an anthill, or a termite mound.

And then, out of what seemed like nowhere, there was suddenly an additional special jōnin in the room.

He was taller than Sensei, wearing a high-collared coat that masked the lower half of his face. He had a pair of dark sunglasses over his eyes, and I thought I saw…yep. Those were holes. For the kikai insects.

Shinku Yūhi smirked. “Meet Shibi Aburame, the proctor of the First Exam.”

…You know what? Bring it on.

Chapter Text

The thing about the Chūnin Exam is this—it is, ultimately, a test of squad leader aptitude. Chūnin-level shinobi can be trusted to lead groups of genin on C- and the occasional B-ranked mission with minimal loss of life and limb, make tactical decisions on a unit or squadron level, and have an understanding of what to do and how when worst comes to worst on a battlefield. Again, on a limited command level.

In my old world’s military parlance, genin were roughly analogous to privates—there were and pretty much always are tons of them, and they weren’t specialized yet. Chūnin were sergeants or perhaps lieutenants in major combat operations, usually managing squads of genin or less-experienced chūnin. Specialist or special jōnin were one step up, serving full jōnin in their specialized areas—often, they had roles not tied to the battlefield. Ibiki would grow up to be like that—master interrogator, but somewhat lackluster in open combat. Full jonin could occupy any upper-level command role depending on their experience and aptitude, from captain to major to colonel to general.

And I, a genin of five months, had been made impromptu squad leader—as though all of our superior officers had been killed by a mortar in the right place.

“Well, this is gonna be fun.” I said, my tone dripping with sarcasm. Obito grinned.

“Please report to the front desk for your seat assignment.” Shinku said. “After you get your number, get to your seat immediately. There will be points deducted for tardiness.”

In other words, Obito was screwed.

Everyone else seemed to be getting in line, though.

“Later, Gai. See you in the finals!” Obito said, lightly punching the much stronger genin’s shoulder.

“I hope to see you later in this exam as well, Obito-san! And you, Rin-san, and Keisuke-san!” And then he was gone.

I could only assume that anyone who pissed Kakashi off was Obito’s new best friend or something.

“At this point,” Sensei told us quietly, “Kakashi and I will have to leave you three here. If you pass the Second Exam, we’ll be waiting for you at the end. If you don’t…” Here, he winked, “Yamaguchi-sensei will see you in the hospital.”

Obito made a face. “Sensei, don’t you have any faith in us?”

Rin said, “I do.” It made Obito blush.

I sure as hell didn’t. But I kept my mouth shut.

“Kei-kun?” Sensei asked.

I could feel my teammates’ eyes drilling into me.

“What the hell.” I said. “Let’s get started.”

Rin and Obito gave a whoop and headed toward the line.

Then Sensei disappeared. Kakashi was still there, though.

Kakashi made a chuffing noise that might have been a scoff or a laugh, and said, “Don’t make me have to come in there and rescue you from all the bugs in the second stage.”

“Why, Kakashi, you almost sound like you care.” I said flatly. I spread my arms out wide. Funnily enough, I still had more reach than he did. “Hug for good luck?”

Kakashi made a face. “Not on your life.”

I stuck my tongue out at him.

And then he was gone. Stupid chūnin tricks.

Okay then.

“Name?” Raidō said, once I got to the front. He didn’t bother looking up.

“Gekkō, Keisuke.”

“All right. Seat sixteen in room 115. Get going.”

I didn’t actually leave until I was sure my teammates had gotten out of the crowd okay. Call me crazy, but I really didn’t want to see anything happen to them before stuff got serious.

“You don’t need to hover, Kei-senpai.” Rin said.

“The hell I don’t.” I said.

“Let’s just get going before we get demerits for being late or something.” Obito said, and ushered us kunoichi along.

“So, what seats did you get?” Rin asked us, once we were out of earshot of the assistant chūnin mob.

I replied, “Sixteen. You?”

“Forty-seven.” Obito said.

“Four.” Rin concluded. “We’ve been split up.”

Thank the gods that Obito had only been cursed with a short attention span. I don’t think I could have taken it if he’d also had a terrible sense of direction.

(Speaking of which, my sense of direction had actually gotten better since I had been reincarnated. Mostly because, now, I oriented myself by finding the strongest friendly chakra signature and heading that way, depending on the circumstances. It was like being a human-shaped homing pigeon.)

Anyway, we made our way to the room. It was on the first floor of the building, as the number implied, and…going by the way the rooms were numbered, it wasn’t going to have any windows. It kind of reminded me of my old university building, where about half the rooms were built into the side of a hill. Only…there weren’t any hills in Konoha proper.

And, just to make things better, I could feel my chakra reserves depleting at a steady, if slow, rate.

The trick, which I always knew had to be there, started with the seat placements. Going by the general Konoha philosophy of “Teamwork Conquers All”—which was the sort of thing that, while safe and reasonable in my old life, was repeatedly shown to be bullshit by the Naruto series proper—it made sense for most teams to stick together. Group work, group planning, group action, and occasional group punishment or annihilation. Go, team.

That did not seem to be the sentiment they were promoting today, exactly.

Add in the chakra drain, probably courtesy of a female kikai insect that had crept onto me at some point in the previous few minutes, and it looked like a stress-test was in order.

If the pattern held true from what I’d seen, this would be a test of resolve.

At least, I hoped so.

I hate pop quizzes. Forever and ever.

Anyway. We got to the room, we went to our assigned seats, and sat down. I think the room had enough space for about a hundred and twenty entrants, which left our crowd with plenty of room between each participant.

If this was anything like the Chūnin Exam that would take place fifteen years in the future, we’d have to have some kind of plan for possibly cheating our way out of the majority of the pressure. Teams that had successfully answered nine of Ibiki’s “ten” questions then could have been reasonably certain that they could face any hypothetical tenth scenario, even if most of them had to cheat to do it. I was, for my part, reasonably sure that Rin and I could answer most of the questions just because we’d been extremely good students before. That was probably our saving grace—neither of us had any extra skills that made cheating a viable option, and Obito hadn’t gained access to his Sharingan yet. As far as a covert team—at least in terms of gathering information in a rigorously scrutinized area with no real preparation time—went, we were sorely outclassed.

I’m pretty sure I could have snuck past chūnin with judicious use of Transformation, Clone, and Camouflage Jutsu, though.

Shibi Aburame stood at the front of the room, even though I was pretty sure none of us had actually seen him enter at all and he definitely hadn’t been there when we started.

“Welcome to the First Exam,” Shibi said, in his barely-audible way. Everyone had to shut up—even if it was by force—just to hear what he was saying.

“Why can’t he speak up?” someone next to me muttered, and I turned my head to spot Genma Shiranui taking up space to my left, flicking a senbon from one side of his mouth to the other every few seconds.

I sighed internally and let my head drop onto the desk. I didn’t get anything like enough sleep the previous night.

I’m absolutely sure Shibi said something about cheating. Though I can’t recall what. All I really remember about those first few minutes involves how sleepy I was, and how the walls didn’t quite seem to be lining up with how I understood dimensions.

Release!

It was getting really, really annoying to find out how many genjutsu could sneak right past my defenses.

Though… Oh hell. The walls weren’t moving because I’d been poisoned with a hallucinogen, or because of a genjutsu—those were camouflaged kikai insects.

I don’t have much against bugs, personally. Like, I’ve never been stung by a bee or had much worse than mosquito bites. But that’s small peanuts compared to waking up one day and realizing that the entire room is covered from floor to ceiling in bugs.

Around me, everyone else seemed to be realizing the problem in a sort of ninja version of the Wave. Basically, one genin would freak out, followed by the closest neighbors, and so on. Mostly, the kunoichi seemed to be having the most dramatic reactions, sans Rin and the Hyūga girl (while Obito made up for them both with his enthusiastic flailing), but no one was taking it stoically.

Except the proctor, who commanded said bugs.

Shibi waited for us to quiet down before saying, “…Finally, if you cannot perform in an environment within which your opponent holds all the cards, you might as well roll over and die.”

Cheerful thought.

“You may begin your test.”

Speaking of which, the tests arrived on the backs of several large kikai-variant insects. Most kikai weren’t longer than the length of a fingernail, but these…I guess they might have been soldiers or something. Anyway, no one was dumb enough to squash them once the sheets were delivered. Not only was that bad manners (since there was an Aburame in the room), it was also pretty liable to get someone drained of all their chakra (since there was an Aburame in the room). Maybe a foreign team might have flipped out, but Konoha genin knew better, apparently.

After all that, I still wasn’t exactly sure there was a sleep genjutsu in the room at all. Maybe I just needed to invest in a white noise generator or something.

Too bad I couldn’t handle coffee as a kid.

I scanned the questions, thanking the kikai insects that were handing out pencils under my breath. No need to antagonize the chakra-eating monsters while I didn’t have all that much to start with.

Describe the strategies used by the Second Hokage during the first three months of the First Shinobi World War.

That was easy. The term I’d have used in my old life was a “Fabian strategy,” which basically amounted to tracking down and eliminating the scouts and/or foraging parties of a larger enemy force, never directly engaging the opposition while nonetheless wearing them down. A war of attrition, in a larger conflict that had put Konoha up against the superior militaries of Kumogakure and Iwagakure (though not their full might) as well as that of Sunagakure—at the time, we couldn’t afford anything else.

And yet we were still alive. Go us.

Name the four chokepoints used by…

Basically, there was a lot of history.

If a kunai is thrown from point [x] to point [y] while the target is moving at a rate of [z] k/h

And the kind of math that made me wish I had a calculator.

Name the second principle of medical ninja regulations as handed down by Tsunade of the Sannin…

And some stuff I was pretty sure a genin wouldn’t know solely because genin didn’t specialize to the same degree that chūnin did.

Obito isn’t going to know any of this.

But Rin would.

I’d have killed for access to, say, the Shadow Possession Jutsu. That way I’d be able to help Obito and Rin out as needed.

But nope.

I wrote down all of my answers, at least. Yay, progress.

For the rest of the time, though, I decided to take a nap rather than get caught blatantly trying to help Obito or Rin cheat. Anyway, Rin would have to turn around, which was also hilariously blatant and therefore completely not going to happen.

It’d have been easier if I could somehow…I don’t know, translate chakra and ping my answers off Obito’s head or something. This would only have worked if several breakthroughs in the name of chakra communication and Obito’s brain happened in the next couple of minutes.

Or if I’d reinvented Morse code ahead of time.

Or if Obito was a Yamanaka, I guess.

About five minutes until the end, everyone was starting to sweat bullets if they hadn’t already. Next to me, Genma had tried to cheat off me twice (to no avail, because I was drowsing literally on top of my test sheet, which was face-down, besides), while I could sense a variety of chakra techniques being used to gather information. While we didn’t have the Suna genin in this exam, and the only Aburame was the proctor and not the examinee, we still had our share of inventive cheating techniques.

The Byakugan was in use, of course, as was something involving the mirrors on the ceiling. I think someone might have been casting a genjutsu on their teammate to get a message across that way, too.

Actually…

How about Demonic Illusion: Hell Viewing Technique?

The Dreamer knew the hand seals for it (snake, rat), and I was pretty sure I could control the images my teammates saw…

Pretty sure. Not exactly. I wish I’d remembered to get someone to “teach” me the technique, because frankly the seals and the name of the damn thing weren’t enough to go on. I’d only seen it used once, before my reincarnation, and that had been to expose one of Sakura’s then-worst nightmares (as seen through the lens of a jōnin Kakashi with zero reason to take her seriously).

It ended up being something of a moot point, because that was about the time I felt an actual genjutsu settle over the entire room.

This time, I was ready for it. So was the Dreamer.

Release.

And then I cast outward with my chakra sense, searching for the likeliest source as well as checking the status of my teammates.

It didn’t quite feel like something Shibi would be willing to do, but I couldn’t dismiss the possibility that Shinku had once again stepped in on his fellow proctor’s behalf. Rin had dispelled the genjutsu near-instantly, going by the way her chakra was moving smoothly and without agitation compared to, say, Genma’s.

I guess genjutsu wasn’t his specialty. Either that or the pressure really was getting to him.

On the other hand, though, Obito’s chakra was moving oddly and I was pretty sure he was stuck in the illusion.

While area-affecting genjutsu were rare, as well as expensive to maintain, I think that the variant we were being hit with was self-sustaining once it had a hook in the victim’s chakra coils. Obito, having somewhat terrible control and lower awareness of his chakra’s feel, might have been more vulnerable than Rin or I.

There are, technically, two ways to dispel a genjutsu. One: Disrupt your own chakra. Usually, that’s where the whole chakra flaring dispel technique comes from, though suppressing it works just as well. Two: Disrupt your opponent’s chakra, usually by inflicting pain.

There was a third way, though. Sort of. It’s really more of a variation of the first, and has a range limited by chakra supply. I was already operating under the strain of a constant kikai drain, as well as the understanding that chakra flaring was hard. Basically, if the normal two methods were analogous to either pulling a fishing hook out or snapping the line, this one involved reaching out and pulling the hooks out of someone else.

And chakra, outside of the body without a specific shape, was a bitch to maintain.

But I wasn’t going to let Obito get beaten down by something like that.

Here, let me help.

The Dreamer’s chakra was all yin-aligned—spiritual stuff, genjutsu stuff, and maybe something involving clams.

Anyway, we reached out with our shared pool of yin-aligned chakra, which was a lot deeper than I’d expected after only nine and a half months, and basically slapped the genjutsu out of Obito’s chakra coils.

I am absolutely sure that the Hyūga girl knew exactly what I was doing.

Funnily enough, Obito didn’t. While his chakra was back to normal, he did spend a good few seconds being rather nervous about something.

Oh well. I’d let him know later.

Three minutes left.

I drew a rather crappy sketch of a pug stuck on a tire swing on the back of my test. Not because I was bored, exactly, but…okay, yeah, I was bored and impatient and it’d been ages since I had a chance to draw something silly.

The pug looked kind of like Pakkun. Only fat.

Anyway, the test ended. I think maybe half of the participants had therefore spent five minutes under genjutsu, without anyone to dismiss it for them or the training to recognize the problem. Then whoever had cast it—probably Shinku—finally let up.

There was a lot of blinking and general “oh my god did I really leave the last three questions blank” going on.

“The testing period has concluded. Please place your pencils on the desks—my partners will retrieve them as well as your tests.” Shibi said when the genin finally managed to focus on him. “And now, you will face your true test.”

There was a bit of a hubbub at that. Test? What test? Weren’t we already in one?

(Also, about twelve people had been disqualified for excessively obvious cheating while I wasn’t paying attention. I’d guess that at least three of them were chūnin plants, though, because their chakra coils felt different than most of the others’.)

I levered myself up so the kikai insects could take my test and pencil away, and then propped my head up on the heels of my hands. This could go any of a dozen ways…

“Perhaps some of you have already noticed.” Shibi went on, quietly. “Are you quite certain that the teammates you came into this room with are the same ones here now?”

Oooh, sneaky. Anyone without some genjutsu experience would be reeling from the lost time, while everyone who wasn’t could be under suspicion of being a spy. After all, Shibi still hadn’t given us permission to talk without losing more points.

Having been perfectly cognizant the whole time, I could state that, in fact, no one had actually moved around the room at all. No genin, and no chūnin. And yet, aside from the Byakugan, there was no way to be sure about that without being a sensor.

And sometimes even then. After all, the Zetsu clones had made a mockery of security during the Fourth Shinobi World War.

“Those teams that attempt to move on from here may attempt to correctly answer the tenth question.” Shibi said. “But if you pass, and your trust is misplaced, you risk bringing a spy along to the next Exam.” I wondered if he was smirking behind his collar. “Leave now, and you will have a chance to take the exam again next year—it would be rather difficult to do so after your traitor has dropped you directly into an enemy ambush in hostile territory.”

Ergo, half the training fields in Konoha. I swear we weren’t consciously trying to kill off our genin, though sometimes it seemed like criminal neglect. Shit happens.

Shibi gave us a few minutes to process that.

Someone—a chūnin plant to breach the dam—said “I’m out.” And he was escorted to the door by a swarm of kikai, along with his team. The insects actually seemed to be there to guard them from any attacks from the rear. After that, teams started dropping like—well, pardon the pun—flies. By the end, there were only sixteen teams left in the room.

Meanwhile, I was wrestling over which option was the right one. What was the lesson here? Trust in your comrades, or take time off to beat a potential spy for information? The latter, while significantly less child-friendly, was probably more practical.

Again, it came down to ideals.

I looked at Rin, who gave me a faint smile despite her nervousness.

I turned around in my seat and looked at Obito, who looked a little green around the gills.

I tried to smile for his sake, though my stomach was doing crazy flips.

While, technically, we can afford to screw up here, I’d really prefer if we didn’t.

That makes two of us.

Fuck it. I’d see this through. The worst they could do was make us take a year off from this examination bullshit, which was something we kind of desperately needed anyway. I turned back to the proctor.

Shibi turned his head slightly from side to side, examining us. “…So much naïveté.”

Not a good sign.

I gulped.

“…No one else will take the practical route?” Shibi asked.

No one said anything.

“I see.” Shibi sighed. “In that case, you are now qualified to take the Second Exam.”

“What?!” Obito shouted. “But what about the tenth question, or the spy?”

Shibi gave Obito such a long, considering look that he started to squirm in his seat. Then the Aburame adjusted his shades and said, “There was never a tenth question. Or a spy. The goal was to see who of our current class of aspiring chūnin would be willing to trust in their teammates for the foreseeable future. Without trust and teamwork, there is no team. There are simply overworked and underpaid shinobi with no loyalty, and will collapse under pressure.

“We cannot afford to be so divided.” Shibi said bluntly. “In war, we will either band together or die alone—we are not the most militarily powerful village, and it is only our trust in our comrades and the strength of our bonds that will keep our village strong.

“Remember that.”

Someone had taken Sakumo Hatake’s lesson to heart.

“And the genjutsu?” I spoke up, frowning. Not that I’d even seen anything in it…

“A cheap trick designed to play on your fears.” Shibi explained. “Suspicion and paranoia may characterize some shinobi for their whole careers, but you cannot afford to allow yourself to be ruled by fear.” His insects buzzed against the walls. “That way lies madness.”

…I hate this time period.

“But—!” someone began, but Shibi shook his head.

“Spies are a fact of life.” Shibi told us. “But look to your friends and comrades here. Know their faces. Their habits. Their pasts. Trust in your team, and they will bring you home.”

…I still hate this time period. Just a little less so.

“Dismissed. You will be meeting Yūhi-san in the auditorium for your Second Exam.”

Needless to say, we kind of stampeded out of there.

“How did you know it wasn’t real?” Obito asked once we were out of earshot of pretty much everyone.

“Um, I’m sensitive to genjutsu.” I said. “Also, I thought the walls were literally closing in, which…was kinda funny. Not funny ‘ha-ha’ but more funny ‘oh shit.’”

“Same here, sort of.” Rin said. “Only I was focusing on the leaves…”

There had been leaves? And here I got the pot hallucinations, which had turned out to be totally real.

Obito flushed. “Oh, I…didn’t really see any of that. I mean. It just kinda ended. Out of nowhere.”

“Yeah, that was me.” I told him. He blinked. I explained, “I’ve never done a ranged dispel before, but I think I got it right. Right?”

“Oh, uh. Yeah.” Obito mumbled.

“What’d they make you see?” I asked.

Obito was quiet for a strangely long and incredibly awkward moment.

“Obito?” Rin tried.

And then, nearly so quiet as to be a perfect mimicry of Shibi Aburame, “I saw you die.”

…What, exactly, was I supposed to say to that?

“It wasn’t real, though.” Rin said. “And we’re fine!”

“Yeah, but I thought it wasn’t real because I saw that Kei was fine earlier and then the proctor was talking about a spy and…uh. Yeah. Not my best moment.” Obito said.

“Wait, just me?” I asked, frowning. “Because I thought for sure that it’d be both of us.”

Either that meant that Obito thought I was a more likely candidate for a kill-and-replace scenario than Rin, or I needed to invest in anti-paranoia meds.

“No.” Obito said.

“Maybe it’s because you two have been teammates longer?” Rin suggested, though she didn’t sound sure of herself.

“…I dunno.” I said. “But we’re wasting daylight.”

Unspoken…well, let’s just say I was glad it was a vision of me dying and not Rin. No telling what would happen there.

Or rather, I would really prefer if the possible consequences for that stayed the hell off my radar forever.

Chapter Text

We ended up heading back to the same room we’d started out in, since I guess there was really only so much you could do to shuffle forty-eight genin around. And yeah, there really were a full forty-eight of us, from the ages of nine—my team, as well as Team Asuma (since I had no idea who their sensei was)—to fifteen or sixteen. No sensei groups running around, though—Raidō was there, with a bunch of other chūnin assistants. I kind of wondered if there was some…faculty room solely for the jōnin who were waiting for their students to get their asses in gear.

Hm. I suppose if I ever got that far, I’d find out.

Anyway, Shinku Yūhi was on the stage again, saying, “The Second Exam will take place in one hour at Training Ground Forty-Four. All paperwork and registration will be completed on-site at the time of entry.” He glared out at all of us. Tardiness will not be tolerated. There will be no late entrants.”

…I was starting to get the feeling that Kakashi only got away with half the shit he did either because Shinku Yūhi was dead in the future, or because he was just that good. Sort of like Gai, but not.

Anyway, as the crowd thinned out, we of Team Minato filed out as well.

“That…could have gone worse, but it could have gone better, too.” I said.

“It’s not like we had any ridiculous cheating skills.” Obito pointed out.

“Yeah, I know, but it’d’ve been nice to be able to get more of a read on the other teams before we got shoved into the Forest of Death.” I replied.

“…The Forest of Death?” Rin asked.

“It’s a nickname.” I said as we walked. Obito was to my right, with Rin on his. We were kinda flanking the only guy on our team for some reason I really couldn’t name. “It’s a training field that’s about twenty kilometers across, with a river running through and a tower in the middle. Mom said it’s where they usually hold the Chūnin Exams. Or, well, the survival test part of it.”

Okay, so Mom never said that, but I was a busybody and could see (a version of) the future. I had connections that I had totally made up myself.

Or made up of ourselves, perhaps.

“How bad can it be?” Obito sounded like he’d like to scoff, but wasn’t quite managing it. The genjutsu must have shaken him up pretty badly.

“Three words: Three-meter centipedes.”

We all shuddered.

“Who—why do people even have things like that? Because you can’t tell me that having a huge forest full of super-bugs is a good idea.” Obito complained. “We could just, say, burn the whole thing down and start over without the huge bugs and whatever else’s in there.”

That’d be like the Spartans handing one of their recruits a free meal, with no killing or cheating or stealing required. Too easy.

I hated the whole ninja way of life sometimes.

“I think Training Ground Zero is like that.” I said, thinking of what amounted to killer wildlife—the kind that was totally trained to be killer wildlife. Boxing kangaroos and stuff. The only reason they were all still alive was because someone at some point had said, “BUT WHAT ABOUT THE POOR ANIMALS.”

(Personally, I thought that any animal that could beat a chūnin down probably needed a hitai-ate and a place in the chain of command, but that was just my opinion.)

So, no one technically trained there. It was a wildlife preserve.

Rin blinked. “We have a Training Ground Zero?”

I nodded. “It’s only called that because no one uses it. Ever.”

“Bah. If you want to train and there aren’t any public fields open, just come over to the Uchiha district.” Obito said, interlacing his fingers behind his head. “No one’s ever in the one near my house.”

“Aw, I might just take you up on that someday. Just to see your stupid cousins’ faces.” I poked Obito in the side, making him flail around. Like a lot of kids, Obito was ticklish. Horribly so. It was also completely hilarious.

“Kei, don’t do that!” Obito whined, having slapped my hands away.

I stuck my tongue out at him. “When am I gonna get a chance to tease you in the exam zone? Never! So I’m preparing.”

Obito made a face.

“Kei-senpai, stop picking on Obito.” Rin said. “You’re supposed to be the team leader now, and you have a responsibility to be professional.”

I thought about that. I really did.

“Nope.” I said, and slung one of my arms around Obito’s shoulders. God, the kid needed to damn well start growing or I was gonna be the biggest kid on Team Minato and be able to pull off being a boy forever and that would be tragic. “Professional stuff is for Kakashi, and he isn’t here. So clearly, I need to forge my own leaderly path.”

“‘Leaderly’ isn’t a word.” Obito said bluntly, though he didn’t push me away.

“It’s a word if people say it enough.” I replied. “And anyway, do you feel picked-on, Obito?”

“I feel like an armrest.”

“So, you feel like me? Because I am Sensei’s favorite armrest.”

“Maybe Minato-san shouldn’t use you two as armrests.” Rin said.

“I dunno, I’d do it if I was taller.” I said.

“Me too.”

“…What happened to ‘treat others as you’d want to be treated’?” Rin demanded. Oh, we were terrible. Together and separately.

Obito shrugged with some difficulty, since I was still hanging off him. “I dunno, if I had a bunch of tiny bratty students I don’t think I’d be all that interested in pretending they were my height if they weren’t.”

I added. “Which is not, technically, about height and more about the fact that they’d be brats.”

“Pretty much.” Obito concluded.

Rin gave us both a funny look. “Okay, I know I wasn’t there for a lot of your training, but you really are acting in sync a lot now.”

Yay! That meant we could probably fight someone on a higher level than us for a while and not die. Most likely, anyway, since we hadn’t tested our coordination in a real fight yet.

You know that episode of Neon Genesis Evangelion where Shinji and Asuka have to play a DDR clone for hours? Just to get their attacks to sync up so they can destroy that weird twinning angel? Yeah, our lives had been a lot like that whenever Sensei got us to specifically practice pair fighting.

Well, we’d see how that would work out.

Anyway, it took us less than fifteen minutes to get to the “main” entrance of the Forest of Death. A bunch of genin teams had gotten there before us and were spread out all over the place, filling out wrongful death waivers and things like that. I managed to grab three separate sheets for us, which we filled out less because we actually thought we were going to be dying and more because they wouldn’t let us into the damn place without them.

(Well, I’m sure Orochimaru would have, but he wasn’t a proctor and the point was therefore moot.)

“Welcome to Training Ground Forty-Four. I will be the head proctor of your examination today, and as such, I will explain the rules.” Shinku had, once again, somehow found a podium thing. At least, he was standing on top of something, even if the crowd was a bit too thick to see exactly what. I like to think it was a soap box.

“This is another dual-purpose exam, as I’m sure you’ve come to expect by now. Behind me is the entrance to Training Ground Forty-Four, colloquially known as the Forest of Death. Once inside, you will be fighting for your lives against the hostile environment. In addition, you will be attempting to secure one of these.” Here, he held up a scroll that was marked with the kanji for Heaven and painted with two colored bands—deep, dark red. “There are two scrolls of each color, with eight colors total. One Heaven, and one for Earth. In order to advance to the next round, you must find the scroll of the opposite denomination in the same color as yours, and open them at the same time as the other team. The team with the opposite scroll will be your deadly enemies for the duration of the five-day span of the exam.”

Okay. A matching game as played by ninjas. God, we were terrible and my brain was incredibly so.

“Once opened, the scroll will summon a special jōnin proctor for your match—and without being witnessed defeating the opposite team, you will not advance.” He flipped the scroll over. “All team members must be healthy enough to complete the mission by the time any team makes their final run at the tower. Teams with incapacitated or dead members will not be allowed to advance.” He went on sternly, “Opening the scrolls before encountering the opposite-denomination team will result in immediate disqualification. Leaving the examination area during the five-day period will result in disqualification. Arriving at the tower without the two colored scrolls and one victory scroll, from the proctor summoned to your match, will result in disqualification. Attacking a proctor will disqualify the entire team.”

The scroll vanished into thin air. “And, finally, teams that fail to either arrive at the central tower or complete their mission objectives at the end of five days will be disqualified, with a complimentary corpse hunt taking place during the day after the exams.” He shrugged. “Though by that point, I fully expect that there won’t be anything left to find other than bones. If that.”

“So,” I said to Rin as Kurenai’s dad (or, at least I thought he was Kurenai’s dad) went on to talk about the entry gates, “what do you think about taking care of the combat part as soon as possible?”

“I say we need a plan.” Rin said firmly.

The chūnin were directing people over to booths so we could be assigned a scroll color and kanji. I kind of wanted to hold back, since I had no idea what we were going to do in order to beat the crap out of another team if they turned out to be way more powerful than we were. Other than, you know, fight as hard as we could. The whole sanctioned match thing really threw a wrench in the idea of having traps and things set up in advance, which seemed counterintuitive to the whole ninja thing.

I frowned, thinking over how much stuff Sensei had packed into those sealing scrolls for me. “…Maybe we need to take inventory first.”

“Hey, Kei, Rin-chan.” Obito broke in, watching the other teams. “I think the Hyūga girl is…yeah, she’s looking at everyone with her Byakugan.”

Oh. I hadn’t thought of that, but it would make a lot of sense to have a Byakugan user figure out who had the relevant scroll so her team could target the one that was actually relevant to their goals.

Don’t just coo over how awesome it is. Can we do anything similar?

That, I didn’t know.

“Obito, how good is your eyesight?” I asked.

“Um, probably better than average.” Obito hedged.

“Well, then you try to figure out who’s carrying the other scroll, once we get a color.” I said. “I’m pretty sure my vision’s terrible.”

A lie. My vision before had been an unmitigated crippling weakness, complete with an effective range of…two and a half inches. At best. Barring glasses, contact lenses, or a surgical rearrangement of my eyeballs, anyway. It wasn’t bad in my new life, since I obviously didn’t need corrective lenses, but I was still pretty sure Obito’s was better.

“So, we’re planning on going after them right away?” Rin asked in an undertone as Obito scanned the crowd.

At the thought of spending more than a few days in the Forest of Death, I winced almost imperceptibly. “Our weakness is endurance, compared to the rest of the genin. And field experience. We can’t afford to be stuck out there fighting animals for days on end.”

Rin pressed her lips together in a tight frown.

I just hoped that we ended up fighting someone who wouldn’t kill us all if they won.

Anyway, we ended up with a green-bound Heaven scroll. I still wasn’t sure who had the Earth counterpart, but at least we were kind of prepared for the idea of having to duel for dinner later. Granted, sixteen genin teams in, what, three hundred and fourteen square kilometers wasn’t exactly a crowded situation, but the forest was a minefield whatever way you looked at it.

“A chūnin will escort you to your starting gates. When the siren sounds, you may enter and begin your test.” Shinku told us all. “Good luck, and good hunting.”

He poofed away, leaving us genin to be escorted around the perimeter of the forest. It was a pretty tense walk, all told, and took about twenty minutes of shinobi-style running to get away from all the other teams heading around the same way. Then we were there. It all seemed to be moving too quickly.

My hands were shaking, so I clenched them into fists and stuck them in my pockets.

At least our first opponents probably won’t be human.

Not helping, I thought.

“I think,” Obito began as the chūnin left us at our gate, “we might be looking out for either Gai or Asuma’s teams. It was a little hard to make out, though.”

“It’s a good start.” I told him seriously. “Good job, Obito.”

Obito flushed a little, and Rin said, “Have you ever met them before, Kei-senpai?”

“Probably? I don’t really remember. Asuma’s one of the Hokage’s sons, though, and I know he has Kurenai Yūhi on his team. I think we might have been in the same kunoichi class.” Come to think of it, I really hadn’t bothered to associate with or befriend many people in school other than Rin and Obito. I sure hoped Hayate was being more sociable than I had been.

“There’s those two, yes, but there’s also Ibiki Morino.” Rin frowned. “I don’t really remember much about him specifically, but he’s not a pushover.”

“You mean he’s creepy.” Obito corrected.

“No, he’s pretty strong, too.”

“I guess we’re not the youngest team in the Exam, at least.” I muttered. I was pretty sure that Ibiki hadn’t actually been on the same team as Asuma and Kurenai in my visions, but…well, we were all about the same age and apparently none of us had been killed. Maybe there was more team shuffling going on than I thought.

Putting loads of kids under the age of ten on the same genin teams for a Chūnin Exam seemed kind of stupid to me, though.

Hypocritical, I know, but I also happened to think that Sensei was making a major mistake even giving us the option of taking the exams.

The siren sounded, cutting off any further team speculation.

And we were off.

I want to just reiterate this before the games begin: I hate camping. I can appreciate nature just fine without having to risk getting eaten by tigers by sleeping in what amounts to a blasted Hot Pocket wrapper. If I want to sleep outdoors, I damn well sleep in a tree to avoid ground-bound predators and traps and people’s feet. Also, there’s more comfy moss and fewer rocks the farther up you go in a decent Hashirama tree, which is nice.

We didn’t end up meeting any teams the first day.

To be perfectly honest, the forest was enough of a problem.

I mean, I sure sensed all sorts of chaos and as people got used to the whole issue of Oh god this place is actually actively trying to kill us. Some of the trees were scarred from old battles, with kunai and shuriken rusted right into the bark and huge chunks of wood just plain missing from a few of them. We ran past a skeleton entangled in tree roots, then doubled back to see if we could salvage any of his equipment—the answer was no, by the way. We fished a little, until some explosions got a little too close for comfort and we had to leg it back into the trees. I think I woke up that night with screams ringing in my ears, sounding like someone must have basically tripped over a nest of those evil Konoha winged tree leeches (which are totally a thing, if you’re stupid about campsites).

We slept in the high canopy, in shifts, and with enough ninja wire around our sleeping places to cut a man to chunky salsa if he ran into it fast enough.

It did mean that we fought with birds for space, but that was better than fighting for our lives.

On the second day, we spotted the Hyūga girl with her team far below, during the first couple of hours of daylight. They traveled in roughly the forest’s understory, some thirty meters below us, and Obito shook his head when I looked to him to see if we should engage them. Given that their team blew right past us even though I was sure they’d seen us, I guess we didn’t have the scroll they were out for. Even if Obito had it in his jacket, not a lot got past the Byakugan.

That was also the day we ran into Gai’s team.

That thing about chunky salsa and ninja wire I mentioned before? Well, Gai almost reduced himself to ground hamburger.

He probably would have actually done it if Rin hadn’t put one of his legs into a stasis mode—basically, it fell asleep on him and he fell and his face smacked into the wood about a foot short of what I mentally referred to as the “wood-chipper threshold.” They got more finely rated the closer you got toward the actual sleeping boughs we were using.

“Hi, Gai-san.” I said, watching Ebisu and Genma arrive a little after he did. No dynamic entries this time.

“Hello again, Keisuke-san! Hello to you as well, Rin-san, Obito-san.” Gai said cheerfully, heedless of the fact that he’d almost been killed by accident.

“Hold still, Gai-san.” Rin ordered, hands glowing green. While she reversed the damage, I turned to the rest of his team. Obito was above all of us, sitting on his heels on the underside of a tree branch, and I frowned briefly.

We were all in the right places to cause damage, even if we weren’t actually ready for a fight to start. Close enough, right?

Genma reached into his jacket and pulled out his team’s scroll. It’d be a challenge to beat him…

“Our scroll’s green, Shiranui-san.” I said bluntly.

Genma glanced upward when neither Rin nor I produced it.

Obito scowled and unzipped the inner pocket of his jacket, dropping it into my waiting hand.

Green, to Team Genma’s blue. Then I tucked the scroll away. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet, black. Off by less than a quarter-turn of the color wheel. Just a few shades and we’d be at each other’s throats inside of a minute.

“Guess we all got off lucky there.” Genma said mildly. “Thanks for fixing Gai up, kunoichi-san.” This last was directed at Rin. “Kid charges ahead too much.”

“What technique are you using, Nohara-san?” Ebisu asked curiously.

Hey, at least the tension was mostly gone since we didn’t actually have to be enemies. In the immediate sense.

“Any luck?” I asked Genma, since apparently everyone else was fawning over Rin’s cool jutsu.

“Not at all.” Genma said, shrugging. “I did see a team get picked off, but by giant tigers. Not something everyone expects to run into out here. You?”

I had to admit that I wouldn’t have really expected tigers either, mostly since I though the apex predators were bugs, but I just shrugged. “We haven’t been looking as hard as we could be.”

“Might want to consider it.” Genma said. “Thing is, you can’t pass without the other team at least living long enough to get their beating on record. Scavenging’s not gonna cut it.”

No kidding. The teams that failed were failing their enemies, too.

Fwip-fwip went the senbon in his mouth. “So…you might wanna track down the other team. Keep them alive long enough to get in a real fight. You’re not gonna get anything done if all you do is hide up here in this nest of razor wire.”

I had the strangest feeling that we’d probably have to do exactly that. “Thanks for the advice.”

Genma shrugged. “No problem. It’s not like we get points for beating you guys now.”

Ha. Ha.

“Anyway. Gai, Ebisu, we’re leaving. Gotta go find that other team sometime.” Genma ordered. As the oldest genin, I guess that was really all he was there for.

“Of course, Genma-san! I have already recovered from my most unyouthful mistake, and will be ready for anything!”

Ebisu said something to Rin that I didn’t catch, but since Obito just was frowning I guessed it couldn’t have been too bad. Really nasty stuff would have led to an instant fistfight. Then he straightened his shades and said, “Yes, captain.”

Genma sighed. “Whatever, just get a move on.”

I waved to them as they left. It felt kind of awkward, like someone had left me hanging without returning my high-five. Weird.

“So. What do you say to leaving the whole turtle strategy behind?” I asked.

“I was getting bored anyway, Kei.” Obito said firmly.

“I wish Gai-san hadn’t run off before I was sure I’d actually woken up all of those nerve endings.” Rin mumbled, distracted.

…Yeah, I was just gonna leave that bit be. Hopefully their team made it out okay.

The next team we ran into was having trouble on day three. Technically, we probably hadn’t needed to take such a long time to find them, but as group sensor and leader I had an obligation to make sure we didn’t actually get into any fights we couldn’t afford to. If anyone was in severe distress or there was some kind of huge fight going on, we probably couldn’t risk actually intervening unless it was the team we needed to pass. We weren’t strong enough yet.

The cold mathematics of survival.

That said, I still used chakra in my feet to cling to a branch long enough to slingshot myself into a direct line of interception with the newest group. I only sensed one team, which was somewhat better for our chances of living to see next Tuesday, but I wasn’t at all willing to meet them on the ground until I knew who they were.

I was pretty sure that Team Asuma didn’t have any sensors, but they might not have needed one.

Then their team shot past us, about fifty-some meters below, and I corrected myself. Whether they needed a sensor or not, having one might have helped.

“Rin-chan? Obito? Get ready for a fight.” I said over my shoulder, looping around the branch. Pursuit mode, go!

“Which one do you want to take on?” Obito asked, frowning. “I think I might be able to take Asuma…”

“I’ll go for Ibiki, then.” I replied under my breath. “Rin-chan?”

“If I remember right, Kurenai-san was a genjutsu-type kunoichi.” Rin said, glancing up at me. “Either one of us might be able to take her on and win.”

And maybe we’ll finally see if you have any actual resistance to genjutsu.

“Okay. I’ll hold you to that.” I began the descent, bouncing off trees with the practiced ease of someone who spent entirely too much time doing just that. It was a Konoha shinobi thing, I swear. We make better time through trees than on the ground.

The air rippled.

Genjutsu. I’ve got this.

The Dreamer, when not working in concert with me, uses a genjutsu-canceling method that feels a little like someone decided to take my nerves and chakra coils and twang them like a rubber band.

Highly annoying, but effective.

“That wasn’t nice, Kurenai-san.” Rin said as we finally landed within spitting distance of the other team.

All of us stuck the landing. I was absurdly proud for all of two seconds.

“It wasn’t really supposed to be.” Kurenai replied.

Kurenai Yūhi was a girl our age or so, with those distinctive red eyes that were, in defiance of all things rational, not actually a kekkei genkai of any type. She was really a cute girl, with a fair, round face and untamed black hair. She had a hitai-ate on her forehead, like she would as an adult, and dressed in a white-and-pink thorn-patterned dress that looked at least more practical than her adult version.

Then again, Kakashi apparently picked up a shuriken-patterned scarf and I knew that Rin had a dress with the same pattern in green, so maybe our team wasn’t really fit to judge that kind of thing.

Kurenai’s greatest advantage was her genjutsu.

“So, what color scroll did you guys get?” Asuma asked.

Asuma was a fairly big kid already—bigger than I was in the shoulders and in arm-span. He wore a short-sleeved shirt with a ninja mesh-lined black undershirt, along with black pants and a white belt, and had spiky black hair and sharp brown eyes. He was the Hokage’s second child, and perhaps a little rebellious as a result despite being nine. I didn’t see his signature trench knives anywhere, but I wasn’t entirely certain where he’d first picked up their use in the timeline.

“Green.” I said, holding it up.

“Ah.” Asuma said. He glanced at the third member of their team.

Ibiki Morino was bigger than Asuma, despite the fact that he was probably only a bit older than we were. He had silver-gray hair stuffed mostly under a bandanna-style hitai-ate, like mine, and a rather defined jaw-line for a kid barely on the cusp of puberty. He wore one of those beige utility-style flak jackets—the sort we had for people who wanted the protection but weren’t promoted yet.

The scroll was produced. It was green, too. Ibiki tossed it to Asuma, who held it up to mine.

“On the count of three, then.” I said.

“Sure. One, two…”

On three, Asuma and I both flipped the scrolls open. I hurled my scroll across the clearing, away from Asuma’s team, and Asuma followed suit with just a split second’s hesitation.

When the smoke cleared, there was a woman in the standard Konoha uniform with a huge dog standing there. She was at least ten years older than us, putting her at about Sensei’s age, and had literally the wildest hair I’d ever seen. She looked downright feral, with Inuzuka tattoos on her cheeks and a distinctive wolf-eyed look I’d never seen on a human being before. I liked the little touches, though—lipstick and eye shadow, mainly. It was kind of like meeting the Joker and then realizing a second later that oh, it was only the Creeper. Not much of a downgrade in terms of scary, but at least you probably wouldn’t die.

I guess that made the huge wolf-dog next to her—black and white, sort of like a Siberian husky—an Inuzuka soldier as well.

Damn, and I’d wanted a second to hug him. Irrational, I know, but dogs are pretty much my favorite animals.

“I’ll be the proctor of today’s match between…what’s it say here…Team Minato and Team Sasukibe. Name’s Tsume Inuzuka, special jōnin. And this here is my partner, Kuromaru.” Tsume told us, in a tone that made me suspect that she was not the kind of woman anyone would be able to argue with. “There aren’t really any huge rules, but me and Kuromaru will be stepping in if it looks like anyone’s gonna die. Since you’re dead if your teammates are down, we’ll boot the losing team out of the exam area for free.” She rolled a shoulder. “By the way, you can start anytime.”

Us genin eyed each other speculatively. We were sizing each other up, trying to weigh pros and cons to each opponent.

“That means start now.” Tsume snapped, and we were jolted into action.

Chapter Text

The thing about combat? It’s fast.

Unlike what movies and TV make it seem, any fight in real life is probably over in a matter of minutes, if not seconds. Most people don’t engage in hours-long drama-filled diatribes about their stupid tragic pasts while trying to beat the stuffing out of someone else. It’s a terribly efficient way to do things, only possible in the case of a hilariously lopsided power differential—and if you can beat your opponents that soundly, why bother? In fights where both sides were evenly matched, there wasn’t time to stand back and shout about how Mommy and Daddy didn’t love you enough.

We were exchanging blows before Kuromaru even got a chance to bark his assent.

I immediately leapt back away from the fight, while Ibiki took a swing with a kunai through the space where I’d been. Obito launched a two-meter-wide fireball down range, scattering their team, and Rin threw a tagged kunai into the resulting explosion before we all retreated.

Strike, retreat, regroup, strike…

The next thing anyone on Team Sasukibe saw was me, coming in low and nearly at top speed with my kodachi out and swinging. It took both of Asuma’s hands to block me, which was something of a mistake.

I still had another hand, after all.

While Obito ducked around Kurenai’s kunai throws and started lacing the battlefield with Uchiha-made ninja wire—which was, like steel wool, almost hilariously flammable—and Rin kept trying to get a hit in on Ibiki with her hands glowing green, I gave a savage grin.

While my right hand had swung my kodachi directly into Asuma’s paired punch-knives, my other hand had been pulling my sturdy metal sheath in turn.

If Asuma didn’t dodge, he would have avoided death by bisection only to get a broken rib as a consolation prize.

Disengage, you punk. Or else eat Gekkō-style Leaf Kenjutsu: Double Tiger Strike.

I felt his chakra flare.

Replacement jutsu. The Dreamer confirmed it, at least.

Asuma exploded into smoke and I ended up launching a log across the clearing at Kurenai. Whoops?

She dodged, at least, and that was when Obito picked up the ninja wire again and improvised a trip-line. Rin was already there waiting, and Kurenai spun in midair to land a kick directly on Rin’s crossed forearms. Then she bounced off, having shoved chakra toward her feet, and Rin was sent stumbling at least a meter back by the force of it.

And then I was there, the same time as Ibiki, and while Rin bounced off my back and toward the fight between Asuma, Kurenai, and Obito, I ducked under his swing and skidded across the dirt, aiming a knee at the inside of his knee.

He promptly screwed that plan over by stepping over me, but in the time he was only on one foot, I whipped around and aimed for his supporting leg with my other foot.

Goddamn it, I was gonna knock Ibiki on his ass if it took all day.

Then Obito crashed into the fight again, tussling more amateurishly with Asuma. Obito was on top, at least, but Asuma weighed more than he did and the second Obito lost balance he was going to get his face pounded in.

I tossed a few explosive kunai at Ibiki to drive him back, then grabbed Obito’s jacket shoulder and heaved just as Asuma swiped at him with the punch kunai.

“Careful.” I said in Obito’s ear, and he gave me a cocky grin that I completely agreed with. We could do this.

“Rin-chan, Kurenai’s up to you, okay?” Obito called. He kept his eyes on Asuma and Ibiki, who had finally recovered enough to group up normally.

“Right.” Rin said, squaring off with the other kunoichi. One of Kurenai’s arms wasn’t moving correctly, which made me wonder if Rin had already used that odd stunning jutsu on her.

Obito and I exchanged looks. Rin would be fine, though we weren’t necessarily so well off.

Well. Taking stock, our team was probably going to have some bruises, but everything else checked out. Team Sasukibe was a little worse for the wear, what with the burns since our team insisted on making everything explode. If I had to guess, I’d say that we were ready to go another ten rounds or so.

Except Kurenai. Rin was going to beat her just fine.

That said, Ibiki and Asuma were the heavy hitters to Kurenai’s genjutsu support.

Well, time to put our teamwork to the test, then.

I charged, leaping at the last possible moment with my chakra slamming into the ground to give me just that much more speed.

Asuma had already seen my double-draw technique, and instead of a full block he tried to redirect my momentum. Not necessarily a bad plan, but that meant that he caught my knee with his shoulder at the same time that Obito ducked behind both of us and rolled. Where he went, Uchiha ninja wire followed. Ibiki wasn’t as fast as any of us, but he whirled on Obito with a brand new weapon—a thin, collapsible blade he’d pulled out of one sleeve.

We were all too close together for him to get a real swing going, and Obito planted one hand on the ground and launched himself to the side, still trailing wire.

For my part, I’d knocked Asuma on his back on that run, but I skittered away and around the fight to regroup with Obito.

I flipped the scroll Sensei had given me into Obito’s waiting hand.

“Oh, you’re kidding me.” Obito said in disbelief. “You had this the whole time?”

“Yep!” I said. “Though I don’t have the slightest idea what’s in it.”

“Well, one way to find out.” Obito said. He still had a bloody nose from his tussle with Asuma, and swiped the blood away with his thumb.

I moved forward again, channeling chakra into my feet for another hit-and-run.

I felt someone—probably Ibiki—try to place a genjutsu on me, but the Dreamer tossed it aside with a sharp, Hands off, you jerk.

Asuma approached from one side, Ibiki from the other. I don’t know if they were expecting me to be a sitting duck, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to let them get any free hits.

Asuma jabbed three times in rapid succession, but I redirected the first one and smashed his left arm aside with my sheath. Then I planted my sheath in the soft ground and leapt onto it, springing out of the way of Ibiki’s combined shuriken/blade offense. I spun in the air and aimed another slash at his back, but he replaced himself with a log.

There is a distinct lack of big jutsu in this.

We’re kids.

And then Obito broke the seal on the scroll.

Technically speaking, the only thing you should have in weapon scrolls is, well, weapons. Less sane ones are designed to launch their contents at a speed just short of “absolutely lethal,” and are thus incompatible with most other contents. A lot of people therefore don’t even bother with the things, and just pop a weapon out of a seal one at a time and toss them by hand. Even Tenten.

Someone must have forgotten to tell Sensei that, because the scroll disgorged enough camping equipment—tents, utensils, sleeping bags, packaged food, and canteens—for three people and fired everything the length of the clearing.

I was already in the air, at least. While I got a little tripped up and failed to stick my landing when a sleeping bag hit my foot, at least I didn’t get mobbed by a bunch of tents like Asuma and Ibiki did. They’d cut their way out in a second, but I could probably knock at least one of them out before then.

“What the hell was that?” Tsume demanded, though I wasn’t really listening.

“Obito?” I was about to punch Asuma in the head regardless of his answer, but I was still interested in hearing his opinion.

“You might wanna back up, Kei.” Obito said.

Oh. Plan A was still valid, then.

I backed up.

“Good?” I asked.

“Good enough. Go help Rin out, okay?” Obito said distractedly. He was finally out of Uchiha-trademark ninja wire, but I’d handed over my allowance of explosive tags and he was already attaching them to kunai and wire and putting them everywhere in the time it took for Ibiki to resurface from under a tent. They were linked by plain wire, which could carry a chakra charge without exploding into flame, which was really the best part about it.

I checked the wires and the tags, briefly, before going over to see where Rin and Kurenai had gotten off to.

Genjutsu, again. The Dreamer reported, and my chakra shuddered.

And then, rather abruptly, Kurenai went tumbling past me as though flung there by a chakra-charged punch. I looked back in the direction she’d come from and saw Rin trying to massage feeling back into her fingers.

Rule one of genjutsu (or something like that): Dazing the user works just fine if you can’t dispel it normally. I could, but Rin’s intervention was nonetheless awesome.

“Got her?” I asked.

“Yep.” Rin said, and her hands glowed briefly green to close her split knuckles. “Just like Akihito-shishō said, it’s all in the timing.”

“Sorry to leave you without backup against her, anyway. Though you got everything handled just fine.” I said, but I was already thinking about the implications because I really didn’t have the power to turn my brain off. My mouth, yes. The hamster wheel of my brain, no.

Exactly how good did you have to be in order to use Tsunade’s super strength technique?

In a way, the version that Sakura ended up learning in the future wasn’t precisely the full potential of the technique. While her strength was dependent on precise release of chakra at the time of impact, as opposed to the usual “hold it and hit them with it” technique that most shinobi used to enhance their muscles, Tsunade had been renowned for her immense strength in general. That was a woman who could crush rocks with her bare hands at age ten, and only got around to doing things like swinging Gamabunta’s sword around long after that.

I wondered if that had to do with the Strength of a Hundred Seal and how it was designed.

Even the first stage had knocked Kurenai silly, so I guess that would have to be enough for now. Later, though, I’d have to ask Yamaguchi-sensei what he was teaching Rin. Then I resolved to ask Sensei for sealing lessons after the Exam was over. Not like Yamaguchi-sensei was interested in teaching me anymore.

“Ready, Kei!” Obito said in a maniacally cheerful sort of way as we joined him. We’d only been a few feet away, but it became clear that when Obito wanted to blow something up, he went all out.

Seriously. A good four meters around Team Sasukibe was a spider-web of two types of ninja wire, about fifteen kunai rigged to launch on hair-triggers, and all of my exploding tags.

“I’d suggest giving up, but that’d imply that you actually have a choice.” I said to the boys, since Kurenai was either out or effectively out, sliding my kodachi back into its scabbard so I could put my hands on my hips in a dramatic fashion. “Give up and you won’t explode.”

“You’re such a drama queen.” Rin said under her breath.

“Like hell!” Asuma snapped, but then one of the wires twitched ominously, with a noise like a twanging piano wire.

Obito gave me a thumbs-up, though all of his fingers were occupied. In my opinion, anyway, it was a bad idea to have the chakra-reactive wires wound around his fingers, but…well, it wasn’t my part of the plan anyway.

“We’ve lost, Asuma.” Ibiki informed us all rather gravely. Then again, I was also pretty sure he was the smartest member of the team as it was. You didn’t get to be the head of interrogation by age twenty-seven by being either a pushover or a moron. Sure, most of us didn’t have our careers set in stone at age nine, but Ibiki had the makings of a survivor.

Or maybe I was looking too hard for something that wasn’t even there yet.

Still, I didn’t drop my guard. I’d been hit with three genjutsu inside of five minutes and not all of them had been Kurenai’s.

“I’d have to agree there. Even if Yūhi wasn’t out of it, you’re up to our chins in razor wire, Uchiha flaming wires, exploding tags, and camping equipment. That Uchiha kid twitches wrong and everyone here gets blown into hilarious chunks.” Tsume grinned. “Or if he does it right. Either way you’re dead.”

Asuma looked at Tsume, then at us. I could draw my blade any second, and Rin had proved that that field medic training gave her lightning reflexes. We were pretty good to go for anything like a round two. Meanwhile, of us, only Obito had used chakra-intensive jutsu, while Team Sasukibe had been throwing around genjutsu and replacements all over the place.

I didn’t doubt that Asuma and Ibiki had more stamina than any of us, but we used our chakra more effectively. And if I had to punch Asuma in the nose with a chakra-enhanced fist to prove that point, I would.

“We…surrender.” Asuma said at length, looking as though the words were literally painful to spit out.

“Good choice, Sarutobi.” Tsume said. “Knew you were your dad’s kid.”

Asuma glared.

“Now, let’s pick our way out of this maze and get your whole team to a medical station.” Tsume continued, ignoring his pint-sized fury. “Mind if a clip a couple wires, Uchiha?”

“Yeah, that’s cool.” Obito said, already unwinding some of the less hopeless knots. “You don’t need to worry about more than like, ten of them. Most of the tags are duds.”

What?” Asuma snarled. Not that I couldn’t take him on my own, but I didn’t feel like having him resent Obito forever and ever.

“My idea.” I admitted. “Sensei wouldn’t let us have more than about thirty tags between us, so I copied a crapton of them onto tracing paper and called it good.”

It’d only taken me three nights to do it. And some of them were still kind of shitty-looking if you paid attention.

Tsume threw her head back and laughed. “Well done, kid! Gotta admit, that was pretty clever. They even smell real.”

I shrugged. “I tried.”

“Yeah, yeah. All right, Team Sasukibe! Time to get the hell out and let the tricky brats move on.” Tsume ordered, clearly done with us. “Oh, and Team Minato gets a victory scroll.” Idly, Tsume reached into her vest and pulled out a scroll without any colored borders. She tossed it at us, and Rin caught it. “Now get moving. The tower’s a good ways away and there’s a lot of trouble in between here and there.”

They left in something of a lurch, since Tsume had Kuromaru carry Kurenai, but we didn’t mind. We still had to gather up all of the wire everywhere and re-spool it. We also stuffed all of our scrolls into Obito’s jacket, because he had bigger pockets.

“By the way, Obito, I lied.” I said as we extracted the last tag.

Obito, taking the wire from me and winding it around the coil, said, “About what?”

“Technically, the tags I made are real.” I explained.

Obito froze.

“Only they’re kind of shitty. They’re stable, though.” I held one of the tags up, wrapping it around the handle of one of my kunai. I could spare it for a demonstration. “Probably wouldn’t do more than burn your hair off if they got set off.”

“So, wait, you made all these working tags in less than three days?” Rin asked, frowning. “Why’d you tell us they were fake?”

“Because they’re shitty tags and I didn’t want you to be afraid to use them.” I repeated. I held up the armed kunai. “Watch.”

I slammed my chakra into the tag and hurled it across the clearing, where it imbedded itself point-first in a tree.

After about a quarter-second’s delay, the kunai made a crack noise and there was a lot of smoke.

And that was it. It might have scorched the linen wrapping of the handle, at most.

“See what I mean? They’re distractions at best.” I said, frustrated. “You need a load of chakra to activate them, they only make noise and smoke, they’re on tracing paper, and I can tell that I got the kanji wrong.”

“They still work, though.” Obito said. “I mean, a distraction in the right place is pretty good. When’d you start?”

“My dad used to make tags. I got one of his old designs out when Sensei didn’t give us enough for the plan.” I replied, suppressing the irrational flare of hurt that had come with opening that old box. “Most people can’t tell when a tag’s been made badly or not under pressure.”

Obito punched me in the shoulder, mostly to shock me out of my pity-party. “Hey! Don’t get so down about things. We’re halfway through the Chūnin Exams now because of those ‘shitty’ tags, so don’t worry. We’ve got this in the bag.”

“Speaking of which, we should probably get going before anyone else gets any ideas.” Rin said, since we’d cleaned up.

“Yeah, okay. Too bad about the supplies, but I guess they sacrificed themselves for a worthy cause.” I added, shaking off my malaise with a rough grin.

Obito shrugged and said, “Not like we used them anyway.”

“True, but let’s not tell Sensei that.” I said. I shook myself to clear my head. “All right. It’s still the second day, so teams won’t be clustered around the tower just yet. Let’s book it before they do.”

“‘Book it’?” Rin asked.

Whoops.

I waved a hand dismissively. “Beat feet, run like hell, move out, I don’t care. Let’s just go.”

We did, thank god.

The run to the tower was, thankfully, mostly uneventful. To be honest, after a certain point, some shinobi just aren’t worth intercepting if they’re going fast enough. Our team wasn’t one of them, but we had some of the principles down—presenting a small, constantly moving profile, and refusing to engage enemies unnecessarily. I took point again, leading us well around the other teams I could sense, and with Rin in the middle and Obito at the rear we were making pretty good time.

It was honestly kind of surprising when we made it to the tower in about twenty minutes.

Then again, with an effective speed of about twenty kilometers per hour and flinging ourselves around the canopy like a bunch of long-distance jumping monkeys on crack, perhaps it was really less unexpected than I thought.

I kicked the front door open and we scrambled inside.

It looked pretty much exactly the same way it would seventeen—maybe sixteen—years in the future. Aside from the metal stairs running up both sides and the massive statue with a poem on the wall over its head, the arena was pretty bare. Both the floor and ceilings were lined with square tiles, and I reached out with my chakra sense to confirm that there were, in fact, chūnin in the building somewhere. It’d suck to show up and then have wait around for so long.

“The poem on the wall…” Rin began, but I was pretty sure I didn’t really care. The poem was essentially pointless if you knew enough about shinobi life already, and I was curious about the “victory” scroll.

A sound soul dwells within a sound mind and a sound body…

Wrong show, but you can see what I mean.

“Obito, can I see the thing we got from Tsume?” I asked, holding my hand out.

“Yeah, but I thought we weren’t supposed to open it.” Obito pointed out.

“I’m not sure anyone actually said that, but I figure if we’re at the tower there can be exceptions.” I replied, and broke the paper strip on the scroll.

Then I threw that sucker right across the room.

Sparks from a busted wire…

“Sup, Kakashi?” I asked, almost before the smoke cleared.

Obito made a sputtering sound and growled, “That bastard won’t stop following us!”

“How’d you guess?” Kakashi asked suspiciously, thunder stolen.

I grinned. “Sensor-type shinobi, remember? By the way, you totally left me hanging on that hug.”

“One, you obviously didn’t need whatever ‘luck’ you claimed you’d get from it. Two, if you haven’t bathed in three days, stay over there.” Kakashi snapped, backing up in case I didn’t get the point.

Pfft. I totally stripped down to my skivvies in enemy territory to bathe.

Not. I like my blood where it is.

“Um, Kakashi-kun, what are you here for, exactly?” Rin asked, because Obito and I were off on tangents and needed to be redirected before we hurt ourselves.

“Tch.” Kakashi jabbed a thumb back over his shoulder. “See that? How much do any of you brats understand about what it takes to be a chūnin?”

“Watch who you’re calling a brat, Kakashi.” I said, equally blunt. I crossed my arms. “It’s simple enough. ‘If your mind is lacking, hone your knowledge. If your body is lacking, hone your strength.’ A chūnin has to be balanced in the shinobi arts, adaptable, and a squad leader on missions that, sometimes, will come with a high probability of death. You can’t back down then, because your comrades are depending on you, and a shinobi carries their village with them on their shoulders.”

Kakashi gave me a flat look. “Thank you for proving that you have basic reading comprehension skills.”

“Welcome to the tower, anyway.” Kakashi said dismissively. “You heard the speech, and now you get a chance to rest and recover since you made it two days before the deadline. Have fun with that.”

“Yeah, no.” I said, and managed to grab his scarf before he could poof away. “No. We are having a team dinner and you are cordially invited to stick around.”

“Just let him go, Kei.” Obito said, but I could be stubborn.

Kakashi had a pretty good glare, I’ll give him that, but he didn’t try to pull away. “And why should I do that?”

“Because I need to thank you.”

I could practically hear the “What?” Obito said before he said it. Like an oncoming roll of thunder.

Kakashi said, “You don’t need to thank me for pointing out the obvious.”

“In that case, I really want to know how many genin know how to string together enough exploding tags to make a minefield in midair.” I said. The fireballs and the other distractions had been my decision, but that first spark of an idea had been Kakashi’s. “Look, Kakashi, just accept my gratitude and eat with us like a normal person. Unless you have some kind of urgent chūnin business?”

There. My olive branch. He offered one first, in his condescending way, but I could at least reciprocate that much in a more cheerful spirit than it was offered.

“Um.” Rin began, making me glance at her. “Maybe it’d be best to get cleaned up and settled in first. We did just spend three days in the woods.”

I blew out a sigh. “All right, Rin-chan, have it your way.”

Rin beamed.

“How come you can get her to listen but I can’t?” Obito asked Rin, probably because he thought I couldn’t hear him.

Eh. I could really have gone for a bath, I guess. For like the next three hours, just to get all the forest gunk stuff out.

Acknowledging the inevitable, I let go of Kakashi’s scarf. “So. Yes or no?”

Kakashi wound the shuriken-patterned mess back around his neck. “…Fine. Only if you promise to leave me alone for the next two days afterward.”

“Sure.” I said.

And then we parted ways, with him poofing away and me taking off at a brisk trot. If I had to fight Obito or Rin for hot water privileges, I’d probably curl up in a corner and cry or something. If it was any other team, though, I’d fight them for it. I still had chakra to spare, for once.

Dinner was awkward as all get out, even with Obito trying to take a peek at Kakashi’s face as we ate ramen. Rin might have been showing more interest than normal, but honestly? I was okay. I was almost happy. Everyone was alive, Sensei was probably going to visit on the fifth day, I wasn’t nursing a concussion, and the most lethal part of the exam was over.

Life is, I thought as I downed another cup of tea, pretty damn good.

Chapter Text

For the next two days, Obito, Rin, and I killed time by any means possible. We managed to beg a set of hanafuda cards off of a passing paperwork chūnin, but ended up stymied by the fact that none of us knew how to play. The extent of my experience consisted of knowing about the Ino-Shika-Chō trio and watching Summer Wars once upon a time, which added up to “less than useful.” We gave them back to him before resorting to casual sparring to test each other, with me and Rin playing at medic duty on alternate matches.

All in all, we didn’t really need recovery time. We hadn’t been injured at all, and when compared to the stuff we’d either gotten up to before (which Rin and Obito knew about) or would probably get up to later (which I had a few theories about), the Forest of Death hadn’t really been all that bad.

I’m sure that if we’d been, say, taking the version that the Rookie Nine would, we would have been in much bigger trouble.

I didn’t end up seeing or even sensing Kakashi for that timeframe, which sort of made me wonder what he was doing during all that.

Anyway, on the last day of the exam—after the 120-hour time limit expired—all passing teams gathered in the atrium that we’d started out in. All told, there were six teams of three genin each, putting us at eighteen competitors. I spotted Gai’s team and the one with the Hyuga, but, to be honest, I didn’t really care about anyone else in the exam.

I can honestly say that I didn’t pay attention to the Hokage’s speech. For better or for worse, I was a lot more focused on keeping my eyes shut to block out excess stimulus (which, oddly, gave the impression that I was either thinking intently or about to fall asleep) so I could search for Sensei and Kakashi’s chakra signatures. It might sound cruel, or callous, but the gist of the Hokage’s speech could be summed up as “congrats on passing, now try not to die again.”

We were having preliminaries.

It could be worse.

How?

I admit to being less than creative at that particular moment.

Kabuto could be here.

Or Orochimaru, or Danzō, or half-a-dozen other potential threats. I sighed inwardly. Even without them, though, the whole thing is such bullshit.

Well, look at the brighter side of things. Sensei only just got here.

I glanced up at the walkways lining the atrium. Yep. There Sensei was, waving with just his fingers at us kids. He seemed rather…unenthusiastic, really. While he wasn’t like Kushina, with her cheek-pinching and tendency to hug so hard that something sprained, he usually was a bit more approving whenever we did something worth praising. Openly proud, perhaps. I dunno.

That…was really not a good sign.

But I guess it could probably wait until we were all really done beating the crap out of each other for arbitrary invisible points.

The Dreamer suggested, If you manage to lose, he’ll probably hold off on whatever he’s upset about right now until he can stop being upset over you getting hurt, later.

If anyone ever asks me to think happy thoughts as a cure for anything, I am going to point to that sentence right there and say that it is just not going to happen. I am permanently cracked, I tell you.

Something, something, get your asses off the floor so we can have you beat each other unconscious…

Yeah. I didn’t care about the specifics, there. The spirit of it all came through loud and clear.

“Sensei, did you see how awesome we were?” Obito said, running up to Sensei where he—and suddenly Kakashi was there, too—was standing.

“Yep. You did very well for your first time in the Exam.” Sensei said magnanimously, but I kept feeling like I was hearing something in his tone that he wasn’t making really obvious. “We’ll discuss it after the prelims.”

…Dodged some kind of bullet there, I think.

“So, one-on-one matches…” Rin prompted.

“Right. No ties—only double disqualifications. Try your best, but don’t be too disappointed if you don’t make it past—you’re the youngest kids in the Exam.” Sensei replied.

I wonder if it’s possible to mess up the winner so bad that it’ll hurt their performance in the Finals.

We’ll probably find out.

I’d just skip over the matches for people I didn’t care about, but as it happens, the first match came up about fifteen seconds after Sensei said that.

“Maito Gai versus Obito Uchiha. Please come down to the combat floor.”

…I think the proctor might have been a Sarutobi, but damned if I’d ever learn his name between my inattention and his probably-short expected lifespan.

Obito grinned, wider and yet fiercer than I’d ever seen him. He was still a kid, and a major goof, but he wanted to fight and win and his opponent was someone he actually seemed to like and respect (if only because Gai’s existence seemed to annoy Kakashi quite a lot), and now he had a real chance to test himself.

“Ready, Gai?” Obito called, pitching himself over the railing to land nearly in the center of the room. And we’d only just gotten up the stairs, too.

Did he seriously just stick the landing?

Yep.

Gai, for his part, vanished from the upper deck and reappeared in a swirl of leaves about three meters from Obito, which made me wonder where the leaves had come from. “I am always ready, Obito-san! Come, and let us do battle!”

Obito paused, nonplussed. “…Okay, sure. Why the hell not.”

This is going to end badly.

Also yep.

You sort of have to have a bit of context to understand my thought processes here, I think.

Gai is strong. As a genin, the only opponent who defeated him (as far as anyone knows) was a then-genin or newly-made chūnin Kakashi. In the story of Naruto as I knew it, Gai had gone with zero on-screen or on-panel defeats until running into Madara Uchiha during the Fourth Shinobi World War. Madara then, it should be noted, was leagues past where he would have been even in his prime—for fuck’s sake, normal people do not survive getting kicked in half by Lee, or being punched by Tsunade while she’s channeling her Strength of a Hundred technique, or any number of other things. Non-zombie shinobi have to deal with things like not having the Rinnegan, with being unable to use Wood Release, and having actual chakra limits imposed by their physical bodies.

The fact that Gai managed to run roughshod over everyone before that speaks volumes.

On the other hand, at this point in our lives, Gai has about as much tactical acuity as a thrown brick.

The same could be said of Obito, actually.

Obito was sort of the perennial loser in some ways—the klutz, the goofball, the non-Naruto dead last from a generation before. Loyal, headstrong, but not particularly adept at any shinobi arts other than teamwork, which was explicitly banned by the current rules. Naruto had least had the advantage of being able to make his own teammates. By the thousands.

Then again, he was the one to put our explosive deathtrap into motion. I’d trusted him with that. Rin had trusted him with that. We’d put our futures (or at least a small part of it) in his hands and he’d come through just fine.

“Obito is going to lose.” Kakashi said in an undertone, eyes locked on the slowly circling genin below.

My knee-jerk reaction was to deny it, but… Gai. There are some things a genin fresh out of the Academy isn’t meant to run into and someone who could keep up with Kakashi, like Gai, fell into that category.

As soon as the examiner’s hand sliced through the air, both of the boys were on the move. Gai was blindingly fast—even then, he was displaying the kind of speed that Lee would eventually learn from him, and the kind of combat aptitude that showed very clearly the type of shinobi he would grow into. If Obito had the Sharingan then, he would have been just as thoroughly outmatched as Sasuke was eventually, against Lee. Obito threw about six kunai in the process of hurling himself to one side, out of Gai’s attack trajectory. The difference between Obito and Gai was staggering.

The arena exploded.

It just so happened that Obito had never gotten around to redistributing all of that ninja wire and those explosive tags we didn’t use. Including the crappy smoke bomb things I’d made.

The difference, it seemed, was staggering, but not quite insurmountable.

Amid all of the billowing smoke, I could feel Gai’s chakra swirl around in confusion before he leapt free of the chaos and stuck to the ceiling, trying to take stock of the situation. For someone without a sensing ability, I guess it was a lot more confusing to him than to me.

Obito had used the tags—my tags, specifically—as a smokescreen. I was pretty sure he’d attached some of them to the undersides of his sandals and to the backs of the plates over his hands, and activated them as well as the ones he’d thrown. The result was a lot of choking white smoke and the smell of something burning.

Kakashi looked vaguely ill, briefly. I guess his mask filtered out the worst of it, but having a dog’s sense of smell was probably a bit uncomfortable sometimes.

“Where did he get smoke tags?” Sensei asked quietly, making me blink.

There was actually a name for the weird scribbles I’d made? And here I’d just thought they were defective.

“Oh, Kei-senpai made them.” Rin said.

Sensei’s laser-gaze focused on me. For my part, I immediately looked away and down, to where the smoke was thinning out a bit and Obito was still determinedly not visible. I could sense him, though, on the underside of the catwalk we were standing on, but Gai couldn’t see him from the ceiling.

“I just…found some old designs Dad made.” I mumbled, torn between embarrassment and something that felt just awkward. One of these days, I was gonna stop drawing suspicion to myself.

“Senpai?” Rin felt confused, but I didn’t want to look at her.

“…Obito isn’t doing badly, for a rookie.” Sensei said, at length. “But let’s see where he goes from here.”

Obito, who was not as stupid as some people liked to assume, seemed to know better than to engage Gai in taijutsu. Instead, as the smoke dispersed and Gai finally realized where he was, Obito spun a web. A web of lies and deceit and…wires.

Gai charged, of course, because Gai is Gai no matter what the age involved.

“LEAF WHIRLWIND!” If Obito had actually still been there, I’m sure he would have lost instantly.

But as it was, Gai swung his legs through a rapid succession of basic Clone jutsu projections. They had no substance whatsoever and were about as obvious as could be—Obito had a knack, but they were still incapable of projecting any chakra—but they kept Gai distracted for just about two seconds.

Obito, who had picked up a thing or two in the past few months, skittered across the arena behind Gai, low to the ground. He was keeping his eyes trained on Gai, who had finally smashed through all the clones with completely unnecessary force, but he also unspooled a coil of wire as he went. I couldn’t tell if it was the flammable sort or the basic kind but it didn’t really matter. Obito had something like a plan and it would probably involve setting just about everything on fire.

And then the air was full of metal. It was also full of Gai, who was stupidly fast and could bounce with the best of them.

From my perspective, it was actually easier to keep track of the fight if I just followed their chakra signatures instead of trying to use my eyes. I tried to keep my eyes open, though, since if Obito realized I wasn’t watching it might have distracted him.

Gai was fast, and strong, but Obito’s wires were absolutely everywhere and what I’d said about the wires before was still valid. If Gai wasn’t careful, he’d start losing extremities until he lost momentum, and none of us really wanted that to happen.

Obito’s chakra remained mobile, spinning out yet more wires wherever he scrambled out of Gai’s way. Some of them had tags attached, and after one of them exploded, I think Gai was a little more cautious about the whole idea of charging in.

Then Obito set a whole section on fire.

“Fire Release: Grand Fireball Jutsu!”

With one of the most useless fire jutsu in the history of fire jutsu. Some of the real tags refused to go off until Obito sent his chakra screaming down the wires, nearly timing it perfectly.

Of course, Gai got out of the way, but it was a pretty straightforward demonstration of what an Uchiha could do with some planning.

Stalemate—Obito didn’t have the explosive strength necessary to knock Gai out, while Gai couldn’t get close enough to demonstrate his skill at just that.

There was one major flaw in this plan.

Now, I don’t think there was really any way to win against Gai without some other overwhelming advantage. Ninjutsu or genjutsu would have had to have been the focus in any match with him, since Gai wasn’t particularly adept at doing anything along those lines. He wasn’t as bad at it as Lee, as evidenced by his later summoning contract with a turtle, but ninjutsu and genjutsu weren’t really his thing.

Fact is, they weren’t Obito’s thing either. He knew a grand total of five ninjutsu and no genjutsu and couldn’t perform any of them without hand seals.

And he’d never gotten around to manipulating all those damn wires without having them wrapped around his fingers.

Gai grabbed some of the wire and pulled.

Obito yelped in surprised pain and was summarily dragged forward out of his protective web of wires, meeting Gai’s fist coming the other way at slightly subsonic speeds, with his face.

Obito flew across the room and hit the ground shoulder-first before rolling to a stop. Rin and I both flinched.

He didn’t get up.

The proctor had barely gotten the words, “Maito Gai is the winner,” out before Sensei and I had both vaulted the railing and gone to check on Obito. I was trailing in his wake, really, since no one outpaced Sensei, but it was the thought that counted, right?

“Kei-senpai, don’t touch him.” Rin ordered in a low voice, making me stop just before I would have probably tried to roll Obito over. Sensei wasn’t moving him either, except to gently lift one of his eyelids to see if he was unconscious or concussed or both.

Probably both, or else that shoulder would have gotten at least a yell out of him.

I twitched with barely-restrained anxiety.

“Back up so the medics can get to him.” Sensei ushered us both away as he said it, while white-clad medic-nin bustled over with a stretcher between them.

“How bad is it?” I called to one of them.

“Nothing fatal, and that’s enough for now,” said the other. I guessed that any more news would have to wait until I could visit Obito in the hospital. Hopefully, I wouldn’t have to stage an escape from my own hospital room to do it.

Still, I reached over and clasped Obito’s wrist for just a moment. “See you soon. Get better, or else.”

I swear he looked like he heard me.

Once everyone was more or less settled back down again and Gai had apologized for kicking Obito’s ass (though I wasn’t really sure why), and so on, we got back to the matches.

I kind of zoned out for a bit, leaning against the back wall with my arms folded over my chest. I didn’t really care about the other participants, since I was more than a little self-centered. Most of them were fairly straightforward fighters I could figure out just from peripheral chakra sensing, and I didn’t really know them anyway. I was focusing inward.

I don’t think I can be a medic-nin.

What, because you’re not as calm as Rin?

I watched quietly as Ebisu and his kunoichi opponent traded blows and eventually ended up knocking each other silly. Ebisu had the basics down pat, with no obvious holes in his taijutsu and enough of a cool head to recover from the kick to the back of his knee without being reckless. By comparison, the kunoichi—a pigtailed thirteen-year-old girl in green, probably with about as much clan backing as me or Rin—was a little too quick to attack.

I don’t think that should stop you, given what we’re going to face in the future.

And it won’t. But as far as career paths go, I am never going to be a medic-nin.

…So, what, you’re going to learn enough to transplant an eye and then stop?

Pretty much.

I knew as soon as I thought that that it was a stupid, stupid plan. Preparing to deal with the worst that could happen was not what I was doing then. I…just didn’t want to do it. But I still needed to fulfill my role, didn’t I?

What happened to wanting to help people? What happened to your promise to Rin?

She was right, of course, which is exactly why I didn’t reply.

When Ebisu finally gave his opponent a knockout blow to the solar plexus about five minutes later, I wasn’t necessary surprised.

When Ebisu collapsed two seconds afterward as a result of being poisoned, I was.

“Double knockout. For our next match…”

Above the proctor’s head, the screen began shuffling through the names left. The medics, meanwhile, hauled the two unconscious kids away.

Bing! went the screen.

Rin Nohara vs. Genma Shiranui.

…This is going to be less one-sided, at least.

I wasn’t so sure about that. “Rin-chan?”

“What is it, Kei-senpai?” Rin asked, already halfway to the stairs.

Nothing especially poignant was coming to mind, so… “Don’t get yourself too badly hurt, okay?”

“I’ll be…not fine, but I promise I won’t break anything.” Rin said, and then she was heading down.

Kakashi made his way over to the railing spot next to mine as Rin and Genma finally got to the center of the floor, in front of the proctor. So did Sensei—I wasn’t really sure if he was trying to make sure Rin would be okay (even if he had to leap into the fight and separate the combatants by force and disqualify Rin) for her own sake or for Yamaguchi-sensei’s. Between them, they pretty much had me boxed in.

Lecture incoming in three, two…

“Anything to share with the class, Kei-kun?” Sensei asked.

“Like what? I sort of know how Genma fights, and I definitely know how Rin fights.” I offered, sans any detail.

Kakashi poked me in the shoulder and I whipped my head around, opening my mouth to say something. The look in his eyes stopped me. “I know you weren’t made genin for a brain that thinks that is good enough.”

Bluh bluh.

Even though I was bigger than Kakashi, I still shrank away a little even if there wasn’t really anywhere to go. It was kind of funny, in hindsight. “Uh…”

Hurry up and say something less stupid.

“Well, Genma uses senbon.” I offered. “He’s bigger and stronger than Rin, which is going to mean a lot of running around, but it doesn’t seem like he’s a power hitter like Gai was. If I had to guess, I think he’s like Gai in that it’s taijutsu first, but I think he has ninjutsu backup where Gai just kinda beats people silly.”

To be honest, I really didn’t know that much about Genma’s exact capabilities. His two pre-timeskip fights had been skipped over, but the results were at least fairly telling: versus Baki during the Chūnin Exam invasion, he’d survived where Hayate hadn’t. During the beginning of the Sasuke Retrieval arc, he and Raidō had fought well enough to force all of the Sound Four to use the second stage of their Curse Seals and partially tire themselves out, even if they’d lost. Sometime in the intervening seventeen years, he and Raidō had been taught the Flying Thunder God jutsu in their role as Sensei’s bodyguards, but they couldn’t use it separately. He could spit a senbon hard enough to deflect kunai thrown by experienced shinobi, and appeared to have a relatively calm and slightly snarky personality.

Whenever you’re done gushing, we can get back to the problem at hand.

Uh.

I continued, as though my train of thought hadn’t just derailed and wiped out a small town of imaginary people, “Rin-chan should be smarter than him, though, which counts for a lot.”

“I heard that, you know.” Genma called up from the ground floor.

“And that’s why I’m talking about you and not Rin.” I shot back.

“This really isn’t the time for this, Kei-senpai!” Rin rebuked.

I decided to shut up.

About four seconds later, Sensei said, “I’ll talk to you about your performance later.”

“I haven’t fought yet.”

“I mean what you did during the Second Exam. Tsume mentioned it to me.” Sensei corrected.

“…Okay.” There was a very good chance everything I’d done in the past week would be (or had already been) picked apart by a pair of older ninjas, and I didn’t like that idea one bit. Not looking forward to that, but there was a good chance I could end up unconscious after this anyway.

Anyway, enough dilly-dallying. Rin’s match was starting.

“Ready?” asked the proctor.

Genma and Rin both nodded.

“Begin!”

It was probably the only match that whole day where both fighters initially moved away from each other. I mean, Rin and Genma both leapt backward to get enough room to throw something, but it didn’t change the fact that it was the first match all day where neither of the fighters had been hotheaded to push the issue anyway.

Genma had senbon.

Rin had shuriken.

Metal bounced with a ting.

Genma moved first, charging across the room while bringing a kunai up to slice at Rin’s face, while Rin immediately moved through the hand seals for a Replacement. Rin was no slouch, for all that she still used hand seals, and I felt her move from her position to nearly the opposite end of the hall.

Genma ended up stabbing his own backpack.

And then Rin came flying in, hands glowing green and white, and Genma made the mistake of blocking rather than dodging. I heard a grunt of pain and both Rin and Genma separated, landing in crouches some five meters apart, and the fight seemed to pause. Rin got back to a fighting stance first, and when Genma followed, his left arm was notably slower to respond.

Genma’s arm wasn’t moving right, and without a diagnostic jutsu I couldn’t tell precisely why that was. Either Rin had numbed that arm, or she’d stabbed him with a chakra scalpel.

“Man, medical ninjutsu at your age,” Genma grumbled. “What is it with this Academy class?”

Oh, right. Gai had joined the Academy the same year that Rin, Obito, and Kakashi had.

I guess Rin had chosen to numb his arm rather than sever the tendons in it. Good for her (and for him).

“Fight me and find out.” Rin said, and slashed again and again with her numbing jutsu.

Now that Genma had figured out her range, though, he was swerving this way and that and deftly avoiding taking any more hits. Except to his unresponsive arm, which probably couldn’t even transmit pain. Having never been under the influence of Rin’s jutsu, I couldn’t know for sure.

Rin addressed the issue of the slippery older genin by cancelling the jutsu on one hand, and then flinging kunai after him while she closed the distance.

Her hand glowed blue-white in my chakra sense. The scalpels had come out and I wasn’t sure if Genma noticed.

Come on, Rin-chan! You can beat him!

When Rin and Genma clashed next, he may have successfully kicked her in the ribs, but she also managed to sever something in his leg. He collapsed on top of it, making a hissing noise from between clenched teeth, while Rin stumbled around wheezing for breath. Then she collapsed, curling around herself.

“I think she might have broken a rib.” I said, frowning and leaning over the railing to get a better look. Sensei’s hand grabbed the back of my shirt so I didn’t consider flinging myself into the ring to make sure she was okay—well, maybe he just didn’t want me to fall, but that was how I saw it.

“If she has, she’ll have to live with it for now.” Kakashi pointed out, though I was pretty sure that he wasn’t as indifferent as he liked to act.

“I know, but…”

Rin was a kid. She was in tears from the pain, not to mention the whole I can’t breathe thing, and her chakra scalpels guttered and died as her focus lapsed. I jerked against Sensei’s grip—Rin needed help!

“Ow…” Genma forced his way back to his feet, trying to keep as much weight off his bad leg as possible, and it quickly became clear that most of both of their offensive potential was shot.

Genma was better off, for what it mattered.

“Ow, ow, ow…” Genma said under his breath as he limped over to Rin. “Ow! Nohara-san, can you move?”

After a moment, Rin shook her head. She didn’t get up.

“Rin-chan!” Dammit, you promised you wouldn’t get hurt!

“All right, we’ll call the match here. We’ll get you a medic real quick.” Genma glanced at the proctor, who nodded. Then he looked back down at Rin. “Nohara-san?”

“I-I give up.” Rin choked out, gasping.

Genma didn’t look happy about it, but he finally dropped to the floor next to Rin. “Okay, now give me your hand. The medics will be here in a minute.”

Sensei finally let go of me, so I was able to sprint over to Rin and Genma.

“Diagnostic Jutsu!” I said, hands blurring through the seals and I spread my chakra out between my outstretched hands. “Okay, hold still.”

“Not going anywhere.” Genma muttered, and I scanned Rin first.

Rin whimpered, but at least the scan confirmed that she’d only broken one rib. Genma had cracked another one as collateral damage, but it was still in place and would probably heal with minimal interference.

“Everything’s going to be okay, Rin-chan.” I said, taking a few deep breaths to steady myself. “Shiranui-san?”

“Yeah? I’m fine—I just can’t walk.” Genma told me, but I looked him over anyway. “And I think she’s breaking my fingers.”

Rin had managed to get one good cut in, which had only severed muscle and no tendons of note. Genma wouldn’t be walking or fighting well, but it wasn’t enough to keep him out of the Third Exam on its own. The numbness of his arm wouldn’t last another hour, either.

Genma’s hand would be fine.

“Move aside, please.”

The medics had arrived. They loaded both Genma and Rin onto stretchers, and I heard Genma say something about putting him next to Ebisu, with Rin ending up next to Obito. Gai, from across the catwalks, looked rather worried. After a second, he trooped off after Genma, since it wasn’t like he had to stick around for any more of his teammates’ matches anyway.

There were only four genin left in the room, and a couple of the jōnin-sensei had also taken off. I kind of expected to see them later, if any of their students had passed, so they’d know the tournament roster later.

“So, we’re zero for two, now.” Sensei commented. I couldn’t figure out what he was thinking from either his tone or his expression, which was worrying.

Given that having Kakashi for a teammate had made me rather good at interpreting expressions with minimal cues, that was one hell of a poker face.

Bing! went the screen.

Keisuke Gekkō versus Himawari Hyūga.

I looked across the room, to where the Hyūga girl was making her way down to the ground floor, and felt my hands start to shake. My first solo match, against the oldest genin in the exam, and without any real idea how to fight the Gentle Fist style. This was going to suck.

Damn you, Murphy!

“Everyone else, please get off the exam floor,” the proctor said.

Kakashi and Sensei left, leaving me alone with the Byakugan-user.

The Dreamer gave the impression of a grimace. This…is probably not going to end well.

No shit.

“Hello, Gekkō-san.” Himawari said. Damn she was tall—she was at least a head and a half taller than I was. I was a bit big for my age, but clearly seven years made one hell of a difference. She wore the Hyūga clan symbol on a sash around her waist and a hitai-ate around her neck. Her hair was waist-length or longer, and she had a sleeveless shirt with bandages wrapped around her arms up to her elbows.

I was getting a Neji vibe from her, honestly. She was a Main House member, sure, but since the other Main House member I really knew of was the as-yet-unborn Hinata, I guess the confidence was sort of throwing me off. Even if it seemed like Neji was more arrogant than dignified.

“Or would you prefer if I called you something else?” Himawari asked.

“Uh, everyone else calls me Kei.” I said.

Himawari considered this for a moment, then nodded. “In that case, do you mind if I call you Kei-chan? I’m afraid I can’t get used to calling girls ‘-kun’ at all.”

I nodded.

“Well, in that case, you can call me Himawari-san or Himawari-chan, as you like.”

“Um. Okay, Himawari-san.” I said.

“Now, I know you’re a rookie, but we’ll be going all out for this match. Good luck, Kei-chan.”

“Same to you, Himawari-san.”

We both bowed.

“Ready?” the proctor asked.

I lifted my hand to my kodachi. Himawari settled into a basic Gentle Fist stance.

“Begin!”

I watched Himawari activate her Byakugan without hand seals and knew right then and there that I was screwed.

She charged, chakra swirling around her like an aura, and I was immediately on the defensive. I tore the scabbard from my waist and scrambled backward, trying to remember if Mom had actually said that any of my drawing techniques were useful against someone faster than I was, but I couldn’t think of any. Instead, I had to improvise.

Gekkō-style Leaf Kenjutsu: Double Tiger Strike—Claw!

I swung my kodachi, still in its sheath, with a chakra-enhanced speed I didn’t even know I was capable of before. Himawari blocked it, turning the weapon aside so that it swung over her head, but I yanked it out of the scabbard and swung again, this time with the blade.

It was ripped entirely off of something I’d seen on TV in my old life, taken to Mom for her opinion, and attempted to make into something more realistic.

That? That was Hiten Mitsurugi Style: Sōryūsen Ikazuchi.

Himawari ducked under the swing as though she’d known I was going to do that all along.

Shit, shit, shit, the Byakugan wasn’t supposed to do that—!

Himawari’s hand wasn’t glowing with medical chakra. It wasn’t glowing at all. I just knew that if I let her touch me, I was done. I’d never taken a Gentle Fist strike, but I wasn’t dumb enough to think that I could just tank hits like Naruto and his fuzzy little problem. The Dreamer was literally made of my Yin chakra, not that of a Tailed Beast, and wouldn’t be able to do anything if my chakra network was blocked off.

I panicked. I didn’t slash at her again. I planted one hand against the floor, coated with chakra, and hurled myself backward like I was being fired out of a slingshot. It was completely uncontrolled, meaning I went spinning around like an idiot for a while, but I managed to find my footing again eventually.

And when I did, she was barely a second behind me.

“Eight Trigrams Thirty-Two Palms.”

Replacement jutsu!

Genma’s backpack took another nasty beating.

“Eight Trigrams Vacuum Palm!”

I skittered away, using my chakra-enhanced speed to stay the hell out of range, and I felt the burst of chakra-infused air gouge a chunk out of the wall behind me. Shit, how was Himawari still a genin? It was taking everything I had just not to be taken out of the fight in one shot.

“Stop running, please.” Himawari said, and I took that as a sign to keep running.

Still, it wasn’t like I was going to be able to outlast her. I had a lot less chakra to start with, for one.

Focus on the fight!

In the end, it really seemed like what we were doing amounted to a retread of the Pain vs. Hinata fight. While I wasn’t anywhere near as nonchalant about dodging as that Rinnegan-wielding asshat was, the point was that Himawari was doing all of the attacking and I was doing all of the running the fuck away. I didn’t have any overkill jutsu to use on her to turn the tide—no Almighty Push or Amaterasu was going to make itself known in any of my fights.

FOCUS.

The Byakugan made my genjutsu useless because they weren’t going to affect more space than the Byakugan could observe at once, not even counting the issue of how the bloodline allowed the user to literally see the flow of chakra. Clones weren’t useful enough to serve as distractions when Himawari was capable of blurring through them faster than I could make them. Medical ninjutsu was dependent on chakra flow and focus, which I wasn’t going to have much of in short order.

It was down to me and kenjutsu. It was the only thing I had that she didn’t.

Gekkō-style Leaf Kenjutsu: Tiger Clan Attack!

I slashed what felt like a dozen times in the span of a few seconds, burning chakra as I went. It was the first time I’d gone on the offensive during the fight, and Himawari was actually forced to retreat for a while, because blocking swords strikes with one’s bare hands was a really risky proposition at the best of times.

She took out a kunai and finally managed a proper block, but I came in low with the metal scabbard, aiming for her kneecap. In doing so, I had to stretch until my body and the angle of my legs was practically parallel to the ground, which is what, in the business, we call “hideous overextension.” I thought it was worth it.

Gentle Fist users don’t use their feet for anything other than maneuvering. There are no kicks in the Hyūga style, as opposed to Gai’s Strong Fist or the Uchiha acrobatic signatures.

Himawari leapt over my strike, twisted in midair, and brought her palm gently to rest against my left shoulder.

“Eight Trigrams Vacuum Palm.”

The world went white with pain. I heard the Dreamer screaming, distantly, before all that was left was a high-pitched whine.

I hit the wall, and then everything was blessedly dark and silent.

Chapter Text

The Dreamer was the first living (kinda) thing I saw in what felt like a long time.

I was on one of the psychologists’ couches in my mindscape, watching water stream down from wherever the hell the ceiling was in a metaphysical place. The colors were oddly muted, like florescent light after a long stint in the sun, and the perpetual haze of memory fragments were clogging the water like a salmon run in September instead of flitting through the air on wings of color and light. I didn’t know how long I’d been there without being aware of it, or how much had really changed since the last time I consciously remembered it.

I looked over at the Dreamer and said, “Hey.”

Hey yourself.” She didn’t put any particular effort into her reply, distracted as she was by the attempt to reattach her left arm. Instead of blood, the Dreamer’s wound was shedding stuff that looked like bad pixels—bluish-yellow sparking things that drifted upward and looked like they’d been cribbed from the special effects department of a cyberpunk movie.

I think the gears in my brain jammed for a second.

That is the only explanation I had for how calm I was about the entire situation.

“Is there anything I can do?” I asked, concerned. I’d never seen the Dreamer wounded at all, and her body was so much smaller than mine—even at the peak of her overacting, she was only ever the age of our physical body. Nine, to my…fourteen, I think, after her awakening and reintegration of my memories. I could see our reflections in the water, despite the ripples that ought to have been there.

Hold my arm here,” the Dreamer ordered, handing her detached arm over. She turned so that I could press the stub of the arm to the ruined shoulder it had come from.

The situation is just a bit sticky here, gents. I thought, absurdly. I could still think in British accents if I wanted to, dammit. “By God, sir, you’ve lost your leg.” “By God, so I have.”

Her natural light show intensified for a moment, though only at the point where her arm and her body connected. “Thanks.

The light flared.

That…should hold.” The Dreamer shrugged me off and resumed floating around the mindscape. Her reattached arm continued to spark and twitch as she went.

“So, what’s been going on since I took a dirt nap?” I asked, as though I hadn’t just been a witness to the strangest regeneration mechanic this side of Orochimaru.

Nothing that I know of.” The Dreamer spun lazily in midair, glancing at Id with her glowing eyes. “If you’re knocked out instead of asleep, I can’t do much at all. The fact that you’re here now means you’re on the way to waking up.

“Oh, good. I can’t even tell how long it’s been since I got my ass kicked.” I said distractedly, “And I think I had incredibly bad reaction to the Gentle Fist—I can’t remember if there’s supposed to be some kind of timeframe for the effects to wear off, but it can’t be all that long.”

You just had to reattach my arm.

True. That was an important fact.

“I meant more that the Gentle Fist chakra blocks wear off a normal person in a few hours, if the damage isn’t too severe.” I paused. “Though, we aren’t normal and I think the Vacuum Palm is at least two steps up from the rest of the Eight Trigrams series. I think, at full power, she’d have killed me outright.”

Neji was capable of killing Kidōmaru in the second stage of his Curse Seal. Hm.” The Dreamer shrugged the thought off. “Anyway, it’s time to wake up now.

So I did.


 

In my old life, I’d never woken up at a hospital. That’s because I was a sedentary, risk-averse college student whose most dangerous activity on a given day was driving from place to place. Granted, American freeways and highways and parkways and so on are, in fact, hilariously ill-designed in some respects and thus dangerous, the risks seemed normal. I hadn’t hurt myself or anyone else (though my car had had a few mishaps over the years), and on the few occasions I had been to the hospital late at night I had been inevitably shooed out to go home when visiting hours were over. On top of everything else, I was usually too keyed up on free coffee and nerves to fall asleep anyway.

Yeah. I was a pretty boring person.

In my new life, though, I knew from the moment I decided to become a ninja that the hospital was going to be a home away from home, whether I liked it or not.

In conclusion, it wasn’t that surprising that I woke up in the hospital after the Prelims kicked my ass.

Now, I wanted to be mad. Waking up among the bleach-or-lemon-water smell and white linoleum meant I’d lost, which I’m pretty sure a nine-year-old boy or a real nine-year-old girl would be plenty pissed off about, out of wounded pride if nothing else. (Well, okay, maybe I was thinking more of the ten through twelve-year-olds I had once had more experience with. They were more competitive.) But there was a warm weight taking up space against my back, and I immediately moved to figure out what it was. So sue me for curiosity.

Turned out that Hayate had somehow clambered into my hospital bed and dozed right off.

I decided that being mad came a distant second to knowing the world hadn’t ended while I’d been indisposed.

Quickly, I decided to take stock.

Limbs: Attached.

Chakra: Acceptable.

Other chakra signatures: Mostly doctors and nurses and medic-nin. I could sense Mom moving around the building, probably in search of non-terrible hospital food. Hayate was next to me. It felt like Rin and Obito, as well as Ebisu, Gai, and Genma, were all hanging around. So was the Hyūga—er, Himawari. I wasn’t sure why, since I’d been knocked out five matches in, but I guess it wasn’t worth worrying too much over. Sensei and Kakashi were out of range, which meant they could be essentially anywhere.

I sighed inwardly.

It’s a mess in here.

Does it have to do with the fact that you were missing an arm?

Sort of. Though that was more because the Gentle Fist attacks the chakra network and organs directly and I didn’t pull back fast enough. Or, you know, at all. Nothing we couldn’t fix, anyway.

I somehow doubted that even she was sure what had really happened. Most of the time, the Dreamer’s Yin chakra remained gathered well under my normal chakra, which ought to have just meant that flow would have stopped. For it to have been severed, she had to have been either actively reinforcing me or actively pulling chakra away to form more Yin chakra and reinforce herself.

Then again, if one Gentle Fist attack was all it took to destabilize her, I guess I couldn’t be mad about that.

I put the issue out of my mind for the moment and scooted so that I was sitting upright. Hayate rolled over sleepily in response, almost flopping off the other edge of the bed, and I put a hand on his shoulder. “Hayate-chan?”

“Five more minutes, Sis…” Hayate mumbled, apparently still too drowsy to add two and two together to get four.

I smiled. “Hayate-chaaaaaaaan, naptime’s over.”

He reached out and blindly whacked me in the arm.

“Hey!”

There was a moment in which nothing happened. Then Hayate flipped over again as though someone had zapped him, clambering into my lap and then scrambling upward to throw his arms around my neck. “Y-You’re awake!”

“Yep.” I said, grinning despite the pressure, one arm around his ribs and the other hand ending up in his mop of hair. “I’m okay, Hayate-chan.”

“You’ve never stayed sleep for so long, though!” Abruptly, he pulled away, and started studying my face intently. It was actually kind of disconcerting to be scrutinized by a…Christ, he was already seven by then—by a kid. “Not even after you stayed up all night that one time.”

The joys of finding a time for wrapping birthday presents for ninja kids. That had not been a fun night.

“Well, you already know I was in the Chūnin Exams. Sometimes recovering after a real fight takes longer than a spar would.” I told him.

That, thankfully, sent him off on a tangent. “You lost.”

“Yep. Guess your big sister just wasn’t good enough yet.”

Hayate was immediately indignant on my behalf. “Well…whoever won must’ve cheated! You’re the strongest big sister ever!”

Point of order, kid: Tsunade would probably disagree. And Nawaki, if the kid wasn’t dead.

Stop depressing yourself. It’s not healthy.

“Sad to say that it’s not the case, little brother. Your big sister’s just not big enough or bad enough for promotion yet, even if I can do this.” I said, and started tickling him.

Coochie-coochie-coo!

“Ack!” He wriggled, trying to escape from my trap, but I was too strong.

“Tickling builds character!”

Whatever Hayate had been about to say dissolved into shrieks of laughter.

Unfortunately, the fun was cut short by the door slamming open. The bar-shaped handle just barely missed gouging a hole in the nearest wall, and the sound of it alone had me and Hayate both freezing in place. Sure, Hayate was still giggling breathlessly, but at least I’d let him go.

“You’ve only been awake for a few minutes and already you’re back to normal.” Yamaguchi-sensei said. He didn’t seem sure whether it was more important to facepalm or just sigh, so he did both.

“Well, you know me.” I replied, “And I guess I wasn’t really that hurt to start with.”

Yamaguchi-sensei approached, flipping through the clipboard in his hands before checking the chart at the foot of the bed. After a minute, he said, “It could have been worse.”

Well, that was not exactly comforting.

“How bad was it?” I asked. “I think I was out before I really realized what happened.”

“Aside from hitting a concrete wall, your opponent’s attack nearly made several key tenketsu in your arm and shoulder explode.”

…Meep.

“But with emergency care and some luck, it seems you’re going to be the same as ever.” Yamaguchi-sensei glared at me over the top of his glasses. “But, for the love of all that’s sacred, don’t do that again. If you have to fight a Gentle Fist user again, run the hell away or surrender if it’s viable. There are very, very few people who can take more than a few Gentle Fist strikes from a skilled practitioner and live, and I’d rather not see the crippled mess that’s left afterward.” Especially if it’s my student, went unsaid.

I might have taken a bit of the stress off. But yeah, we’re not doing that again.

I nodded, since they both were right.

Hayate looked rapidly back and forth between us. Then he crossed his arms and said, “I knew that the winner must’ve cheated.”

I ruffled his hair again. “Nah, she was just better.”

“So it seems.” Yamaguchi-sensei said. He placed the chart back on the end of the bed. “If you’re already so excitable, I suppose we can allow more visitors. From the records, your mother’s already been in—and I saw her downstairs, so it’s a given. And your brother, of course.” He nodded at Hayate. “Other than that, your teammates have all been in at least once and I’ve seen that airheaded sensei of yours around.”

…Even Kakashi? Praise the gods; he was becoming more human by the day!

“How long was I out?” I asked.

“About three days. Your teammates are up and about, but if Obito comes in again and starts acting excitable, punch him in the stomach for me. He’s not supposed to be straining that shoulder.” Yamaguchi-sensei huffed. “And yell at Rin-chan if she does the same thing. They’re supposed to be on light duty for the next month.”

My lips thinned. “I…I guess I knew they were badly off, but…”

“They’ll be fine.” Yamaguchi-sensei said. “Broken bones may be serious, but with the war on…well. I see worse. No one died in the Prelims this time, which is good enough for me.”

There was something vaguely depressing about that thought, but it didn’t really stand out from the shittiness of the whole war situation in general. Bluh.

“But you don’t need to worry about that just yet.” Yamaguchi-sensei told me.

“…All right, Yamaguchi-sensei.” I said eventually, though I didn’t believe that was the case. I’m sure he was being totally honest and all that rot, but just by being on Team Minato, I was pretty sure I’d sealed my fate from the get-go.

Yamaguchi-sensei gave me a scrutinizing look, then seemed to dismiss my weirdness from the list of things he cared about. “Anyway, I still have rounds to complete. Try not to strain yourself, eat what the nurses tell you to, blah blah sentimental drivel.”

Hayate and I giggled.

Yamaguchi-sensei walked right out after that. I heard him say something to someone outside of the room, and I felt Obito enter before I could stop giggling long enough to look up. In hindsight, I heard him, too—Obito crashed everywhere he went, sometimes.

“Hi, Hayate-chan! Hi, Kei! Man, it’s about time you woke up!” Obito enthused, hobbling over. He wasn’t on crutches, but I could tell that he was on some kind of painkiller for his tightly-bound shoulder and arm. He was little clumsier than normal. “That makes us three-for-three on the ‘now we can say we survived our first Chūnin Exam’ records. Like, there ought to be a Hall of Fame or something.”

“Maybe there is and we just never noticed?” I suggested.

We thought about that for a moment.

“Nah,” we said together.

“Yamaguchi-sensei told me you lost to Himawari. I guess it could’ve been worse, you know?”

I gave Obito a blank look. Next to me, Hayate inhaled sharply, probably with the intent of arguing. I elbowed my brother to distract him.

“How so?” I asked.

“Well, Himawari’s kind of scary.” Obito explained. “I mean, she’s supposed to be engaged to Hiashi Hyūga, right? And he’s the next head of the Hyūga clan.”

Wait. Slow down. Hold the fucking phone.

I got my ass kicked by Hinata’s mom.

…On second thought, that made a terrible amount of sense. She was only two years or so younger than Sensei, and I knew that Sensei would be a dad in…about four years, give or take. If Himawari was sixteen, she’d be about twenty or so when Hinata was born and her husband would be…eh, twenty-eight? I remembered that Hiashi and Hizashi were older than the rest of the parents of the Konoha Twelve—the ones had been given specific ages, anyway.

In hindsight, I guess I didn’t mind that much.

“Well, I guess that makes it a little less embarrassing.” I concluded.

“But you should be promoted, Sis!” Hayate protested.

I’m still not sure he understood what a promotion meant, then.

“I’m fine with being genin for another year.” I told him. Pointing at Obito, I said, “If I wasn’t a genin anymore, I wouldn’t be able to hang out with Obito and Rin-chan as much, and that’d be horrible.”

Hayate thought about that. “Well, Obito could play with me and my friends?”

Obito gave a choked sort of laugh. “Oh, so I don’t get to be promoted when your sister does?”

“No.” Hayate said clearly. “Because if you did you wouldn’t have time for anyone anymore.”

“Aw, Hayate-chan wants his big brother around?” I teased.

“He’s the only one who can really play ninja.” Hayate whined.

Obito and I exchanged looks.

I don’t know what he was thinking, but the thought in my head at that moment was something along the lines of well I know who I’m getting to babysit Naruto when he’s born.

That thought was built on the assumption that Obito didn’t go mass murderer on us, but…well, it was funny.

Funny, but sad.

“Kei-senpai!” Rin’s entrance was thankfully more restrained, but I wasn’t happy to see the reason for it—mainly, that she was still in a hospital gown and pants and looked rather pale. I could feel the faint tingle of medical chakra from Obito, because of his shoulder, but Rin’s ribs were making a sort of jangling sensation to my sixth sense. It wasn’t really bad, precisely, but it told me that it was going to be a while before Rin could join us in the field. She also noticed Hayate, “Hi, Hayate-chan!”

“Rin-chan, should you really be walking around already?” I asked.

“Actually, I’ve been cleared for light exercise.” Rin said. “Sort of.”

“Define ‘light.’” I said, as Hayate started climbing on Obito.

“No sparring, but I can run and stretch and things.” Rin said. “What about you?”

“I think I’m okay.” I replied, since Yamaguchi-sensei hadn’t mentioned anything about taking special precautions. “I mean, I feel…okay-ish, with no major weakness that I’ve noticed. I’m just a little tired. It’s nothing compared to busted ribs.”

Rin frowned. “But I heard from Akihito-shishō that your opponent nearly destroyed your tenketsu!”

“…Yeah, but she didn’t and I’m okay now.” I said. “It could’ve been way worse than it was, and I’m on the road to recovery now or whatever.”

“Hayate, would you please get off?” Obito said, because by that point the enterprising seven-year-old had clambered onto Obito’s uninjured shoulder.

Rin frowned more severely. “But Kei-senpai…”

“Don’t worry about me, Rin-chan. Worry about yourself and about Obito. I think Hayate’s going to break him.” And, because I’d said that, Hayate abruptly decided that today was not the day to conquer Mount Uchiha. This may have been because Mount Uchiha was starting to shake. An eruption was imminent.

Hayate ran out of the room, with Obito on his heels.

“…So, that was a thing. I think he’s going to use Mom as home base again.” I said, as Rin giggled.

“Sounds like a plan, I suppose.” Rin said. “Also, Kei-senpai?”                                                 

“Yeah?”

“Thanks for being our captain.” Rin smiled. “I’m not sure we would’ve gotten that far without you.”

Actually, if Kakashi had been allowed into the Exam, if I’d never been born, and if you had all still been the same Team Minato, you might have made it exactly as far. I thought.

“It was really nice to be able to do that, if stressful as hell.” I admitted. Still, it could have been a hell of a lot worse. “Now, since I’m still not sure if I can leave this room without an official sticky note, could you please figure out where Hayate-chan and Obito ran off to? I’d like to see the hospital intact past noon.”

“It’s already three. But yeah, I’ll go get them.” Rin turned to leave.

“Thanks, Rin-chan.” I called after her.

When the door shut, it felt oddly final. Like I was closing the gates on something important I couldn’t recall, even if I tried.

So the Chūnin Exams were a bust.

Yeah, but I think we already knew that when we were signing up. I thought. Team Minato didn’t get promoted until eleven in canon, barring Kakashi.

But no one died, we met some major players, and I think we made some new friends.

So it wasn’t a total bust, then. I paused, casting outward with my chakra sense. Gai and Genma and Ebisu are still in the building. Mom and Hayate and Obito are in the cafeteria, with Rin headed their way. Yamaguchi-sensei is somewhere on this floor, probably making the rest of his rounds. And that leaves…

“Glad to see you’re awake, Kei-kun.” Sensei said from my bedside, nearly making me jump out of my skin.

In a tone that made her a liar with a giggle-fit, the Dreamer said, That is not at all funny.

Pull the other one, it’s got bells on.

“It’s good to be awake, Sensei.” I told him, with my heart rate kicking up again as I remembered that he’d wanted to discuss something with me before I’d gotten myself knocked out for a day or two. I’d kind of hoped he’d forgotten the whole thing, but with Sensei right in front of me I was aware that my chances of avoiding a confrontation were shrinking rapidly.

Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit…

“Are you really okay, after all that happened?” Sensei asked, sitting on the edge of the bed.

“…Yeah, I think I am.” I gave a nervous, incredibly insincere laugh. “I mean, what’s a nearly destroyed core tenketsu to being up for promotion, right?”

Whoops. The sarcasm kind of burst through there.

“If you didn’t want to compete, you could have just refused to sign the forms.” Sensei pointed out. He was patting me on the head again.

Yes, I could have, which is exactly why I didn’t. I said under my breath, “I couldn’t do that to them.”

Sensei’s eyebrow went up.

“…Putting that aside for the moment, I have a few things to talk to you about, Kei-kun. I’m just concerned.” Sensei told me, though I was sure that he had just jotted down another mental note about my weirdness in that steel-trap skull of his. “Obito mentioned that they chose you as the captain of the team during the Second Exam. I saw the footage, after, and I spoke to Tsume once she’d escorted Team Sasukibe out of the training grounds.”

Sensei has this habit of giving you just enough rope to hang yourself with.

“What are you asking, Sensei?” Of course, I also tended to butt in before the question actually popped up, which was one of my failings.

“A lot of things at once, actually. I have a list.” And sure enough, he produced a list. It came on a scroll and he wouldn’t let me see it. I even grabbed for it and missed.

Why does he have a list?!

PAPERWORK NINJA.

“First off, you and your teammates made it through the Chūnin Exams alive. That’s better than anyone had any right to expect.” Sensei told me, leaning back so the List was out of convenient reach.

Easy for the guy who fucking nominated us to say. WE’RE NINE YEARS OLD.

He didn’t seem to notice my directionless anger. It was neatly squashed when he finally looked up at me. I quailed under his stare. Meep. “But let me make this perfectly clear: despite the success you and Obito had with the explosive seals, never use untested seals again.”

“Eh?” I’d thought they were just duds, but…

Sensei emptied one of his flak jacket pockets and produced two crumpled paper tags—one of mine, done in scribbles and blood and ink and on rice paper, and a standard Konoha tag. “This is one of yours. This is one of the mock-ups I made of the Konoha standard—they have the same design, essentially. Mine’s a deliberately designed dud. Yours is an accidental dud.”

“…Okay.” I said, not sure where this was going.

Untested seal.

Like something from a memory long forgotten, the voice of R. Lee Ermey said inside my skull, “An ordnance technician at a dead run outranks everyone.”

…Well, I’m a fucking moron.

I facepalmed harder than I had at any point in this life before, and repeatedly. “Stupid, stupid, stupid!”

Sensei chuckled. “Well, at least I didn’t have to spell it out for you any more than that.”

“How could I be so blind?” I despaired, furious with myself and with my past self in particular for forgoing sleep to save a few ryō. Past Me was a stupid, stupid person. “Untested exploding tags? How did we not lose fingers?!”

“You were very, very lucky.” Sensei told me bluntly. Still, he didn’t seem quite as annoyed as he had before. “While it was a boneheaded move, Tsume tells me that it worked to scare Team Sasukibe into surrendering, which is probably the closest thing the Exams had to a bloodless victory this time around. Before you ever do that again, though, damn well let someone teach you more about sealing arts than just the form.”

Holy shit, is he saying what I think he’s saying.

“…Then can you teach me, Sensei?” I asked in a small voice.

Sensei smiled. “I was honestly waiting for you to ask.”

Yes, he is.

But I couldn’t have my “oh my god fucking finally I can get started on this preventative time travel/prophecy bullshit” moment. Not while Sensei was still being serious under the smile.

That was one item on the List.

In a way, I was glad that I was still in a hospital bed whether I needed it or not. Sensei would probably have just gone full Gunnery Sergeant With A Tack In His Boot if I had been hale and hearty and at the training grounds instead.

“Do you promise to actually pay attention, and to never use sealing techniques again until you actually know what you’re doing?” Sensei asked.

I nodded.

“Good. Then we’ll move on.” Sensei cleared his throat and unrolled the List a little more. “Under normal circumstances, most of what you pack for a mission falls under the category of ‘if it’s dead weight, leave it.’ A shinobi always has to be ready for a quick retreat, or a fight.”

“’Never bring anything on a mission that you can’t afford to lose.’” I quoted, nodding.

“Yes, well.” Sensei looked sheepish for a moment. “I just realized I might not have actually told any of you how to get things back into a storage scroll. I honestly should have noticed earlier, but when you were playing with experimental tags it slipped my mind.”

I could feel the bottom drop out of my stomach. “How expensive was the stuff I ditched?”

“All in all, about ten thousand ryō or so. Some of it was yours, mind, so I’m sure you’ll have to explain that to your mother sooner or later.”

I’d have rather played fetch with a Chain Chomp. If I’d had the power, I’d go back in time to throttle Past Me.

After all the financial freakouts I’d had in this lifetime, after graduating early to take some of the burden off my mother, after holding back from buying the equipment I sometimes needed, I’d still do stupid things like that and it made me want to scream.

Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, STUPID.

I didn’t realize I’d started to slap myself in the face again until Sensei caught my hand halfway there. I blinked at him stupidly, because he was giving me a sad look and I couldn’t, in that moment, figure out why.

“That’s enough.” Sensei said firmly, forcing my hand back down to my side. “You didn’t know, and I should have made sure you actually knew what you were getting into before I let you enter the Exam. Any tool you don’t understand well enough to use is a tool of the enemy, and I know you know that, Kei-kun. You didn’t know and you didn’t know to ask. That’s okay. That’s my fault. Next time, you’ll know everything you need to in order to earn that promotion.”

I nodded numbly.

“Which brings me to my last point.” Sensei sat back, letting go of my hand. But his expression was just as concerned as ever, and I didn’t get it because my brain was just refusing to make connections.

There was a silence that stretched just long enough to be awkward. I started twisting my sheets with anxious fingers. What could be worse than my idiocy, at least now that we were all out of danger?

“…What?” I asked at length, wishing I could sink into the mattress in shame. Leave me alone, leave me alone

Sensei looked me right in the eye and said, “Kei-kun, you deserve to be here. Stop acting like you think you don’t.”

I immediately ducked my head, drawing my knees up so I could hide my face against them. Pat, pat. I probably ought to have told Sensei to stop treating me like a dog, but my throat was suspiciously clogged.

“You make some bad decisions, Kei-kun. You don’t think so well under pressure. You don’t have much of an attention span for things that don’t interest you, and you pick fights with Kakashi whenever you think Obito’s getting the worst of his attitude.” Sensei told me, still petting away. “You don’t talk about your problems even when your teammates could help. You hate shrimp ramen.”

At that last bit, I looked up, and Sensei waggled his eyebrows. I gave a hiccupping laugh, somehow.

“Good, you can still laugh.” Sensei smiled, too. “Now that I’ve outlined your flaws, keep in mind that it’s not really possible to be all bad. You were placed on my team for a reason, and not just because Yamaguchi-sensei seems to think Rin-chan is the next Tsunade.”

I gave another strangled laugh, because I had my own thoughts on the matter.

“You’re intelligent and driven when you have a reason to show it.” Sensei leaned over, pulling a spare blanket from nowhere, and draped it over me so I could hide in it like a turtle. Then he went on, “You care about your teammates, even if you’re not much for balancing the strained egos that involves. You’re on your way to becoming a kenjutsu expert in a few years, and you’re a decent medic if Yamaguchi-sensei thought you could get by on what you know at age nine.”

But I shouldn’t exist here! I don’t know if I stole this life from a girl who should have been Hayate’s sister, if I stole Rin’s role in the world, if…I don’t know if I can ever do enough to make everything hurt less than it does.

The wreck of the Kannabi Bridge loomed at the front of my mind, a memorial to a long-lost bright future and meaningless deaths.

I don’t know if I can save anyone.

“But you need to learn.” Sensei put his hands on my shoulders, as I hunched down further. “And you can’t do that if you hide everything away in a box and won’t let anyone know what you can and can’t do. Kei-kun, I need to understand what it is that you need from me in order to be a better shinobi.”

I need to know how to seal a tailed beast. I thought, biting down on my lower lip. I need to know how to save the people I care about, and what use is this stupid foreknowledge if I can’t even figure out how to do anything once time catches up?

“Some of it will come with time, and with growing up.” Sensei went on. “But for now, just know that you’re better than you think. I’m glad you’re one of my students, and I’m sure Obito and Kakashi are happy they’re on your team. You’re not stupid or useless, you’re just inexperienced. And practice makes perfect, you know?”

I nodded again, not trusting myself to speak.

WHAM.

While Sensei jumped, I huddled deeper into my blankets and tried to sniffle less obviously.

“I’d like to hear a good explanation for why my daughter is crying, Namikaze-san.” Mom said, and I didn’t even need to look to know that she’d probably knocked a hole in a wall from the force she’d used on the door. The doorknob would never be the same.

“It’s f-fine, Mom.” I said, before she could break out the katana or Sensei could decide whether or not to just teleport away. I sounded terrible—that lump in my throat hadn’t gone away.

“Kei-chan?” Mom asked, and as Sensei got off the bed, Mom sat down. She immediately pulled the whole bundle that was me into her lap.

“Just a post-mission debrief, Gekkō-san.” Sensei told her, but that might have been the wrong thing to say.

I don’t think Sensei had a lot of experience with parents. His, or anyone else’s.

“I understand, Namikaze-san, but this is a hospital, and my daughter is currently a patient. If you want to raise her blood pressure, do so when she’s not hooked up to so many machines.” Mom said flatly, confirming the idea that Sensei had, in fact, said the wrong thing.

Using the Dreamer’s control over her half of my chakra, as well as mine, I worked on forcing my emotions back under control. Technically, it wasn’t really possible to meditate like this, but if I was careful I could kick-start the parasympathetic half of my nervous system. I could force normalcy, in a way.

By the way? Don’t try this at home. Get a glass of water and a hug like a normal person.

Forcing my mouth into a smile, because that helped too, I took a deep breath and said, “It’s okay, Mom. Sensei was just helping me with a couple of things.”

Mom stared at me. She looked at Sensei a second later, as though for confirmation, before looking back to me. “You’re sure, Kei-chan?”

“Yeah. Not everything you need to hear is sunshine and sparkles.” I dabbed at my eyes with the hospital sheets—which was probably unsanitary but whatever—and gave her a wobbly sort of smile. I repeated, “It’s okay.”

Mom hugged me right after that, Sensei teleported out of the room, and I had the weirdest feeling that I’d managed to avert World War Three.

“Don’t ever do something so risky ever again.” Mom said into my hair, squishing me against her.

“Not until I get promoted, at least.” I teased, a huff of laughter on my breath. My fingers tightened in her shirt. “Sorry for making you worry.”

“Oh, I think you’ll give me plenty of reasons to worry the longer you’re a shinobi.” Mom said. “You and your brother. Don’t apologize if you don’t plan to change that.”

I didn’t, and I’d stay on this path until it killed me. I buried my face in her shoulder and wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. So I did both.

Eventually, I must have fallen asleep. It was dark when I woke up again, and I faintly suspected that Mom had done some kind of weird parenting miracle thing where I could go to sleep in her arms and not even have a Dreamer vision kick me in the cerebral cortex.

No matter what happened, I woke up and wriggled in my blankets until I was more or less upright, looking out the window at the street lamps. It was raining, with the drops dancing in the faint bluish hue of the backlit night. I could see shop fronts closing for the night, the glow of lights winking out and hearing the sliding metal shutters.

I leaned on the windowsill, against the bug screen, and hummed.

Made a wrong turn

Once or twice

Dug my way out

Blood and fire

Going by the lack of their chakra around, I surmised that Mom and Hayate had gone home for dinner. Obito and Rin were gone too, and I hoped that they’d gone with my family and been able to get a decent meal. Sensei was out in the village—I wanted to say around the Hokage’s office or the Academy—and I could feel Kushina bustling about due to her immense reserves.

That accounted for almost everyone.

“Nice night, isn’t it?” I asked.

“I guess,” said Kakashi.

I glanced at him—aside from his hair, he was pretty much invisible in the darkened hospital room. I waved him over. “Come on, the bed’s big enough that you don’t need to hover.”

Kakashi made a noncommittal noise, but he still made his way over. He sat on the metal railing on the edge of the bed with one ankle hooked between the rails to keep his balance, which was just about as far away from me as he could get while being on the bed at all. Still. I didn’t ask him how long he’d been waiting for me to return to the land of the living.

“Thanks for visiting.” I told him. At his sidelong look—he was mostly looking out the window—I added, “Yamaguchi-sensei told me you visited. So. Thanks for that.”

Kakashi shrugged, looking uncomfortable. “Everyone else did.”

“You’re not everyone else and you showed up late, so shut up and let me thank you.” I said.

“Always pushy, aren’t you?” Kakashi replied, huffing.

“I can’t get anything done otherwise.” I looked out the window again, as people scurried out of the rain. They were the size of mice from up here. “...I’m glad we all made it out okay. I know we aren’t the best team, but it’d really suck if we weren’t anymore. You know?”

“Yes, I do.” Kakashi said, sounding a little unfocused. He looked at me again. “I did say that I’d hate having to break in another genin team, didn’t I?”

“Yeah, and I can’t really imagine you being as accepting the second time through.” I said, almost under my breath.

He hadn’t been, when Team Kakashi’s triad of walking disasters had come along. No one really gets over the loss of their first comrades, I think. Especially Kakashi.

“By the way, here.” Kakashi said, pulling something out of one of his many pockets. He tossed it idly at me, and I caught it without thinking. “It took me a while to find any that grew in the winter, but I guess that’s what I get for waiting so long. Figured you’d get sick of hospital food, if you aren’t already.”

It was an apple.

I rolled the apple around in my hands for a moment, contemplating.

I guess this is contraband.

Tasty contraband.

Kakashi raised an eyebrow at me. “Are you going to eat it or hide it away for six months like a squirrel?”

“Better plan.” I said, and focused my chakra into my right hand. Since I knew I’d taken the knockout hit with my left side and thus suffered the most damage there, I was pretty sure my right arm was working fine. I couldn’t feel anything wrong with it and the Dreamer would have spoken up if she had.

Without hand seals, I activated my chakra scalpel and sliced the apple in half by rotating my fingers around what, on a globe, would have been the prime meridian.

“You can use that jutsu without hand seals?” Kakashi asked, blinking.

Another secret out, I supposed. But anyone who watched my performance during the Chūnin Exams would know that I was at least capable of a seal-less Replacement, if not the other Academy jutsu.

“Yeah. I’ve been working on it with Yamaguchi-sensei since I was seven.” I told him distractedly, plucking seeds from the middle of the fruit with the same technique. I held up the half without the stem stuck to it. “Want any?”

Kakashi took his half wordlessly, and I turned away to watch the rain fall.

Chapter Text

When I wake up, it takes me a minute to remember why there’s an elbow in my ribs.

If I was at home, all I’d feel in the morning would be my scratchy sheets and maybe some scrolls—I fall asleep at night looking at notes, sometimes. I guess sometimes the inkpot I use falls over, but that’s okay because the ink always dries up sooner than that. It’s not okay when the pencils I use other times stab the mattress, since it’s old and deserves better than stabbings. In the morning, sunlight gets in my room from the windows and it’s too bright to stay asleep for all that long, which sucks because I don’t ever seem to get a lot of sleep.

There’s never anyone in my apartment.

Just me.

It gets kind of tiring, being alone all the time.

I mean, I don’t clean my apartment much but I just don’t have people over. The place is okay. It’s not that big. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to have a game night anyway, without other kids having to sit on upside-down buckets and stuff.

I wouldn’t know, since I never have. You kind of need more than two friends for that.

Someone decides to kick in the door then. I roll over, grumbling, but the cast on my arm gets in my way and the sunlight beats down on my face like a hammer. Then I blink, because whoever opened the door also decides to stand over me and yank the covers off.

“Obito, Hayate-chan, Iruka-chan, it’s time to get up!”

Rin is the cutest girl in the entire world, but she loves mornings way too much.

“But Rin-chaaaaaan.” I whine, throwing my free hand over my face. “It’s way too early…”

Rin is already shoving the smaller kids out of the bed. Iruka flops to the floor with a thud, while Hayate manages to get his feet under him before promptly tripping over Iruka anyway. Rin doesn’t have to drag me out of bed because I’m not dumb enough to push my luck, but even when I’m upright I don’t feel too awake.

“Feeling any better, Obito?” Rin asks as the other two boys finally remember how to use their legs. Hayate is yawning and Iruka’s hair’s all over the place, but they’re up and a sharp look from Rin sends them scurrying out of the room.

“A little, Rin-chan.” I say, glancing down. My shoulder still hurts, but not as much as it had. I mean, I broke it earlier because Gai was a freak with super-strong punches, but after the medics took a look, I was okay. Rin hovered a lot and Kei kept pulling her brother off me and Kei’s mom made concerned faces at me when she thought I wasn’t looking, but I was really fine with that. That they were looking at all was better than being at home, you know?

“Let me see it.” Rin says, and I’m about to argue before I bite my tongue and just let go. She puts one hand on my shoulder and the other against the side of my neck, and I feel myself go warm where her hands are.

There are worse things than having friends around when you’re feeling like crap. It’s better when it’s Rin.

Rin has small hands. She always has a smile for someone who needs one. She cares, when a lot of people don’t. Recently she’s learned to use all of that and become a medic-nin, even if she’s still a genin like Kei and me. I still think we should’ve made it past Team Genma and to the finals, but I guess it’s not really gonna happen now. If we had, Rin could be a chūnin and get started on all the cool medical stuff Yamaguchi-sensei says she can’t learn until she gets older. She would be able to learn all the medical jutsu ever, if she was just a bit closer to being a grown-up, and then maybe we’d be able to get on the road to becoming really cool.

I still want to be Hokage. It’s just that I’m starting to get how long that might take. There’s a long road ahead of me, with pitfalls and roadblocks and things. After all, a real Hokage wouldn’t be beat up by Maito Gai. I think I might be able to take him if I train a lot more, but I can’t until my shoulder heals.

So, really, the first thing to do is let Rin check up on me and see if she can speed things up.

I can feel my face heating up, so I turn my head away so she can’t see it. It’s not cool to blush a lot around girls. They get nasty about it, and even if Rin isn’t like some other girls I know, I don’t like thinking about it.

There’s a knock at the door and Rin lets go of me. Getting interrupted in the middle of a checkup is so not cool.

“Hey, Rin-chan, Obito, it’s almost time for breakfast.”

“We’ll be out in a moment, Kei-senpai.” Rin says.

Kei chooses that moment to poke her head in anyway.

“Liar. If you’re looking at injuries, Rin-chan, you’ll be in here forever and breakfast will get cold and Mom will yell at me later about being a lousy host.” Kei replies, all in one breath.

“Your mom never yells at you.” I say, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen Miyako mad before.

“Not where you can hear it.” Kei says, smiling crookedly. “Anyway. Breakfast. Seriously, Rin-chan, we can get him to the hospital after we eat if you’re that worried.”

“If I was that worried, I’d think we should go the hospital now.” Rin says.

“Hello? I’m right here and I’m hungry.” I say, to keep them from arguing more.

“You okay with eating left-handed?” Kei asks.

I scoff. “Well, yeah. Been doing it since before you woke up.”

“Point.” Kei says. She leads the way out.

Kei always leads.

Sometimes I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to think about Kei. She’s not cute or nice like Rin, or at least not in the same way. She always looks tired out, like she just rolled out of bed, and she can be mean sometimes in a way that’s funny if it’s not aimed at you. She talks a lot if she knows you, and she gives nice hugs when I need them. She’s also stronger than me—or at least that’s what the reports on us said. She doesn’t act like it, though—if she did, it’d be like having two Kakashis on my team and I’m not sure I would be able to stand that. Instead, she gets into all kinds of fights with Kakashi and always is on my side.

I’m not sure how to feel about that. I’m not sure if she likes me more or thinks I can’t fight on my own. I’m not sure if I should be angry at her for being like that or at Kakashi for always being a bully.

Kei bumps my shoulder as we enter the kitchen. Somehow Rin’s ended up in front and Kei is back by me and there’s already a conversation going between Iruka and Miyako and Hayate and Yūgao and Rin. I can’t follow most of it because the littler kids always talk over each other about weird stuff.

“Something wrong, Obito?” Kei asks quietly.

Someday I’m gonna have to ask her how she always knows when my feelings aren’t making any sense.

“Nah, everything’s fine.” I tell her, and she gives me the look that lets me know that she doesn’t believe that for a second.

I’m not sure how to tell her that I’m tired of being weak and of being alone and now that I’m not alone on my birthday I’m not sure how to deal with it at all.

I’ve got dust in my eyes again.

Kei stops before we get within sight of the others, grabbing my hand to stop me, too. “Obito, I didn’t invite you over to make you cry.”

“I know that,” I tell her. My voice shouldn’t be squeaking but it is and I hate it.

She frowns. It’s not her “I hate you and everyone else” frown that she uses when she loses to Kakashi in spars (which is pretty much all the time because she can’t use her sword), or the frown she uses when she’s confused because Rin is starting to speak Medic and Kei never got that far into the whole thing. She’s thinking about something.

“Rin-chan, could I borrow you for a minute?” Kei calls, and I want to hit her for a second because I don’t know how to deal with this and Rin doesn’t need to see me fail at it.

“Yes, we were just—oh, Obito.” Rin doesn’t need to think before she takes my other hand, pulling herself in.

Kei puts her arms around my neck and Rin hugs me around my middle and I hug both of them unevenly because they aren’t giving me a lot of room and then I really start crying.

“Mom’s getting the kids out on the porch.” Kei says, almost like she was going to say it anyway and the fact that they’re hugging it out isn’t part of it.

“No one has to see if you don’t want them to.” Rin says, picking up the thread without pausing.

“Well, except Mom.” Kei says, and Obito can hear the wonky smile in her tone. “Mom’s been wanting to hug you for ages and—”

“No! No, no, I’m fine, can we just get something to eat?” I’m babbling, I know that, and Rin pulls back enough to give me a really disappointed look that sends my stomach somewhere around my toes. When Rin gives me that look it’s…it’s like all kinds of bad and I feel awful after.

I push my way free because I can’t stand it, being the one who always has to be picked up and put back together. On my birthday, too. I rub my sleeve over my eyes because it feels awful to cry over something so dumb even if Kei and Rin don’t make fun of me for it.

Kei’s gone and back before I even realize what she’s doing, while Rin sticks with me. Guess all that sparring with Kakashi meant something, because she has a bowl of steamed rice with fish and dried seaweed and egg in front of me. Chopsticks, too.

“Thanks.” I say, and settle down cross-legged on the floor. Kei and Rin are both giving me these looks, and I have to ignore them or I’ll start again.

Kei looks at Rin, who, after a moment, sits down next to me. Then Kei squeezes my shoulder before walking out of the hallway and into the kitchen.

I can hear her saying something to her mom, while Rin sticks to me like glue.

“It’s hard.” I say to Rin, not even trying to start eating. “I…I don’t know what to do with this.”

“With what?” Rin asks, and her fingers move mine so I’m actually holding the chopsticks.

“This is…I think this is the first birthday I’ve had with so many people around.” I admit.

Rin’s face…can’t decide if it’s sad for me or just sad. Maybe she’s feeling both.

Then she sighs, shaking her head. “Then you have to get used to it, Obito. Because me and Kei-senpai and Miyako-san and Hayate-chan…we’re never going to leave you alone.”

That doesn’t sound like a bad idea.

Kei comes back, leading her mom. She has the kind of look that says that she’s embarrassed because she feels like someone else should be embarrassed, not because she is, and I can’t see why for a moment or two.

Then Miyako hugs me, in front of Rin and Kei, and then I kind of want to turn red myself.

I’m ten now and way too big for being picked up like a little kid anymore, but it still feels nice to be hugged by someone bigger than me.

I don’t know what it feels like to be hugged by a mother, because I can’t remember mine, but I think I have an idea.

“Happy birthday, Obito-kun.” Miyako says.

“Thanks, Miyako-san.” I say shakily.

Miyako lets go of me, brushing imaginary dust out of my hair with a pat. “Now, let’s concentrate on what you wanted to do for your birthday.” She smiles, crooked like Kei’s but also warm. “Birthdays aren’t for sitting around in hallways. Let’s get to the rest of it before the sun burns out.”

You know what? I think the big thing to take away from here is to not sweat the small stuff. I mean, yeah, I’m not great at being a good person and I want too much stuff and I can’t deal with people being around all the time, but it’s my birthday. I’m surrounding by people I like, who like me back. Whether I got up with a foot that fell asleep on me, or if I was a bit twitchy? That’s all right. That’s okay. Because whatever I do next…well…

It’s going to be awesome.

Here’s to another awesome year with my precious people.

Chapter Text

Moving meditation is something that isn’t emphasized enough. Sure, I have a preference for sitting still whenever possible, but I’ve always been prone to pacing. I got it under control over the years—teachers tend not to like it when a student spends half the day walking around the classroom—but when at home or alone I still like to move to think.

In the end, I almost like shadow-boxing because it facilitates just that.

On rest days, Training Ground Three is a pretty nice place to do both—and, on top of everything else, to practice water-walking.

I drew my kodachi.

I shot across the river, weaving and slashing the empty air as I went. I might have needed a sparring partner any other time, for the sake of balance and safety if nothing else. But I didn’t want anyone to see me. Between constantly adjusting my chakra output as I moved across the surface of the water and throwing out punches and kicks exactly where I wanted them to go (and the occasional vicious slash of my kodachi), I practiced how to read the chakra in the air around me and my own body, so I could move blind if I have to. Since being reborn, my feel for my own body was much stronger—I could gauge distances and my strikes much better than I had ever needed to in my old life. But it never hurt to keep in shape.

After a while, I changed over from the Academy style, which is a warm-up at best, to the combination taijutsu/kenjutsu that my mother had taught me. It’s more acrobatic, requiring more flexibility as well as speed, and I loosened my control over my chakra’s anchoring properties to give myself more of a challenge. If I had to, I could slip across the water as though on ice skates, but I never thought of myself a great skater and it’d be better to hold off on that until I had a moment to grab Obito for the sake of comedy. He needed to laugh more.

In a brilliant moment of cosmic timing, I nearly ended up slipping and landing in the river. Somehow, my flailing translated to doing a completely unplanned frontal split (which, in my old life, I would never have even contemplated). Instead of taking a dive, though, I slapped one hand onto the surface of the river, chakra flaring, and executed a perfect double front handspring (which would have just been physically impossible for the old me). As I rotated through the air, I changed up my game and landed in a rough mockery of Kakashi’s freestyle taijutsu starting stance.

I had no idea what I was doing, but why stop when I was on a roll?

Kakashi’s style is faster and than mine, but it’s all about flexibility and unexpected angles. Kakashi was the only kid my physical age I’d ever seen attack from above, below, upside-down, a handstand, and from underground. He didn’t use his dad’s chakra saber when he could have—my kodachi is longer and more cumbersome in a style like his—but he used kunai similarly. From what I could tell, his style was really more about the ability to attack from any stance or direction regardless of the user’s size. It’s the exact opposite of Gai’s style at his age—the Strong Fist was basically about turning the opponent into a quivering ball of agony in as few steps as possible—and thus better for me to learn.

I may have been a medical student for a couple of years, but that’s nowhere near enough to learn stuff like Tsunade’s monstrous strength. Honestly, I’ll probably never pull it off. I couldn’t say I minded all that much, because ultimately that technique didn’t really mesh with any of my other techniques—why be the queen of blunt force trauma when I was already on my way to being the hack-and-slash type? I figured I’d be fine as long as I learned a wide variety of techniques, which Sensei would help with if we both lived long enough.

I had my own take on one-hit-kill jutsu anyway, provided that I could make it as automatic as Kabuto did (or rather, would).

I sheathed my kodachi again.

Tiger, horse, rabbit, rat, dog.

Chakra scalpels flared to life over my hands, providing surgically precise offense (if I timed it right, anyway). I lashed out in a sweeping motion, using two fingers rather than my whole hand in order to maintain precision even at speed, and the air seemed to split.

If I had a choice, I’d still go for my kodachi first, but there would be times when that wasn’t feasible. I had to prepare.

I let them go after a moment or two. Chakra scalpels were my backup weapons, and they weren’t especially chakra-efficient. As long as I could call them up in a heartbeat, I at least had a chance.

I slowed down. I only knew two major types of taijutsu, and I wasn’t exactly going to practice my ninjutsu on the water if most of them were kind of useless. They weren’t for direct offense—distraction was always key.

Well, I thought, time for the airborne stuff.

I pushed off from the surface, launching into a cartwheel to build momentum. Twisting in the air, now leading with my feet rather than my hands, I executed a double back handspring as I went. I kind of hoped I wasn’t underestimating the width of the river (considering that my eyes were still closed), because hitting the bank now would suck and probably hurt, but it was too late for that. As my feet touched the water again, I sprung upward and bent my knees, swinging my arms along with them, and there, I’ve landed again. I went for one last rotation, leading with my head, and my legs splay out in the air into a very deliberate split. The fact that I probably got five meters of air on each move meant I was on the other side of the river by the end of the sequence.

I would never get over the sheer physical difference between shinobi and baseline humans. I went from average idiot in one life to someone surpassing Olympic-level gymnasts over the course of eleven years and one probable death.

And I wasn’t anywhere near the strongest one here. A sobering thought.

I opened my eyes to the sound of slow clapping. Glancing up at the sky, I guessed that it was about noon. I’d burned an hour flailing around on my own in Training Ground Three.

Good. That gave my interim sensei time to get back from a ramen run.

“Not bad.” Kushina said. She had the sarcastic slow clap down, but I didn’t think she was being sarcastic just then.

I bowed, hiding a grin. “Thank you, Kushina-san.”

“Don’t let it go to your head.” Kushina said, wagging one finger in a mockery of seriousness. “You still have a ways to go before you can face that Gai kid Minato keeps going on about.”

“I know. I’m not ready yet.” I admitted. It stung only slightly—Gai was simply better than I was. Still, it did say something about my progress that neither Sensei nor Kushina seemed to think I’d have any trouble fighting Asuma, who was my actual first opponent in two weeks.

Obito would be facing off against Gai first. I wasn’t sure how to feel about that, but at least Sensei and Kakashi were both on hand to help him train. There were four others in the tournament: Rin, Kurenai, Tonbo Tomitake (that one guy who wore bandages over the top half of his head) and Shimon Hijiri (the other guy with long bangs whose eyes somehow stayed invisible). I wasn’t really sure what to expect out of the latter pair, but I knew that Rin could do no worse than a draw against Kurenai.

Kushina patted me on the head, which made me briefly wonder if there was some kind of magnet installed in my brain.

“Well, even if you’re not actually read to face Gai—or you think you aren’t—don’t worry.” Kushina told me. I blinked up at her. “I think you are ready to be a chūnin. Everything else will fall into place.”

It was maybe the third time anyone had said that.

That I could be chūnin. First, Obito had said it two years ago. Then Mom, after I’d made it through the Second Exam again with my team alive and well. Sensei hadn’t said anything, but he might not have needed to—the fact that he’d asked his fiancée to train with me spoke volumes without any words at all.

Now Kushina.

I hoped everything would go as planned. It’d be nice to see that happen at least once.

“Now, let’s see where you’ve gotten with your explosive seals.” Kushina said, and we sat down together on the riverbank, poring over scrolls for the rest of the afternoon.


I’ll say this for the Chūnin Exam arena: it’s dramatic as hell. The only thing I ever thought was missing was a ring of fire separating the spectators from the fighters—that’s probably because I watched too many movies as a kid the last time around. There wasn’t enough of The Lion King’s atmosphere. It wasn’t raining, it wasn’t surrounded by fire and/or hyenas, and no one in the crowd had much riding on who won. Except maybe gambling money, because some things never change.

Then again, if there was, I guess that would make me Scar. I sure as hell wasn’t Simba.

I kept my hands at my sides, rather than reaching for the blade at my left hip. Even in official matches, “false starts” didn’t really mean anything, but if I punched my opponent in the face before the match started…well, let’s just say that I’d be on the Hokage’s shit-list for at least a month.

And besides, Mom and Sensei and Rin and Obito and Kakashi were all watching, which made me somewhat less likely to just haul off and sort my opponent out the way I’d liked to have.

“The first semifinal match will be Asuma Sarutobi versus Keisuke Gekkō.” The proctor—Tsume Inuzuka—gave us both a grin that threatened to crack her head in half. She seemed to be looking forward to the bloodletting. Or maybe she wanted to see if I could mess with Asuma the same way I had two years ago.

Speaking of two years ago, both of us had gotten physically bigger. I’d put on a few inches and more pounds of muscle than I’d probably ever had in my old life (because I was a mouse potato with no real strength at all), and was almost tall enough that I could use a real katana smoothly. I was actually about the same size as Asuma, barring the fact that he was still wider in the shoulders. It wasn’t enough to intimidate him, though. Not after out-thinking him back then.

I was kinda glad that Hayate was stuck at school, though. Mom could have written him a note or something, but I guess her priority was a combination of “school is important” and “he shouldn’t see his big sister lose.”

I’d already put in my hours of practice and I could almost fight my teammates evenly. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to find her lack of faith disturbing or what.

And anyway, I wasn’t afraid of Asuma. I knew what he could do—I’d watched his match against Ebisu and hadn’t been all that impressed. Ebisu wasn’t the be-all and end-all of opponents, but he was tricky enough to at least force people to fight him with guile and tactics. I hadn’t seen much of Asuma doing just that—he was all power, and when you got down to it he wasn’t even strong. (Granted, that was a month ago, but I assumed there would be some consistency in how Asuma fought.)

Assuming I won, I was afraid of Gai.

(Seeing the ridiculous beat-down Gai and Obito gave each other an hour ago, my fear of one Maito Gai was renewed with a vengeance.)

If I didn’t, then…whatever. I didn’t see myself losing to Asuma, but if I did, Gai was his problem.

The arena went silent, waiting for the cue.

“Ready?” Tsume asked. Kuromaru lay by her feet, lips pulled back from his teeth.

My greatest accomplishment in life is being quality entertainment for a giant Inuzuka dog. Clearly, this is the life. I thought, crazily.

Asuma and I both nodded, though we didn’t take our eyes off each other. That would have been stupid.

“GO FOR IT, BRATS!” Tsume shouted, one hand slicing through the air like an axe.

Asuma charged.

I sure as hell didn’t.

Because of Kushina’s help, I mostly needed to stall to complete my plan. I was going to seed the entire arena with explosive tags and traps starting in this match, in case I moved on. They’d only respond to me, and I needed every advantage against Gai that I could get. The traps weren’t activated by physical pressure, but I still liked the idea of having enough explosives to make even Deidara pause. Obviously I wasn’t nearly in the Rock-nin’s league, but I figured that demonstrating some forethought would be a bonus in the eyes of the judges.

I slammed my palm into the dirt and shouted, “Explode!” with my chakra following the dormant lines I’d laid.

I closed my eyes against the dirt and smoke thrown up by the blast, but I could still feel Asuma’s chakra warp to the arena’s sole tree as he used the Replacement jutsu. Just as well, really—it would have been bad form to knock the Hokage’s son out in the first few seconds of the match.

I pulled my kodachi loose from my hip strap just as Asuma crashed back into me, kunai out.

I didn’t even have to draw to block—my metal sheath was enough. There was a bit of a scrape along the outside edge of the metal, taking off some paint and paneling, but not enough to compromise its structural soundness.

He was still in the air.

Bad idea.

Blocking overhead might have given me some leverage problems, but being in the air had made it so that the only leverage he had was based on his launch speed, vector, and weight.

Asuma hadn’t hit his growth spurt yet, and I was still on the ground.

My right thumb flicked my kodachi loose from the sheath, just as I planted my forward foot solidly in the ground with my chakra. With my left hand, I grabbed Asuma’s jacket collar as he passed overhead.

Twist aaaaaand launch.

Asuma went hurtling toward the far arena wall.

I straightened, kodachi level with his throat as he recovered and stood. I might have been too far away to directly threaten him, but I could damn well do it indirectly.

After a second, I finally thought of something to say, even if it was under my breath and incredibly lame. “And once again, Physics class rears its ugly head…”

Asuma scowled up at me, looking like a pissed-off lion cub. Even if he was from the freaking monkey clan.

Come on, Simba, remember who you are.

I grinned crookedly.

Come at me, kid.

I ducked under Asuma’s roundhouse, planting one hand and launching myself away when he tried to follow up with a stomp. His punches weren’t weak at all, but I’d been training with Kakashi and the long-established chūnin had long since decided that if I was going to try and really punch his lights out, he should get to repay the favor.

Too bad for him that, by that point, the gap between us wasn’t overwhelming. He was still stronger and faster than I was, but it wasn’t the kind of gap that, for example, existed between Minato and everyone else in speed.

And the difference between Asuma and I, when you got down to it, was about the same as the distance between Kakashi and I. But in reverse.

Honestly, half of my attention wasn’t even on Asuma at all.

It was on planting explosives all around the ring for the next round. While Sensei hadn’t gotten around to teaching me how to lay seals by touch and will alone (presumably because he thought I was going to get myself blown up by accident), I was pretty good at laying mini-tags everywhere if I had to. If a normal tag had the explosive power of a large grenade or a stick of dynamite, mine were very tiny chunks of C4.

By the time I finally got around to forcing him into a submission hold, outward curve of my kodachi resting against his Adam’s apple, I had enough explosive tags hidden all around the stadium to make my next match a little bit more even.


EXPLODE!” I roared, slamming my chakra through the pre-prepared lines I’d woven through the ground.

Gai was launched skyward by the blast…only to explode into smoke and leaves as he used the Replacement technique.

Sonovabitch.

Gai, as expected, was a lot harder to deal with than Asuma had been.

The way my forearms were throbbing after blocking just one of his signature overpowered kicks…well, suffice to say that I sure as hell couldn’t beat him in a slugging match. He was at least as fast as Kakashi, if not faster, which meant I was lagging behind. He had twice the physical and spiritual endurance I did, whether on offense or defense. Sure, his taijutsu specialization meant that I could outrange him, but fuck if I could get away long enough to actually take advantage of that.

Still, he wasn’t quite as quick as some of the people I trained with. I felt his chakra shift farther away, but he still landed directly on top of another trap.

EXPLODE!

He wasn’t going to get another running start at me if I could help it.

“The hell was that, Gai?” I called. “At least dodge somewhere safe!”

I didn’t dislike Gai. I was just afraid of getting pounded into the ground. For some reason my mouth refused to listen to either distinction.

“Your concern for your opponent’s health does you credit, Keisuke-kun!” Gai said at the top of his lungs.

Once again, we were trading close-range blows and I felt my bones rattle under each strike. I could at least manage to turn his blows aside, which was better than nothing even if it hurt like hell. I ducked under a roundhouse and over a follow-up sweep, throwing myself into a back handspring.

Gai followed, and I leapfrogged over another would-be punishing kick.

“Thanks for the compliment, Gai-san,” I grunted, because a spin and a full-powered punch had followed immediately after and I blocked it badly. The strike drove my own elbow in a glancing blow against my side, making me wince.

I ducked again and drew my kodachi one-handed, slashing at his supporting leg.

My sword gave a hideous shriek as it met Gai’s leg weights.

Dammit.

I straightened, completely screwing up a blocking stand. Gai, being Gai, got past it easily.

And then Gai punched me in the chest.

Specifically, my developing eleven-year-old left breast.

Suffice to say I got the wind knocked out of me in short order. My eyes watered enough that everything was a swimming blur and I could just barely tell that Gai had slowed down quite a lot. In hindsight, I have no idea how I managed to avoid his much-slower follow-up punch, which should have left me unconscious. I just remember staggering backward, wheezing, and landing on my knees.

I even dropped my sword, curling inward around the brand new weak spot that puberty had given me.

After what felt like a while, my blood stopped pounding.

“—kun? Keisuke-kun? I appear to have done you a most unyouthful injury.” Gai was saying, sounding more confused than I’d ever heard him.

It was my fault for fucking up when I went for a block rather than a sidestep, but I was pissed off. It had less to do with feeling like Gai had landed a cheap shot (since, in hindsight, he hadn’t), and more that I’d been reduced to a kid in the fetal position in public. Shame burned me—I wanted nothing more than to destroy him for humiliating me like that.

What can I say? Sometimes I’m not a good person.

All in all, I was probably down for about ten seconds. About long enough for Gai to notice and then say something.

I sent chakra to my hands without any seals at all, and went for Gai’s face with my chakra scalpels.

He just barely jerked back in time. As it was, my glowing hands passed within centimeters of his nose, and I was too angry to care about anything but the fact that I’d missed.

I settled into my mockup of Kakashi’s style. Blood pounding in my ears, I was almost too angry to think. How dare you, I thought. How dare you?

It was like a mantra.

It was also an awful tack to take.

Gai was my friend. Maybe we weren’t especially close and maybe we weren’t the sort to see eye-to-eye, but if I’d been thinking straight I wouldn’t have risked our friendship over a promotion. Sorry, but no. Not that ambitious, normally.

“I am glad to see that your injury has not dampened your enthusiasm, Keisuke-kun, but—!”

“SHUT UP!” I shrieked, slashing again and again. I was too dangerous to block—I was acting more like Kabuto and less like Rin, only neither of them ever attacked in a blind rage. I was acting, all told, like Sasuke.

Sasuke of the far future, anyway.

I managed to stay pissed off for about another thirty seconds, by which time I’d cut muscle fiber in both of Gai’s arms, before my higher thought processes caught up with me.

Gai was looking at me like he’d just found out that his friend was a werewolf. And not the Remus Lupin type, either. Still, his weights were too thick for me to cut through, which means he could, in fact, block with his feet. It’d saved him from a thorough mangling.

I dismissed my chakra scalpels, pushing down a brief sensation of horror. What the hell was wrong with me?

Other than how I apparently could be pissed off enough by public humiliation to go on a revenge-bender for a minute.

“Keisuke-kun…was…are you a girl?”

…For God’s sake, Gai.

“…You are literally the last friend I have to realize that.” I told him flatly, in a voice that was still a little warped by residual adrenaline.

The Dreamer chose this moment to chime in with a cheerfully evil, THIS IS THE STUPIDEST THING YOU’VE EVER DONE.

Gai, I noticed, seemed like he was on the brink of some kind of shouting fit.

And I was too far away to stop his word vomit.

Oh hell.

“FORGIVE ME, KEISUKE-CHAN, FOR I HAVE OFFERED YOU UNBELIEVABLE INSULT!”

Gai was like a speaker system at a concert. Loud enough to rock your bones. I was torn between clapping my hands over my ears or rushing over to slap him in the face, so I ended up being too frozen to do either.

“FIRST WAS THE TIME WE MET, WHERE I ASSUMED YOU WERE A BOY WITHOUT NOTICING YOUR UNDENIABLE CHARMS! THE SECOND WAS WHEN I CHALLENGED MY RIVAL TO A SUMO MATCH IN YOUR PRESENCE. THE THIRD WAS AT THE PUBLIC BATHHOUSES, WHERE—!”

I ended up contemplating a lot of courses of action while he was talking. Among them, ritual suicide.

I settled for slamming my chakra into my legs, launching myself at him like a rocket.

And then I kicked him in the groin.

It was quite possibly the stupidest match in the history of the public arena.

Overall, Gai and I decided we were even. Gai didn’t mean to cheap-shot me, and I didn’t really mean to try and take his nose off. He did, however, choose nearly the most embarrassing method of apology short of being Major Alex Louis Armstrong, and I definitely cheap-shotted him.

In penance, I agreed to be his sparring partner for two weeks (during the time he was developing the Primary Lotus). And he agreed to stop lamenting his past transgressions against a “flower of Konoha.” Forever.

All in all the exams ended with my entire team being promoted—Rin, Obito, and I were all officially chūnin-ranked shinobi right on schedule. Gai was also promoted (based mostly on his match with Obito, I think), as was Asuma. Overall, we had a much higher proportion of graduates than most Exams did, but we needed them.

Either that or standards were lowered during wartime.

I sighed mentally. Chūnin at age eleven.

There were only two years until we were handed That Mission.

We’d just have to be ready.


To: Kei-chan/Half-Pint/Keisuke Gekkō/Squirt

From: Rikuto of the Chinatsugumi

(After a huge blotch of ink indicating someone’s failed attempt to cross something out without ruining a page…)

So…uh. It’s been a while, hasn’t it?

Shit. I keep thinking, well, you’re a kid and it’s not like kids grow that fast, right? I mean, you’re probably still knee-high to your sensei and barely capable of reaching the kitchen counter and stuff.

And then I remember that Miyu-chan and Kazu-chan are a hell of a lot bigger than they were when they got here, and then Za-chan had to go and remind me it’s been like two years already. Two years! Two damn years since you choked before the Chūnin Exam finals and saved me a thousand ryō I was gonna bet and then didn’t.

Got a runner to confirm it, after some bribery and also a punch in the face, but hey—congrats on your promotion. I’m not even sure if there was an Exam, and really, I wouldn’t have gone if there was since the twins are at that age when they start to try to gum me to death or get themselves ground to death in the wagon wheels because clearly walking is the shit. Going by the screaming an hour ago, Kazu-chan nearly did it again. Either that or he found out how I was getting ants into Nami-chan’s bags.

Uh, where was I… Oh, right. So here’s your stupid promotion gift from me, but if you tell anyone it was me I’ll be sure to come back from the dead and haunt your ass, until you gouge your own eyes out in penance for being a shitty secret-keeper.

P.S.: Don’t be surprised if your first attempt to call on ‘em knocks you out.

-

To: Keisuke Gekkō

From: Chinatsu Kasai

Rikuto isn’t as smart or as stealthy as he thinks he is. Even for a former Rock-nin, he’s a blockhead.

The first scroll—red ribbon—is a summoning scroll. I think it used to be Rikuto’s, but I haven’t seen him summon anything since I met him. Maybe he stole it. Regardless of what particular species this scroll is tied to, they’re probably not battle summons, so make of that what you will.

The second scroll is green with gold caps, and it contains a number of sealing techniques that Akira has compiled over the years. Some of the seals, if written wrong, may take your hands off, so try to learn these with some kind of supervision if you must.

The last scroll contains a box with several basic elemental jutsu. Everyone contributed one, though it’s likely that Shiro-chan’s particular technique is useless to anyone without the Ice Release bloodline. Once again, only use while supervised.

Best of luck, congratulations, and happy belated birthday(s).

Chapter Text

Unraveling Obito’s spool of chakra-sensitive wire had taken us five minutes.

Setting the charges: another ten.

Getting into position to wait: one.

Actually waiting: twenty.

During that time we’d checked and re-checked the lines as well as the charges, had a chance to grab a snack from our packs, and wiped out every trace of our presence aside from the trap itself. It was raining hard enough to chill us all to the bone and mask our scent, and our chakra was suppressed as much as we could.

I could feel at least six shinobi chakra signatures in the depths of the valley, clearly attempting to circumvent the front by taking a hazardous nearly-underground route through Kusa-Konoha territory.

Kakashi, under a camouflage genjutsu that made him hard to see from any angle but straight-on, raised one hand. Obito and I dropped onto our bellies, waiting for his signal.

Next to me, Obito pulled his ear protectors and his orange goggles into position. Kakashi also had earplugs, but he was mostly concentrating on the view below us.

“Boom.” Obito mouthed. Simultaneously, we ducked and he sent his chakra through the wires wrapped around his right hand. I did the same, though my wires were clutched in my left.

All of my pre-prepared paper tags went off at once. There were only thirty of them, strung barely under the first layer of muddy rock by Kakashi’s expert hand, but that’s a lot of boom for an enclosed space. The tags themselves were the strongest I’d ever made, and had been approved by Sensei for this mission.

The narrow canyon’s walls collapsed on top of and around the Iwagakure squad, not to mention below. If I had to make a comparison, I’d guess that it was like being inside a foxhole and not hearing “Fire in the hole” in time to do anything about it.

No one got away.

The next two minutes were spent salvaging any wire or explosives that we could.

And ignoring the bodies the best we could.

“We’ve achieved our objectives. Kei, do you sense anyone else?” Kakashi asked, checking for survivors and finding none.

“I can’t feel anyone besides us.” I replied, and then handed Obito’s wires back to him. “We’re good.”

Kakashi nodded sharply. “Back to base, everyone.”

Obito grimaced briefly at the blood on my hands, but he still tucked the spool back into his thigh holster. To Kakashi he said, “Right behind you.”

I spared one glance back for the corpses we’d made, and then followed my teammates out of the canyon. This particular backdoor into Konoha territory wouldn’t be one for much longer.

“Blow last charges,” Kakashi ordered.

I did.

The whole place collapsed in on itself.


A lot has changed in two years. Sensei is the new Hokage-to-be. Orochimaru deserted Konoha. I’ve started to grow boobs.

(Actually, that last one’s a lie.)

Let me start over.

A couple of months ago, Team Minato triumphed over the Chūnin Exams. It took us two tries, but Obito and I were both promoted. Rin was, too, but as a temp member of Team Minato, the main benefit to her is that she’s now allowed to learn more advanced techniques. Obito and I got our flak jackets in a ceremony that was at least half tongue-in-cheek and promptly hung them up in our respective closets to ignore.

(There’s such a thing as subtlety in enemy territory. Village-based uniforms are not it.)

The Hokage probably just wanted all of us to get the hell out of his office. Promotions are great, but they’re also less important to the war effort than, say, reports of the enemies’ movements.

Sensei was announced as the future Hokage pretty much the next day.

Not especially long afterward, Orochimaru fled the village after being caught performing horrific human experiments.

I could tell myself that one thing didn’t have much to do with the other, but that’d be a lie.

Orochimaru was a hero to the village. Everyone knew that. That’s why he became so infamous after he ran off to found Otogakure. He’s like Konoha’s version of Benedict Arnold (only a million times more successful). He’s like Voldemort. Saruman the White, maybe. He was great in a way that most of us normal people never would be—the man was one of the many heroes of the Second Shinobi World War. And then he turned to evil because apparently being good wasn’t the same as good for Science.

I hated him only slightly less than I was terrified of him. If Sharingan Kakashi plus Chidori wasn’t even a blip on the guy’s radar, then I was going to be absolutely nothing.

Basically, if and when Orochimaru came back for a dramatic homecoming, I was more than okay with the idea of killing his minions. If the man himself put in an appearance within a hundred feet of me, though, I’d probably hide under a rock.

Not that it’d help. But it was a thought that at least had some merit so long as I didn’t attract his attention.

It also took my mind off of what I was supposed to be doing.

At that exact moment, my team and I were deep in the interior of the continent, lying in ambush for a much less famous turncoat than Orochimaru.

Sometimes people turned, whether for money or fame or prestige. We’d only gotten the hawk the other day, and our mission parameters had correspondingly shifted to keep the traitor from getting where he was going.

While we hadn’t hit the border yet (and probably wouldn’t, unless the mission went horribly wrong), I couldn’t help but expect trouble from Iwagakure anyway. It wasn’t like there was some kind of wall that blocked our territory off from everyone else’s—the border between the Land of Fire and the Land of Grass was only a political boundary. Iwagakure had been making some incursions into land held by Kusagakure, but they had to fight Grass ninja from their shared borders all the way through their territory. We only had to worry about Rock-nin and maybe the occasional asshole from Takigakure, depending on which way they were swinging this week.

(Since Takigakure had neither invaded nor been invaded by any country in its history, I wasn’t sure they really mattered in the long run.)

Kusagakure may not have been big, but they were our allies and there were tons of Konoha-born ninja running through the country. On the whole, our nation still lagged behind Kumo and Iwa in terms of military strength, but we’ve always made up for that with numbers.

Where Kumo would plant a single shinobi in a traitor’s path and expect them to succeed (and they probably would, given the number of S-class shinobi they could field), Konoha preferred teams of four. We were the only team in the immediate area, and thus were scrambled to meet the new threat.

Hence, Team Minato running an ambush.

I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck standing up straight just at the thought. We hadn’t been in a border station for three days, but I couldn’t help but wonder if that was the last thing Dad ever knew before they were overrun. While I knew that the particular building had been blasted to ash, it was still eerie to realize that, four years ago, Dad would have been out here running similar, if not nearly so specific, routes. No one who had been alive then was assigned to the Kusa border, so I couldn’t even ask them about it.

I zipped my jacket all the way up under my chin, frowning to myself.

The chill that went down my spine had nothing to do with the cold.

Middle watch gave me far too much time to drive my thoughts in circles. I sighed inwardly, resisting the urge to swing my legs in restlessness. The last thing we needed was for our quarry to be startled away by me breaking a branch.

That said, sitting in a tree for an hour straight, even with my back to the bark, was making me more bored than I’d thought possible. To stave off the urge to regret my life choices (and the fact that the Game Boy Color wasn’t going to be invented in my lifetime), I looked over the edge of the branch and down at my team snoozing below.

It was Obito’s turn to sleep the whole night through, and he hadn’t budged after bedding down. He’d accidentally taken two watches the night before, due to nerves and because we were so far from home, so he’d moved like a zombie all day. Luckily he didn’t snore anymore, or else the whole stealth thing we’d been training for would have been wasted. It had taken us almost two weeks to train him out of it, and we didn’t always succeed. He was still sleeping with his mouth open, but he didn’t do much more than drool.

Sensei was sleeping with his back against the tree trunk, with Obito and Kakashi bracketing him on each side like the world’s most belligerent pair of bookends (when they were awake, anyway). He’d taken his pack and mine and turned them into a sort of wedge pillow, so he didn’t wake up with a crick later, and had crossed his arms loosely under his ribs. Sensei, I knew, had been more or less running double-time since the Hokage had declared him the new heir, and in a way this assignment had been a way for him to relax and come to terms with the way his life was soon going to change.

Weird how such a mission could almost be comforting in how routine it was for him, but with Sensei it didn’t always pay to question stuff like that. He didn’t often give straight answers if he didn’t feel like it.

Kakashi slept on his side, back to Sensei’s crossed legs. The way he had his metal armguards still on, even while pillowing his head on them, seemed a little uncomfortable, but he’d handed second watch over to me three hours in with no complaints. When asleep, he was less of a porcupine and more of a hedgehog, and I didn’t have to fight down the urge to make a smart remark if only because he didn’t start shit while unconscious.

It was odd how looking over my teammates was calming, in a way.

We were less than fifty miles from the front, and somehow just knowing that they were alive was enough to make the world less cold.

Wasn’t comforting enough for me to allow myself to fall asleep on watch, though. I wasn’t stupid, and it didn’t, ultimately, change the fact that the particular asshole we were looking for had already dodged two other teams.

Neither of those teams had a chakra sensor like myself, granted (which I think was part of the reason why we were tapped for it), but it was no small thing to avoid an Inuzuka.

Only the fact that Sensei had once again rigged up a security barrier prevented me from being jumpy enough to power a small electrical device.

If I had anything other than moonlight, I could have at least started looking over the scroll Sensei had given me after I got those letters from the Chinatsugumi. They’d arrived attached to a mid-sized package, which indeed contained three scrolls like the letters had said. Sensei had immediately confiscated all of them, and I guess he and Kushina had spent a week poring over them. While the Chinatsugumi had apparently meant them for me, it still made sense to have a couple of seal masters look over everything before handing them over to a barely-promoted chūnin.

Jutsu aside from the three basic Academy ones were rarely, if ever, available to the public. Shinobi preferred having absolute control over flow of information, which usually meant that techniques were passed from master to student and that was it. Konoha’s scroll of Forbidden Jutsu was more of a record than a how-to guide when it came to things beyond Shadow Clones. Having never seen it, I could only conclude that it existed mostly to provide counter-strategies to the techniques inside.

Here’s an example: While the Hokage would have undoubtedly seen the Impure World Reincarnation technique sometime before Orochimaru’s invasion, if Tobirama Senju had been nearly as fond of it as the other undead Kage had implied, the strategies against it were probably in that scroll somewhere. I doubt he got to practice them much, but out of the available options, three of which were nullified by a lack of prep-time and Orochimaru overriding the first two Hokage’s wills, using the Dead Demon Consuming Seal was the one most likely to succeed.

I didn’t even know where to get started on defeating zombie shinobi. Hopefully, my training in fūinjutsu would lead me to the right path. Eventually.

At least this wasn’t that war. Our opponents were going to be human.

Anyway, back to the topic of techniques.

The blue scroll focused on starting exercises and C-ranked elemental jutsu of all five types. I have no elemental jutsu, due to a lack of focus on ninjutsu as a whole. I guess the Chinatsugumi were interested in rectifying that, but many shinobi didn’t get started on elemental techniques until they were well into their careers. Sensei rarely uses the Wind jutsu I know he has, while Kakashi has at least a couple of C-ranked Lightning jutsu as a result of his being Sensei’s prodigy and because he’s a genius. Out of all of us, though, Obito uses his Fire jutsu the most. Elemental jutsu can be kind of situational, sometimes, and I’d gone for long enough without any that I was somewhat hesitant.

Besides which, learning elemental jutsu usually left you locked in with your affinity and maybe another set of techniques if you had time to practice. Unlike sealing arts, where you could learn nearly anything if you had the brains for it, many shinobi couldn’t use more than the bare minimum of techniques outside of their affinity. It was what made the Sharingan and the Rinnegan so special. Especially the Rinnegan.

It was why I was pretty sure I’d end up passing the damn thing around to my teammates in the hopes that someone else would get something out of it.

I still hadn’t gotten it back, though.

And the sealing and summoning scrolls? Forget it. No way was Sensei letting me mess with those until I finished puberty or something.

Mom had actually agreed with him, which made it worse.

Then again, while I was interested in the contents of the scrolls I got, I wasn’t willing to push against far more experienced shinobi about what they thought I could handle. The time to prove myself would come eventually, which was simultaneously gratifying and extremely worrying.

The scroll Sensei had actually let me take, by contrast, was about meditation.

Still. It’d be better than nothing, since no one was going to spontaneously invent handheld games anytime soon.

I reached out with my chakra sense, scanning for anomalous signatures. Usually, I didn’t have to focus at all—passive was good enough for advance warning about things we’d have to care about.

My shift, as it turned out, passed without incident. After lounging on the tree branch like a cat for what felt like hours (and probably was), I walked down the trunk and woke Sensei for his shift.

At a safe distance.


 

The next day was less simple.

We found our deserter, for one. Many famous villains came from Konoha, due to our tendency to produce stupendously powerful head-cases and only belatedly remembering to instill morals when it was far too late to matter, but our target for this mission was neither.

Ichiro Komaeda was a perfectly average chūnin-level shinobi. He even looked entirely average—brown hair, brown eyes, and an entirely forgettable face under a Konoha headband. If not for the fact that he’d been discovered leaking information to Iwagakure shortly after Team Minato was sent on our first border patrol, we probably could have passed each other on the street without noticing.

The problem is that he’d somehow picked up friends.

Instead of fighting a single intelligence-specialized shinobi, we were fighting a three-man squad of Iwa-nin escorting the lily-livered motherfucker out of our territory.

Combat-wise, the Iwa team was lackluster. I cut one man’s legs out from under him before following up with my version of Rin’s paralytic medical ninjutsu (which she had graciously taught me while I was floundering), while Obito set one of his friends on fire and Kakashi flat-out killed the last one. It was all over in just under a minute, counting the frantic stop-drop-roll sequence that helped exactly nothing when Kakashi killed him anyway.

In the end, all Sensei really had to do was stand directly in Komaeda’s path, and the guy froze up like a deer in the headlights of an eighteen-wheeler.

Kakashi, Obito and I finished securing the Iwa prisoner, but I stopped first. Sensei’s killing intent was swamping the clearing where the enemy had decided to make a stand.

“T-the Yellow Flash…” Komaeda was nearly squeaking.

“Hello, Komaeda-san.” Sensei said pleasantly, but I wasn’t fooled.

I didn’t want to see the look on his face, and the way Kakashi’s eyebrows knit together told me that he already knew what was going to happen. Obito blinked rapidly, staring at Sensei with a face nearly white with fear.

Sensei never felt like that before.

“One false move against my team, and I will cut your hands off.” Sensei continued, still in that polite way of his. “Hurt any of them, Komaeda-san, and your feet will follow suit. Do you understand me?”

…I’d never seen Sensei’s war persona before. I wasn’t sure if he was always like this, or if it was just because his students were at risk.

Komaeda nodded quickly, eyes never leaving Sensei’s face.

“Now, you are going to come quietly with us.” Sensei went on quietly, as though he didn’t have Komaeda practically pissing himself in terror. “We will be returning to Konoha, and you will cooperate. Or else you will understand how imaginative I can be.”

Almost without noticing, I reached out to Obito and squeezed his shaking hand. Both of our palms were damp.

There was something ironic in how the scariest thing we’d yet faced was our own teacher.

Kakashi’s hand closed over mine and Obito’s, briefly. Then he was off, idly disarming Komaeda and tying his arms behind his back.

I let go of Obito’s hand, standing and sheathing my kodachi as though nothing had happened. After a second or two, I even managed to force my voice to work. “Sensei, what do you want us to do about this one?” I asked, astounded at how calm I sounded.

“Is he disarmed?” Sensei asked, still using that uncannily even voice.

“Yes, Sensei.” Obito replied, instead of me.

Sensei’s expression, I noticed, had evened out somewhat. The killing intent had also dropped significantly. Probably because of that, I felt rather than saw Obito get to his feet behind me.

I still didn’t feel entirely safe turning my back on Sensei, and I wasn’t sure why. Kakashi had killed dozens of people in front of me, I’d killed at least ten already, and Sensei’s total probably wasn’t worth thinking about. Obito had killed too, though less so than the rest of us.

Why was this different?

“This won’t be the last one.” Kakashi said quietly, as Sensei began fiddling with some kind of seal he was drawing on the ground. I could only imagine that he was planning on transporting the two prisoners straight to the border outpost. Or, preferably, Konoha.

I gave Kakashi a blank look.

“The last traitor,” he clarified, as Obito joined us. “And it won’t be the last time we get so close to the front.”

Well, no shit.

“Or the last time we see Sensei do that.” Obito remarked, similarly subdued. Distantly, I was surprised they weren’t arguing.

I bit my lip. Now that we’d all been promoted, it wasn’t a game anymore. We were real soldiers. On a real battlefield. And someday soon, we’d be sent on a mission without Sensei, and we’d probably fuck up.

“Sensei is Konoha’s Yellow Flash. He’ll be called on more and more.” Kakashi explained. “And we’ll be caught up in everything the Hokage needs him to do.” His tone and expression were flat. “Deal with it.”

It made me wonder, briefly, if he’d ever seen Sensei carry through with threats of mutilation against prisoners of war. Because, no matter how we in Konoha tried to market ourselves to people, we were still a military village. We traded in secrets. We fought with them. And we’d kill in a heartbeat to protect them.

And Konoha, as a whole, despised traitors. Komaeda wasn’t getting out of this one.

I nodded absently, thinking.

So did Obito, though he looked a little green.

I didn’t…I didn’t like the idea. But I understood that this world didn’t work like my old one. Aside from the lack of cars and guns, the society I lived in now placed much less value on human life. Why not, after all, when we’d barely had a handful of consecutive years of peace in our entire recorded history? The ends justify the means, right?

Well. Not in my head. But I wasn’t about to argue POW rights then.

Fucking hell, I prayed that Naruto’s generation would be able to do something about it. Because mine? Already screwed.

(Maybe not forever, and maybe not thoroughly. I’d have to see what this generation’s Narutos had to say about it.)

We ended up dragging Komaeda and the surviving Iwa infiltrator back to the border station, and from there we went home. The station itself provided an escort for the POWs, which left somewhat later than we did. I don’t know what happened to them afterward, but I didn’t think much about them, either. I tried not to. There are some things you don’t want to think your hometown is capable of.

But it is, anyway.

Chapter Text

A different month, another seasonal shift, and a lot of missions later, I got to do something a little different.

A couple of days after I got home (and I was willing to reenter the land of the living), Mom had me take Hayate and his friends to the public baths in order to get all of us out of her hair. I had been getting antsy, and a long soak in the springs would have done me some good in the relaxation department. Being the assigned babysitter put a damper on that plan quickly enough. As it was, I regretted the lack of public swimming pools for about five minutes and then decided to tell the kids to get their things together.

This being Konoha, we had hot springs too. So I went in that direction.

There were enough different springs and partitions at two in the afternoon to give me and my ducklings some privacy. For my part, I’d ordered the kids to bring their own towels since I didn’t feel like running back and forth between gender-segregated halves of a spring to make sure no one drowned. Also, Yūgao and I had exactly nothing in common to talk about anyway, besides Hayate. It’d be easier on my sanity to just keep them all in the same place.

Iruka dunked Hayate underwater anyway. Yūgao pulled Iruka off him by his hair. Shortly thereafter, a water fight ensued.

I held my book out of the line of fire and thought, Oh, to be a kid again. Never mind that I still was a kid.

Technically, I suppose I wasn’t even supposed to have the black book, never mind having it at the hot springs. Sensei had taken to giving me older editions of his Bingo Book, which were generally anywhere from six months to a year out of date, if not more. They were small enough to hide behind the pages of a weapon magazine I’d randomly picked out of the newsstand, which made covert reading somewhat easier.

I wasn’t even planning on going in the water—onsen were nice enough, but I’d much prefer to run up the water bill at home if I had a choice between public and private. The fact that I hadn’t even bothered to take my own bathing equipment did say a lot on that end. Lounging around in my oldest zipper hoodie, cut-off shorts, and a tank top, I felt like a cheap knockoff of James Bond on vacation.

Only I’m pretty sure James Bond would have made a terrible babysitter. And he’d never have been caught dead in anything less stylish than designer swim trunks.

Anyway, back to the Bingo Book. Silly name for a headhunting manual.

Sensei hadn’t seen any harm in letting me read about the bogeymen of this war, apparently because he figured my chances of actually encountering one of them were pretty slim. To be fair, it was true—as far as I know, Team Minato never did attract the attention of people like the Kinkaku Squad (okay, okay, so maybe that was the wrong war), even if Sensei would face off with A and B sooner or later.

I did find it kind of funny that Sensei had his own profile taped inside of the back cover. Flee on sight order and everything. The dork.

Flipping through the pages meant reintroducing myself to a lot of familiar faces. Also a lot of unfamiliar ones that I could only assume would get mauled to death over the course of this war, but that part was less important.

For one, I could see that A and B were making names for themselves. As the son of the Third Raikage, A was well on his way to succeeding his father and the rest of the world knew it. His Lightning Release Armor made him basically untouchable to Mist and Sand forces, which cut fully twenty thousand combatants out of consideration when it came to facing him and not dying horribly. Sensei could—and would—face off with him on even terms. The only question was when.

B, as A’s combat partner, adopted brother, and host of the Eight-Tailed Beast, was understandably no less dangerous. He was only a little older than Sensei, but much more excitable and also a hell of a lot slower. The Eight-Tails made him too dangerous for anyone short of a jōnin to face period, never mind the idea of a solo fight. Jōnin were often of vastly different skill sets and levels even within the rank, however, which told me that the only one I’d trust to face him now would be Sensei.

Jiraiya probably could take him, of course, and maybe the Hokage, but anyone else would probably not be walking away from that fight.

I pursed my lips thoughtfully.

I knew that the Eight-Tailed Beast’s host was always a member of the Raikage’s family. The fact that B had been adopted as A’s combat partner and brother merely solidified that association. Konoha had a similar, though much more accidental procedure.

Then again, Mito Uzumaki had been the First Hokage’s wife. There hadn’t been another host until Kushina, who had been forced, eventually, to turn Kurama over to her son.

Shukaku had had three hosts, the last being Gaara, the son of the Fourth Kazekage.

Rōshi, the current host of the Four-Tailed Beast, was likely still an Iwagakure powerhouse. The same could be said of Han, though I didn’t really remember anything about him aside from his steam armor and that he was from the same village.

Yagura, the future Fourth Mizukage, wasn’t a host yet.

Utakata, Yugito, and Fū were too young to take the field, I think. Sure, Yugito was at least my age, but I couldn’t see A allowing a half-trained jinchūriki of a lesser Beast onto the same battlefields that he and his brother did.

I couldn’t say if the First Hokage’s decision to distribute the Tailed Beasts to the other nations had helped or hurt the situation. It simply was, at this point. We had to live with it.

And that was about when I had to roll up my sleeves and walk out onto the surface of the hot spring to make sure the kids didn’t actually drown each other. While the book was safely inside my waterproof satchel, I pulled Iruka, then Hayate out of the water by one wrist each. Yugao followed a moment later, crawling out via the nearby rocks.

“Hey!” Hayate started to protest, of course, but the day I let my nine-year-old brother boss me around is the day that I pledge my undying love of shrimp. No dice, little brother.

I hoisted Hayate over one shoulder, slung Iruka along under my other arm and dragged the boys back into the building. Yūgao followed, giggling like crazy.

In hindsight, I give my mom massive amounts of credit for being able to wrangle kids during bath time. I don’t remember giving her that much trouble ever, but apparently either Hayate was a more difficult child or he had a particular problem with me chasing him around with a shampoo bottle. In my old life, by the time I was old enough to be in control of a showerhead for the sake of another person, the only ones in my house small and/or unintelligent to require my assistance were my dogs.

That said, there was similarity between catching dogs for bath time and catching kids.

Also, I was a ninja this time around.

(Then again, so were they—mini-ninjas, to be more precise.)

By the time I got everyone on the path toward cleanliness, I was pretty sure we’d been gone for nearly three hours. Between the half-hour walk to the spring itself, the kids horsing around for another two hours, and however long it had taken me to corral Hayate and Iruka into finally submitting to the cleaning part of the program, the post-supper crowd was starting to move in. For my part, I was helping Yūgao comb out the last few knots in her long purple hair, and ignored the crowd of other Konoha citizens getting ready for a relaxing soak.

(Incidentally, I was briefly jealous that her hair stayed mostly straight apart from a few snags. I had cowlick problems and perpetual hat-hair.)

That was about when I felt a subtle, but still strong, chakra signature on the edge of my range.

By the time I tied her hair off and both of the boys were starting to remember to get back into their street clothes, the strange signature was a lot closer than it had been.

It was also near the women’s half of the baths.

Hell’s bells.

Ryō for your thoughts?

Well, there were now two paths before me: One, I could go and bother one of the Sannin. Or two, I could ignore him entirely and just get the kids home.

Yeah, nope. I wasn’t Naruto, and therefore was not interested in pissing off Jiraiya.

“Come on, kids, time to head home.” I said.

Nope, nope, nope!


“Obito, Kei-kun, this is my teacher, the Sannin Jiraiya.” Sensei told us the next day, standing next to a white-haired man who was at least half a head taller than he was. They shared hairstyles, somewhat, though Jiraiya’s was an order of magnitude longer. He was at least wearing the standard Konoha uniform—his normal one, in the future, was so much weirder.

Imagine the look on my face. Put laconically: Pure, unadulterated, What The Fuck Is This?™.

“Hey, if you’re one of the Sannin, that means you’re super strong, right?” Obito was practically trembling with barely contained excitement.

Kakashi was pointedly not looking at any of us.

“You bet, Uchiha!” Jiraiya said brightly. “I am the legendary Toad Sage!”

He was also the teammate of the Snake Sannin, by definition, and the Slug Princess. Their team was in shambles.

“You’re that pervert who was at the hot springs yesterday.” I said flatly.

“Wrong, boy!” Jiraiya said. “I’m a super pervert!”

This is sounding very familiar.

“My mistake.” I replied, unblinking.

Wow, I was turning into Kakashi.

“Sensei, I did mention that one of my students was a girl…” Sensei stage-whispered.

Click! went Jiraiya’s brain. I wasn’t quite sure what he had an epiphany about, though. Sensei could have told him anything about our team.

“Anyway, that’s not what I invited him for.” Sensei said quickly, holding his hands up to stave off any sort of commentary. He cleared his throat. “Jiraiya-sensei is the only other person who, due to a clear lapse in judgment, knows a technique I invented. He’s here to help me teach you the basics.”

Putting the issue of Jiraiya out of my mind, I focused entirely on Sensei.

No way…

There were basically two major techniques that Sensei had Jiraiya had in common. One was based on the summoning contract both of them had with toads. Not exactly something someone could just learn, what with the sapient beings hooked up to the other end. The other, and Sensei’s original technique, could only be…

Sensei held out his right hand, palm up and fingers curled inward. As we watched, chakra began to swirl around with enough speed and density that, in a burst of light and wind, a glowing blue ball formed in his hand.

“I don’t actually expect any of you to learn how to use the Rasengan in a month, or two months, or even three.” Sensei told us. “If I could create this technique, I have no doubt at all that all three of you can make your own as well. Of course, it took me three years. You don’t have to create an A-ranked technique, though.” He grinned. “Never underestimate the value of a surprise attack in the right moment, especially if it’s one your opponent can’t have ever seen before.”

I thought of the Rasenshuriken and nodded enthusiastically.

(I also thought of Bullshitting the Fish Test Jutsu and tried not to giggle.)

Obito was grinning. “Betcha I’ll have a super-awesome new jutsu before you do, Kei!”

“And I bet you won’t.” I said, barely resisting the urge to stick my tongue out at him.

Sensei proceeded to spend the next five minutes explaining how the Rasengan worked. Rotating my chakra was something I already knew how to do, but compressing and intensifying the spin…well, I’d never really thought about learning the Rasengan, so I’d consequently never thought about it. Most of my techniques were based on precision application that put most people in the mindset of thinking about blades. Killer Frisbees were more the Rasengan’s way.

As Obito screwed up his face in concentration (while getting no visible results) and Kakashi was, of course, already halfway to a sphere, I stared at the palm of my hand and at the spiral squiggle in the middle of it. I wasn’t even channeling chakra—I was trying to visualize the technique. Kind of dumb, but I didn’t have the chakra to waste on half-assed attempts.

“Hey, Minato, mind if I have a chat with Kei-kun here?” Jiraiya asked Sensei after a while.

Sensei gave Jiraiya a flat look. “Don’t corrupt her, Sensei.”

“Sheesh, you say it like I could. Kid’s as cold as your other brat over there.” He gestured vaguely at Kakashi, who ignored him.

“Sensei…”

Jiraiya flapped a hand. “She’ll be fine, Minato. It’ll only take a second.”

“What do you need, Jiraiya-sama?” I asked, not getting up. I did, however, look up at him. I concentrated on the mole on his nose, because if there wasn’t some kind of levity within the next couple of seconds I’d probably be spontaneously itching to create some.

(Also, if I look right into people’s eyes, I sometimes get the urge to giggle. Or at least I used to.)

Jiraiya paused, realizing that he had both of my teammates’ eyes on him already. Then he shrugged. “Not many people can find me when I don’t want to be found. And I don’t remember actually seeing you yesterday, much less meeting you.”

“I’m a chakra sensor.” I told him, “And it wasn’t worth causing trouble when I had kids with me.” Besides, Tsunade used to beat him bad enough that even a lifetime of Jiraiya-grade perversion isn’t balanced out yet.

“You are a kid.” Jiraiya said.

“I’m a chūnin.” I said. “And if I’m going to pick a fight with one of the Sannin, it’s not going to be when my baby brother and his friends are right there.”

Sets a bad example.

Jiraiya didn’t question my knowing who he was, though we’d never met. Neither did Sensei. I’d gotten my hands on enough paperwork to know who he was without a problem, even if his combat prowess and lack of genin students kept him in the field just shy of perpetually.

This was the man who, in the end, could only say that his dream had been to have an awesome death. And he’d succeeded.

Christ on a cracker.

Then Jiraiya laughed.

I blinked.

“You’ve got an interesting pack of brats, Minato.” Jiraiya chuckled. He sat back on his heels, holding out one hand. “So, Kei-kun, let’s see how you do on the Rasengan when you actually try.”

I frowned just for a second, because I wasn’t sure why he’d reversed himself so quickly, then started to channel chakra into my hand. Of course it fizzled out, but not until the chakra itself was visible and I could definitely feel the drain.

“Dammit.” I said.

“You’re doing better than I am, Kei.” Obito grumbled, making his way over. He sat next to me. “See, I can’t even get it to spin!”

“That’s because you’re not putting enough chakra into it, kid. Can’t spin if there’s nothing there.” Jiraiya told us.

Sensei, I noticed, had gone on to critique Kakashi’s wobbly, but somewhat solid, sphere.

“Well, how am I supposed to do it then?” Obito asked. “I gathered as much chakra as I can already!”

“Obito, let me see.” I sat up, hovering over his hand. His chakra wasn’t doing much more than ruffling my hair anyway.

Jiraiya sat back and watched us work it out for ourselves.

Sort of like a proud grandparent, really. An incredibly perverted badass grandpa, anyway.

Not a bad start, I think. Here’s to the future.


Obito tried for a couple of seconds to come up with something to say. After a while, he gave up and just went with the obvious. “…Sensei, there’s a dog on your shoulder.”

“So there is, Obito.” Sensei replied, as though having a pug on his shoulder like a furry parrot was an everyday event, and continued writing out an equipment storage seal as though none of us had said anything.

I, meanwhile, was barely tamping down on the urge to squeal like the worst sort of fangirl.

Lemme rewind and set the scene a little better.

Because we’d only just entered the chain of command, and because Sensei was who he was, we were easing into what I’d call an “active roster” sort of schedule. One month in (meaning we were more than likely to be sent on a mission that would almost kill us, or more than one), then a month off, then two months with a two-month break, and so on. I’d asked about it, and Jiraiya had told me that some shinobi could be sent to the front for up to six months once they got higher up in the ranks. The fact that I hadn’t met him until I was nearly twelve told me that he’d been gone for way longer.

Or that he’d never had a month off from being on-call that whole time.

Compared to the eighteen-month (or more) tours that soldiers in my old life had been prone to, it didn’t seem like much. That said, there was a difference between being an American soldier and being a shinobi—one of them was the fact that Konoha was being threatened. Sure, most of the time smaller countries took the most damage, but it didn’t change the fact that we were still in range of many attacks and our enemies did usually overpower us on a one-to-one basis.

Also, no cars, guns, or nukes.

(Except for Tailed Beasts in a tizzy. Hadn’t seen one of them on the field yet.)

Basically, during our one-month break, we worked on things we thought would make us more likely to survive our upcoming two-month run at near-death.

For Obito, trying to figure out how to use the Rasengan at least helped with his chakra control. He didn’t seem interested in the technique itself—it demanded more control than he’d have for a while—but since it was also about the time in his young life when all mini-Uchiha started to go a little pyromaniac, I was kind of glad that he didn’t even get close to trying to infuse his chakra nature into the technique. At least, not after he set his sleeve on fire the first time. None of us could quite figure out how he managed it.

As for me, I managed to come up with something. For one, Jiraiya took me aside one day and stuffed a slip of chakra sensitive paper in my hand.

“Honestly, I don’t understand how Minato could have you kids for so long and not check your chakra nature.” Jiraiya had grumbled. “You’re all chūnin now, and everyone knows that’s the time to do something crazy.”

“Given how much adult supervision we apparently need, I don’t think so.” I’d replied under my breath.

Jiraiya had snorted derisively. “Everyone’s got to leave the nest sooner or later. Now, channel a small amount of chakra into the paper. Carefully; it’s expensive. We’ll do the same for the Uchiha in a minute.”

I had agreed, and let my chakra flow into the paper.

It went damp and floppy in my fingers.

“Water… Not bad at all. You’re a medic, right?”

I’d wobbled a hand in midair to communicate “so-so.” I’d explained, “I got cut from my apprenticeship years ago. Everything I’ve learned since is based on that, and making stuff up.”

“You are so a medic, Kei!” Obito had shouted from halfway across the clearing.

“I don’t have a license!” I’d shouted back.

“Who cares?”

“Will you two just shut up?” Kakashi had demanded, from somewhere in between. The Rasengan fizzled out between his fingers when he looked up, so I guess we had to.

Uh, anyway. Summary of events: I learned I had water-natured chakra, Obito had an affinity for fire, and we both tried to work on Sensei’s super-special signature technique.

Kakashi…he mastered the Rasengan. But he didn’t use it in training or in combat, and probably never would. Because, as the perpetual overachiever, he immediately tried to come up with a way to infuse his lightning chakra into the technique.

And it kind of exploded.

So, uh. He wasn’t doing that again until his hand recovered.

Instead, I guess he got the urge poke through some stuff he hadn’t in a while. Without being able to use his right hand, he had to come up with some other way to use the training time we all had left, and there are some techniques that skilled shinobi can use with little more than blood and willpower.

Such as summoning.

That, eventually, led to the reason why Sensei had a tiny pug on his shoulder in the training grounds. After a moment or two, Sensei gently scooped the little dog off his padded shoulder and offered it to Kakashi.

Kakashi said, “Sensei, Pakkun needs to get used to your scent as quickly as possible.”

Pakkun made a high-pitched growling noise at being separated from his perch, and Kakashi quickly took him out of Sensei’s hands. Pakkun immediately buried his nose into the crook of Kakashi’s elbow, clearly content to simply take up space in his master’s arms.

“Don’t you think he needs to meet your teammates, too?” Sensei responded.

The way Kakashi’s eyebrows knit together made me think he didn’t agree.

Then, “Here, Kei. You take him.” Kakashi said, and I took the pug puppy from him without even thinking about it.

Funny how, even after nearly twelve years without a dog, I still remembered how to hold them. My left arm stayed low as support, while I looped my right around so I could create a rough bowl between my chest and my arms. I rubbed the underside of his jaw, gently, with one thumb.

God damn, I missed my dogs. In this life, anyway, I’d known from the start that there wasn’t going to be any room in my life for pets. Between Hayate (who, in his early years, was really more a pet than someone to talk to) and my ninja career, I’d never be able to take care of anything more responsive than a rock. Dogs had been ruled out by how I hadn’t been born an Inuzuka—nin-dogs were the only accepted option for a career shinobi.

Pakkun wasn’t nearly as fluffy as the dogs I remembered, but he was tiny and adorable. He was a flat, plain brown color that wouldn’t stand out in the field, with a darker brown muzzle and facial mask. He had a long, straight tail rather than the tight curl I was used to, and pink paw-pads. He was also about the length of my forearm and wearing a blue vest with the usual scarecrow face outlined on the back. Definitely Kakashi’s dog, even if he didn’t have his own miniature headband yet.

The first words out of my mouth were, “He’s so cute.”

“Uh…Kei?” Obito sounded odd.

“He can’t talk yet, but he can understand us.” Kakashi said, but his tone was also off somehow.

I ignored them. “From the looks of it, you’re about eight weeks old. But since you’re Kakashi’s, you’re probably closer to a year or two, right? Ninken live so much longer than civilian dogs, and you’ll be able to use chakra just like your master soon enough.” I forced a giggle back, but was only partly successful. “We’ll be counting on you!”

“Kei-kun?” Sensei patted me on the head, as though to make sure I was still capable of focusing on reality.

My head snapped up. “Yes, Sensei?”

Sensei looked like he was trying not to laugh. “Come on, Pakkun can’t fall asleep before he gets a chance to meet Obito.”

I glanced at Obito, who was hovering at my left elbow. “Do you want to hold him? Only, don’t hold him like a baby—I’ve never met a dog that liked that.”

Reluctantly, I let Obito hold Pakkun—though not after critiquing him thoroughly on how he was doing it. By the end, only the fact that Pakkun had his jacket between his little puppy teeth kept Obito from immediately trying to give the puppy back to me out of sheer nerves.

As it was, he ended up holding Pakkun up and against the side of his neck, sort of like a baby after all. Pakkun responded by sticking his nose against Obito’s collar and going to sleep again.

“He’s adorable.” I said, barely resisting the urge to pet him again. Puppies need their sleep!

“Heh, yeah, I guess he is cute.” Obito said, but he was giving me a weird look. “Kei?”

“Yeah?”

“...I guess girls really do like dogs.” Obito said, teasing grin already in place.

I replied, “Hey, I like dogs because they are both adorable and kickass. I don’t know about Rin-chan.”

Obito turned red. “T-That’s not what I was talking about!”

“I know, I know.” I said. It’d been ages since I’d called him out on not telling Rin about his crush on her. While I’d thought that she would have picked up on it eventually, I couldn’t exactly criticize someone for not noticing another person’s romantic feelings.

Long story, there.

Sensei had long since given up on holding his laughter in. It was amazing that he hadn’t smudged the seal he’d been working on. Especially since we were all sitting around it like the overgrown schoolchildren we weren’t anymore, cooing over a puppy.

“…I checked the scroll.” Kakashi said after Sensei got his breathing back under control. “There are eight dogs, total.”

Pakkun, Bisuke, Bull, Guruko, Shiba, Akino, Urushi, and Ūhei. The Dreamer sounded almost giddy.

“Are they all still puppies?” I asked.

Trust me to ask the important questions.

“…Yes?” Kakashi said.

I don’t think I ended up getting anything done that day. But who cares?

PUPPIES!

Chapter Text

Walk-stab-walk.

Clearing battlefields just sucks, okay? All active-duty shinobi have, at some time or another, had to clear the dead guys off a battlefield before they rot. Since fighting doesn’t stop until everyone’s dead or one side’s retreated, given how many shinobi fight just as effectively at night, Obito and I weren’t allowed anywhere near the main body of the attack until Sensei’s corps had already routed the enemy. Kakashi was with him, since he was technically one of the senior chūnin involved (even if he was still short).

It was only when the folks still fighting were more than twenty kilometers away that rookies like Obito and I were allowed to see what carnage was left.

The worst part is the silence.

Well, actually no. The worst part is the actual physical job of dragging corpses to the mass graves that used to be defensive trenches half a day previously.

Obito and I tended to stick together even on jobs that awful, and we both grabbed one of a dead Iwa-nin’s ankles to drag him toward the nearest pit. Alive, he might have outweighed us by thirty to thirty-five kilos each. Dead, it seemed more like sixty.

It probably would have been easier to stick him a corpse scroll, but Sensei hadn’t gotten around to teaching me how to make one and I didn’t have nearly enough scrolls for all the corpses lying around.

And once he was in the pit, we went back for another body.

Aside from collecting the wounded (and occasionally being called on to help keeping them in the land of the living, or not), that was our day. It sort of bled into the next day, and the day after that, until the smell of blood and rot and feces and acrid smoke practically clung to our clothes and hair and I wanted nothing more than to dive into a river and scrub.

It wasn’t until we were about to leave to head back home, with our cleanup mission completed at last, that I actually got a chance to sit still. I was packing my bag, glad to be finally getting the hell out of the junction of nowhere and hell on earth. That I happened to be doing it inside of a medical tent was less because I cared about anyone inside and more because it had started to rain.

There was only one almost-dead guy around, and he was easily ignored.

He looked…normal. Not like a bad guy, really. He’d gone white under his tan and looked more corpse than man by this point, lips chapped and expression pained if he was conscious. Aside from the remnants of an Iwagakure flak jacket, he really could have been just anyone (with a handlebar mustache). I didn’t care. I was so far past caring that he was around—besides, he wouldn’t be for much longer.

It was the last tent. End of the line. He was just the only one left of the fatally wounded that was taking three days to die. The rest had already been buried.

He coughed. I didn’t look at him. Instead, I gave a sharp whistle designed to alert the head medic that his patient was dying on him, finally.

But once I was done packing, I stood up. The head medic—a man named Hisoka something or something Hisoka—stuck his head into the tent and was leaning over the patient while I shuffled around, going about my business.

Obito, as it happened, also stuck his head in. His spikes were lying almost flat on his head because of the rain, but he’d packed and seemed ready to go.

“Good to go, Kei?” Obito asked.

“Yeah, ” I replied, slinging my pack over my shoulder.

That was Iwa-nin on the cot coughed, “Yellow…Flash.”

Obito and I both looked at him.

He didn’t…exactly have the look that most of Sensei’s victims did. Ergo, he still had the ability to talk—Sensei had a tendency to go for the throat in most cases that didn’t involve the Rasengan, and the guy’s innards were also mostly on the inside. I could only guess that one of the other jōnin had gotten him—there was a through-and-through pair of stab wounds in his stomach and chest, but nothing else.

(Of course, he’d been bleeding for days on end and his injuries already smelled awful, so I guess it didn’t matter that no one else had decided to end his misery.)

(The fact that he’d been interrogated in the field, with all that entailed, hadn’t helped at all.)

Hisoka rolled his eyes. The expression didn’t really sit well with him—he looked, honestly, like what happened when one’s sideburns and beard took over one’s face in brown hair. He kind of looked like Hagrid, but short.

Oddly, the almost-dead man was looking right at us. Obito and I, I mean.

Something was flickering in those fever-clouded eyes. Something I didn’t like, which spoke of recognition.

How the hell does this guy know who we are?

“Y-Yellow Flash…childr…” He started to sit up. His eyes were laser-focused on us, and Hisoka was a second too late to push him back down.

I never want to see a man look at me like that ever again, as long as I live.

Obito grabbed my hand.

What the fuck?

“…K-kill…cap…ture…”

Then a kunai whipped past my head, so fast that I only belatedly realized Sensei had arrived right behind me in a burst of chakra.

  1. The Iwa-nin reeled backward, a kunai embedded up to the handle in his eye. He was definitely dead now.

“Oh, ick.” I heard myself say, numb. Obito was tugging on my hand insistently by then, but I hardly even noticed.

Sensei wordlessly grabbed both of our shoulders and steered us out of the tent. I caught a last glimpse of Hisoka waving his hands in frustration at being deprived of a patient (or victim), and then we were off into the dreary, never-ending rain.

We found Kakashi under a tree, arms crossed and visible expression grim. He looked tense. Most of the time he was bored or frustrated or maybe even unwillingly entertained when Obito and I were around, but the stiffness in his posture went up a notch or two when he spotted us.

I agreed, even if I wasn’t quite sure what I was agreeing with.

Sensei ruffled Kakashi’s hair when we finally reached him, which struck me as odd even considering the events just beforehand. When Kakashi didn’t lean away or bristle, I knew we were in trouble. Obito and I kind of slunk over to his side like chastised puppies—he did, in fact, scoot away from us. But not by a lot, and not obviously.

Sensei crossed his arms, looking at us with a completely expressionless face.

Uh-oh.

After a few moments, I guess he felt we were aware of the gravity of the situation and broke the stare-off by reaching into one of his vest pockets and pulling out bloodstained, jet-black book. It was only the size of a pocket calculator at most, and probably about fifty pages thick, but I still recognized the symbol on the spine.

An Iwakagure bingo book.You don’t think…?

I do.

“Over the past couple of weeks, I’m sure you’ve been wondering why I’ve only let Kakashi into the field with me,” Sensei began.

Obito nodded, but I shook my head.

Of course, not wanting to be on the battlefield meant I was really more inclined to count my blessings when I was allowed to stay back with the Medic Corps.

“Here’s the reason.” Sensei opened the book, flipped a few pages, and finally tore one up. Then he flipped a few more and tore that one out, too.

He let me have the first one.

Name: Konoha’s Yellow Flash

Distinctive Characteristics: Blond hair, blue eyes. Attacks in an instant using teleportation.

Orders: Do not approach. Flee on sight.*

*Note: The Yellow Flash is often accompanied by three children, assumed to be his students.

Orders: Live capture; kill as last resort.

There was the sound of a page ripping, again. I looked over, and noticed that Kakashi had already shredded the sheet he’d been given. His chakra was agitated, but he was hiding his anger better than I would have.

“They mistook him for the White Fang last time.” Sensei told us.

Obito looked blank. I bit my tongue to keep from saying anything.

Sensei sighed. “For the next stretch, I’m going to be assigning you a different mentor.”

I felt a protest well up in my throat—no, no, that’s how we’ll get killed—and Obito actually said, “But Sensei—!” I felt Kakashi’s chakra jump.

“That’s enough.” Sensei snapped.

We went quiet, wide-eyed.

“You’re chūnin now.” Sensei said, calmer. His gaze lost its laser focus as he looked at the three of us, and his tone softened somewhat. “I’ve taught you all since you were brand-new genin. You’ve come farther than I’d ever…oh, that isn’t important.” His eyes were dark. I could only imagine what he was remembering. “Iwagakure knows you’re my students. So, Kumogakure will know soon enough. If they don’t already. If they can’t get to me—and they can’t—they’ll come after the three of you in the hopes that hurting you will keep me from fighting. I won’t stop until the war’s over, and you know that, but they don’t. Or if they do, they won’t care.”

…That must have been why Minato couldn’t reach Rin and Kakashi after the Three-Tails was sealed inside her.

My blood ran cold.

Rin’s death was the catalyst for Tobi’s birth.

And hadn’t Spiral Zetsu said that Minato was stuck on a separate mission, just before the moment of truth and despair?

He’d been fighting A and B at the time. Kumogakure shinobi.

Kiri had been backstabbing us.

Sensei went on, “I’ll be taking solo or group missions from now on. I should have done this before—now that you’ve been promoted, you should have been shuffled around and allowed to gain experience alongside older chūnin and learn what the rest of your graduating class has to offer in terms of teamwork, talent, and personality. You’ve been isolated by sticking close to me, and…we can’t afford to be that lenient anymore.”

In a way, it was almost a repeat of the time Yamaguchi-sensei cut me loose. “You’re doing so well, you don’t need me anymore,” in a nutshell.

But that was a lie. A damn, dirty lie. It didn’t feel like an accomplishment—it felt like abandonment.

It felt like a death sentence.

“They won’t stop trying to kill us.” I heard myself say, distantly. I crossed my arms, mirroring Sensei and Kakashi and also trying to stave off the cold. Everything felt wrong. “It’s not going to stop them.”

“Maybe it won’t.” Sensei murmured.

I suddenly wondered if that was why both of Sensei’s genin teammates were dead. Maybe someone had gone after Jiraiya, or even Sensei, and settled for the next best thing.

Sensei had scars too, even if he’d hidden them so well that I’d have never known they were there, if I didn’t think to look.

“We’ll still be training together.” Sensei told us. He frowned. “As far as I’m concerned, you’re still my students, and I’m certainly not going anywhere. But for now, I’ll ask that the Hokage keep you a little closer to home. If you get any missions without me, Kakashi’s in charge unless there’s a senior chūnin. Understood?”

“Yes, Sensei,” we chorused.

I mean, it wasn’t like we could exactly argue with him. There’s a difference between arguing with a big brother figure and arguing with a superior officer, which was the role he was stepping into. We gave in without a fight and were eventually shoved off on other shinobi for the sake of mystifying our enemies, which we hadn’t actually even earned on our own merits.

Or so I thought.

“Now, listen closely.” Sensei told us a little later. The three of us stood at attention, and Sensei went on, “In a month, I’ll be off the roster for a few days. If we can get together in time, I’ll put you three to your final test.” He scratched the side of his face, sheepish. “I really should have done this right after you were promoted to the same level, but…things happen.”

“What kind of test, Sensei?” Obito asked. “I mean, the Chūnin Exam would’ve counted for fighting against opponents of the same level, and the writing part was evil.”

“You’re right, Obito.” Sensei said. “But it’s not that kind of test.”

“You want to know if we can handle ourselves against a much stronger opponent.” I suggested after a moment, since Kakashi didn’t seem to have any input.

Then Kakashi said, “The bell test.”

The side of Sensei’s mouth quirked up. “Did you really have to spoil the surprise, Kakashi?”

“Yeah, he probably did.” I murmured. “So, what exactly is the bell test?”

“That’s for me to know and you to find out.” Sensei told us. “Now, get moving.”

We skedaddled.

Thinking about it, I supposed that the infamous bell test didn’t necessarily make sense for genin unless the goal was explicitly to screw them over. New genin, in particular, had all of the normal issues with attachment and getting along with strangers. It was just amplified by the nature of the challenge.

Still…the idea of fighting Sensei set my heart pounding.

We’d all sparred against Sensei before—it’s a basic part of shinobi training, to get us used to fighting people taller or stronger than we were. He’d always given us a challenge, sure, but he fought us one-to-one and generally the others were waiting in the wings for their turn. He never had to take us seriously, or as a group.

It was strange, but I wanted to test myself against the Yellow Flash. If I couldn’t test myself, I’d never know if I could go the distance.

…Wow, I sound like a Disney movie.

Okay, to be honest, I was kind of terrified too.

Who wouldn’t be? I knew Sensei was capable of more things than I probably ever would be. He was capable of fighting A and B at once, of beating the Nine-Tailed Fox down to a draw, and of out-speeding any shinobi alive. He knew timing and precision inside and out, could wipe out an Iwa contingent so quickly that most hardly realized they were dead before the flash of yellow, and had a dozen powerful jutsu he’d never used in front of us.

The idea of facing someone like that was daunting and thrilling in nearly equal measure. He was our teacher, after all. And our hero.

When I got home, I got started on the explosive seals. A month wasn’t that long.

Chapter Text

I swung experimentally, readjusting to the balance of a bokken after years of swinging a kodachi. It was easy enough to bring the blade to a snapping halt, even going fast enough to make the air whistle. I swung again, one handed, and batted a falling leaf out of the air.

“I see you’ve been keeping in practice.” Mom said, even as she had most of her attention on gently correcting Hayate’s stance with her own bokken.

“Not entirely.” I admitted.

I was no Miyamoto Musashi—even if I was pretty good with a sword, I still preferred carrying steel to wood when it came to real missions, and that required some adjusting to weight differences. Musashi, by comparison, had been famous for taken a bokken to every fight ever and winning. Also, my bokken was actually my mother’s spare, and therefore the size of a katana. I’d never gotten around to using one of those, and I had the oddest feeling that I’d be paying for it shortly.

…Come to think of it, carrying a bokken around would be a pretty neat tactic for someone with the Wood Release bloodline. I’d have to remember to mention that to Yamato, if I ever met the guy.

As it was, I rolled my shoulders and tried not to think too hard about being turned into my brother’s graduation exam.

Hayate swallowed nervously as Mom stepped away, and his chakra gave an anxious flicker. He didn’t look happy with the idea of sparring against me instead of Mom, and I fought down a grin in response. It wouldn’t help him any if I acted like a fox preparing for a henhouse raid.

“Stand and face me on your own two feet, little brother.” I said quietly, almost inaudible.

Hayate’s attention snapped to me anyway, and I briefly wondered if Itachi felt this—a surge of protective instinct and pride—when Sasuke confronted him after five years of planning revenge. Without the hatred and pain, of course.

From now on, your brother will measure his progress against yours. Mom had told me that, while I was still getting into my hakama for the day’s training. He’s young, but I expect you both to rely on each other as you get older.

How delightfully ominous.

“I want you to do everything you can to defeat Kei, Hayate.” Mom said as she paced between us.

…Yeah, bad idea to tell that to a ninja kid. Just saying. I narrowed my eyes.

“You can do this,” I said, and leveled my bokken at his face.

“I don’t want to hurt you.” Hayate mumbled.

“You probably won’t be able to, even with handicaps.” I replied, and one side of my mouth quirked upward. “Chūnin, remember?”

“No ninjutsu, genjutsu, or taijutsu.” Mom reminded us. “Pure kenjutsu and physical conditioning, like we practiced.”

Still, there was a significant gap between my skill level and my brother’s. Blade prodigy or no, Hayate had never used his kenjutsu in the field. He’d never been allowed to so much as touch a steel katana, per Mom’s orders. I’d been training with a team on my level—prodigy chūnin or mini-jōnin or whatever—and had been keeping up for years.

The real question was how hard it’d be to avoid stomping him.

I didn’t think that Hayate was anything like post-Massacre Sasuke—what with the ping-ponging self esteem and inferiority complex—but generally speaking, completely overpowering a nearly-ten-year-old boy was hardly going to go over well. Also, Mom was there, which meant I wouldn’t expect to win by that much.

I completely expected Mom to intercede on Hayate’s behalf if she had to.

“If you perform well, Hayate-chan, I’ll allow you to carry a bokken to school.” Mom told him. She was smiling, like there was no way he could disappoint her. “And when you graduate, I’ll see if I can’t get another kodachi for you.”

“R-Really?” Hayate stumbled, wide-eyed. “Really?”

I hid my own smile. Oh, brother, you don’t think it’s going to be that easy, do you?

“And all you have to do is last long enough against your big sister.” I added in a teasing tone, unable to resist.

Remember, don’t be too terrifying, the Dreamer put in dryly.

…I wasn’t sure if that was something to worry about or not.

“Begin!” Mom shouted, and the game was on.

Hayate attacked first, swinging high toward my head. I blocked, letting his bokken slide along mine and sending him sprawling past me. He’d overestimated how strong he was and underestimated the size difference between us.

Then, I was twelve and he was nine-and-a-bit. I’d hit the start of my teenage growth spurt, meaning that I was head and shoulders taller than him and probably outweighed him by ten or fifteen kilos.

I have to be honest here: as far as I could remember, this was basically my first time fighting someone smaller than me by that kind of margin.

I whirled on the spot, meeting Hayate’s second charge with only one hand on my bokken this time. I smashed his blade downward, throwing myself into a forward airborne flip over his back as he hit the dirt again.

Hey, I could show off if I wanted to. A little. I couldn’t resist, really.

¡Olé!

Honestly, most of the rest of the match went like that. Using bokken stripped us of some of our more advanced techniques—for example, my iaijutsu—and basically forced us to try to trip each other up or beat each other into submission. I let Hayate do things like launch attacks from overhead, or from behind, but ultimately he wasn’t getting anywhere.

Frankly, keeping up with Kakashi had made everyone else seem a bit slow.

(Except Gai. And Sensei.)

In the end, Hayate collapsed in a heap, exhausted. I was okay, even given how I wasn’t really trained for long fights, but I admit that my sword arm was a little numb.

Mom gave Hayate permission to carry a bokken to school after that, anyway.


“This is bullshit.” I said flatly.

Kakashi ignored me. “If I can write my name with shuriken, so can you two.”

“Says the guy whose name is the least complicated,” Obito complained.

Kakashi huffed, and Obito and I glared at the metal characters against the bark.

Oh, it was easy enough to hit bull’s-eyes at this point. We had a baker’s dozen of beaten, stabbed, and gutted wooden circles all over the forest pretty much just to prove that point under varying circumstances. Obito and I could both hit dead center of any of the rings while running, leaping, or while sliding past, and even while upside-down and being propelled by the force of an explosion/a leg-up/sheer terror.

We weren’t necessarily perfect, but we were good. Guess all those late-night practice sessions paid off.

Anyway, Kakashi’s name was written as simply as possible with kanji. Out of all the possible characters that could be put together to make the same sounds, they required the fewest strokes I’d seen. They required fewer strokes than just writing the word “scarecrow,” which should tell you a thing or two.

Obito’s wasn’t that much more complex, actually, but he hadn’t decided to learn how to spell his name with shuriken solely to impress people. Starting cold always sucked.

And in my case, my parents had decided to use the most complex characters possible. Every one of them required at least five strokes of a brush to accurately recreate. Starting cold and burdened with a visually complex name. Ugh.

“Recreating your signature can’t be that hard.” Kakashi said.

I was saved from having to articulate my point more eloquently by a flare of chakra. All three of us immediately whirled to meet the new threat, and were greeted instead by Sensei’s carefree grin and the sort of huge hug that knocked all of us off our feet.

I don’t know about you, but there was going to be a time when Sensei wouldn’t be able to tackle all of us like that.

With Kakashi and Obito’s pointy elbows digging into my sides, I almost hoped that time would come sooner rather than later.

(But then, I didn’t. It’s complicated.)

Sensei let us up eventually, and I took note of his appearance. Konoha uniforms are fairly dark, all told, but I could still see bloodstains on the lower edges of his sleeves and the fabric of his flak jacket was slightly scorched and torn. His hair was more mussed than usual, which is saying something, but he nonetheless seemed pretty cheerful just to be back.

“I hope you three have been training while I’ve been gone,” Sensei said rather brightly, and I wondered if he’d already gone to see Kushina.

…Was that a lipstick mark above his eyebrow? Well, I guess he had.

“We’re ready for anything, Sensei!” Obito insisted, looking more enthusiastic about the upcoming test than I felt was justified.

There are no words for how much I’d hated pop P.E. tests in my old life.

“Good! Because you’ll be tested beyond your limits.” Sensei’s smile went crooked and I thought, oh shit, which was partly fear and partly dread. “What did you expect? You’ll be facing a jōnin.”

“You say that like we haven’t been preparing all month.” Kakashi said.

You know, when we weren’t running minor missions.

(Also, it was amazing how quickly a mission with Gai could turn into a farce. More on that later.)

“I think we’re as ready as we’re going to get.” I said. “Also, what has you in such a good mood?”

“Can’t I just be glad to be home?” Sensei asked me, and I gave the lipstick mark on his forehead a skeptical look. “Oh, all right. I discussed things with Kushina-chan and we’ve set a date.”

…Whoa.

“Congratulations!” I said. Sensei and Kushina were both about twenty-two or so, and I’d only vaguely heard of some of my former classmates getting married that young in my old life. Of course, I’d been a civilian in a world where just about everyone was getting married later than they used to. And I didn’t really know that many people, when you got down to it. “Though…what does this have to do with our training?”

Then again, I knew both of them pretty well and could honestly say that they would be happy together.

“Absolutely nothing, aside from how I’m not going to go easy on you regardless.” Sensei informed us.

“Okay, Sensei. Not like we expected anything less.” I replied.

“When are we going to do this?” Kakashi asked.

Obito said, after a moment, “And do we really have enough space here? Or are we gonna get to use the jōnin training fields?”

Sensei briefly brought a fist to his lips in thought, then said, “We’ll meet here tomorrow at seven o’clock. Then I’ll show you the training field we’re really going to use—and hopefully barely avoid destroying.” He winked.

Joy of joys. I needed more explosive tags to do that, though.

Lacking any destructive jutsu other than my tag-making skills, I really didn’t have a choice if collateral damage was the goal. And anyway, Obito’s fireballs had gotten big enough that my explosives were basically small change in comparison.

Personally, I can’t make a fireball the size of a house even with my biggest and most overcharged tag. Obito can.

“I suggest that you start making your plans now.” Sensei told us, still disturbingly cheery.

Is it wrong that I find that smile terrifying?

That makes two of us.

“Why tomorrow? Why not now?” Kakashi asked, and I abruptly realized that this was also the same kid who found joy and pride in testing himself against his teacher. Repeatedly. Until he won (which would only come about on the tenth of Never).

I’d rather have stayed a genin, almost. Ambition is not really in my nature.

Mainly because, in this case, ambition means being kicked around like a football.

“…I just got back from the front and am really interested in spending the evening with my fiancée,” was the response.

I think Kakashi ended up biting back his first three thoughts so he could say, “Fine.”

“By the way, what were you three doing when I got here?” Sensei asked, waving a hand at the tree with Kakashi outlined in shuriken.

“Kakashi had a dumb idea and was trying to get us to do it.” Obito put in.

“If you can’t write your name with shuriken, you don’t understand accuracy.” Kakashi sniped back.

“So basically, yeah, it’s a dumb training exercise for impressing girls.” I concluded.

“…So, like this?” In an instant, Sensei had nearly forty shuriken in the air and all of us scattered, avoiding flying metal by a hair.

There was an avalanche of thunk noises.

I was the first one to look up, but Obito found the tree Sensei had used for target practice.

Minato Namikaze was written in matte black metal.

“Dammit, Sensei, you’re making us look bad.” Obito grumbled.

“I happen to think it’s a good exercise.” Sensei told us airily.

Kakashi almost glowed with pride.

“…So, what, are you expecting us to be able to do this by the time we’re jōnin? Because I’m pretty sure you didn’t practice that.” I said, getting to my feet again.

“Never underestimate a teenage boy with a girl to impress.” Sensei said, and then walked off.

Most of the shuriken poofed out of existence as soon as he was gone. So, on top of everything else, they were the products of Shadow Shuriken Jutsu and not just ordinary metal.

Basically…yes, he did that to show off.

Now that means I actually have to work on it. I sighed. “All right, Kakashi, you win.”

Kakashi gave me a look that said, As if there was any doubt.

Some things never change, it seems.

Chapter Text

Like all good days, it began with an explosion.

Okay, so maybe that was a lie—for one, I have had plenty of good days without ever having to blow something up before teatime—but there was nonetheless an explosion involved. Also, it wasn’t my fault.

What can I say? Obito’s been getting better.

But it’d been a while since we got to really play with Sensei, and we made up for the time lost with enthusiasm. Kakashi was more serious about it than the wording there implies, but I knew for a fact that he’d been toying with the lightning-Rasengan theory all month and wanted to show and tell.

Or show and stab, as the case may be.

For my part, I was basically a walking landmine-generator.

In my opinion, the best plans are the ones that mean you never once have to confront the enemy directly. This is as much cultural conditioning as it is practicality—if your enemy never knows you’re around, he can’t hurt you. He also can’t do much about getting blown into the lower stratosphere. I was good in close-combat, but laying exploding seals all over the forest meant that I’d be able to put off facing Sensei directly. Given that Sensei was faster, stronger, and more experienced than all of us, it seemed like the best option.

Never let it be said that U.S. military doctrine wasn’t good for something, even in my new lifetime. When in doubt, strategically placed explosives are your friends.

I’m very aware that all of this makes me sound like a total pyromaniac/Deidara wannabe, in case you were wondering.

But hey, even tiny explosions are pretty distracting. They were also my new contact-based variants—ergo, chakra mines. As long as I didn’t let any of my teammates stray into the killzone, I could basically make Sensei’s trip through the forest as loud and inconvenient as physically possible. I wasn’t under any illusions about actually being able to hurt a guy who teleported for a living.

The initial phase of our day basically went like this: Meet up at Training Ground Three, follow Sensei to Training Ground Thirty-Five, and then commence laying traps. Sensei promised to give us a two-minute head start with which to play around and booby-trap everything. Kakashi immediately went his own way once the timer started, though, and Obito muttered something about lone wolves and stupid people in response. I just tried to lay as many of my new traps as I could.

Sensei made good on that promise, as far as I could tell. Two minutes into our training session, my bombs started going off.

Obito had split off from me about when I started laying traps—I knew where he was the whole time, though we hadn’t talked much about where to meet up afterward—and another huge fireball plowed through the forest at about…hm, I think it was about parallel to my path, going the other way and about a hundred meters off my right side.

Sensei must have been over there.

I stopped for a second, looking over my pre-prepared tags for a bit of inspiration. Hm…

The Dreamer asked, What’s the likelihood that you can herd Sensei toward Obito or Kakashi?

Pretty good, if I knew what I was doing and if the boys continued being distractions. Kakashi was darting here and there, probably running interference for Obito by accident (or by “accident”). I couldn’t quite tell what the boys were doing from so far off, but from the random flares of chakra everywhere (and also random fireballs), a fight was already ongoing.

Sensei was already in the right place, more or less. I just needed to keep him there and distracted.

I pulled a scroll from my hip pocket and started on my way.

One of the first things you learn about being on a team with a scent-tracker is to approach from downwind if you want to catch him by surprise. What goes for hunters goes for shinobi, really. I wasn’t precisely hiding from Kakashi, but any hint that he knew I was around would probably be picked up by Sensei. And even then, Sensei probably had some basic understanding of scent-tracking and sound-tracking that made keeping my distance a good idea.

I think a better question would have been, “How can I keep Sensei in enough hot water that Obito and Kakashi can take him?

Realistically, there wasn’t a way for me to do that. If he’d been going full-force, Sensei would’ve probably summoned Gamabunta and squashed us all, or else just stopped pretending that he didn’t have each of us marked with the Flying Thunder God Seal. It’d be over in seconds.

But as long as he was still playing around, I could do something.

First, though, I needed to corral him. Then I’d need to get back on the same page with Obito.

Easy enough.

Or easier said than done. Not sure which, yet.

The scroll in my hand was relevant to that, in fact—it was basically an entire slew of explosive notes in a portable form. Sort of like paper towels, the edges of each note were perforated so they could tear free easily—at the very least, I found it more useful than the twenty-packs I usually had to make up in advance.

I could also blow the lot in one go if I wasn’t careful, which was why I was saving it for Sensei.

He’d shown me how to make them, so I figured he wouldn’t mind getting them back, too.

I found them quickly enough, even if I traveled on the forest floor rather than in the trees, for once. Kakashi was still taking Sensei on with taijutsu, spinning round and round and also upside-down, while Obito dodged this way and that in an attempt to get a better angle to set Sensei on fire.

I untied my scroll and, grasping it by the loose end, started unspooling the paper across the nearby trees. Frankly, the whole clearing was going to look like it’d been hit by teenage pranksters, but it’d be worth it.

…I think it says something about me, as well as about the boys, that Sensei didn’t react to me at all. If he had, he probably would have gotten a flying knee to the face, courtesy of Kakashi. Kakashi wasn’t a jōnin yet, but he was damned close to being promoted, and it didn’t pay to underestimate someone with a few things to prove.

And then I did my own ducking and dodging and scrambling, making my way to Obito.

“Hey, having fun?” Obito said with a laugh in his voice. He really did look happy, even though we were still probably going to lose.

“You bet.” I checked his chakra levels quickly, then did another sweep over Kakashi—both boys had more chakra than I would have, if I’d been the one taking Sensei on directly. Of the pair, Obito had been using the bigger jutsu and thus had less to spare. But he wasn’t down for the count yet.

And as for Kakashi…well, if he hadn’t busted out the Chidori yet, I figured the situation was under control.

I thought of the Chidori as a kind of checkpoint, plot- and timeline-wise. If Kakashi could actually pull it off, we were getting close to what I thought of as crunch-time.

If he couldn’t…well, who knows? Maybe that meant I’d been having a detrimental effect on said timeline and ought to punch myself in the face or something.

I was pretty sure I hadn’t managed to destroy the canon timeline yet.

“Anyway, fall back.” I told Obito, since my explosives were already laid. Either Kakashi would break off from the fight and follow us to plan (while I blew the clearing sky-high), or he’d continue attacking like a bullheaded idiot (and I wouldn’t blow everything up).

“Why?”

Okay, make that two bullheaded idiots. I had no interest in fighting Sensei in hand to hand. Or kunai to kodachi—Sensei may not have ever demonstrated proficiency with longer weapons, but any shinobi worth their headband knew how to fight them. At least in theory.

“We aren’t getting anywhere.” I told him, and we both ran off into the bushes. I had another signal in mind to tell Kakashi to break off, but unfortunately Obito had all of the smoke pellets I’d managed to gather. Kakashi probably had some of his own. “Obito, once we’re clear…”

“Yeah, yeah, I got it.” He spun on his heel and hurled a pair of smoke pellets—really egg-sized chemical containers that expanded in air—back toward Kakashi and Sensei. They only inhibited vision, which meant that Kakashi would be able to track us down easily as soon as he realized what was going on.

As soon as the smoke filled the clearing and Kakashi was out of the way, I hurled a kunai with a lit explosive tag back at where Sensei was. I wasn’t quite sure if he was in one of the booby-trapped trees, but I think it was a close thing.

Kakashi dropped out of the canopy, practically on top of us, and we all ran from the impending fireball.

And then it went off.

And I must say, the fireball would have probably been glorious. If, you know, we weren’t running from it. As it was, the blast knocked me off my feet and into Obito’s back. I think Obito tripped Kakashi, but he recovered gamely and was gone inside of another second.

“Well, that was fun.” I said once I got my breath back. He got to my feet a little after that, helping Obito up.

“Maybe to you,” was Obito’s reply as he picked bits of charred wood out of his hair. He shook himself, trailing bits of ash. “So, where’s Sensei now?”

I closed my eyes briefly, concentrating.

Five o’clock, two hundred meters. Guess we scared him quite a bit.

And wasn’t that saying something?

“Not far enough that he can’t get at us.” I went through a mental tally of all of my explosives. I was just about out, by that point. It was a little like having a box of fireworks on the Fourth of July—two hundred bucks for about an hour of entertainment if you were enthusiastic about it. I certainly hadn’t lacked for that.

Pity Sensei’s top speed was nearly in the triple digits.

“We’d better get to Kakashi. He’s…that way. Sixty meters and popping a lightning jutsu.” I leapt into the lower branches of one of the nearby trees, Obito on my heels. I was still half-focused on what my chakra sense was telling me, so I wasn’t up for naming cardinal directions. I just needed to get to Kakashi. Then Sensei’s chakra signature was also over there. Whoops. “Correction, Sensei is going after him and he needs backup.”

“Are you sure about that?” Obito asked plaintively—while Sensei hadn’t gotten around to tagging us out yet (because this really was basically ninja tag with explosives), we certainly weren’t cut out for fighting him directly. “Kakashi can take care of himself, can’t he?”

“Nope.” I replied, and we burst into the relevant clearing just as Kakashi’s shadow clone got its head kicked off.

Not that I was opposed to seeing Kakashi get taken down a peg, but really?

Kakashi appeared behind Sensei, on a higher branch, and I…

Well, I’ll put it this way: the Chidori is the kind of thing you can feel with every one of your senses. Even half-charged, I could practically taste the metallic buzz and the chirping of a dozen starlings seemed to fill my head. My chakra sense went briefly haywire, making me stagger. It was like getting every single sensation from a concert—the lights, the sound, the smells and thud-thud-thud of the bass line—all crammed into the space of about half a second.

Move it!

I pushed my way past it, unsteady, but by then Obito was already halfway up the tree to distract Sensei, Kakashi was getting ready to charge…

And then Obito crashed into me, knocking both of us down and driving the breath from my lungs, and Sensei had hurled Kakashi into a tree trunk.

Ouch. For both of us.

By the time Obito and I managed to get our limbs sorted out and Kakashi was dropped unceremoniously on the ground by Sensei, it was pretty much a given that we’d lost.

Sensei landed next to us in a crouch while we spent a minute or two trying to just get a breath back.

“So…that went well.” Sensei told us, looking absurdly pleased with himself.

“Says you,” Obito wheezed, and I tapped his shoulder with chakra racing up and down my arm. I had plenty to spare, in fact, and healing him of residual soreness and more legitimate injuries was no big deal.

I added, “None of us managed to get the bells.”

“Well, no. But you came very close, in your own ways.” He held them up for emphasis. “I have to admit, I expected slightly less in the way of attempted murder—Kei-kun, were you even trying to get the bells, or were you planning on salvaging them off my smoking corpse?”

I shrugged. “Six of one, half-dozen of another.”

Obito made a grab for the bells just then—Sensei was faster, of course, but it was certainly a game attempt.

“Nice try. I didn’t say the test was over, did I?” Sensei was grinning.

“No, you didn’t.” Kakashi told him seriously. His eyes were still on the bells.

“Well, if that’s how you feel.” Sensei stood up, tying the bells back onto his belt. He paced the clearing a little, eyes never leaving us. “How about round two? Try to stick to taijutsu this time—don’t think I didn’t notice you both hanging out in the back, Kei-kun, Obito.” His grin widened. “I will, too. Let’s see some teamwork!”

I wasn’t quite sure how my overuse of traps didn’t count as teamwork, but I guess getting a second chance was good, too.

I got to my feet, right hand on the handle of my kodachi. Obito was up, too, in the loose Uchiha starting stance. Kakashi hardly looked like he was ready at all—which was kind of the point.

Sensei laughed. “Sudden death mode, go! Get the bells if you can!”

I went low, Obito went high, and Kakashi went sideways.

By which I meant that I tried to cut Sensei’s legs off, Obito went for his face with a giant foldable shuriken—and damned if I knew where he’d gotten that, given that our packs were elsewhere—and Kakashi tried to flank him.

Of course, it didn’t work. This was Sensei.

I fell back, skittering around the edge of Kakashi and Sensei’s continued clash, and Obito’s arm met mine.

Without so much as a glance at each other, we went for Sensei’s legs. Kakashi was in the middle of a front-flip axe-kick at Sensei’s head, which he blocked with both arms, and Obito and I were just fast enough to hit him in the backs of both knees.

That Sensei didn’t topple like a felled tree had a lot to do with his freakish reflexes—he shoved Kakashi backward and rolled with the impact, launching into a back handspring. Obito and I didn’t even get a proper grip.

I flooded my hands with chakra, securing a solid grip on the ground, and swung my legs around to try and sweep at Sensei as he landed, while Obito raced around me and attacked with a pair of kunai. Kakashi struck from above, twisting in midair to build momentum. Sensei was still in midair and I already knew we simply weren’t fast enough.

Round two was going to be kind of disappointing.

It passed quickly, at least.

While Obito and I were coordinated—we’d learned to read each other and certainly didn’t have any mistimed attacks today—and Kakashi was both fast and aggressive, there was just too much of a gulf between us and Sensei.

Though, when you think about it, the list of people whose asses Sensei had kicked was pretty long. At least we were in good company.

About ten minutes later, we still didn’t have the bells, and on top of that had pretty much used up our chakra and bruise tolerance for the day. It’s one thing to say it’s a bloody three-on-one match, and quite another to actually try to fight someone who outclasses you by a league and a half. In a world without ninja powers, those odds might have worked out all right—I mean, obviously three nearly-thirteen-year-olds weren’t necessarily going to win against a single highly skilled fighter, but it would’ve been more even.

Sensei had faster reflexes than was physically possible for the average human. Seriously.

Most shinobi do, but there was…well, Sensei.

He still played nice at the end.

I dropped onto my butt with an “oof,” feeling every muscle ache all at once. I was down for the count even if I didn’t have a concussion. Kakashi was still on his feet, in a wobbly kind of way, but Obito wasn’t in much better shape than I was. In fact, he was probably worse off—a bad block had sent his own fist back into his cheek, giving him a big red mark that was probably going to bruise badly.

I wiggled my fingers experimentally, trying to either get feeling back into them or use medical ninjutsu, but no such luck. Obito was just going to have to deal with it.

“Better, but I see that I still have the bells.” Sensei told us cheerfully. He waved Kakashi over. “Come on, sit down. We’re having a team meeting.”

“Aw, Sensei. Do we have to?” Obito groaned, flopping sideways so that he was resting most of his weight on my shoulder. I briefly debated shoving him off, but we were probably equally sweaty and gross anyway.

“Yes, we do.” Sensei sat down with his ankles crossed in front of him.

Kakashi visibly debated where to sit for a second, then settled down on my other side. It put him about as far from Obito as possible without being especially awkward about it.

I sighed, leaving Obito to pout about things. Best to get it over with. “So, what’d we do wrong? Well, more wrong than normal, anyway.”

“I actually think you all did rather well, considering.” Sensei looked a little disappointed with my pessimism.

“We didn’t get the bells.” Kakashi pointed out.

Thank you, Captain Obvious.

“I didn’t really expect you to.” Sensei said, shrugging. He looked at me rather pointedly. “Even if a certain someone took that as an excuse to blow up half the forest around here.”

“Guilty as charged.” I replied, grinning crookedly. “You’re too fast for me, Sensei.”

“Too fast for anyone, I hope.” Sensei told me. “That would have killed nearly anyone else you could be facing at this level, though. Keep it up.”

If the Explosion Corps can do it, so can we. Sure, a good chunk of them were basically Deidara but more loyal, complete with explosive clay, but I could certainly do a lot of damage if I had some time to prepare.

“That said, try to coordinate more with your teammates.” Sensei continued. “I didn’t even see you until the last few minutes of the first match, and that stunt with the scroll could have killed Kakashi if you timed it wrong.”

True. I scratched the back of my head. It hadn’t killed him, but sometimes it was hard to remember how dangerous we all were. I certainly had more firepower going for me than Rin did, and it’d pay to remember that. In the future, I was gonna have to save the big bombs for when we were starting to retreat. No more timing-dependent stuff.

Also, I wasn’t going to time it wrong if I could pinpoint his location. The Chidori would throw a wrench in that plan, though…

“What was that jutsu, Kakashi?” Obito asked. “It was loud enough that I think I felt my ears bleed.”

“Your ears weren’t bleeding.” I said.

“I said it felt like it, didn’t I?”

Kakashi drew himself up, seeming to inflate with pride. “It’s my own original jutsu.”

“It was bright and lightning and also really freaking loud. And really impractical if it’s as strong as it felt.” I commented. Kakashi glared at me. “What, did you expect me to not notice how it also drained half your chakra in one incomplete shot?”

“She has a point, Kakashi.” Sensei tilted his head quizzically. “That said, while the jutsu could use some refinement, I think you’re well on your way to coming up with a very useful jutsu.”

“Then I’ll just practice.” Kakashi said. He sounded kind of huffy, really.

Sensei mimed a wince. “Well, be careful about it. I’d prefer if I was able to sit on at least one of your training sessions—if the technique is anywhere near as draining as I think it is, I might be able to help mitigate the damage.”

“Damage?” Obito asked.

“High-powered techniques can have blowback problems.” Sensei nodded at Kakashi, and I noticed the bandages peeking out from under his dark gloves. “It’s nothing out of the ordinary, really, but you do have to train that kind of sloppiness out. And…hey, have you named that jutsu yet?”

“It’s called the Chidori.” Kakashi replied, looking away. I wasn’t sure why.

Obito, however, was looking at his hands. “Well, maybe the Chidori is gonna give you these kinds of burns eventually.”

He held up his hands, which were shiny along the inner edges of his fingers from old burns—the results of his long struggle to master the Grand Fireball technique. All Uchiha had them, to a greater or lesser extent, and Obito’s were fairly minimal—Rin had gotten around to working on them eventually. And none of them were recent.

For my part, I mostly had little nicks—mostly from my first couple of weeks with a kodachi. Before that, most of my blade-work had been done with wood, so I supposed that the worst I could have possible sustained would have been a cracked bone. Since I probably would have remembered that kind of thing, I had to conclude that I’d never really sustained injuries more serious than bumps and bruises throughout my childhood.

Sans, I think, the moment when I nearly drowned on that first mission.

And the time I fought Himawari.

Maybe I was making light of things.

“Do they hurt?” I asked. I mean, I didn’t have much in the way of chakra to spare, but I could dredge up some of the Dreamer’s Yin chakra if I really had to.

Hey! This is kind of a waste, don’t you think? I mean, we’re how close to the village?

She had a point.

“No.” Kakashi said.

Sensei shook his head. “Well, burns sting for a while, but at least they don’t open your whole hand up. It’s easier to control the charge with a lightning nature—wind nature? Forget it. Hope you like paper cuts.”

“Ouch.” I said, all sympathy.

Hey, in my old life it was about as serious an injury as I got regularly.

Aside from crashing into things. I was kind of clumsy.

Obito shifted against my side—after a second, he ended up mostly lying down, with his head resting on my thigh. I absently patted his hair, trying to ignore the urge to shove him into the nearest river. Best friend or not, I could feel his sweat soaking through my pants. Ugh, ugh, ugh.

“We can continue this later, you know.” Sensei told us. He looked amused and sad all at once, and I ignored a spike of dismay that came from Kakashi.

Gah, no one could ever accuse me of being that much of a teacher’s pet.

“Cool.” I said. I nudged Obito. “Come on, you lazy butt.”

“But Keiiiiiiii,” Obito whined, and I pulled one of his ear covers off his head, almost dragging him up by the rubbery band. Then I let go, and it smacked him in the head. “OW!”

“Up.” I commanded.

Obito took his goggles off as he got to his feet, unsteady as he was. He rubbed his ear. “That hurt!”

“We’ve done worse. Mostly to each other.” I said.

“…True. But that was still mean.” Suddenly, Obito’s face lit up. “Oh! I can visit Rin-chan for this!”

Wait, wha—?

And then he was gone.

“…Well. Guess I don’t have to ask if he still has a crush on her.” I remarked to the space one Uchiha boy had recently occupied. I shrugged to myself, untying my headband and wringing the cloth out. My hair was a wreck—between my hat-hair problem and the exertions of the day, I think any resemblance to Sasuke’s infamous haircut was no longer a coincidence.

Or flattering.

“Gah, I need a shower.” I glanced back at Sensei and Kakashi, who were still sitting.

“Leaving so soon, Kei-kun?” Sensei asked.

“Yeah, I think I’d better let you two get on with your training stuff.” I said.

“Hm,” was all Sensei said at first. Kakashi was just ignoring me again. Then Sensei added, “In that case, I’ll make a suggestion.”

I paused.

“If you can, try focusing on your medical ninjutsu a bit more.” At my raised eyebrow, he went on, “So far, I’ve seen plenty of growth on the kenjutsu and fūinjutsu fronts. But I think you shouldn’t let your third major talent go to waste before you even make jōnin, Kei-kun.”

…Wait.

“You think I’ll get promoted again?” I asked.

“Eventually.” Sensei shrugged. “You’re not ready yet, but who knows what the future’s got in store? Just keep working at it.”

“All right. Thanks, Sensei.” Inwardly, I was giddy. But I had too much pride to let it show.

And then I ran off.


To: Pipsqueak

From: Rikuto of the Chinatsugumi

I got your letter—hell, I should’ve figured that pretty-boy sensei of yours would confiscate the scrolls. Tough luck, kid, because I’m not getting another scroll of dangerous forbidden knowledge for you. Used up all of Chi-chan’s good will on that one, you see. Even if it’d be funny.

Anyway, you’ll be glad to know that there are indeed more bouncy baby bratlings running around—Shirozora and Nanami had a boy, and our fearless leader has a niece to spoil rotten now. Who would’ve thunk it—Misaki, with a kid! They’re both a bit wobbly and all that, but I guess that’s what they get for trying to follow Miyu-chan and Kazu-chan around! Neither of the twins are spitting lava yet, but you just wait.

Speaking of which? Turns out Nami-chan’s boy is like his dear old dad. Never seen a tantrum that ended in icicles for everyone, but turns out it was typical or something technical. I wasn’t listening—it’s a lot more fun to get little Kaito to ice people. Misaki’s girl is normal enough, though with a name like Aiko, I expect either a tomboy to end all tomboys or the pretty little princess I think we have instead.

Anyway, sorry to cut the fun parts short, but I kind of have a schedule to keep.

Things are heating up, as you probably figured. Hell if I ever know what Ōnoki is planning, but the old bastard’s weak points are starting to show even from where I’m standing. Guess that means an offensive, sometime in the next month. Could be Konoha, could be Iwa. All I know is that none of us are going to be anywhere near the blast radius when it all goes down. Chinatsu’s pulling us back for the next year—no more carnivals and whatever other cheerful bullshit we put on for the kiddies. We’re preparing to have to hide out, and you know what that means.

Hand this over to your sensei, or maybe the Hokage if it bothers you. I’ve got a reputation to keep and whining in public ain’t a way to do it.

Look: I’m sorry we can’t help more, but we are retired. I like you, and maybe your idiot teammates, but we are not getting involved in a major dustup between two countries that can’t keep to one side of the bedroom. Been there, done that, burned the hitai-ate.

Anyway, good hunting, kid. Keep your blades sharp—when the earth moves, you might not feel it coming.

And I hope the politicians choke on it.

[The remainder of the letter is unintelligible. It seems to have once been attached to another slip of paper, and eventually burned after being thoroughly soaked.]

Chapter Text

It’d been a while since I had a chance to see the stars out in the wilderness. Even the training fields don’t count—Konoha is close enough that the light can blot out some of the cooler stellar configurations. I have to get much further out—kilometers upon kilometers—before the stars are really shining. But this time, there wasn’t any real time to enjoy it and try to figure out constellations. Such was the life of a shinobi on a mission.

It felt weird, really. I’d never been outside of Konoha without my team, and without the constant back-and-forth sniping between Obito and Kakashi, and Sensei’s muffled laughter, everything seemed…off. Like looking at a picture frame on a wall and trying to figure out if it was really level. Or coming home and discovering that all the frames in the house suddenly weren’t.

Today—tonight, rather—I was well outside of Konoha and in the middle of the Land of Fire. My team and I were arranged around a smokeless campfire, well-hidden in a grotto surrounded by trees and more rocks. Two of us were asleep, and two weren’t. I should really have been on watch, but between the perimeter alert seals Sensei had taught me and the fact that half the area was mined, it felt safe enough.

“And…hold it there.” Rin said, surveying my work with a critical eye.

I let her poke and prod, and eventually pull out a diagnostic jutsu in order to figure out the technical details. At least she didn’t actually touch my hand at all—if she had, it’d be down to my reaction time to keep her from possibly losing a finger.

“This was a lot more fun in theory.” I said, watching her work.

“You did ask for my help, Kei-senpai. I’m just doing it my way.” Rin replied, then she clapped her hands together and the diagnostic jutsu faded. “Okay. Let it go, then try again.”

I nodded, letting my chakra settle back down.

“Use the seals this time, though,” she added, and I complied.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, though, there wasn’t much in the way of progress. An extra two or three centimeters, maybe.

“Dammit.” I said. I cancelled my chakra scalpels again and scowled, clenching my fingers. “I don’t see why I was able to pull off the first stage of the Rasengan and not this.”

“With the Rasengan, it sounds like you’re trying to keep the chakra rotating, right?” Rin asked.

“…Yeah. I mean, chakra circulates in our coils like blood, so it’s not like it was made for sitting still.” I shrugged, disappointed. It just…I’d been capable of creating chakra scalpels since I was nine. I was thirteen, now, and realizing that Sensei’s lecture on jutsu creation was still relevant was kind of annoying. I’d only been working on extending the range of the scalpels for about a month and a half, and that simply wasn’t long enough.

“True, but I think the problem you’re running into has to do with keeping the edge.” Rin told me, sitting back on her heels. “Too much chakra, and it’s like hitting someone with a paper fan—it’s difficult to keep solid, you know? I know some medic-nin who only use two fingers so they can keep the edge compact.”

Well, that meant my plans to create an in-universe lightsaber were unfortunately put on hold. I didn’t quite have the level of shape transformation control that was necessary in order to perform the Flying Swallow or Samurai Saber techniques, or at least I thought that was the problem.

It was also possible that I was just shit at controlling my chakra once it left my skin.

I drummed my fingers on my thigh. I knew I could, say, dispel genjutsu at a distance. I could plant chakra mines on anything solid. I knew a dozen different types of seals and had been on the same team as one of the most terrifying prodigies Konoha had produced in recent memory. I could use kenjutsu well enough for a teenager with an undersized blade, and I knew most basic medical ninjutsu. Thing was, while my inherent chakra control had helped, I’d also worked at all of them for…well, I wasn’t done yet. But the point was that I’d been at it for years and logically couldn’t expect to just be good at something the first time I did it.

“Guess I’m just going to have to work at it.” I said. Or maybe harass Asuma into helping.

“It’s not such a bad thing,” Rin said, half-teasing. At the look I gave her, she giggled and added, “It’s all right! These things just take time and hard work.”

“Thanks for your help, Rin-chan.” I said. Rin giggled again—apparently my frustration was amusing—and headed over to pull her bedroll out of one of my spare supply scrolls. I’d packed pretty much everything I could get my hands on for this trip, and then packed all of it into scrolls to save weight.

Seriously, I don’t know why Sensei didn’t teach me storage seals first. It’s like having the whole of Capsule Corp. at my fingertips.

Once Rin was settled (which took some doing, since the poof of white smoke woke our teammates up briefly), I climbed up into a tree for my watch. I had a better vantage point to see the stars from up there.

Aside from the chance to stretch my legs, getting out of Konoha was a mixed bag. On one hand, we were heading for Mount Soragami. I’d gotten lots of letters from the Chinatsugumi over the years, but I hadn’t visited, and it’d be neat to see how things changed over time. On the other, I’d never been outside of the village with this particular cast and crew.

Rin was familiar, at least—she was brilliant as ever and would be our designated medic. I really wasn’t sure how she’d even gotten on the mission roster, given her lack of an established team despite her rank, and wondered if Yamaguchi-sensei was waiting back in the village to bite both of our heads off for running off. I think that was what surrogate dads were for, right? I mean, I hadn’t seen much of his apparent flip-out over her decision to start wearing blouses and skirts that made her look less like a mini-medic and more like a young lady, but I was sure that they were having some kind of argument.

Yamaguchi-sensei might have been just a tutor for me, or Hayate’s doctor, but he was practically Rin’s dad. I figured they both were justified, no matter how the snit-fit turned out.

It’s interesting to see how things change, isn’t it?

It was.

My other two teammates…well, at least I could say I’d met them before.

Genma Shiranui, now age…seventeen, I think. He was the senior chūnin on this mission. He was taller than the rest of us by head and shoulders (or more), but he was also probably the most laid-back guy we could have been partnered with. Aside from being taller, though, he pretty much hadn’t changed. I’d only seen him fight twice since the Chūnin Exams where he beat Rin, but he had deadly aim with senbon and the tiger had never stood a chance in hell. Neither had the bandits.

And as for the last person on my team. Well.

Anko Mitarashi was something else, let’s be honest. She’d been Orochimaru’s student before the world found out how much of a sociopath the guy was, and he’d ditched her after sticking a cursed hickey on her neck. If there was anyone who had a right to be pissed off at him, it was her, and I admired her for standing up every day and facing the world. I’m not sure if I could. She was cute and enthusiastic and a brilliant student when she’d still had a teacher, but his shadow hung over her.

The investigation may have cleared her of any involvement in Orochimaru’s schemes, but that left a ten-year-old genin to the whims of a village with a bad record for social ostracism.

I was kind of hoping that the Hokage had sent her with us because we were, on average, pretty open-minded. Genma was calm and collected even under fire, Rin had been working on the same shift when Anko had been brought in, nearly dead, and…well, I was me.

And the story behind that one was embarrassing, anyway.

Suffice to say that while this wasn’t the team I’d have gone to hang out with after school, I was okay with things as they stood.


The next day dawned bright and early, and we set off in various states of sleep deprivation. While normally, camping in our own territory should have been secure enough, none of us were willing to risk a Rock-nin onslaught by being careless. We never knew where everyone in the Land of Fire was, and there was a half-decent chance some of them were hostile.

After I resealed everything into my various scrolls, we at least had relatively light burdens.

“What are they like?” Anko asked as we walked, with her bouncing ahead of the pack by a few paces. “You’re the only one who’s been out there, right? Hey, Gekko-san, I’m talking to you!”

“It’s just Kei. Keisuke-san if you’re feeling super formal, I guess.” I corrected mildly. “And anyway, the Chinatsugumi are pretty cool with Konoha-nin. “ Sans Danzō’s gang of psychos and Orochimaru himself, anyway. “They’ll probably have a couple rooms at the inn open for us, along with dinner.”

“Do they have dango?” Anko prodded. I couldn’t blame her—Konoha’s was the best, of course, but her parents had certainly named her aptly.

“Yeah. Remind me to tell you about the time Obito—” And I stopped, because Rin poked me in the shoulder. Fine, fine, no more giving up blackmail material. “Er…well, the food’s good and the people like us most of the time. Good enough, right?”

“Sounds like it.” Anko agreed, and went to bother Genma.

I’m convinced that the only thing that’ll really make Genma lose his cool is the Sound Four, so I decided not to mediate.

We only got attacked by bandits once the whole way to Mount Soragami (which was quickly sorted out with extreme prejudice), so all in all I’d have to call it a nice, peaceful trip. We arrived sometime in the late afternoon on the third day out of Konoha, and I was struck by how little the mountain fortress had changed. Sorayama-no-Sato was maybe a little smaller than I remembered it, though that was probably because I was about twenty centimeters taller, and maybe the flags looked a little more worn. Other than that, though, I wasn’t seeing much change.

We walked up to the gate guards and I was once again struck by déjà vu. Sure, Sensei wasn’t around at the moment, but the protocol was mostly the same.

“All right, pass on through,” said Pencil-Mustache. Being a gate guard for four years had to suck, I thought. He’d probably go gray early.

We walked under the gates, since I didn’t hear anything about rooftop racing this time around, and we headed for the main building. Hopefully, Chinatsu or Misaki were around.

Anko was looking around at the town, brown eyes wide and curious. Genma idly dropped a hand onto her head, steering her back toward the main thoroughfare when she tried to dart off to explore. Rin was looking around, too, but she wasn’t ten and I’d seen pretty much everything worth noting the last time I was here. I was more focused on my aching feet and the idea of a bath at the onsen, to be honest.

“You’re no fun.” Anko complained, pushing Genma’s hand away.

Genma snorted. “There’ll be time for fun later, Mitarashi. For right now, just follow my lead.”

I rolled my eyes while Genma wasn’t looking. Aside from Konoha itself, Sorayama was one of the least dangerous places for a Konoha-nin. Rin pinched my arm, though, so I stopped being a brat.

We managed to make it to the main office before anything unexpected happened. I could see Chinatsu and Misaki at the opposite end of the impractically long hallway, with Chinatsu sitting on her sister’s desk, and one of the three interchangeable aides hovered at a nearby doorway.

The guard who’d been at the office door followed us in and announced, “The Konoha shinobi have arrived as requested, Misaki-sama.”

“Welcome back, Keisuke-kun.” Chinatsu remarked, inclining her head toward me. I nodded back, and she added for the benefit of my team, “My name is Chinatsu Kasai, of the Chinatsugumi merchant group.”

Misaki finally looked up from whatever she’d been signing to say, “And I am her sister, Misaki Kasai. Chief of the financial end of things, if you must know.” Then she went back to scribbling.

“Genma Shiranui.” Genma said, bowing a little.

Anko puffed herself up and said, “Anko Mitarashi, genin of Konoha!”

“And I’m Rin Nohara. It’s nice to meet you.” Rin, unlike the rest of us, actually did a full bow.

Chinatsu waved a hand. “Feel free to rest here at the inn. We’ll have the delivery ready for you tomorrow morning.”

Yep. Four Konoha ninjas on a week-long trip to a merchant caravan’s home base…to pick up mail.

Okay, okay, so it wasn’t just mail: Sometimes, local seal masters and blacksmiths weren’t sufficiently insane/available to provide everything necessary for the war effort. While there were no AK-47s or ammo stockpiles in this universe, the Chinatsugumi were capable of providing reusable storage scrolls, food, explosives, kunai, shuriken, and swords in massive quantities. Personally, I never quite figured out where or how they got all of their stuff, and I never asked.

I think this shipment included solid explosives, for one.

(Paper tags and chakra mines are great and all, but sometimes you just need to make Iwa’s Explosion Corps cry.)

“Please show our guests to the inn, Itsuki-san.” Misaki said to apparently empty air, and then, quite suddenly, a fourth near-interchangeable aide pops up out of nowhere. I could tell the first three apart from this one solely because she was a woman, as opposed to the three rather feminine men. It’s all in the shoulders, really.

“Follow me, please.” Itsuki said, and my team complied.

I hung back for a moment, looking at both of the Kasai twins. “Did you need me for anything? After the mission scroll…”

It was weird for me to be specifically requested for a mission. Maybe if I was famous, I wouldn’t have the strong urge to check for an ambush. Or maybe it’d be replaced by a stronger one, even if I knew the Chinatsugumi were mostly harmless.

“Ah, yes. Actually, Keisuke-kun, Rikuto requested that you meet someone with him.” Chinatsu said, finally getting off the desk. Misaki ignored both of us. “Just follow me and we can get this over with.”

Ominous…

The hallways weren’t getting smaller, at least, and I could still sense my teammates. So I was pretty sure she wasn’t going to shove me into a side room and brick up the entrance—would’ve been bad PR.

“As it happens, I don’t think you should be anywhere near this part of the complex.” Chinatsu commented, not looking back.

I didn’t reply.

“But he seems to think it would do you good.” Chinatsu shrugged, and we came to a door that led outside. I could hear afternoon crow calls seeping in through nearby windows—the light from outside looked rather orange, too. She slid it to one side and stepped through.

I hesitated—I was feeling a good half-dozen chakra signatures at least, and I didn’t really recognize most of them—before following.

I don’t know why, but I never thought that Misaki or Chinatsu were very interested in gardening.

The garden itself was beautiful—maples reigned supreme, with cherry trees slightly closer to the compound’s walls. They were out of season, but with Cherry Blossom Boulevard as one of Konoha’s many attractions I could at least recognize the trees. The terrain itself sloped upward and downward in perfectly sculpted miniature hills, lined with gravel-and-slate paving to delineate a path for the best view. There was a gazebo to one side of the garden, connected to the path by a short wooden bridge and otherwise standing on six thin legs. The koi pond in the middle of the garden was long and gently curved rather than circular or stubby, with a tiny stone lantern house suspended over it by a cobbled arc. The trees were lined with lanterns that had apparently just been lit, with more sticking out of the ground on pikes and making the garden glow.

For a moment I just wanted to sit and stare.

Then I finally paid attention to my tingling chakra sense and shot Chinatsu a look. She shrugged and walked on, heading toward the gazebo. From what I could tell, that was where the chakra signatures were hanging out, and I could hear faint, high-pitched laughter coming from that direction.

It wasn’t until I made it to the gazebo itself that I realized what—or rather, who—I was looking at.

One of the other aides—and I swear I’ll try to learn their names eventually—was sitting in the middle of a rug, surrounded on all sides by children. For a second, I didn’t really know what to say.

The oldest two kids were probably around four or so, with brown skin and jet-black hair that was more wavy than straight or spiky. I had a feeling that they were the infants I’d met once before—Kazuki and Miyu, the fraternal twins Rikuto had briefly introduced me too. They were both listening to the story the aide was telling, though I could tell just from my chakra sense alone that one of them was rapidly getting bored.

Another child—a black-haired boy, probably around the same age as the twins—had fallen asleep on a cushion well away from the others, and was curled into a blanket like it was a nest and he was a tiny bird.

The next one was a toddler with greenish-black hair who might have been two years old, at most. Rather than listening, he (or she?) was curled up on the aide’s lap, and drooling into the man’s pants. Next to him was a little blonde with big gray eyes, with her hair in a pair of tiny pompom-ridden pigtails. She was chewing on her fist, looking around when she heard newcomers.

The last kid was pink-haired and rather smaller than the others, snoozing the afternoon away on the aide’s calf. I wasn’t sure who she (he?) belonged to, but I could make a guess at most of the others.

Chinatsu and I sat down on the rug, and the blonde toddler immediately wobbled over to her much bigger blonde counterpart.

“Auntie!” the little girl said, raising her arms, and Chinatsu automatically lifted the girl into her lap.

“What’s her name?” I asked quietly, while the toddler twisted her tiny fat fists into her aunt’s long hair. I also noticed that the two younger napping kids were starting to wake up, though the boy in the corner snoozed on.

“Aiko-chan. She’s my niece.” Chinatsu told me. She pointed to each of the other children with her free hand, saying, “You’ve met Miyu-chan and Kazuki-chan.” I nodded, and she went on, “Then there’s Kaito-chan—Nanami and Shirozora’s son.”

My eyebrows shot up. “…I didn’t really think they would have any kids, come to think of it. Shirozora’s…the way he is, after all.” It didn’t seem polite to say “one step down from axe murderer on a bad day.” Then, thinking about how she and Akira had seemed so close, I started to say, “So, you and Akira-san…”

Chinatsu shook her head. “Not yet. Maybe not ever.”

I didn’t want to know how she discovered that, though I could imagine. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. It’s not your fault.” Chinatsu ignored any twinge of pain I might have caused her and went on doggedly, “The other two are foundlings.” She paused, briefly. “War never really changes.”

No, it doesn’t. And there’s no mercy for those caught in the wrong place.

“Roku-chan is older—he remembered his name, at least.” By that, she seemed to mean the kid who’d turned himself into a burrito. Chinatsu continued, “Unfortunately, Tayuya-chan is still a baby, so we renamed her. I think it suits her.”

…Tayuya?

I thought, I might have jinxed myself with that Sound Four comment, before.

We don’t really know anything about the Sound Four, other than their personalities and their devotion to Orochimaru, the Dreamer pointed out. Kimimaro was picked up after his clan got themselves massacred by Kiri, and the three Sound genin were taken in from the street if Zaku is anything to go by. There’s no reason he might not have managed to find more orphans elsewhere…or make them.

What is it with this universe and Vengeful Orphan Syndrome?

But…we also don’t know if Tayuya of the Sound Four was ever adopted by the leader of a merchant troupe, in the old timeline. The Dreamer scratched her head, inside of my head. Talk about a trip. There’s just so much that was never covered…

That’s putting it lightly, sadly.

I have no idea how I managed to keep my voice steady, but “I’m sure they’ll grow up strong” came out perfectly even, as though nothing was wrong.

I needed to talk to Rikuto. Where was the superstitious missing-nin when I actually needed him around? Sadly, he didn’t appear like Beetlejuice would have, and I ended up spending the rest of the reasonable hours of the evening with Chinatsu, the still-nameless aide, and the kiddies.

I spent a lot of that time being drooled on, to be honest. I knew more or less who these kids would grow up to be, if they had the chance. Like Chinatsu’s generation, theirs would be fraught with the sort of danger and misery that only really seemed to happen to protagonists. Kaito would probably be mouthy and emotionally dishonest because distance, in his mind, would keep him safe. Aiko would probably be pretty normal, and the moral center of any group. Miyu and Kazuki would be forever at each other’s throats if things went as they had once before, but they’d always find a way back to each other and their family. Roku would be…something. I wasn’t sure.

At least, that’s how they’d turn out if they followed the stories of those they reminded me of.

Tayuya would probably be an exception, if she did end up as a member of the Sound Four—at least, her misery would be short and end in one last blowout.

Later that night, I spent a long time in the bath, just thinking about things. It must have been at least an hour, since time slips away when you’re daydreaming. Eventually, Rin knocked hard enough on the bathroom door to rattle it and asked if I’d drowned.

Fat chance.

“Just thinking, Rin-chan.” I called back.

“How about you think out here before you turn into a raisin?” Anko’s voice demanded.

I laughed at myself, just for a minute, and obeyed. There had to be a more proactive way of doing things.

Well, actually. I already knew there was. I just wasn’t willing to chance it, most of the time.

The primary value in my foreknowledge was in how relevant it was. The second I started telling people about it, it’d start deprecating. Like a new car off a lot, really. And I wasn’t willing to risk my foreknowledge affecting people I knew were central to the Plot, not yet. If I couldn’t predict anything, any changes I made were up to fate. And Fate, as everyone knows, is a gigantic bitch.

I felt safer throwing things out in the open with the Chinatsugumi—specifically with the ever-irreverent Rikuto—mostly because they were generally further removed from events and didn’t seem to have much effect. Only…now they might.

I bit my lip.

It’d be a good idea to start here.

Of course it would be. It was small-scale.


 

Once all my teammates were asleep, I went looking for Rikuto.

He was in the city. He just wasn’t around the kids when I was, probably because of one errand or another. I didn't know what'd take precedence over attending a meeting he'd been interested in, but I decided it wasn't important. I left a note stuck to one of the main house windows before heading back to the inn, back through the same garden I’d used to sneak out.

Almost as soon as I reached the inn’s garden, I felt a gentle pop of chakra and then Rikuto’s magma-like chakra signature was barely ten meters away. I looked over at him, squinting in the darkness, before wandering over to one of the wooden bridges. The inn garden was a lot smaller than the one for the main house, but it was pretty enough and included a type of privacy seal that made conversations inaudible to anyone more than five meters away from the speaker.

“Evening, Pipsqueak.” Rikuto said as he approached. He sat down on one of the lower steps on the bridge, back to me, and said, “You got taller.”

“You got older.” I responded, but there wasn’t any heat in it. I sat down, too, and crossed my legs in front of me. “I met Miyu-chan and Kazuki-chan. They’re cute, like you said.”

Rikuto made a noise like “hah” and nodded. “Yeah. Can’t tell you how many former comrades would’ve pegged me as dead by twenty. And here I am, pushing thirty-three and a father of two.”

I swallowed. “Yeah, I…I’m glad you’re happy.”

“Nice sentiment, Half-Pint, but I’m betting you didn’t ask me out here for good news.” Rikuto said. “So, what is it?”

“I…” It was like the words got stuck in my throat. I swallowed hard and I think my voice came out strangled, but… “I think Orochimaru will come after you, sometime in the next five years.”

Rikuto froze.

“I don’t know when.” I said bleakly, looking up toward the slightly-dimmed stars. In a lantern-lit garden, the interference from ground lights was too strong. “Tayuya—the baby—I dreamed about her as a teenager. As…as the second-in-command of one of Orochimaru’s hit-squads. I know it’s her, but I don’t…I don’t know how it happens. If maybe, in my dream, Chinatsu never found her.”

“Why?” Rikuto managed.

“Orochimaru looks for bloodlines.” I said, refusing to look at him. “Maybe it’s because of that. Maybe you get in his way. Maybe it’s because you’re friendly with Konoha. I don’t know.

“Or maybe I’m wrong, and you leave Tayuya out in the wild to fend for herself.” From the way Rikuto actually flinched at the suggestion, I decided it was unlikely. Even knowing the baby could be a sign of bad things to come. “All I know is that Tayuya-chan is a cute little baby girl that Chinatsu cares a lot about. And, in my dream, she’s running with Oto and there’s no mention of the Chinatsugumi at all.”

For all I knew, a similar group had existed somewhere in the blank spaces of Naruto canon. And then…nothing.

For a long time, neither of us said anything.

“…It’s a hell of a thing, Half-Pint.” Rikuto sighed, shoulders slumping.

“What?” I was confused.

“It’s interesting, you know. Chi-chan probably talked to you about the feeling we get, around people we feel like we should know?” At my nod, Rikuto continued, “Ever since Miyu-chan and Kazuki-chan were born, I knew they were my blood. My children, mine. Chi-chan talked with Misaki about getting the same feeling with Aiko-chan and I know Shiro and Nami-chan felt the same for Kaito-chan.” He dropped his chin onto the heel of one hand. “Akira felt it, too, and I swear the man’s about as competent as a brick.”

“…I don’t see where this is going.” I said quietly.

“Chi-chan found Tayuya-chan in the burned-out wreck of a border village about two months ago.” Rikuto told me. “And I didn’t get any ping off her.”

“Maybe it’s because she’s adopted?” I suggested.

“Except Roku-chan is too, and all of us felt that one.” Rikuto corrected gently.

Well, yeah, I thought. Tayuya was one of the Sound Four—she was never a part of your story.

Until now.

“Not getting a déjà vu feeling isn’t a bad thing.” I said. “You probably meet tons of people who don’t stick out one way or another, all the time.

“Never said it was.” Rikuto said.

I frowned. “This isn’t Tayuya-chan’s fault.”

“You don’t think I don’t know that? How the hell can it be a baby’s fault that we get targeted by a crazy Konoha missing-nin?” Rikuto ran a hand through his hair. “What’ll he do to her?”

“…She’ll be a loyal minion, up until the day she gets killed.” I said. “That’s why…it’s probably going to happen in a few years. If she gets too old, she’ll remember who killed her family.”

“Hah, yeah. Can’t have that happen.” Rikuto said bitterly. “If she was old enough to remember that, he’d just kill her and save himself the trouble.”

Or use her in horrible experiments. I still hadn’t met Yamato, but I knew he’d already met Orochimaru.

“Shit.” Rikuto said.

I agreed.

“Hah. Look at me—barely four years younger than that snake and I already know I can’t fight him.” Rikuto’s voice was strangely flat. “None of us can.”

“I’m sorry.”

Rikuto sighed again. “No, no, I’m glad you told me.” He looked back, teal eyes seeming to glow in the dark, “I just need you to tell me anything you can about him. Can you do that for me? Even if none of us can face him and win, it…it might help some of us survive.”

I did. I told him everything I could remember—the Curse Seals, the white snakes, the body jumping, the experiments I knew about. Every single damned jutsu and summoning contract I could find, anything about his obsession with kekkei genkai. Any scrap of his physiology I could remember went into the pot, too, and I hoped it would help. Anything and everything my dream-memories had supplied, I told to Rikuto.

“Tell you what, kid,” Rikuto began, as I finally ran out of steam, “I’ll write a letter to your sensei.”

“What for?” I asked.

“This is too important to just keep to the Chinatsugumi, and you can’t be the one to break the news. You’re a kid, still.” Rikuto said. I winced and nodded. “It’ll be anonymous, but take it back anyway. It’ll have everything you just told me, all right? All his weaknesses, all his jutsu, and all packaged into a neat little bow for your Intelligence department. It won’t even look like your info—it’ll look like mine. Just promise me one thing: Do your level best to get that bastard killed, whether he does us in or not.”

“I…”

“You’re not strong enough to do it yourself and probably never will be. Hell, you’re in good company—most people won’t.” Rikuto shook his head sharply. “Take it to your sensei or the Hokage and tell them we’ve been doing an analysis on everything to come out of Oto—at the very least, we will be once I take this to Chi-chan.” He patted my on the head. “Understand, Keisuke?”

“…Yeah.” I swallowed. “Thank you.”

He gave my hair one last ruffle before running off.

I sat there in the garden for a long time, looking up at the stars and hoping that, between the training my team had done over the past four years and the information Rikuto was going to parrot back to Konoha, I’d know I’d made the right choice.

The hand’s been dealt, now.


Two months after I gave the letter to Sensei, telling him it was some kind of report, my name came up again. Along with my entire team.

I ran a quick Mystic Palm jutsu over my scraped and bleeding knuckles healing the damage in one swipe. Nearby, a training dummy lay in pieces in the ruins of another one, shredded where it stood by a hurricane of chakra.

Obito grinned at me, giving me a thumbs up for my success. I didn’t feel much like smiling, though I did anyway.

It was December, almost a year before Naruto will be born.

While Obito went home, I went shopping for a present. Kakashi was going to be officially promoted in about a week, after all. It wouldn’t do to show up short a gift.

And then…well, then we’d face the gauntlet of Kannabi together, or die trying.

Chapter Text

Things fall into place with startling ease, sometimes.

It’s actually rather surprising, then, how easily they fall apart.


Kakashi’s promotion was actually fairly similar to the businesslike meeting in which Obito and I made chūnin two years previous, according to what I heard about it. Sensei told me that the order was handed down from on high, and we ended up having about two days to celebrate the occasion before he actually outranked us.

I went out shopping with Rin in order to find something suitable—mostly because I still hated shopping and needed motivation in the form of another person in order to do it—and while he could afford anything I could give him, I just needed something to customize to give to him. Hearing about his promotion, Rin also decided to chip in. It was a bit of a rush job on both of our parts, but we pulled it off.

The day Kakashi’s promotion was made official, he got a customized med-kit from Rin (though she gave one to me and there was another to give to Obito, which lessened the novelty somewhat), a Flying Thunder God kunai from Sensei, and a black utility belt from me. The belt had built-in pouches I’d practically covered in security seals, making it so that he’d be the only one able to open them without getting a high-powered lightning jutsu in the face when they were active.

Well, I assumed it’d be lightning jutsu—the seals were supposed to be somewhat customizable.

One of the side effects of pulling out most of the stops for Kakashi’s gift, though, was forgetting to grab Obito from the Uchiha district.

And he arrived late, with precisely fuck-all in the way of congratulatory gifts.

Exactly as expected.

“Will you just give me a break? I’ll get something for you later!” Obito snapped, flushing red with embarrassment and frustration.

There might not be a “later” for us, I thought morbidly.

Kannabi began today.

I spent most of that team meeting feeling vaguely ill.

“Better to get nothing than something from you.” Kakashi sniped back.

I also had a steadily growing headache.

Over the past few months, we’d finally picked up what I considered our iconic outfits. Well, at least Obito and Kakashi were—I didn’t, by definition, have one.

I was still wearing a jacket and standard shinobi pants, but I’d managed to cram a flesh-toned mesh shirt under everything. I also wore shinobi mesh under my pants, which extended down to the tops of my new open-top sandals. I had a strap slung across my back that kept my kodachi between my shoulder blades, and my jacket had a tail that hid both of my supply pouches from cursory sight. Other than a small scroll holster in each sleeve and one hidden across the small of my back, that completed my ensemble.

Obito was dressed in blue edged in orange. Actually, there was more blue than I’d seen since the last time Sensei took his flak jacket off—it had the effect of making the wearer look a little blob-like, if not for Obito’s white belt. The Uchiha fan was huge and bright on his shoulders, which gave me a weird feeling just at the thought. He was otherwise equipped mostly with standard gear—like the other members of our team, he wore two shuriken pouches rather than the one that most genin (who were less confident in their weapon ambidexterity) stuck with, a kunai holster with room for at least four, and metal guards over the backs of his hands.

Kakashi, for his part, was decked out in darker colors aside from the white stripe along his sleeves and his elbow-length metal armguards. He had two brown straps that crossed his chest and served as a mount for his tantō holster—to a blade he used maybe once in a bloody blue moon. He had two pouches for shuriken, though I was also pretty sure his kunai holster had a scroll instead of the normal blade allotment. It seemed like all of us were going to be equipped to kill a platoon.

“Kakashi, Obito…” I could hear my own voice rise into a snarl, rather than my usual detached sarcasm, and stopped short. Both of the boys were looking at me. I sighed. “Look, not now. We can do this ‘dance around the problem and eventually have a slugging match’ thing later. Sensei, what were you going to say?”

“I’ll explain as we go, Kei.” Sensei told me. “Everyone got everything they need?”

“Yes, Sensei,” we chorused, because some things never got old.

I remembered watching Kakashi Gaiden a couple of times as a twenty-year-old social shut-in. It wasn’t hard to tell where this mission was going to get us. Oh, sure, Sensei just told us to meet up for a mission briefing and it just so happened to fall on the same day Kakashi was officially promoted…bah. It was a waste of time to be bitter. Events were already in motion.

I traveled relatively lightly—aside from the contents of my pockets and pouches, everything else was sealed into storage scrolls in my pack. I’d offered to do the same for Obito and Kakashi, and ended up with their bedrolls and about eighty percent of our food. They kept the rest. Without the weight of a full pack to distract me, I spent a lot of time looking around at the scenery and trying to keep my emotions under control.

We were well into our trip before I felt anything like normal, and even that was a tentative thing.

“So, a mission with Kakashi as team leader.” I mused aloud. Not like that was new. “Well, at least it’s something we practiced. Kinda.”

“Like hell we did.” Obito muttered.

I punched him in the shoulder, in a friendly kind of way. “Come on, Obito. Quit sulking.”

“It’s always about Kakashi, though!” Obito made a helpless sort of gesture with his arms, frustrated.

“Ah, just let him have his day. We can always jump him later.” I suggested, smiling crookedly.

“I heard that.” Kakashi shot back at us, from where he was leading our formation.

“But you didn’t hear a date and time and therefore that means jack.” I told him.

Kakashi gave both of us an exasperated look, then looked to Sensei. Sensei shrugged and held up his hands in a gesture of surrender. “You’re no help.” Kakashi complained.

“I’m just an innocent bystander,” Sensei insisted, and Kakashi huffed.

“Okay, yeah, I feel a bit better.” Obito said to me, too quietly for Kakashi to hear.

“Good.”

It wasn’t until Sensei had us stop for lunch that we finally got a look at the strategic reasons for the mission.

Sensei pulled a map out of his pack and laid it flat on a rock, while the rest of us gathered around him. He traced a line with one long finger, passing the old line that delineated the front lines as of a week ago, and tapped the symbol representing Kusagakure. “As of one week ago, Iwagakure has launched a full-scale invasion of Kusagakure territory. So far, the village itself hasn’t fallen and many Konoha and Kusa-nin are fighting within this territory. Reports suggest that we’re looking at an invasion force numbering over a thousand.”

I frowned. I hadn’t seen a thousand shinobi in one place since the day Sensei’s Hokage candidacy had been announced, but I did have an idea of what scale the Naruto world tended to work on. To devote this many shinobi to any single cause…Iwagakure had to be both sure of a counterattack and very, very interested in making sure they prevailed.

“Where are they getting their supplies from?” Obito asked, scanning the map. “You can’t feed a thousand combat shinobi on bamboo and grass seeds.”

I stifled a snort. True.

“I’d bet on a massive supply train, possibly crossing from Iwa territory by bridge.” Kakashi said, and he brought two fingers down on Kannabi and one of its sister structures, further from our location.

I’d bet on Kannabi.” I put in, and Kakashi removed one finger, leaving only his index on Kannabi. “It’s close to the front lines while being in more heavily-Iwa-held territory than the other Kusa-Iwa bridges.”

One of the many, many, many topics covered in the Academy included tidbits about other countries that I think that they thought we wouldn’t know. Kusagakure, as a semi-permanent ally, had entire units devoted to its geography in case we someday needed to travel there. I supposed that no one had ever thought we’d need to infiltrate Kusa territory for the express purpose of blowing up something that big, but I was also pretty sure the Kusa-nin wouldn’t hold it against us as long as the Iwa-nin suffered for it.

I also couldn’t help but think that it’d be much easier if someone in our roster was flight-capable, like Deidara. The idea of a B-29 bomber run was really appealing just then, rather than the idea of playing at being French resistance fighters.

“That’s what the Hokage thought, too.” Sensei told us. He looked pleased, but under it was a kind of concern I hadn’t seen in ages. He exhaled, long and slow, before going on, “Team Kakashi.”

All of us straightened up a little.

“Your mission is the infiltrate Iwagakure-held Kusa territory and destroy the Kannabi bridge.” A trio of black spheres appeared in Sensei’s hand—concentrated high explosives. I felt my jaw drop. Sensei went on, “As a small unit, you have a better chance of getting these in place. Blow the bridge and get out as fast as you can, understand?”

“What are you going to be doing, Sensei?” Obito asked as we all nodded our assent.

Sensei’s expression was deadly cold. “I’ll confront the enemy directly. The front is only a few days from here and twelve hours from where you’ll be going. Our friends need all the help I can give them.”

That, alone, told me that Sensei would have another hundred kills under his belt before the week was out.

Sensei handed the explosives off to Kakashi—while I felt my fingers twitch with envy—and started folding up the map. “That’s it for now. I’ll be tagging along for the next day or so, to make sure we get past the border patrols safely. I’ll be doubling back after that, and I hope I’m enough of a distraction that no one wonders what a few Konoha-nin are doing so far into their territory.” He smiled tightly as he said it, but I couldn’t help but wonder if he’d just jinxed us.

As he turned to get one of the food storage scrolls out, though, he added, “And Kei—no using the high-grade stuff before you get to the bridge. And no stealing them off Kakashi for it, either.”

I tried to pout, but my heart wasn’t really in it.

Fucking hell, if we screw up here we’re all dead. That one fact kept floating around in my head, pressing down on everything else. And if we don’t…I have absolutely no idea. There was always a possibility that succeeding could end worse than fucking up. I wasn’t sure how, but I wasn’t willing to discount the possibility out of hand.

Lunch passed quickly, and even though I downed half my canteen’s contents, my mouth still felt dry.


It didn’t really get any better when we entered the Forest of Oversized Trees and What the Hell Do They Feed Those Mushrooms. The entire forest was dim from the sheer volume of foliage in the canopy, and the fact that the local were fungi was both big enough to stand on and solid enough use as a bludgeon didn’t help much. I could sort of tell what time it was thanks to what light peeked through the trees, but it wasn’t especially relevant.

The chakra signatures I was picking up, on the other hand, were downright unnerving.

I knew there weren’t that many Iwa-nin in the forest. All of the signatures but one were far enough off that they weren’t really distinct, so I figured only the nearest was a problem. He was suppressing well, but I needed only a moment to pinpoint him and, at the very least, puzzle out how to neutralize him.

I stopped dead in the middle of our formation, eyes narrowed. If I could just pick that asshat out of this gigantic compost bin…

“How many, Kei?” Sensei asked quietly, hand on my shoulder.

“One.” I whispered back.

Ahead of me, Kakashi threw one arm out, clearly either smelling or hearing our mysterious guest. Obito bumped into Sensei’s back with a squeak before he realized that we’d stopped.

Sensei let go of my shoulder and signaled for Obito to look around. He did, but since he wasn’t a Hyūga it wasn’t going to mean much unless the guy actually entered our line of sight.

My head jerked up as I felt one of the chakra signatures spike in fear. My eyes closed, I could make out the enemy about fifty meters off along a diagonal z-axis—probably thirty meters above us.

All of crouched together in a circle, behind a huge fallen log that would cut off the enemy’s line of sight. I kept half of my attention on the forest even as Sensei got ready to explain our findings.

“All right. There’s one enemy—” Sensei began, but he cut himself off just as I felt nineteen more problems pop out of nowhere. Fucking shadow clones. “Careful, everyone. Twenty, now.”

“Clones.” I supplied, tracking with my eyes still shut. I could only assume that Sensei could do something with air currents, because I was pretty sure he wasn’t a sensor. “Shadow clones, most likely.”

“Agreed.” Kakashi said quietly. I opened my eyes as he got into a runner’s starting stance, and I felt a flash of fear. “I’ll lead the attack. Please, back me up.”

This was, of course, coming from the fastest of the three teenagers in the squad. Sensei would be his reinforcements/follow-through for this bout—Obito and I were backup dancers at best.

“No, Kakashi. I’ll lead today.” Sensei said, but it was clear that Kakashi wasn’t interested in hearing that.

“Sensei, I’m a captain today, too.” He was already halfway through the seals for the Chidori. “I want to try the Chidori out in real combat—I’ve been working on it for months already.”

I felt the enemy’s chakra spike again as the Chidori’s harsh blue light lit the area around us and its shriek started to become audible.

Oh, for fuck’s sake. I knew how this was gonna end.

“Kakashi, I reserve the right to say ‘I told you so.’” I informed him in a flat tone, pulling my kodachi out of its sheath.

Kakashi ignored me. “Here I go.”

Sensei’s arm snapped out ahead of him, stopping him short.

“Sensei, I can do this.” Kakashi insisted. “I can take any number of enemies out with this jutsu, just like you.”

“Fifteen says he’s never killed even one person with it.” Obito muttered, barely audible to me over the buzz of the Chidori.

I agreed, but decided not to say as much.

“You told me that as soon as we entered Kusagakure territory, I was captain.” Kakashi went on. Oh god. “The rules clearly state that the team needs to obey the captain’s orders, Sensei.”

Sensei wordlessly pulled his arm back, looking like he was going to pinch the bridge of his nose.

Okay, yeah, kodachi out. I signaled Obito to follow my lead, though I wasn’t planning on tearing after Kakashi. Sensei would be able to handle that—if Obito and I were going to stay on the ground, though, we needed to be prepared for a fight.

So, showing that even geniuses occasionally had moments of more pride than sense, Kakashi tore off through the log we’d been using as concealment, punching a hole the size of a manhole cover through the middle of it.

Obito immediately moved to my back, heels briefly touching mine so he could confirm where I was without looking. Sensei, nodding to both of us, disappeared in pursuit of his wayward student.

From the sound of flying metal, I could only assume that Kakashi was doing the really dumb thing and rushing right down the middle. Of course. The Chidori had a neat effect where it effectively increased the user’s speed in order to make the kill more likely—sort of like a watered-down version of the Third Raikage’s Hell Stab and Lightning Armor techniques.

Only Kakashi, like anyone without a Sharingan or the correct usage of Lightning Release, simply wasn’t fast enough to keep up with the speed of lightning.

Sensei was the one, glorious exception.

While Kakashi played pop-the-clone, Sensei was throwing shuriken to counter the Iwa-nin’s kunai with the kind of deadly accuracy that made signing his name in shuriken look amateurish. None of the weapons got within a meter of Kakashi, which made his self-imposed mission a lot simpler.

I looked away then, counting on my chakra sense to figure out where the idiots got off to, and concentrated on the clones that would inevitably come for Obito and me instead.

Right on cue, a clone popped up out of thin air and went for Obito’s face.

Obito leapt back, knowing that I had a technique primed and he didn’t, and I dove into the gap he left. The enemy clone took a kodachi to the eye socket and exploded into white smoke. Even as I was following through with my thrust, Obito was running through the hand signs for the Grand Fireball in preparation for the next round.

A clone obligingly showed up and was set on fire.

“Doing all right?” Sensei asked, warping in with kunai in both hands.

“Fine.” Obito replied, kicking dirt into the flames left over after the clone’s horrible death.

“Good.”

The forest was filled with the sound of exploding clones—Kakashi was mowing through them faster than expected. Sensei vanished again, leaving Obito and I to handle ourselves for a bit.

We only got one more clone before the buzzing of Kakashi’s Chidori finally fizzled out. I felt my breath catch for an instant—what if Sensei didn’t grab him, what if, what if—and by the time I got myself under control again Sensei and Kakashi were both there. Sensei lowered Kakashi to the ground carefully, which said more for the injury than it did about Kakashi’s reaction to said injury (mostly grimacing).

“Iaijutsu?” I asked, peering at the slash wound. It looked a little like something I’d tried before, actually. Mostly on training dummies and a couple of guy’s I’d killed—whoever this Iwa asshole was, he was fast. Even as Obito forced Kakashi to stay sitting by grabbing his shoulder, I looked at Sensei for a second.

Sensei’s expression was like ice.

I looked away, attention on my patient as though we weren’t still in a fight. After all, it wasn’t really much of one with Sensei around.

The Iwa-nin was dead. He just hadn’t stopped breathing yet.

Between Sensei dropping his bag and the bag hitting the ground, the enemy’s chakra cut out.

Cheerful thought.

“Stay still.” I said to Kakashi, scowling even as I knit muscle and skin back together. The blade had cut a wavering line from the outer edge of his right pectoral to a slightly deeper slash along his triceps. It’d have been easier to fix if the damage was contained to one muscle group, but between the advances Rin and I had made in our medical techniques, there wasn’t much chance of permanent damage.

After a while, I pulled back. Healing techniques weren’t perfect, of course, and the muscle would be weak for a while before natural healing took hold properly. As long as he didn’t strain himself—which, I had to admit, was actually pretty likely—he’d be fine.

“I told you so.” I muttered, irritation fighting worry.

“Kakashi’s injury is serious.” Sensei said, dropping out of the trees. There was no sign of blood on his sleeves, which mostly made me think that he was rather good at disposing of evidence by this point. Also: No fucking shit, muscular damage is serious. “We’ll retreat and set up camp.”

Finally, Obito gave up on stabilizing the injury. Kakashi rolled his shoulder, wincing as the injury stretched and I made the sort of gesture that suggested I was about to backhand him across the face if he did it again. The look Obito shot me over Kakashi’s head told me that he was going to say his piece, though, teammate’s blood literally on his hands or no.

“I’m fine.” Kakashi insisted. I kept from slapping him, though I wasn’t sure how.

Honestly. Wasn’t almost getting killed once enough for this mission?

“No, you’re not.” Obito argued. “This is all because you ignored Sensei’s orders and charged in there like an idiot!”

“I don’t want to hear that from you.” Kakashi snapped back, “You, the elite Uchiha who always brags and gets nothing done. Weren’t you crying back there?”

My eyes narrowed. “Kakashi, this is for your own good.”

And I hit him in the face.

Kakashi reeled and landed hard on his rear, left hand flying up to his cheek. Sensei had my wrist in a grip like steel immediately afterward, but I wasn’t planning on a follow-up anyway.

“Obito did exactly as we trained to do.” I said coldly. “Don’t make this about him.” My nerves were frayed—fuck, fuck, fuck we’re all going to die—and I think that one moment showed everyone exactly how I felt. “The twenty-fifth rule of shinobi conduct may say to never show tears, but I think it’s more about knowing when to save emotions for later and when to think about now. This means you shut up, and he shuts up, and I shut up and we get moving.”

Obito was looking at me like I’d grown an extra head.

I stood, Sensei’s grip still cutting off blood to my hand. I looked at him. “You were saying.”

Sensei let go of my wrist. “That’s enough from all three of you for today.” He crossed his arms. “Kakashi, rules and regulations are important, but I told you before that you also have to step back and adapt to the situation as it is.”

“Told you.” Obito couldn’t resist a parting shot, and Kakashi glared wordlessly at him.

“Obito, stop.” Sensei ordered. Obito shut his mouth with an audible click. “There are enough enemies in this area that we don’t need to give them an upper hand by antagonizing each other. Save it for later.

“And Kei—” Here, I bowed to the inevitable and felt my stomach drop. I didn’t want to see Sensei’s disappointed expression. “Never strike a superior officer. If you have to, make your point and live with the consequences. But keep your fists to yourself.”

I closed my eyes, wincing, and nodded. Idiot, idiot, idiot!

“Finally…Kakashi, don’t use the Chidori again.” I looked at Sensei just as Kakashi’s head shot up, and Sensei went on, “It’s a powerful technique, but despite its strength and speed factors in a fight, by the time you get anywhere near an opponent you can’t see what they’re doing anymore. If you’d been able to react normally, you wouldn’t have been injured at all. It’s still an imperfect jutsu.”

Sensei sighed. “Now, before we move on, let me say one last thing. For shinobi, the thing above all else is teamwork.”

I sighed inwardly. Way to go, team. First semi-solo mission’s already a fuck-up right out of the gates.

I just…let go of it. The impending freak-out, the frustration, the shame, and the urge to scream into a pillow. It could go and hide under a rock because there wasn’t time to deal with it all now. I’d be able to cry myself to sleep later, once Kakashi’s shoulder was fully wrapped up and Obito had his revelation and whatever else needed to happen…happened. I don’t know.

Just…later. As long as there was a later.


Kakashi needed his arm patched up, so I opened one of my scrolls and extracted a roll of bandages to bind his arm for the night. I also had enough antiseptic to put a small clinic out of business, which I used to sterilize both the wound—making Kakashi wince in the process—and the inner layer of bandages before I tied the whole mess off.

“Sorry about earlier.” I told Kakashi.

He huffed and looked away.

We all had dinner together, but it was a quiet affair and none of us were really all that comfortable talking about the day. After Sensei decided that he had first watch, Obito, Kakashi and I agreed to the second, third, and fourth shifts in that order. I got another scroll out and unsealed all of our bedrolls, took off my hitai-ate, and curled up to await my shift.

I didn’t end up crying myself to sleep that night, in fact. Too much to do, even while unconscious.

My mindscape that night looked like someone had drained all the water, at first. Looking around, I spotted the usual floating cloud of memory fragments, hovering close together above my head. In the distance, something huge groaned and cracked—the water, it seemed, had retreated to form a glacier.

I floated upward, looking for the usual Freudian setup of chairs and coffee table, and spotted them on the top of the glacier. The Dreamer was there, sitting on top of the table while Id snoozed in the high-backed Victorian therapist’s chair.

From my new vantage point, I could see a vast expanse of dark water churning just beyond the edge of the ice. Looking around, I noticed that the water was caught between two barely-connected ice shelves that looked to be slowly, inexorably drawing apart.

After a moment’s thought, I had to agree that it encompassed my mental state rather well.

I floated over to them, donning my biggest, goofiest possible pair of glasses. I like to think that I looked incredibly stupid, if only for the purpose of startling a laugh out of the Dreamer.

It didn’t work.

We have a problem.” The Dreamer looked tired, and I didn’t have to ask why.

The memory cloud had become something more akin to the combined voices of a thousand shrieking starlings, all babbling at once. Then there was the terrible noise of the glacier—representative of my emotional repression, I think—adding to the cacophony. I was agitated, but the memories of my old life were doubly so due to their sudden relevance.

Sadly, I knew more of the story from here.

I bit my lip. “I don’t know if someone getting captured is inevitable. But if it’s a given…I’d be the best choice.”

And there’s a very good chance that if you are captured, you won’t survive.” The Dreamer looked sad and exhausted and I knew I wasn’t making my case very well.

“I’m—we’re—just a girl.” I looked away, toward Id. “There’s nothing special about us, outwardly. But Kakashi looks like his dad—fights like him—and Obito…”

Obito wore the Uchiha fan across his thin shoulders like a cape, or maybe a bull’s-eye. And thanks to Madara’s actions back when the First had been trying to get everyone to the conference table alive, everyone knew that sigil. If the enemy realized what clan he belonged to, they’d pull his eyes out and leave him to rot if they didn’t torture him to death first. Kakashi would be at risk of the same, sans maybe the eyeball-extraction. At most, I expected the same genjutsu-torture that they’d treated Rin to, once upon a nightmare.

“I can’t let that happen.” I said quietly. “I can’t.” Just like I couldn’t even bring myself to think of killing Obito before the risk he represented became reality.

My heart was a traitor.

And if you can change his fate?” I knew exactly who the Dreamer was talking about, and it was agonizing to think about Obito like that—crushed under ten tons of rock, helpless, as his team abandoned him to Madara’s schemes. Hindsight made it unimportant that Rin and Kakashi and Sensei couldn’t have known. As a sensor, I would or I will or whatever tense I was using today.

I wasn’t scared, you see.

I was terrified.

“If I can, I will.” I told her. If only I was really as confident as I sounded.

Then we have to plan.

You know what they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men, right?


I woke up for my shift with tears in my eyes.

I scrubbed at my eyes before the boys could see me, but I was sure that Kakashi did anyway. Oh, whatever—it wasn’t like he hadn’t seen me have a meltdown before. It’d just happened when I was awake last time around.

“Thanks. Catch what sleep you can.” I muttered as he crawled into his bedroll. I climbed up onto the rock we’d been using as a wind-break, rubbing my arms for warmth.

He grumbled something I didn’t quite catch and dozed off.

Despite being barely awake, I still jumped when, a few minutes later, Sensei plopped down next to me and said, “Your turn, Kei?”

“Nah, Sensei. You don’t need to worry about me.” I mumbled, dropping my chin onto the heel of my left hand. “I’m f-f—” I was cut off by a jaw-cracking yawn. “—Fine. Sorry.”

“You’ll forgive me if I don’t believe a word of that.” Sensei replied.

“Yeah, well, it’s not the best time.” I muttered, looking away.

“Kei…”

“Look, I’m…” I swallowed hard, running a hand over my face. “I’m terrified things will go wrong. It’s…it’s our first mission in enemy territory, and you’re not going with us, and Kakashi’s brand new at this captain thing.”

Look at me, I’m a sea cucumber! I spill my guts at the slightest provocation.

“…I can’t tell you everything will be all right.” Sensei said, after a pause.

If he had, I would’ve had to call him a liar.

I gave a soft, fake laugh. “Yeah, I…I know. No guarantees in a shinobi’s life.” At least my breathing was still mostly even.

Sensei tugged me against his side, and I briefly hated myself for so outwardly unstable that everyone apparently knew it. Inside…well, the dam was still there. Creaking, but there.

“Trust in your teammates, Kei.” Sensei told me. “They’ll lead you through hell itself and out the other side.”

Or just into it.

“Good talk.” I muttered.

“Kei—”

“No, Sensei. I know this. I just…need time to think on it. Sorry. Not much for rational conversation right now.”

Sensei said nothing for a while.

Then, “All right. Night, Kei.”

I think I spent most of my shift shifting between checking perimeter seals and trying to meditate. It helped, a little, but my nerves were only barely settled by the time my teammates actually got up for real.


“Looks a lot better than it did yesterday,” I said to Kakashi after breakfast, dismissing my diagnostic jutsu and moving to re-wrap his arm. The line on his pectoral wouldn’t even scar, so I left it as-is. “Try not to strain yourself, though.”

Kakashi made an agreeable noise and, as soon as I was done bandaging him back up, pulled his shirt on over his head.

Yeah, he still wasn’t talking to me. It was getting kind of annoying, even if I knew it was my fault. I’d have to apologize again sooner or later.

“Ready to go?” Sensei called, hoisting his pack onto his back. Nearby, Obito was kicking dirt over our cooking fire. Once I stood up and Kakashi had pulled all of his clothes back on, it was just a matter of getting all of our stuff in order.

“Think so, Sensei!” I called.

And…Kakashi and Obito weren’t looking at each other. Great. Just great.

We ended up stopping in a bamboo forest that set my teeth on edge, sometime in late morning. Crunch time approached, and I sort of wanted to say something irreverent that would have gotten me some weird looks. Guess that was what the internal monologue was for.

“The enemy we encountered yesterday was a lone scout. From here on in, we can expect to be fighting teams. Be careful.” Sensei told us, something flickering behind his eyes.

Obito crossed his arms behind his head. “Well. Let’s get going, captain.” This last was addressed at Kakashi, and I hid a smile.

Kakashi shook the shock off after a second and nodded sharply.

“All right, let’s go.” Sensei cut in before the boys could get into a staring contest.

We said together, “Yes, Sensei.”

Sensei shot us one last look, sort of sad and yet proud. “Scatter!”

We did.

And we made it a total of four hours away from Sensei before I started getting really bad vibes.

-

Normally, I think I would have appreciated the scenery. Bamboo forests remind me of the trip I took to China once, where the stuff grew like some weird combination of saw-proof weed and picket fence, and of the time I got to see a panda in person. Hell of a time, that was. Walking across streams and rivers cut down on wading time by one hundred percent, most of the foliage was huge, and I was physically fit enough to actually kind of enjoy the walk.

But after we crossed the second stream, I realized that we were really not in Kansas anymore.

Obito and Kakashi didn’t have the eyes for it, not yet, but my chakra sense picked up two hostile presences at about the same time that we made the decision to slow to a walking pace to cross a river. There was nothing special about the site, other than how the water moved slower and the bamboo curved overhead in such a way that the “clearing” was barely any lighter than the forest proper.

Obito saw me tense up first, given that he was taking rear guard again. I signaled two enemies—two fingers—to him with one hand behind my back, feeling my heart hammer in my chest and hoping I’d make a difference. In front of me, Kakashi stiffened suddenly as the wind changed, holding up a hand for us to halt.

It did make the difference. I didn’t know it then, but it did.

Obito was halfway through the seals for the Grand Fireball before it started raining bamboo spears. And then everything was on fire.

I could feel the bigger Iwa-nin moving in behind our group even as the one with two sleeve-blades popped out in front, and I spun to face the invisible guy even as Kakashi moved to engage the one we could actually see. Obito followed my lead, rather than Kakashi’s—whether we could see our enemy or not, we could always find him.

His back to mine, my eyes closed…well, it wasn’t orthodox.

Obito still managed to land a roundhouse on Mr. Sneaky, even without seeing him, as I started the spin for Gekkō-style Earth Tiger Strike. The technique wasn’t meant to be used on the water—it was a heavily modified Earth Release technique, basically the For-Dummies version but for samurai—but the splash threw up enough murky river water and debris for Obito to spot our opponent even as he tried to maneuver around us, based on the shouting.

“Got you now, you bastard!” Obito shouted, and I could feel the fiery chakra of his Phoenix Fire Jutsu engulfing the shore. The Iwa-nin was shouting something, probably curses, and I felt him retreat sans camouflage.

I opened my eyes again, looking for the other fight because Mr. Sneaky was heading that way.

“Obito—!”

“On it!”

Usually we didn’t need to talk, but we needed to warn Kakashi that his deadly dance of steel was going to get a few more partners. Kakashi and his opponent were bouncing from bamboo spire to water to rock and back again—again with the jōnin showiness.

I took a second to catch my breath, trying to figure out where Sneaky had gone, and managed to catch the tail end of the fight. I was on Obito’s heels within a fraction of a second, though, because jōnin had freakish reflexes and I was not going to let him charge into the lion’s den alone.

I was just in time to see Kakashi smashed out of the air by the guy with two blades. He hit the ground hard—

No!

Kakashi didn’t hit the ground. He sank through it for a second, and I saw Sneaky rising out of it at the same time and crack him over the head with both interlaced fists.

Kakashi slumped.

Obito started to charge at Sneaky, spitting fire, but Two-Blades skidded in front of him and Obito nearly lost his nose. I skittered by, trying to stick my kodachi into the face of at least one of the Iwa bastards, and Two-Blades broke my sword between his.

The rest of the fight was a blowout—smoke bomb city. It was the nasty, clinging kind that burned like hell in the eyes and I dropped through the surface of the water to get it off. Obito didn’t, though, and he hauled me out after a moment of frantic flailing.

And then…

Obito and I stood there, stunned. The clearing was in ashes, the water was dark with burned wood, metal shards lay everywhere and the handle of my kodachi was still clutched in my whitening fingers. And Kakashi was gone.

I had to…I had to…

“They just…” I started, and couldn’t finish.

“We’ll get him back.” Obito said with a voice like steel. The look in his eye was more like Sensei’s than I’d ever seen on him, and it was enough to snap me back to the present. “We’re going to save him, Kei.”

A tiny part of my brain was in awe—this was what Obito had become, in the four years I’d known him? But I had to shove that thought aside and into deep storage, because there wasn’t time.

Right. Right. Freak out later. Always later.

I slid what was left of my kodachi back into its sheath, hand shaking the slightest bit—but with anger.

Anger stoked by fear, but anger nonetheless. I could use that.

I exhaled, commanding my shaking hands to stop. “Right. Let’s get our captain back.”

Chapter Text

Neither of the Iwa-nin seemed to think that we’d willingly go after them after our abrupt defeat and the loss of one of our team members. Many ninja villages won’t go after a downed teammate, for various reasons. I remembered that Kakashi gave the POW justification—while Konoha and Iwa certainly don’t have any accord along those lines, it’d make sense to treat a medic like Rin well and have her heal their soldiers instead of ours. That was common sense. Use your resources to their fullest.

Only Kakashi hadn’t planned on the two Iwa-nin being complete dumbasses with no idea of what tactical value a medic-nin would have, even under duress. If not for Obito’s loyalty, Rin might have died in that other timeline. Or, alternatively—if Kakashi hadn’t gone to reinforce Obito, Obito would have died there and there would never be a Tobi problem.

Here, Kakashi hadn’t anticipated being double-teamed by stronger opponents.

I hadn’t planned on being enough of a pain in the ass that they’d go after the lone fighter instead. I’d just assumed that I would be the best target, based on being female. I hadn’t accounted for the variables—my heightened combat skill and what that meant for my viability as a target, Obito’s combat synergy with me, and our paired perceptiveness and reaction time. I didn’t think that, what with my relative androgyny and chakra sensor capability, I wouldn’t actually stand out as a weak link in the team. I didn’t think, I just was.

That, apparently, was enough.

One thing hadn’t changed, though: they hadn’t bothered to hide their tracks.

I don’t know if they thought we’d be too afraid of them to act. They were both jōnin, of course, and Obito and I were merely chūnin on an infiltration mission. There wasn’t any way for them to know that, though, which made their lack of caution more confusing in hindsight.

Arrogance, I suppose. They were strong and, if not for Obito’s sudden activation of his Sharingan in canon, they might have been too much for Team Minato to handle.

But by the same token, I like to think that Team Minato was stronger now than it had been in the old timeline. Rin had been taken because her situational awareness and the enemy jōnin’s stealth capabilities were a very bad mismatch. My awareness was heightened, and thus I wasn’t taken by surprise and neither was Obito.

Kakashi, though…I wonder if they were just trying to prove that they could outmatch us in a fight.

Or if the Plot was.

“Do we have a plan?” Obito asked as we followed the trail the blockheads had left. To Konoha-born ninja, tracking through a forest was child’s play, enhanced senses or not. “Because right now ‘kill them and salt the earth’ is looking pretty good.”

“It depends on which one fights us first.” I admitted, having the Dreamer queue up a series of memory fragments.

Team Taiseki consisted of stealth expert Taiseki, also known as Sneaky, Kakkō of the two sleeve blades, and the several-days-dead Mahiru, who Sensei had taken out in about two seconds. They were all jōnin-ranked, but Kakkō was the strongest out of the pair we’d be facing. Taiseki was the least dangerous in canon, due mostly to Obito’s sudden onset of additional Uchiha bullshit powers, while Kakkō was the hardest to kill of the lot. He had strong nin-, gen-, and taijutsu skills, and could hit hard enough to break both my kodachi and, at one point, Kakashi’s White Light Chakra Saber.

I dreaded the thought of facing them together—hopefully, Taiseki would take the same tack as he had before and try to kill us on his own. I didn’t know if it’d be best if he assumed we were talentless hacks and walked into the fight with the expectation of an easy kill, or if he tried to take us seriously.

Kinda hard to be wary of someone half your size, I guess.

We can’t kill Kakkō without the Sharingan or a sneak attack.

I agreed, much as I hated it. I said aloud, “Best bet’s to play dumb.”

Obito shot me a look. “And if they don’t fall for it?”

“Then I’m just going to have to rig up a little surprise for them.” I said, and popped the catch on one of my sleeve scroll holsters as we rocketed through the forest.

The scroll in my left sleeve was small and slim, but contained a good dozen of my tear-away seals. This particular scroll was full of mines—since I couldn’t create many spontaneous seals, pre-prepared jobs like this one were very important to the aspiring demolition expert. They may have had an upper limit on force, which was why Sensei had given Kakashi solid explosives, but they could kill you just as dead.

And…wait.

“Kakashi has all of our viable demolition charges.” I said, eyes narrowing.

Obito gave a harsh, sarcastic bark of a laugh. “Well, we weren’t gonna go complete the mission without him anyway.”

Not like we could have if we wanted to.

The main reason I was running through so many rational justifications for our actions went thus: I was fucking terrified, and distractions were a great idea.

I spun the scroll in my hands, detaching five tags, and tossed the rest to Obito. “Remember how to hide these?”

“Of course.” He tossed me a smirk, but I wasn’t really feeling the banter at that moment.

I hadn’t asked him to do it often, but there were times when it wasn’t practical to do all of the trap-setting myself. To be fair, this was going to be about the trickiest attempt we’d ever made, but I’d try to booby-trap Orochimaru himself if it got us out of this alive.

If I thought about it too much, I’d start shaking again. I pushed the worry away as best I could.

Instead, of course, my mind got caught up other possible complications.

Even odds on torture by this point.

Yeah, I didn’t need to think that.

They may only be some fifteen minutes ahead of us at most, but we have to consider the possibility that he’s already dead. Kakashi is no medic, and Kakkō recognized his fighting style in the old timeline. He’s also already injured.

I did not need to think about the possibility that our self-imposed mission would be rendered null.

My brain was not feeling obedient, and neither was the Dreamer.

We have to consider it!

Nope. Not happening.

“Obito?” I began.

“Yeah?”

“…If something bad happens, get Kakashi out.”

“…No. No, you don’t get to play hero and die.” Obito’s voice was low and cold, but there was an undercurrent of anger. “We’re all getting out and we’re completing the mission and we’re going home.”

I bit my lip.

There was a very real possibility that we were running to our deaths.

“Hey, wanna play tag?” Obito asked, and his voice had the edge of desperation in it that I didn’t have to listen for to hear. “It’ll take your mind off things.”

“…Not really.” I muttered.

The rest of the treetop chase was spent in relative silence, oddly. Obito got quiet when I didn’t respond to his slightly manic observations, and I felt a steadily increasing dread that creeped up my spine the more I recognized the area. We were long out of the bamboo thicket and into a true forest, with trees so thick that barely any light even hit the understory. I was in the lead solely because my chakra sense was an accurate first-alert setup, and I had their signatures memorized.

With a broken sword and a crapton of set-and-hopefully-remember explosives, I was mostly nullified in terms of long range offensive capability. We had to consider the possibility that the enemy would be able to hear us approach, and plan accordingly.

Thing is, no plan ever survives contact with the enemy.

Ours, not being an actual plan as such, had less than a snowball’s chance in hell.

I landed on all fours on a tree branch just outside of what looked, honestly, like a jutsu-made cave. It was far enough from the tree line that I was leery of getting any closer, and signaled to Obito to meet up slightly further away. We didn’t want to be heard before we were prepared. Obito hit the new branch a second later, equally silent, and I signaled him to start planting tags with my free hand. He nodded and disappeared into the canopy with hardly a whisper of rustling branches, while I pulled a second scroll from my other sleeve.

This one was a supply scroll, and I bit my thumb in preparation for a very rapid and possibly very stupid mass unsealing.

With my hand poised above the first seal, I waited for Obito to finish.

When he was, he dropped back onto the branch with me and gave me a silent thumbs-up.

Bomph.

On cue, I felt both of the enemy chakra signatures within the cave jerk to attention. Kakashi’s chakra remained dull and didn’t so much as twitch, even as the enemy started to move. I was pretty sure he was still conscious, but I’d need to get closer to tell if that lack of response was due to genjutsu or…something else.

Only one shinobi came out to say hi.

And given that I couldn’t see his ugly mug, I’d have to go with Taiseki.

My line went like this: “…I probably shouldn’t have just done that.”

Because there was something hilariously predictable about enemy shinobi with stealth capabilities, I heard Taiseki say from behind me, “No. You shouldn’t.”

I was gone—Replacement jutsu, motherfucker—by the time he got around to actually sticking a kunai in my back. At the same time, Obito whirled away from Taiseki’s follow-up with a second kunai, missing impalement by centimeters. His eyes were locked on Taiseki, tracking faster than should have been possible, and the jōnin had made the mistake of uncloaking for what looked like a perfect kill.

I shot downward from the branch I’d swapped out with, hitting the “mass release” seal of my opened scroll.

A hail of metal rained down, but it turned out that we weren’t the only ones to understand the principle of basic Academy jutsu. I landed among all of the kunai and shuriken embedded in the bark, eyes closed to track Taiseki’s movements more accurately.

Obito landed next to me, facing the other way.

“He’s regrouping.” I murmured. “Thirty meters, twenty, ten…”

An explosive tag—one of my larger mines, specifically—promptly exploded when the enemy stepped on it.

Taiseki started swearing, just loud enough to hear.

Kakkō, though, didn’t make an appearance.

Stalemate—I was pretty sure that between my chakra sense and Obito’s ability to read my movements, we were okay facing Taiseki, who would have pulled out more tricks if he thought they’d work. Kakkō didn’t seem willing to leave Kakashi unsupervised, even to reinforce his teammate. I couldn’t tell if it was because neither of them especially gave a damn about the other or if whatever information they were looking for was just that important.

I mean, I knew that the info we were carrying was important. I just didn’t know if they knew that we were carrying anything significant in the first place.

Taiseki made a couple more passes, always countered by either my explosives or Obito’s taijutsu, or both. He was testing us.

Then a lot of things happened at once.

From what I pieced together later, it went a little like this:

Taiseki created a pair of Earth Clones, though he kept them hidden underground for his plan. Obito and I were running out of pre-planted tags, and Obito was wrapping another one of my higher-output tags around the handle of one of his kunai. I had my right hand on the handle of my tragically-shortened kodachi—ten centimeters of blade was still more than any of my kunai had, so I figured I could use that—and prepared for the next round.

At the same time that Obito finished preparing what was basically a hand grenade, Taiseki made his move. I drew my shortened kodachi, preparing to meet his charge even with my broken blade.

Obito threw the kunai, and a second one hit the forehead of the Earth Clone in the shadow of the first, exploding in its face and mouth. Taiseki met my kodachi, blazing with chakra in a way that doubled its length and cutting power, and exploded into a dust cloud.

I coughed, trying to pinpoint him again when my eyes were streaming and he’d pulled two replacements in seconds.

Obito’s side. Closing…

I maneuvered Obito out of the way, planning to block again even if it knocked me right off the branch.

All of that flew out of my head when I felt Kakashi’s chakra scream.

That split-second of hesitation—immediately looking toward where I’d felt the jolt—cost me precious reaction time.

Then pain.

The next thing I knew I was on my back, choking down on a scream of my own, both hands empty and pressed to my face as warm blood gushed out. The world became nothing but sensation—of my kodachi scabbard digging into my back, of the ache of my chakra going briefly berserk as my concentration shattered, of the white-hot brand that had been dragged across my face and left me reeling.

Between the blood pounding in my ears and the blinding pain, I could hardly hear Obito’s shocked, “Kei, no!”

No, no, no, I am not dying on my back. If I have to die I won’t be a dead weight!

I was already on my knees by the time I felt the Dreamer react in full, with Obito’s arms helping me stay vertical. I could feel him saying something, but I wasn’t listening that well.

Yin Release: Pain Binding Jutsu!

The Dreamer’s Yin chakra shot through my coils, forcibly restoring order. It wasn’t healing me—instead, I could feel the pain fade to manageable levels and my chakra come back under my control. She was selectively cutting signals to my brain from my face and arms, with the clear intent to remove the blocks once I’d gotten my act together.

I made a hissing noise between my teeth, carefully removing my hands from my face and seeing red when I looked.

With both eyes. I could hardly stand to open my right, given the blood running down my face, but I could and my left was untouched.

For a flash, I felt like laughing. Lucky I hadn’t lost an eye like Kakashi had, right? Given the angle of the strike, I could've lost both if I'd been any slower.

And then my face reminded me why that was a bad idea, muscles screaming and still weeping blood. Testing my chakra again, I brought up a Diagnostic Jutsu with one hand.

The ragged kunai slash extended from the forward edge of my left check, sweeping over my cheekbone and a little above the bridge of my nose and tearing a chunk out of my right eyebrow, before finally ending on the right half of my forehead, nearly to my hairline. I’d been retreating when I’d felt the first flash of pain, and as a result most of the damage was relatively superficial. I didn’t think the kunai had scraped bone, but it was a close thing and head wounds bled like hell regardless. My hitai-ate looked to have taken a hit, too—given that I found it on the branch with the metal plate and cloth split.

Mystical Palm Jutsu. I thought, and started to seal the wound mechanically. My chakra sense, though, was still scrambled. “Don’t—” Talking pulled at the wound and I winced. “Not dead, Obito. Neither is he.”

“You don’t think I don’t know that?” he hissed back, eyes wide with dismay and self-blame.

“Not your fault.” I said, trying to scan the trees while healing and also trying to get my chakra sense back in order. “The enemy…”

“I know.” Obito said, voice tight with strain. With one last squeeze of my shoulder, he stood up.

“Obi—” I wanted to warn him—Taiseki was that way even to my thoroughly scrambled chakra sense, but there wasn’t time.

Obito whirled.

Taiseki’s chakra sputtered. “H-how…could you see…me?”

I stared. Taiseki was easily half again Obito’s height and probably outweighed both of us, and Obito had stopped him dead.

Taiseki’s face showed only uncomprehending shock. “What…what is…that e-eye?”

Obito jerked his kunai free, letting the enemy jōnin fall. “This time, I’ll be the one protecting you, Kei.”

For a moment, neither of us said anything else.

Then Obito turned back to me, and I saw his eyes.

“Congratulations on activating your Sharingan.” I said, smiling despite the residual pain. My injuries had stopped bleeding, at least. All I needed to do was bandage them—while it was possible that I could have just closed the wound entirely, I wanted to save both my and the Dreamer’s chakra for Kakashi. It wasn’t like a facial injury was going to kill me.

“Yeah, thanks. It’s…wow, seeing how chakra flows is weird.” Obito said, and he reached into his back pocket to pull out one of the duplicate med-kits Rin had made. I could only guess that he’d decided not to give it back to me for sealing because of the possibility of disaster.

Well, he was right.

He crouched next to me, holding the kit out to me with one hand while his other gripped my shoulder. “Are you okay?”

“Only mostly.” I admitted. Ow. The slash wound wasn’t serious, but it was certainly distracting.

“Then let me help. Then we’ll save Kakashi.” Obito said, and pulled a roll of bandages from the kit when I broke the seal.

Luckily, Rin had included butterfly stitches in the kit, or else it would have just been a mess. As it was, I had a series of the strips gently holding my probable new scar shut, and a sterilized bandage over the lot of them to wind around my head and secure everything. I also cleaned the excess blood as well as I could with Obito's help, though by that point I probably looked like a horror movie victim. Too bad my hitai-ate was a loss, else I would have tied everything down that way and just said to hell with the rest of it.

At least I didn’t have any blind spots (unless I tried to look directly across the bridge of my nose at my other eye, which was a dumb thing to do anyway. One weakness eliminated or avoided, I supposed. It had been very, very close.

Then we gathered supplies—or rather, got more weaponry out of my pack—and set off for the cave.

It was a deathtrap and we knew it, but like hell we were leaving Kakashi there.


The cave hadn’t changed any in the previous five minutes. I had honestly expected something out of Kakkō, but apparently he was too busy picking on Kakashi to bother. It seemed weirder than it needed to be—Kakkō was now the sole survivor of a three-man squad, though I recalled that he wasn’t going to be nearly as affected by Taiseki’s death as…well, just about any other person confronted with the death of a teammate. Iwa might have been kind of shit at the whole teamwork and camaraderie thing.

Obito and I dropped to the ground and bolted into the entrance, hardly leaving even a whisper of our presence for anyone to follow. There were other Rock-nin around, though damned if I knew where when my chakra sense was being disobedient. We were well into enemy territory by this point.

But to be honest? I didn’t care. I was almost too angry to care.

The inside of the artificial cave was very dark, and we were back-lit by the entrance. Nothing else was even in the cave, though I wondered if it was supposed to be some kind of shelter. Maybe that’d explain where all the Iwa-nin came from, and why they’d come back eventually.

I could see Kakkō with his back to us. As I watched with fury building slowly in the back of my mind, he turned gave us a dismissive sort of glance over his shoulder.

“Tch. Everyone else is useless.” Theory confirmed—Kakkō didn’t care that both of his teammates were crow food.

A little voice in my head kept up a constant chant: Kill him kill him kill him—

Behind him, I could barely make out Kakashi’s outline against the back wall. He wasn’t moving.

Obito’s eyes narrowed, spinning slowly. “Kei, there’s something wrong with his chakra.”

“Genjutsu.” I replied. God, I hoped it was just genjutsu. Kakashi had the most freakish mental endurance ever seen in a human being—if the Tsukuyomi couldn’t break him, I doubted an Iwa-nin’s best shot would work either.

“Seems you’re not just kids…” Kakkō began, a smirk crawling across his face.

“Careful, he’s fast.” I said, widening my stance and drawing my broken kodachi again. I slipped the scabbard into my other hand. Halfway-solid chakra shaping or not, it was better than a kunai for this kind of thing.

“I remember.” Obito said in a growl, a kunai appearing in his hand.

Kakkō charged, blade sliding out of his sleeves. Obito and I followed suit.

Kakkō spun, blades cutting through the air almost too fast to see. I deflected, allowing the kodachi scabbard to take the hit and be shredded instead of my blade, while Obito leapt over the strike and rolled to a stop behind the jonin.

Obito reversed his momentum, lunging at Kakkō’s back while I bounced high and away, out of range.

Kakkō’s first blade went up, scraping against Obito’s blocking kunai with a metallic screech and a shower of sparks, pushing him back. The Iwa-nin’s second blade lashed out, sweeping over my head and allowing me to get inside his guard with a kodachi slash.

He slashed at me again and again, while I deflected left-right-left with my sword squealing under the strain.

Obito dashed in again, trying to impale Kakkō through the thinner side panel of his flak jacket, only for the jōnin to flip over him with minimal effort. I leapt, trying to catch him off guard, but the jōnin knocked me aside again and I landed in a crouch with full intent of wheeling, charging, and staking him to the ground with blade or with scabbard.

Kakkō turned all of his attention on Obito, both blades ready to open his throat like a reversed pair of scissors. Obito threw himself backward, under the swing, and I closed the gap.

I could already tell that Kakkō wasn’t a prisoner of his momentum—he could reverse his swing and did—but I was too angry to care.

I wasn’t going to content myself with a shallow swipe across his chest like Kakashi would have—I was going to kill him.

Obito saved me from the “suicide” part of my attack, slamming his heels down on Kakkō’s wrists even from his disadvantageous angle.

Kakashi would have gone for a swing. I went for a stab.

Both of my “blades”—one ten-centimeter job with a ragged broken edge and one scabbard that ought to have been blunt—sank into Kakkō’s flesh as though his vest wasn’t there. I’d been in the middle of a roll across his back when I launched my killing strike, meaning that they were embedding themselves deep into his rib cage through his back and punching a hole through each lung.

I left my weapons where they were once Kakkō hit the ground under me. When I was sure his chakra had sputtered out, I followed Obito to Kakashi’s side. I didn’t bother retrieving my weapons, not after feeling both of them start to crack in my hands. He was the only Iwa-nin I could sense, and he was busy being dead.

“He’s…” Obito began, tipping Kakashi’s head upward.

The genjutsu was gone, dismissed by Kakkō’s death or otherwise. His headband was gone. As Obito made a distressed noise in the back of his throat, words failing him, I wondered if the Iwa-nin had cut off Kakashi’s fingers or removed his nails.

It would have matched his left eye.

Or the bloodied socket that remained.

“Kakashi…?” I heard myself say distantly. Oh god, oh god no…

Without even really realizing it, I took Kakashi from Obito, supporting his weight on my arms and shoulder. I felt along his still-covered neck for a pulse, ignoring the feel of blood seeping out of the fabric and onto my hands—they were bloodied enough that I hardly would have noticed anyway.

Obito got to business faster than I did—I was semi-aware of him cutting the ropes keeping Kakashi’s arms tied behind his back, of him helping me lay our teammate flat on the ground.

“Kei! You have to help him!” Obito’s voice… I looked at him, and saw tears streaming down his face even though his eyes were still the blood-red Sharingan. His voice was cracking, like it hadn’t in months, and he looked younger than he had since this clusterfuck of a mission had started. Help him, help us, make things better!

Why was it always me? Why was I apparently the axis on which the entire fucking world turned? I couldn’t fix things because my existence threw things into chaos that I could barely compensate for! I could heal injuries and punch the right people, but it wouldn’t matter because there was always something bigger and badder that could eat me for breakfast.

Why was I even on the fucking team? Rin hadn’t had to do anything other than stand there and her team would make it through with fewer injuries! So what if she fucking died down the line? In the immediate sense she didn’t do anything and made it out all right and argh why was I being such a bitch.

Now, not then. The Dreamer was barely audible. Do the job in front of you.

I found the lever for my emotions—needs versus wants—and crammed everything into a new mental box. Later. Always later.

Hopefully I’d be alive to see it.

“Mystical Palm Jutsu.” I murmured.

I didn’t need to use it for long. I just needed Kakashi stable enough to move, because there was no way we were going to stay here. Whether this place was Iwa’s forward base of operations or not—and I was leaning toward “yes” out of the two options—we couldn’t afford to be caught anywhere we’d be outnumbered. All three of us versus two of them had ended with one kidnapping, while two-on-one confrontations resulted in two wins. Neither Kakkō nor Taiseki had demonstrated the variety of techniques that Mahiru had yesterday, but I couldn’t assume that would be the case for everyone.

At the same time, I was performing a diagnostic scan the best I could.

Aside from his eye, Kakashi was also missing all the fingernails on his right hand. Someone had reopened the slash on the underside of his arm, too, and it was bleeding sluggishly despite all the healing chakra I’d put into it over the last day. I could feel the bruise I’d given him yesterday, and there was a possibility of brain swelling thanks to Taiseki cracking him over the head. I didn’t know if he’d woken up at any point between then and now, which made little alarm bells go off inside my head.

Heart rate: Slow, but strong. Respiration: Within acceptable parameters, barely. Chakra levels: Passable. Stress hormones: High.

All of the medical jargon was a way to keep my mind off the specifics. Ergo, who was so badly injured. I didn’t know how to deal with that.

“Is he going to be okay?” Obito asked, and I noticed his Sharingan spinning in what I assumed was a nervous tic.

I’d stopped the bleeding by then, and snapped my fingers experimentally in front of Kakashi’s nose. No reaction. “I think so. At least we can probably move him now.”

Obito gave a laugh that was a shadow of the real thing. “Never thought I’d be glad Sensei made us do all those carry exercises.”

All you need to know about “carry exercises” is as follows: Any two of us can carry Sensei or Kushina, and any one of us can carry any of the others for at least a hundred meters at a significant fraction of our top speeds.

It was easier to think about that than about what we were using that training for.

“Well, when I get him patched up we can think about that.” I replied, and I pulled a third scroll from my kunai holster. One unsealed med-kit later and I could get to work.

I brushed Kakashi’s hair out of the way with my free hand, preparing to clean the wound site where his left eye had once been. Mystical Palm Jutsu had stopped the bleeding, but the injury was still raw and vulnerable to infection.

That was when Kakashi’s uninjured hand shot upward and caught my wrist in a grip strong enough to grind the bones together.

I had so many conflicting feelings crashing around in my head just then—fear, relief, pain, joy—that whatever I meant to say got stuck in my throat. The predominant words that came to mind were “ow” and “augh!” and neither got out.

“Kakashi, it’s just us.” Obito said, as quiet and unthreatening as possible. He didn’t move to stop Kakashi from breaking my arm, instead curling his hands into fists against the tops of his thighs.

Kakashi looked up at Obito with one scarily focused eye, then up at me. Then at where he was grinding all of the bones in my wrist together. I slowly reached up with my left hand to make a gesture of surrender. Sure, my wrist hurt like hell, but there were another couple of warring impulses to consider—the winner specifically wanted to avoid fighting or otherwise hurting Kakashi any more than Kakkō had.

“I…” Kakashi’s voice cracked and he blinked again, rapidly. Then, as his near-neutral expression morphed into dawning horror, he let go of my arm and his hand shot toward his empty eye socket.

Obito stopped him. “Don’t! You shouldn’t…”

“…I can’t see out of my left eye.” Kakashi’s voice shook just the slightest bit. “What happened to my eye?”

“It’s gone, Kakashi.” I said, finding my own voice at last. “I’m sorry. But I need you to hold still until I can finish healing what I can so we can get out of here. We don’t have any time.”

Kakashi closed his remaining eye for a second. He was apparently rallying, despite the loss. “…Okay.” I could see him shoving the thought—I’m half blind now, what use am I?—aside for later. Always later.

“Can you even move?” Obito asked, even as he helped Kakashi sit upright.

From the way he slumped even while leaning against Obito, I assumed that Kakashi was feeling at least a bit wobbly.

“Nnno. Not well.” Kakashi mumbled.

We need to give his chakra levels a serious boost to compensate. The Dreamer even helpfully provided a mental item catalogue of one of my other scrolls. I had food pills somewhere in one of them, but using that sort of metabolism stimulator on someone who had recently been bleeding all over the place didn’t strike me as a good plan. A blood replenishing pill would be a better choice—less chakra, but more, you know, blood.

“Obito, search this scroll.” I said, handing him a fourth scroll I’d stowed away in my clothes. This one came from the brace on my lower back. “The blood pills should be close to the edge. I’m pretty sure I packed a bottle, at least.”

“Probably.” Obito said, and he broke the wax seal on the edge of the scroll to take a look despite the fact that mine was also unsealed. I needed it open anyway—my med-kit’s bandages had all been used up—and caught the bottle he tossed at me a moment later.

The benefit of having a lot of small scrolls was, well, in always having relevant items on hand. The disadvantage was that most people only had two hands with which to use them.

(I packed a total of eight, four of which were on holsters on my hips and forearms, and there were redundancies of everything.)

At the very least, patching Kakashi back up was straightforward. Winding the bandages around his head was easier than it had been with my own, even using Mystical Palm Jutsu to close things further as I went. I was just finishing up on the bandages around his fingers when Obito made a quiet noise of triumph.

I tore open a packet of glucose and salt as Obito found the pills for me, spilling its contents into the mouth of my canteen. It was still mostly full, and together with the pills it could make a sort of emergency consumable IV. While everyone on our team sans Sensei had the same blood type, I wasn’t willing to risk any transfusions in the field. Guess Kakashi would just have to deal with the nasty taste, though.

Kakashi remained very, very silent the entire time. He drank the contents of the canteen in a flash—I mean, I was sure Obito saw his face but I just so happened to be looking away to re-seal my supplies. When I looked back, Kakashi was holding the canteen in front of my face and the blood on his face had smeared a bit to show that he’d removed his mask and put it back on in a fraction of a second. He was also sitting up on his own, which was something a fair bit more minor.

He must have been feeling better to pull that off.

“What’s the mission’s status?” Kakashi asked, only a little rougher-sounding than usual.

“A mess.” Obito said bluntly.

“Yes, I gathered that.”

“I’m down two supply scrolls and missing a bit of my face, you’re missing more of your face, and I have no idea where our explosives went.” I summed up quickly. Situation normal: all fucked up. One of these days we were going to have a mission that doesn’t devolve and we’d die of heart attacks from shock.

Kakashi’s remaining eye narrowed suddenly. “I thought—”

And that’s when all of us heard the hissing.

Saw the black ink spiraling outward from Kakkō’s corpse, trailing blood, into a pattern I remembered and suddenly wished I didn’t.

Solid explosives were related to, and yet distinct from, explosive seal tags that I’d been working with for years. They were dense with chakra and chemical components that were most often found in dynamite, and often too dangerous to handle until coated in sawdust and plastic. A stray flame wouldn’t set them off, but a concentrated chakra charge or a Fire jutsu would cause a chain reaction within the structure of the device. It would happen slowly at first, subtly, until it had thoroughly infiltrated the surface it was attached to and lit the area up like a glowing spider web.

Then the ink would appear, a last-second warning that could only be disarmed by the chakra and blood of the person who had first set it.

They were bombs for shinobi without access to Explosion Release jutsu and exploding clay. Time bombs.

I should have known that Kakkō would be familiar with them. I just couldn’t tell you if his plan would have been to rig Kakashi to explode once the interrogation was over—maybe he would have just killed him. It didn’t matter either way, anymore.

All that mattered was that we were all going to die.

All of us got to our feet instantly. Obito may not have known what the problem was but he was good at reading people and even better with his Sharingan at last.

"Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck—!” was my initial response, faster than I’d ever spoken before, even as I lurched to my feet. I started making seals with my bloodied hands, back against the wall. “Obito, it's a bomb. It's our bomb. Kakashi, please, I need you both up—I can't make a wall and I need time—"

Kakashi and Obito began making seals almost faster than I could force my chakra to listen to me. I knew that Obito had never learned Earth Release at all, but apparently having Kakashi around and having the Sharingan made the entire question moot.

They slammed their hands down together, and the ground rumbled. "Earth Release: Earth Wall!"

As the wall was rising, I could feel the chakra of the bomb start to condense still further in the nearby rock. With blood already on my hands, all I needed to do was take my completed seals, one of my scroll, and a bit of cover. I slammed all of them down on Kakashi and Obito’s wall. "Sealing Art: Reinforce!”

Ink lines wrapped around the makeshift barrier, glowing slightly purple, and I felt the earth harden into solid rock in the center. Hopefully that would be enough—

The explosives fanatic in me was extremely appreciative of the bomb itself when it went off. The rest of me was in mindless panic mode because we weren’t supposed to be that close aaaaaaaaaugh

I remember an explosion, and hitting something.

That’s it.


It was dark.

I blinked a couple of times, thoughts moving slowly and bouncing around the inside of my head—or at least the headache made it feel like it. Light-dark, light-dark. Oh. Yeah, my eyes were still working. And most of my back felt like it was on fire, which was a nice bonus to the “fuck you” vibes the universe seemed to be sending me lately. Something wet was seeping down my neck from my hair, and the inkling that it was yet another head injury didn’t go away the longer I tried to think my way through the fog.

When I tried to move, I was briefly confused—what the hell was on my back?—before I cracked my eyes open again and tried to lever myself up onto my hands and knees anyway. I saw white, and after a second realized that Kakashi was lying limp on top of me. The explosion seemed to have thrown both of us into a heap of sprawling limbs.

I just hoped that nothing was broken. I could feel Yin chakra pumping around my coils, speeding what healing it could, but Kakashi was in for his second concussion of the day if he was out again. At least he was alive, though—

I wiggled out from under him, trying to figure out what the hell had happened since the bomb went off, and heard a faint rustle of fabric that was slightly too far away to be me or my unconscious teammate.

I didn’t need to consult my fractured chakra sense to have an idea of what I’d find if I looked. Heaving myself onto all fours, I looked around. And saw almost exactly what I expected. "No...no, no, no, no, this can't be happening, it's not real it's not happening it's just a dream oh god no..."

The boulder was different, not as big. It looked like part of our own goddamned wall had collapsed, pinning Obito under slightly less in the way of raw tonnage. He was still stuck, still bleeding sluggishly as half his body was trapped under rock. Part of his head, his entire right half of his torso. Legs were free, though.

I could still hear him say, haltingly, "...Kei...please...d-don't give up..."

"Obito?!" I burst out, scrambling over to him.

He looked up at me, visible Sharingan still spinning a little. He almost smiled, and it would have been marginally comforting if he wasn’t coughing blood out of that collapsed lung. “H-Hey...you're alive, right?"

I drew a shuddering breath. "...Yeah. Me and Kakashi both. We're alive. T-Thanks to you."

"That's good...Kei, I can't...I can't feel much of anything, now..." No, no, you’re not allowed to say that, stop it!

"I..." I wanted to scream. I wanted to cry. I wanted to curse the gods and the demons and everything I could think of, but the words jammed up under my collarbone and I could feel my chest constricting under the pressure. I wanted to throw up, even, but I’d just choke and make a mess and be fucking useless.

I grabbed Obito’s hand, putting the other over my mouth because all that was escaping was a high-pitched whine of I can’t do anything.

Distantly, I heard Kakashi stir.

"Wha...” He groaned, rolling over, and I heard him make a choked-off noise. He lurched up onto his feet and ran over, dropping to his knees next to us. I could see him put one hand on the rock, the other on the ground next to my leg. He could see Obito clearly. “Obito?! This... No, no, this can't be happening..."

Obito made a noise that was half laugh and half choking on blood. "Hey…you jerk. Finally awake, h-huh?"

Kakashi’s expression was one I'd never wanted to see, and I froze up. He pushed against the rock pinning Obito with all of his strength, to no avail.

It didn’t even twitch. After a moment of pointless struggling, Kakashi slipped to his knees as the enormity of the moment finally hit him. His fist met the rock again, this time in a futile gesture of defiant, helpless anger. “DAMMIT!” He was crying. “Why can’t I—if I’d never been captured, you wouldn’t be—you shouldn’t have come back.

Obito’s hand tightened around mine, just a bit. "Hey...I finally thought of something..."

Kakashi’s voice was nearly a howl. "What could you possibly be thinking of at a time like this?"

I closed my eyes, hardly aware of the tears tracking down my face. My voice didn’t seem to be worth much, even in my head. We're twenty meters underground in hostile territory. Shout some more, will you? Real helpful, that.

Obito gave one of those laughs again. It was awful. I looked up when he sprayed blood across our joined hands. "Your present...for becoming a jōnin. Remember?"

"No..." From the look on Kakashi’s face, he’d forgotten entirely.

I didn’t blame him. Trust Obito to remember something like that. I only did because of what it meant.

Obito went on doggedly, as though Kakashi hadn’t said anything. I wasn’t even sure how much he could hear, anymore. "I promise it's...not a burden. I-It's useless to me, now...Kakashi. Take my Sharingan..."

Kakashi stared. "But..."

Obito’s Sharingan focused on me. I stared back, feeling my stomach settle somewhere around the center of the earth. It’s happening. "Kei...do this for me...okay? Kakashi...needs a sharp left eye...someone looking out for him..."

I nodded, even as I felt my throat constrict completely.

Obito smiled, even as blood stained his teeth red and tracked its way down his jaw. "I-I know it'll hurt...I'll be fine."

"F-Fine. Fine?! You're..." I forced it out, barely, and my free hand formed a fist in front of my mouth. No no no no no

His smile was so sad. "I-I know."

I swallowed hard, feeling a hiccup build in my chest. "Obito...what...what do you want me to tell Rin-chan?"

"...T-Tell her... No.” Obito grimaced, and I saw him make an abortive motion that might have been a flinch if he could move. “Don't...don't tell her anything that w-will hurt her..."

Fuck you fuck you fuck you. I clamped down on that though, trying to force that helpless anger back. I said, very quietly, "...You love her. I'll tell her that."

Obito looked at me like he’d never seen me before."Kei...don't."

"Fuck you, fuck you for dying on us,” was my half-shrieked reply, and I was crying everywhere, “fuck you for going away without even telling Rin-chan you love her more than anything! You don't get to die without settling things with her!"

For a long moment, neither of us said anything. Obito squeezed my hand gently, and I tried scrubbing at my eyes with my other sleeve. It didn’t really work.

Obito choked out, "...T-take my goggles to her. Tell her..."

"...Yeah.” I drew a shuddering breath, “Yeah, I will." His goggles had been dropped in the debris—I could see the orange from where I was sitting, out of the corner of my eye.

"Now...my eye. Please, Kei..." Obito’s voice was pleading.

Kakashi made a choking noise of his own. "Obito..."

Obito wheezed. "Kakashi...listen to me. P-Protect Rin-chan and Kei...with your life.” No, no, don’t leave us. “Please, p-promise me you'll protect them...with my eye. Please, Kakashi..."

Kakashi’s hand closed over both of ours, and I bit my lip hard. Kakashi was saying, "I'll protect everyone, Obito. I promise. I'll protect them with my life...” Another strangled noise. “…like you should have been able to. Like you did and still are..."

Obito coughed blood again. "Heh...I'll...I won't forgive you...if you don't..."

It took me a long moment of internal struggle to get myself to let go of Obito’s hand. I stood, trying to settle my nerves. It wasn’t working and I knew deep inside that it wouldn’t, that nothing ever would. I couldn’t admit that. Couldn’t let them down.

I felt the Dreamer queue up as much Yin chakra as she could spare. For once, it was without comment. I turned back to the boys, to where Kakashi was still clutching Obito’s hand. "...Lie down next to Obito, Kakashi. I'll...I'll make this as painless as I can."

Extracting an eye wasn’t hard. Kakashi and Obito didn’t let go of each other’s hands, and I could see the pain make Obito’s whole body seize up for a moment. It should have freaked me out more that that was the case, and I was sure it’d hit me later. My hands glowing with medical chakra to keep the Sharingan alive, I gently pulled the eye free.

Obito gritted his teeth.

I’d already undone the bandages around Kakashi’s head. The gaping bloodied socket was staring up at me, making my stomach briefly turn over. The optic nerve dangling from Obito’s Sharingan was swinging, ends seeking connectors. I had to connect Kakashi’s severed nerve with the Sharingan’s, and brought my other hand down on Kakashi’s forehead to open the connection. The myriad muscles around the eye would follow suit afterward.

Nerve first. Eye in a bit.

I was going to throw up once it was actually convenient to do it.

Snip. Snip.

With Obito’s eye safely in its new home—augh—I brought both hands together over Kakashi’s face. My hands were glowing green and I could feel the muscle in his face knit itself back together, despite brief hesitation around the Sharingan’s alien nature. Oh god, oh god.

Eye surgery should not be that easy. It was almost like the Sharingan wanted to…

Nope, not having that thought.

As I finished, I felt my chakra sense reorganize itself into something sensible. I’d been ignoring the feedback it’d been getting, being the mental equivalent of a speaker shrieking in my ear, but even as I let Kakashi sit up and reclaimed my place at Obito’s side, I could feel the whispers of incoming enemy chakra signatures.

A lot of them.

“How many?” was Kakashi’s response to my sudden twitchiness. He was already standing, if leaning against the boulder. God, if he looked like such a wreck, I didn’t want to see a mirror for a while. All of us were so fucked it wasn’t even funny.

“More than we can take.” I said quietly, feeling the dread chill of death settle in my bones.

We were all dead. Our “defensive position” was a half-collapsed artificial cave that had once been Iwa’s forward operations base, with Obito down and both Kakashi and I on our last legs. The Dreamer had gone quiet, now that she was depending on a bare minimum of our stored Yin chakra to maintain coherence.

Kakashi gave both of us a long look—pain, regret, fear—and then he turned away.

Oh god. He was going out there.

And I couldn’t leave Obito alone.

I didn’t stop him and immediately wondered why the fuck I wouldn’t. And then I felt Obito’s hand tighten on mine and I remembered and felt horrible about it.

"Kei...go.” My head whirled back toward Obito so fast I nearly got whiplash. I couldn’t look into his eyes—eye—anymore but reading his chakra told me a story on its own. He was so afraid, but his voice didn’t betray any of it. “Please...don't let him die. He needs to...to keep his promise."

"N-No, I can't..."

Obito laughed and it was an awful sound. I could hear the fluid in his lungs. "...I'm not going…anywhere, Kei..."

"...I'm so sorry.” I said, leaning in close. “I'm sorry I couldn't... I should have done something! You shouldn't be stuck here..."

Obito’s laugh was hardly audible at all. He was still smiling. "Heh... That's just l-like you, Kei...” Please don’t leave me alone. “G-Go. Move forward..."

"I...okay.” Hot tears tracked down my face. “Okay. You win."

Obito didn’t let go. Not just yet. I wasn’t sure I could have taken it if he had. It would have been too much like goodbye. "But...wait. Take my headband...yours was torn..."

His hitai-ate had come mostly undone after the rock-fall. If he wanted me to, I could carefully work the metal and the fabric out from under the stone without hurting him any more than…well. I bit down on my lip again before finding something to say. "...Your gift to me, huh? K-Keep giving things away and there w-won't be anything left..."

"I know..." I’m sorry.

"Oh, Obito. I'll...” Why couldn't I stop this from happening? “I'll treasure it." I had to say something or else I’d just start blubbering and be in no shape at all to help anyone. Only after I’d extracted the hitai-ate, I leaned in and kissed him on the forehead, above his eyeless socket. My hand was still clutching his. "Sleep well, Obito... I...we'll see each other again soon."

“You…know it.” Obito murmured, and let go.

If only he know how true that could turn out to be.

I left, after grabbing his goggles where they sat and slinging them around my neck.

It took almost all of the self-control I had left, but I left Obito there and leapt for the outside world. His headband’s metal plate cut grooves into my hand, I was clinging to it so hard, and landing next to Kakashi gave me a perfect view of what would have, at one point, been Kakkō, Mahiru, and Taiseki’s reinforcements. Twenty Iwa-nin of various shapes and sizes, looking down at us from the first rung of the canopy with various levels of interest and/or sadism.

We were on the ground, looking up. Kakashi was still as stone, newly-implanted Sharingan whirling as he tried to pick out the best idiot to start on. I could feel all of their chakra, and the prognosis wasn’t good.

Then the cave collapsed behind me, and I tried very hard not to think about it. If I thought about it, I’d break. Instead, I tied Obito’s headband in place, where mine once would have been.

If I look back, I am lost

Everyone seemed to be waiting.

"...We're outnumbered." Kakashi commented. His tone belied the way his chakra was in utter turmoil. He wanted to kill everyone and knew he couldn’t. It was just barely keeping him from trying anyway.

My voice was astoundingly steady, and I could feel the same sensation burning in my chest. "Yeah. We're pretty much fucked."

He looked to me, with Obito’s eye. "...Kei. Is Obito...?”

"...Soon, if not already." I said, staring right back.

"I’ll protect you.” Kakashi said, looking away. He was watching one of the Iwa-nin to his right, who had gone for a weapon. “Stay back."

"Not a chance."

Kakashi looked at me again. "That was an order." He was already working on the Chidori’s seals.

I slipped into a ready stance behind him, trying to focus for the Rasengan. Ahead of us, the enemy shinobi began to fan out. "I don't care. Rank means nothing when you're dead."

"...On my mark." He gave in without a fight.

I closed my eyes briefly. "Right."

We were dead.

I went first, counting on Obito’s eye to give Kakashi an edge in following my movements. I was outwardly unarmed, sans a kunai in one hand and a budding swirl of chakra in the other.

The first enemy lunged, but I was ready. I’d only have two shots, max, but I was ready. "Rasengan!"

Behind me, Kakashi met someone else with the metallic shriek of the Chidori.

I was about to meet the second guy, since I was about to go out fighting anyway, when my vision was obscured by yellow.

No…

Sensei had found us. Sensei had found us and he pushed me to the ground and started killing Iwa-nin like he was a fox in a henhouse and all the chickens had less than two seconds to realize that they were on the menu.

NO, YOU DON’T FUCKING GET TO DO THIS, I HATE YOU I HATE YOU I HATE YOU I HATE YOU—

Dying would have been easy. I’d done it before.

Living…I didn’t know if I knew how.

And I couldn’t feel Obito’s chakra.

We killed every last one of those motherfuckers. Kakashi got two before he dropped like a rock, and I ran back over to him without even going for the guy who, honestly, should have probably been my next target. Sensei killed him anyway, so what did I care? Sensei could kill every single one of them and I wouldn’t care at all.

My legs turned to jelly right when I reached Kakashi, rolling him over to check his pulse (okay) and chakra levels (argh fuck). He’d be okay. He had to be okay.

I was trembling.

Sensei landed next to me a minute later, flicking blood from his kunai. He crouched over Kakashi, but he was looking at me. "Kei-kun, where's Obito? What happened to all of you?"

I stared at him. Thought about the bandages over my face, about my flagging chakra levels, about Obito and his fucking eye and Kakashi and the Iwa-nin who were so thoroughly dead. I thought about everything. Everything I’d been trying to put off. I croaked, "...You're late, Sensei. You're too late.”

Sensei put his hands on my shoulders, trying to get me to make sense. I wasn’t making sense at all, was I? “Kei …please. Tell me what happened.”

“…Obito’s dead.” I said it and it was a lie and yet it wasn’t, because I didn’t know if the Obito we knew would ever survive to come back. “Kakashi was captured and tortured by Iwa-nin. I…I’m in…I’m okay, but all of the explosives are gone.”

I could see the storm looming and couldn’t get out of the way.

Sensei’s voice went very quiet. “…No.” It sounded a little like how I did when I really meant to say “oh god no, no, please” and I wished it didn’t.

"...He wanted...” I was shaking under Sensei’s hands. “…he wanted us to go home safely. We can still complete the mission. I...I'm fit for duty."

No, I wasn’t.

Sensei unintentionally echoed me with, "...No, you're not."

Sensei looked down at Kakashi, who was entirely out cold with a chakra system that looked like a well in Death Valley. Then he eased his arms under Kakashi’s shoulders and knees and lifted, carrying him against his chest like he was a child. I sat there amongst the bodies and the blood, thinking in circles.

Wasn’t he a child? Wasn’t I?

"Sensei?" I said blankly.

“Come on, Kei. Just follow me.” Sensei told me. His voice was so soft and…and it felt like he knew I was breaking.

I agreed, and obeyed.


I didn’t remember much of the trip away from that thrice-cursed place, after the fact. I mostly just remember stopping for the night somewhere else, putting one foot in front of the other the whole way. Kakashi didn’t wake up and I mostly just followed Sensei’s back. I had no idea where we were going until we stopped.

Sensei reached a tree and set Kakashi down among the roots. They were big enough that the hollow underneath was shelter and not just a terrible lean-to. I followed and dropped next to him, resting my arms across the tops of my knees. "We're going to stop, rest, and reevaluate. We're going to plan. We will not let Obito die in vain."

I said distantly, “Understood, Sensei.”

It was getting dark and cold out and I was still covered in dried or drying blood. I wasn’t in the best shape at all, and I couldn’t bring myself to care.

Sensei’s hand dropped onto my head. I blinked up at him, even as he sat down next to me and kept his other hand on Kakashi’s forehead."...I'm sorry, Kei."

"For what?” I asked. “We fucked up, Obito's dead, and our mission's done for. Our fault.” My fault.

Sensei’s eyes were so dark. He almost looked away, but stopped halfway and looked back. "...If I'd let you have that summon scroll earlier, none of this would have happened."

"...No,” I heard myself say, hearing my tone pitch upward and unable to stop, “no, that can't be—Sensei, it's my fault, I'm sorry, I should have known we were heading for a trap—"

I didn’t realize that I’d started to pull away, to lash out, until Sensei caught both of my wrists in his hands and I couldn’t do it anymore. "No, Kei! Listen to me!"

I swallowed hard, protest dying on my lips. "I..."

"Kei...that scroll was for a minor crane summon.” Sensei pressed on, even as I was shaking my head. “It wasn't anything you couldn't handle. I was planning on letting you sign it after we got back...” Oh god what have I done. “And if I hadn't wanted to wait, you would have been able to find me before this. I'm sorry, Kei-kun. I'm so, so sorry." The next thing I knew, Sensei was crushing me in a hug that didn’t help at all.

I went limp. "...I don't want to talk about this anymore," I whimpered into his flak jacket. Leave me alone, please!

He didn’t.

I cried myself out, screaming inside my head and into Sensei’s vest, pounding my fists against his chest. I was flat-out sobbing, sides heaving as I howled my grief. It felt like bleeding, only it wasn’t real and instead of getting weaker and dizzier all I could feel was the sensation of being drained. I was distantly surprised I was still in one piece after.

I ran out of tears eventually.

It was a long time later, when the moon was out in full, that Kakashi finally woke up. I was standing out in the middle of the field next to our campsite when I heard him jolt awake, and didn’t look back for a long while. Sensei was closer, anyway.

I rubbed my hands together and wished that something, anything would take the dried blood away. We weren’t near a river, though, and our canteens were empty. I felt it under my nails and coating the ridges in my hands and fingers, crumbling as it dried. I just…didn’t care about much else.

Kakashi made his way over to me, slowly. He stood at my right side. "...We're still alive."

I closed my eyes."Yeah. Sensei...found us."

"...And Obito?" Kakashi asked hesitantly. As though he didn’t already know the answer.

“There was nothing we could do. He was too far gone."

"...I thought so.” Kakashi murmured. He didn’t look at me. “What are we doing now?"

“Tonight? Nothing.” I’d heard that from Sensei, though I couldn’t remember much else that he’d said. “Tomorrow, we’ll complete the mission.”

Kakashi said quietly, “Just like he wanted.”

I nodded, one hand resting on the goggles dangling around my neck. I didn’t see the world go black at the edges. I didn’t see anything at all. I just felt…a warm nothingness, reaching. I didn’t fight it.

My knees hit the ground, and that’s the last thing I remember.

Chapter Text

I don’t remember very much from the next couple of weeks. What I do, though, I can at least record so I can try and wrestle with it later. Maybe never. Dunno yet.

It feels like looking through a scrapbook or an old photo album—context comes back when you’re looking directly at it, but they’re still just snapshots when you get down to it. The connective time is missing, and sometimes you don’t have any idea where it goes.

I have my own theory, and it involves a blanket fort, but that’s just me.


Training Ground Three hadn’t been my first choice for it. Hell, there wasn’t a “first choice” at all—if I’d had the choice, I wouldn’t be the one delivering the news of Obito’s death to Rin. But I had promised to carry news back after browbeating Obito into telling me what to say, and it wasn’t fair to ask anyone else. Still, I probably would have gone to Rin’s apartment and not the field next to the Memorial Stone.

It felt…well, it felt like the last bastion of happy memories, despite what the place really represented in the larger picture.

If Rin hadn’t come looking for me and Kakashi, I don’t know what would have happened.

Seeing Obito’s goggles in her hands made it all real. I bit my lip, fighting not to look away from the expression on Rin’s face. It was slowly morphing into the same dawning horror and grief I’d felt when I woke up in that collapsed cave, and Rin’s fingers clamped tight over the durable plastic.

“So it’s true.” Rin murmured, clutching the goggles to her chest. Tears slid down her face, dropping toward the ground from her chin. “I-I thought, when I didn’t see his name…I hoped…”

Only two members of Team Minato had checked into the hospital that day. And Kakashi sat next to me, new hitai-ate slanted sideways over Obito’s eye and expression totally blank. That the three of us were sitting together was a minor event all its own, because someone very important left a palpable hole in the scene.

My hands twitched badly before they went still on my thighs, white-knuckled. I was looking down, and I had plenty of time to contemplate my epic fuckup that way.

I should have been able to do something.

But no—between my traitorous soft heart and how I was cracked in the head, between the changes I’d made and whatever the hell popped up in response…Obito had been buried.

And I still didn’t know for sure if he was dead or alive. I hadn’t felt his chakra and if he really was dead then everything would be different. If he wasn’t, I’d left my best friend to die. If my chakra sense hadn’t failed me then…

“—I’m sorry.” I choked out, blinking rapidly. I hadn’t realized my throat was so constricted until I tried to talk through it, and then it hurt. “You…you wanted me to look after him, right?”

“I wanted…you to look after each other.” Rin corrected, scrubbing at her eyes with her sleeve. It wasn’t helping. “I wanted you both to come home. I wanted you to be safe.”

“I couldn’t—shouldn’t have promised that.” Did I even promise that? Or was it just implied? “I can’t say anything that could…I’m sorry, Rin-chan. I can’t do anything else.”

“Yeah, it’s too late, isn’t it?” Rin gave a hiccupping laugh that came with still more tears. “I just…thought he’d be late, like usual? If you were here and he wasn’t…”

“Oh, Rin-chan…” I reached out, offering a hug or something, but Rin shook her head.

“And I know—I know you were there too and it’s not fair to cry like this—” Rin was still crying.

“Why the hell would I be mad at you?” My voice rose in pitch and volume, but it wasn’t really yelling. Gods above, I felt horrible too. “You’re allowed to be sad—”

“All of us are.” Kakashi said in a murmur, and I stopped.

“…Right. Right. It’s okay to be upset and mourn.” I said, refocusing. I drew a shuddering breath. “He—I promised to tell you—”

“He loved you.” Kakashi put in, gently, and Rin stared back and forth between the two of us.

Then her face crumpled. “Then why couldn’t he come home?! I’m—I’m not angry at him but—” Rin hiccupped. “I…I would…”

Can you accept these feelings, knowing that he might really be gone forever?

Why were my hands shaking?

Oh, right.

I hugged Rin tightly and held on for as long as she needed me to.

But life always had to come back, in the end. And there were consequences to everything, as I was learning.


The Hokage could generally be trusted to make hearings as painful as possible, being a military leader in a nation under fire for five damned years. To that end, rather than taking place at the Mission Desk or the Hokage’s office like most ordinary debriefings would go, we’d been called to the Council room. The room itself was designed a little like how I’d imagined the Wizengamot chambers to be, with one of jury-box-like structures to each side of the Hokage’s podium. The central chamber floor was sunken into the ground, meaning that those on trial would always be looking up at their accusers.

“This is the special hearing with regards to the joint mission recently completed by Team Minato and Team Kakashi.” The Hokage wasn’t smoking, just then. His expression was pinched and grave, and the shadow of his hat made anything else difficult to determine. I knew he was worn down, by age and the nature of the Hokage office, but at that moment he looked and felt like the war leader he’d pretty much always been.

I felt very, very small.

Sensei stood behind Kakashi and me, hands clasped behind his back. Kakashi was to my left, in the same position and with Obito’s eye closed. I tried not to squirm, shifting my weight subtly from foot to foot despite my best efforts to stay still. I was caught between swaying in place due to fatigue and fidgeting—never a good combination. Both of us had only recently (as in three hours beforehand) been discharged from the hospital, but Kakashi hid it better.

The chamber’s box seats were full, with representatives from the Uchiha clan making up fully one-half of the right side. The rest were assembled from various other groups in the village—the Intelligence division, the Hyūga clan, half-a-dozen jōnin, someone who was probably from ANBU, and the two members of the Konoha Council—Koharu Utatane, Homura Mitokado, and Danzō Shimura.

And on the floor with us, either acting as legal representative or on-hand interrogator, was Inoshi Yamanaka.

“We will begin now,” the Hokage ordered, narrow-eyed glare sweeping the chamber.

I wondered, in a distant sort of way, if Fugaku or one of the other older Uchiha had said or done something before the trial started that had irked the Hokage, given how the Uchiha clan’s corner was literally all theirs.

Or maybe I was reading too far into things.

The Hokage said, “Team Minato, begin your report.”

I was staring at the floorboards with the intent to try and sink to the center of the earth, and so Kakashi stepped forward in my place even though he shouldn’t have. Captain or not, he didn’t know.

“Four days ago, my team split off from Sensei in order to infiltrate Iwa battle-lines and destroy the Kannabi Bridge in Kusagakure territory.” Kakashi’s voice was steady, but his chakra was in severe emotional turmoil. “In our initial contact with Iwa forces, we killed an advance scout. Once our team was on the move, we encountered his reinforcements.”

“Bingo book profiles list the three Iwa-nin as Mahiru, Taiseki, and Kakkō—all jōnin.” Inoshi put in, when Kakashi momentarily drew a blank.

Kakashi hadn’t seen much of Kakkō or Taiseki, in comparison to Obito and me.

Kakashi went on, “In the ensuing fight, Keisuke and Obito managed to fend off Taiseki. However, I was captured.”

“Captured” implied a lot of things, some of which I’d seen and would swear an oath about in the coming days. But for the moment, it was nicely vague and left the rest of the narrative to me.

Kakashi would probably be ordered to meet with the Intelligence division at some point, for information about Iwa’s interrogation techniques and possibly for (something like) counseling since Sensei was shit at it. Sensei is a lot of things. A child therapist is not one of them.

I took over. “We immediately made the decision to abandon the mission and pursue.”

I could feel everyone in the room disapprove.

Kannabi had been a vital chokepoint for our offensive. Failing to destroy it would have cost lives in the sort of numbers comparable to Sakumo Hatake’s blunder five years ago.

“Kakashi, prior to the start of our mission, had been supplied with all high-grade demolitions equipment capable of damaging the bridge.” I continued in a monotone. “If we couldn’t retrieve him—or at least recover the explosives—our mission was automatically doomed to failure. Further, if he broke during interrogation, all future expeditions against Iwa forces in the area would be at an increased risk of failure.”

I could feel the eyes of everyone in the room, sans Kakashi and Sensei, on me.

“We laid a trap for Taiseki in order to counteract his demonstrated stealth skills.” I kept my gaze fixed in the middle distance, but my voice was clear. “Between my explosive tags and sensory skills, and Obito’s reaction time, we held out as a distraction for nearly four minutes. During that time, Kakkō made no move to reinforce his teammate.”

A lifetime when in combat against a jōnin.

“I was injured.” I said, and knew that everyone was looking at the scar on my face. “And Obito killed Taiseki when his Sharingan activated in the aftermath.”

I felt a flash of…something…from Fugaku. Pride, maybe?

“After administering basic first aid, we continued our self-imposed rescue mission.” Kakashi’s nearest hand twitched. I tried to ignore it. “Obito and I engaged Kakkō in close combat—the space inside the cave was too small for his larger Fire Release jutsu. I killed Kakkō in the end, with Obito providing the opening. ”

“I regained consciousness shortly afterward.” Kakashi said quietly. “Kakkō had extracted my left eye as part of his interrogation when genjutsu torture failed, even after reopening my injuries from the first fight and removing fingernails.”

And if Kakashi did break…well, no one knew. Kakkō certainly wasn’t going to go reporting anything to anyone, now. But I didn’t doubt that at least a few people in the audience were already trying to figure out what that would mean for his mission viability. People who were bleeding out were generally more susceptible to a lot of things, and that probably would have brought most people to their breaking point when combined with the other stuff Kakkō might have done.

Unless, apparently, your name was Kakashi Hatake.

I tried not to look at his hand. It was still bandaged.

“While we were trying to stem the bleeding and stabilize him, I realized that we hadn’t actually managed to recover the explosives.” I picked up the thread, unwilling to let Kakashi stay in that dark place if I could help it. I closed my eyes. “Kakkō had taken them, and rigged them on a dead-man’s switch tied to his chakra. We managed to organize a shield wall, but…”

“The blast knocked all of us unconscious.” Kakashi filled in. “When we came to, Obito was lying under a boulder, half-crushed but still alive by some miracle.”

Or curse.

Sensei’s chakra was leaping all over the place—it was the first time either of us had talked about Obito’s last moments. Still, he didn’t lose his straight-backed military stance.

“Obito…asked to make up for not giving me a promotion present.” Kakashi’s voice hardly wavered. “He begged Keisuke to transplant his eye.”

The last time they had a full, decent conversation, and it was a fight.

“And I did.” I tried not to remember. “We were immediately confronted by somewhere between twenty and twenty-five enemy shinobi upon leaving the cave, which collapsed on Obito. During our fight with them, Sensei arrived.”

“I neutralized all enemy combatants.” Sensei told them. “We rallied, completed the mission, and returned home.” I could only assume he had given his actual report while we were in the hospital.

After that, the room was silent for a while.

Then the Hokage nodded. “The floor is now open to question.”

“How did you know that Obito Uchiha was dead?” Fugaku asked sharply.

Dammit. Give me a question I can answer.

“Three pints of lost blood, a crushed lung, and ten tons of rock.” Kakashi said levelly.

That did not cover the mysterious lack of his chakra signature—which could have been because he was dead, or because he wasn’t there anymore. Or even because my chakra sense had been hideously unreliable on the mission. I didn’t know.

“Then did you recover his body?” Fugaku asked.

“No.” Sensei replied.

The Uchiha sector didn’t look at all happy. I couldn’t really blame them. For different reasons than they had, I kind of felt the same way.

“How did you know you could transplant his eye?” This came from Danzō, even as Fugaku was about to ask us something else.

“I didn’t.” I said quietly, forcing myself not to shake. Oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck— “But he asked me to.”

I did not want to look into Danzō’s face, regardless of how it’d be impossible for him to have already acquired Shisui’s Sharingan. Fucking nope. Putting myself on his radar by accident was bad enough, holy shit.

That silence stretched for a while, too.

“What reason did he have to give up his eye?” Fugaku asked.

Well, to paraphrase, “Someone needs to watch out for Kakashi. Needs a sharp left eye. Also what use is a Sharingan to a dead man?”

“He said that he didn’t need it anymore.” I said. “That Kakashi…needed someone looking out for him.” Literally.

Kakashi grimaced under his mask. “He may have felt some misplaced guilt about my capture. Or about the argument we’d had earlier.” Clear in his tone is the note of but I don’t understand why.

Obito had the biggest heart out of any kid I’d ever met. That was why.

“What right did he have to ask for the transplant operation?” Fugaku continues as though I didn’t say anything.

“Uchiha-dono.” Inoshi got the full force of Fugaku’s glare for interrupting. The older blond man merely blinked and commented, “This line of questioning is unproductive. But I might have a solution.”

“Yamanaka-san?” The Hokage raises one graying eyebrow.

“I’ve used my family jutsu to enter Gekkō-kun’s mind before.” Inoshi said in a mild voice. “I can do it again and confirm everything we’ve discussed.”

I think I can point him where he needs to go. And away from where we don’t need him to go.

Reassuring, I guess.

“This will be easier with your cooperation, you know.” Inoshi said, and I got all kinds of weird pings between his tone and his chakra.

Or maybe it was just the fact that I didn’t want anyone poking around in my head ever again. I was okay with prodding my own soul and my other personalities to see what made them tick and had even figured out most of it and could use them as backup chakra seals or something. But while I’d let Inoshi in once under extreme stress, I certainly didn’t want to repeat the experience with the Council as the primary goddamn reason.

If Inoshi had been hostile, he could have destroyed me five years ago. And he still could. Fu would eat my brain.

I’ll make a note about mind probes under duress. The Dreamer winced. At least it’s Inoshi.

“I…all right.” I saw Kakashi twitch again, out of the corner of my eye. I didn’t look at him.

I knelt.

Inoshi put his left hand on my head and his right formed a seal.

I closed my eyes.

Then white.


Obito’s voice.

"I promise it's...not a burden. I-It's useless to me, now...Kakashi. Take my Sharingan..."

Kakashi’s.

"I'll protect everyone, Obito. I promise. I'll protect them with my life…like you should have been able to. Like you did and still are..."

“K-Keep giving things away and there w-won't be anything left...”

That’s enough.


Someone knocked at my door while I was in bed like a lump, feeling sorry for myself and also mentally apologizing for existing.

Going over Kannabi hadn’t helped my mindset much. At all.

I…to be honest, I had probably been building up to a breakdown for the better part of eight days, by that point. I’d held my feelings inside when Rin got her chance to let go. I’d held it together for the council hearing. I’d even held it together long enough to almost interact normally with my family (though Mom wasn’t fooled).

And then, come day nine, I refused to leave my bed.

It was a shitty time all around—Hayate didn’t really understand what was wrong with me, despite hearing the news about Obito, and Mom had her hands full just trying to get me to eat. I wasn’t hungry—everything tasted like ash, when my stomach didn’t just try to crawl back up my throat for some godforsaken reason. And I wasn’t interested in dragging my ass out of bed long enough to take medication for that sensation, either.

Everything was just too much effort.

About the only positive thing I can say about that time is that I never picked up sleep-talking. From what I understand, the worst noise I’ve ever made is either a hideous snore or a sort of subsonic growl in the bottom of my chest that would wake up anyone next to me. It was a toss-up sometimes whether Obito would wake me up via pillow to the face or not, when we were on the road.

I didn’t want to think about him, or about anything.

And then there was someone banging on my door anyway.

I made a noise that could only grudgingly be called human.

The knocking continued.

I rolled over and pulled my blankets over my head.

The door opened.

“Kei?” said Kakashi’s voice.

…Okay, that was a surprise, but I still wasn’t interested in hearing anything he had to say. I wanted to sleep and pretend nothing bad had happened yet. Or ever would.

And then Kakashi went on, speaking in a quiet voice I almost had to strain to hear, “I asked your mother if I could come in and try talking to you. I was there when Obito died—I thought…maybe I could help, because we’re feeling the same way. I guess she believed me. She let me in, even if I’ve never spoken a civil word to her before.”

“I’m…not good at words.” I felt Kakashi sit down on the side of my bed, his weight causing the mattress to sag. “So.”

A flare of chakra followed. And then there was one more dip in the mattress, and the new one was sniffing around my hiding-spot on four wobbly legs as the springs shifted.

And then a tiny tongue licked my exposed hand.

I wiggled partly out from under the covers, because apparently nothing was as motivating as a small furry animal, and surrounded the half-grown pug with my arms. He didn’t seem to mind being stuck between my crossed forearms and my neck, and folded his legs neatly under his body before sticking his nose against my shoulder.

I stroked his now-stiff fur, chin resting on the scarecrow face on his jacket. He made a whining noise.

I still wasn’t looking at Kakashi.

We sat in silence for a long moment.

“It wasn’t supposed to be like this.” I said, staring at the wall.

“…it wasn’t.” Kakashi agreed quietly.

“We were supposed to come home.” I whispered. “All of us.”

It would be hard to describe how I felt at that moment. It wasn’t nothing, but I…was kind of in two minds about everything, which was terribly unhelpful for record-keeping after the fact. Numb, yet aware that so many feelings were waiting to turn me into a sobbing wreck. Angry, yet also grateful to Kakashi or being willing to reach out.

“I…” Kakashi paused. “I’m going to visit the Stone, later.”

“I’ll come with you.” I said, closing my eyes. “I need to say goodbye. And attend the service.”

Kakashi’s weight shifted a little on the mattress. His chakra was uneasy, but I didn’t look at him. “Okay.”

I sat in my room with Pakkun in my arms for a long time even after that, listening to the sound of gentle breathing and waiting for Kakashi to say anything, and let the thoughts slide together until something pinged off of some other important idea. I wasn’t in any hurry.

Eventually, I got up. I had shit to do. Funeral to attend—Obito was an orphan, we were his family—friends to visit. I kicked Kakashi out of my room so I could change, though he didn’t leave the house.

I got dressed in funeral black, for what seemed like the first time since Dad’s death. Sensei, Rin and Kakashi were the only ones I really cared attended with me, even if I know that my old classmates were probably going to attend if they could. I didn’t think about the Uchiha clan much. I tied Obito’s headband around my arm. I finished the knot slower and more carefully than I would otherwise, and headed out.

Kakashi was sitting at the kitchen table with Mom and Hayate, both also dressed in black. Pakkun was on the floor by his feet, and before we left our street, the other seven ninken had joined us. They were all half-grown, but bigger than Pakkun, and each one is aware of the gravity of the situation.

My brother rode on Bull’s back, silent for once, and Mom guided us through the streets. Sensei joined our procession after a while, warping out of nowhere without a word. He briefly squeezed my shoulder, before drawing Mom aside for a quick, whispered conversation I entirely missed.

I picked up flowers from the Yamanaka shop. Sensei got aster blooms and Kakashi took the daffodils. I kept the daisies. The lotus flowers were for Rin, when she joined us. There were early cherry blossoms, too, but they were for whoever else ended up attending. The stuff with meaning—and sometimes I wondered how Inoichi knew—was for our team alone.

Rin showed up then, Obito’s goggles around her neck and incense in her hands. I slung an arm around her shoulders and tried to keep everything from showing on my face.

It didn’t rain, but it was cold.

There were probably a total of fifty people attending. Gai, Kurenai, Asuma, Aoba, Ibiki, Iruka, Anko, Yūgao, Genma, Ebisu, Yamaguchi-sensei… While the majority of the ranks were made up of Uchiha clan members, it was clear that Obito had touched many lives. Maybe not always significantly, or in a positive way—but they understood self-sacrifice and the pain of coming home one man short. Maybe some of them were just there for us, not Obito.

Funerals, memorials, and wakes…they were for the living, after all.

Sensei carved his name into the stone, while Kakashi, Rin and I placed flowers. I had a photo of our team from the first day we were made official, and I had kept it safe for years. I placed it at the base of the stone with incense and my sweet peas. I wanted to leave the headband there, too, but couldn’t make myself part with it. Rin didn’t leave his goggles, either, and I felt a mix of guilt and relief for that.

should have been stronger faster better

In the end, it was over all too quickly. The crowd broke off with some general condolences and Sensei had to leave, because the world didn't stop spinning for a single life. Kakashi, Rin, and I stood there for a long, quiet hour, with Mom and Hayate in the wings and Kakashi’s dogs surrounding us like an honor guard.

It was there that, in front of what would have to serve as Obito’s grave—for now—I decided that I was going to change. I couldn’t just rely on Sensei or Kakashi to save the day, or even to take care of themselves. So obviously, I was going to have to pick up the slack.


And when training resumed and both Kakashi and I were taken off medical probation, I damn well signed that summoning scroll.

Tsuruya is the new girl’s name, by the way. She’s a passenger-flight-capable battle crane with feathers like swords.

We started running messenger and scouting missions that month.

Chapter Text

Shaking off that negative mindset took a while. I’m naturally prone to brooding, which doesn’t help when the problem is all in the mind, and being forced to relive Kannabi thanks to Inoshi’s jutsu and the memory swarm going berserk didn’t help much. I didn’t blame him for it—Fugaku had asked for the account, after all—but it was still unpleasant and the effects clung.

Suffice to say that that period of my life is not one I especially want to revisit.

But I had something concrete to do, which helped.

Having missed my first chance to prevent the rise of the interim Big Bad before Madara would appear, I decided to focus on the second option.

Intervening on the second botched-as-fuck mission required precise timing that, frankly, I didn’t really have—the image of Obito post-squashing and pre-Kannabi was different enough to imply a several-month hiatus before things went to hell. Once Rin got kidnapped—which I only knew about because the characters had talked about it, not because I’d seen the scene—there was a limited timeframe in which anyone could intervene. Sensei certainly wasn’t going to be available. I didn’t even know if I was going to be around, since Kakashi had been the only one who had responded before.

I didn’t have much time or much information.

So…I made do.

Sensei had finally given me all of the scrolls supplied by the Chinatsugumi—basic elemental ninjutsu, fūinjutsu, and the crane summoning scroll.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, I’d torn open that last one and signed it immediately with both spellings of my name, with Sensei standing over my shoulder in case something went wrong. Training Ground Three was perfect for our purposes, given the wide-open clearings and nearby water in case the crane was interested in wading.

The resulting explosion of smoke revealed an oversized crane—red spot on the forehead, white wings with black secondary feathers, long black legs, and a black streak running from its lower beak to the back of the base of its neck. It had the wingspan of a large hang-glider or a very small airplane, and stood taller than Sasuke’s hawk summon would ever be. It was looking down its long gray beak at Sensei and I, then bowed with a flourish.

“I am Tsuruya,” it—she—said in a distinctly female voice. She sounded a little like how I imagined Mito Uzumaki’s would; calm, and full of wisdom. “I ask of you: Are you my master?”

“Yes.” I said. “I am Keisuke Gekkō of Konohagakure.” Sensei poked me. “Do you have a test I need to pass before I can summon you in battle?”

If it was down to drinking contests and endurance tests, like Gamabunta would ask of Naruto in the future, I’d have to pass.

Tsuruya seemed to smile, despite her lack of lips. “No. What is your command?”

I paused. “…For right now, I want to know what you can do.”

What followed was something like a weapons test.

Tsuruya leapt skyward, swooping upward on the barest gust of wind. While summons that could use various forms of elemental manipulation weren’t uncommon—just look at Temari’s personal summon, for example—I hadn’t seen one in person. Tsuruya was using some kind of Wind Release technique in order to make herself more maneuverable in the air.

Sensei and I had set up straw targets in advance, either anticipating a practice spar after dismal failure or the need for convenient things to shoot at. Tsuruya flapped twice to stall her progress, then nearly slammed her wings together in the general direction of the targets.

There was a controlled rain of feathers that sounded like Tenten had set up shop.

“Her secondary feathers are made of steel!” I nearly squeaked in glee, picking up a feather that had landed near us. Oh, I could wreak so much havoc with this power…

“Close.” Tsuruya said, flying back over to us. She tilted her head. “Tell me, Keisuke-sama, do you know anything of kenjutsu?”

“Yes, I do. I…” I paused again, feeling myself freeze up, and a shadow crossed Sensei’s face. Then, “I used to have a kodachi. I haven’t gotten a new sword yet.”

Tsuruya nodded. “Then, when you do find a new sword, I can spar with you.”

“…I’ll have to clear that with my mother, first.” I admitted. “But I’m sure you two will get along just fine.”

“I’d recommend you introduce Tsuruya-san to Kakashi, too.” Sensei suggested. At the curious look the crane gave us, he added, “Her teammate. I assume you’re familiar with the team structures of shinobi nations?”

“I may be a little rusty in that regard.” Tsuruya commented, and I had the feeling that that phrase meant more to her than to either of us. She bobbed her head and folded her wings against her sides. “Keisuke-sama, I am willing to meet with anyone you wish.”

“Well, uh…” I looked at Sensei. “Do you mind getting Kakashi to come here? I don’t think I’m allowed to let a battle summon walk through Konoha.”

“I could always fly.” Tsuruya suggested.

“I’ll bring him here.” Sensei agreed, and poofed out of the clearing.

…Typical.

“So, what do you like to do?” I asked Tsuruya as the huge crane decided to sit down on the nearby riverbank, folding her legs underneath her.

“Hm? I enjoy reading poetry, if I have the chance.” Tsuruya said, “Along with swordplay and silk-weaving.”

Ooookay. Someone had a samurai wife’s skill-set.

“How do you weave?” I asked. I had a theory, mostly because I’d played Okamiden in a certain significant past life, and could notice mythological references when they were shoved in my face. Also, I wasn’t sure if she used her feet or her beak to manipulate the cloth—unless she had the third option of Donald Duck digits.

“That is a secret.”

Of course it was.

“And you, Keisuke-sama? What do you do?” Tsuruya asked.

For a moment, I was stumped. I was about to say that I liked reading books, or that I enjoyed feeding stray animals, or hanging out with my friends. I…just hadn’t done a lot of any of those, recently. Oh, Kakashi and I were training partners when he wasn’t getting caught up in some jōnin thing or another, and Rin and I certainly practiced medical ninjutsu and experimental use of chakra projections, but the fun had gone out of things.

I spent a lot of time practicing seals and jutsu on my own, now. I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d gotten to spend a worry-free moment doing something entirely mundane. I had too much to do to prepare for Obito’s possible return.

For fuck’s sake, I wasn’t even sure if he would.

I shrugged, and Tsuruya let me get away with that.

As it happened, Sensei didn’t show up for another half-hour, which was something of a record in tardiness for him. By that point, I had progressed to sitting next to my new summon animal with the Chinatsugumi ninjutsu scroll unrolled on the ground in front of us. Even if Tsuruya couldn’t use any of the techniques from the scroll, due mostly to lacking hands, it gave us something to do.

We didn’t talk that much.

Though I think Tsuruya was already developing this habit of poking me in the head with her beak, sort of like Sensei seemed to think I was some kind of dog when he wasn’t paying attention. I was convinced I had some kind of magnet in my head by the time I’d spent five minutes with her.

Sensei was accompanied by both a grumpy-looking Kakashi, slung under his arm like a sack of rice, and a cloud of paperwork that fluttered to the ground at their landing point.

Which was basically me.

Yes, my teammates landed basically on top of me and Tsuruya, who made a furious squawking noise.

After we all managed to get our limbs sorted out and Tsuruya stopped muttering about bent feathers, I also got to remove the paper that was stuck to my face.

“We’re back.” Sensei announced unnecessarily, dropping Kakashi. “And I have news.

“Good news or bad news?” I asked.

“…Both, sort of?” Sensei tilted his head.

I winced.

“On one hand…I know it hasn’t been long since Kannabi.” Sensei told me, in a low voice that I was sure everyone heard anyway. “But the Council wants both of you back on the mission roster as soon as possible. We can’t afford to have you on the sidelines.”

“Yeah, I get that.” I said, looking at Kakashi instead of Sensei.

Kakashi’s visible eye was closed, and he didn’t feel especially happy either.

“I’ve managed to narrow down some of the options.” Sensei explained, indicating the paper everywhere. Both Kakashi and I helped Sensei gather them. Sensei rubbed the back of his neck. “Hopefully, you can work with a couple.”

I spotted Rin’s name on the sheet sticking out of the back.

“Is Rin-chan an option?” I asked. I didn’t really want to hear a positive answer in that case.

Sensei gave me a strange look, then realized where my eyes were.

…I wasn’t really sure what response Sensei wanted out of me. On one hand, Rin was my friend and very nearly a sister to me.

On the other, it was another reminder of what had happened to Obito.

On a third hand, putting Rin on our team put us at risk. Mostly her, yes, but I still would have been happier if it’d been Gai. I could at least trust Gai to kick his way out of basically anything—I wasn’t even sure Rin had been taking combat missions recently.

(Well, okay, as a medic-nin she wasn’t supposed to be in the thick of things anyway, but still.)

“I…I’m not entirely sure about that. By all accounts she’s a brilliant medic-nin, and you both know her well enough.” Sensei frowned. “But Rin was just as close to Obito as any of us. It might not be a good choice to stick her in our team, even if Yamaguchi would allow it.”

“Then who is?” But when I said that, Kakashi looked over his shoulder as though he expected someone else to show up in a “speak of the devil and he shall appear” sense.

Sensei replied, “Gai, probably. Well, assuming that the paperwork goes through.”

…Well. Speak of the devil indeed.

I cleared my throat. “Anyway—Kakashi, this is my summon, Tsuruya.”

Tsuruya interrupted her meticulous rearranging of her flight feathers to give my teammates a respectful nod. Then she went right back to what she’d been doing.

I went on, “Uh, could you introduce your dogs, Kakashi? It’s best if we all know who’s who on the battlefield and not find out at the worst possible time.”

“Right.” Kakashi said. He pulled a kunai from his holster and pricked his thumb—I doubt Kakashi would ever be the kind of shinobi to use his teeth. Then, “Summoning Jutsu.

And a lot of smoke.

And then eight dogs of varying growth levels and sizes.

“Kei-chan!” Pakkun said.

…Um.

Sensei and I looked at Kakashi.

Kakashi looked away. He said to the dogs, “Pakkun, Bull, Ūhei, Guruko, Bisuke, Urushi, Shiba, Akino, meet Tsuruya.”

Neither dog pack nor giant crane said anything for a moment.

Then, Tsuruya stretched one wing out. “You…are all adorable.”

Nice to see that Tsuruya and I had something else in common. The dogs swarmed her, with the smaller three climbing onto her back and Bull, in particular, nudging his way under her wing and against her side.

…Well, anyway, that’s the story of how a pack of ninja-dogs ended up befriending a giant not-yellow bird, and also the story of how my giant bird friend ended up with eight furry babies to brood over. Even if they weren’t actually puppies anymore and the entirely wrong genus was involved.

I happen to think that her favorite dog was either Bull or Pakkun. Bull, because he was a mobile heater even when only halfway to his full size. And Pakkun, because that dog is the one that talks the most.


…Current research into barrier seals indicates the unmitigated superiority of a multi-pronged structure, activated by multiple users. According to Kimato and Ryujin (56), a single seal collapses under the weight of a single B-ranked elemental ninjutsu of the appropriate counter-type, inhibiting attacker momentum and chakra transfer by 25% at maximum allotted power…

Over the next month, I increased my study of seals and continued to train myself into the ground. I was neglecting kenjutsu a bit, despite discovering that Tsuruya could fight Mom almost on an even keel. As I hadn’t been able to afford a replacement kodachi yet, it seemed to be a lower priority than ninjutsu and fūinjutsu training. Kakashi and I beat the crap out of each other on a nigh-daily basis, and I remember bringing Gai and Rin to separate days just to see how we all fared.

…Suffice to say that Gai did a hell of a lot better than I did. Rin inevitably did worse. We still went on missions anyway.

I admit to being less than focused. I had my own issues. Which, for a reason that is not much of a reason in hindsight, I didn’t really talk about to anyone.

How am I supposed to prep all the seals I might need?

The sealing scroll the Chinatsugumi had sent me had a lot of interesting ideas. Something called the Red Strength Blood Seal looked like it had plenty of battle potential and that it might have been similar to what the Kasai twins used for their chakra suppression. There was also a much less chakra-intensive version of what was called the Evil Sealing Method—a seal slapped on top of unwanted effects, like the Curse Seal of Heaven or maybe someone’s troublesome kekkei genkai. Then there was what looked like a version of the Chakra-Suppressing Seal, strong enough to use even on a Naruto busy going berserk under the influence of four tails’ worth of chakra. Hell, there was even a compacted version of a barrier seal, which I thought was definitely a thing I needed to look into.

And not one of them was the kind of technique I could sustain with my own chakra levels as low as they were. And they weren’t designed to be used collaboratively.

I chewed on my thumb, staring at the scrolls spread out over my bed-sheets. I could probably find a workaround with the Chakra-Suppressing Seal, if only because the drat thing was similar in form to the explosive tags I was so fond of, but the rest would be tricky. Half of the effectiveness of the Evil Sealing Method was the strength put into it by the user, not to mention the intense prep-work for a non-paper seal.

I would definitely need to talk to Sensei about these ones. Even if he asked me why the hell I’d need to know any of them—all of them were probably too advanced for basic chūnin missions.

The confounding variable was the fact that we wouldn’t be facing normal missions. Normal missions were for people who didn’t attract danger like flies to honey. Normal missions didn’t involve the possibility that someone would come home with an additional hundred-meter passenger in their head—though, granted, I don’t think that rescuing Rin had really been a mission in any official sense.

…I hoped that the Evil Sealing Method provided by the Chinatsugumi would be enough to suppress the Three-Tailed Beast’s will. Or that the Chakra-Suppressing Seal would be. I didn’t know which would work, but hopefully I was covering all my bases.

I rubbed my eyes.

No more excuses.

I’d prepare everything I could get Sensei to approve me to carry. Everything I could explain to Kakashi in four sentences or less, if I even needed to. I’d make at least a mock up of every seal I knew. I’d train, I’d bring Tsuruya around to meet everyone I cared about, and I would strangle Fate as thoroughly as possible.

I couldn’t plan for everything that could possible happen, but I could damn well try.

I threw myself into my work.


I think that Kei-chan isn’t coping well. She doesn’t talk as much anymore, and when I see her she’s always very pale, like she hasn’t been outside very often. I overheard her mother talking about how little she’s eating, and her brother doesn’t seem very happy either. We lost Obito, but…none of us seem to have any direction anymore, least of all her.

I don’t know what to do.

Akihito-shishō isn’t being very helpful. He keeps saying that Kei-chan needs to work out her own problems, and rise above them. I’ve asked Kakashi, and he doesn’t know what to do any more than I do. His sensei doesn’t help much either. Gai, Kurenai-chan, and Asuma don’t really know her the same way I do.

No one seems to understand what Kei is doing to herself. This isn’t like her. She’s getting more and more secretive, and she loses herself in whatever work she’s doing.

I’m scared.


BONUS SECTION:

==> Be the androgynous moron.

Your name is KEISUKE GEKKŌ.

You are a REINCARNATED ADULT in a CHILD’S BODY. You are KIND OF A NINJA but also kind of not, since you are sure that ACTUAL NINJAS are better at their jobs than you are. This NOT-TIME-TRAVEL BULLSHIT is not helping your STATE OF MIND because you were normal, once. You had normal inspirations that did not involve SEALING DEMON GODS INTO THINGS. You still use sarcasm as a DEFENSE MECHANISM because your sense of humor is terrible and because RAGING OUT is not a valid move.

You are NOT SURE what you’re supposed to be doing aside from ADAPTING because you have a tendency toward PROCRASTINATING LIKE A BOSS. Before you were reborn, you had DREAMS about being a BADASS BITCH that you never lived up to because you were a GIGANTIC NINNY. You are still that way, but not as much, because your life choices will KILL YOU if you let them.

You know you have HELLS OF ISSUES and that you are not getting past them. Your BEST FRIEND is kind of dead or something, because your life is not complete without some agonizing over SCHRODINGER’S NINJA. You are making a plan for a WORST-CASE SCENARIO because you are not dumb enough to believe THINGS WILL BE OKAY.

You are TERRIBLE AT PLANNING. If this BLOWS UP IN YOUR FACE, you can’t say you’ll be surprised.

(You kind of get the impression that YOUR WRITER HATES YOU.)

Chapter Text

I normally have nothing to do with the front lines, ever. That was one of the things Akihito-shishō promised me, back when I first decided to take him up on his offer to join the Medic Corps. I would have a safe space to perfect my medical ninjutsu, and never have to worry about fighting anyone other than my fellow apprentices.

But by joining Kei and Obito’s team to take on the Chunin Exams, I think I might have jinxed myself. Or them. I don’t know. Did they have insane missions before I joined? If so, neither of them really said anything to me about it.

Oh, that just makes me worry more.

Working in the medical tents isn’t so bad, really, but I keep turning around thinking the next body they drag in will belong to someone I know.

Nothing yet.

…I also worry, just a bit, that the next person to come through the tent flap will be an enemy. I’m the best out of my group at the hospital when it comes to dodging, but the medical tents are rather small compared to the fields we practice in.

I also know some things that aren’t…well, Kei figured them out, but I’m not sure if that means anyone else knows how to overclock chakra scalpels. At least, that’s what she called it.

They’re really good for peeling oranges, too.

My mind is still wandering a little, under stress, when the next person opens the tent flap.

“Still hanging in there, Rin-chan?” asks Kei.

“As best I can, Kei-senpai.” I tell her, popping the joints in my hands one at a time. It’s very tedious to stay in the same position all afternoon, and my back is also aching. “How was patrol?”

“Paranoia-inducing.” Kei says. “With just me and Kakashi on this run, it started to feel like Kumo-nin were waiting behind every bush.”

“But