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at touch of death

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Sasuke, they say, was born strange.

He doesn't really hear this too often. People are too polite, and he kind of ignores them a lot - picking up on the stuff they're saying is hard enough without throwing in interpreting weird glances, so he just doesn't bother.

Words are hard. Talking's worse than listening. The world outside his family is big, and loud, and bright, and chaotic, and Sasuke prefers the winding paths in the woods, the ponds, the rock garden around the shrine…

And, anyways, the ghosts are more common away from the people, too.

-

Sasuke doesn't remember not seeing the ghosts. He does, vaguely, remember his mother's worried look as she explained there was nothing there, don't you think you're a bit old for imaginary friends honey…

He remembers the nicest ghost, the one with droopy eyes and a bright grin and long hair, who tells Sasuke to just call him Hashi-ji-san, explaining that most people can't see ghosts. "People don't believe in us," he says, simply and clearly. Sasuke likes the way he talks. "And they wouldn't like it if they knew, since death is supposed to be peace."

"Which is why he should tell them," Hashi-ji-san's brother, Senju Tobirama, had said. "We can confirm to Saru at least that we're here - "

"I don't want to put that on a child," Hashi-ji-san said, firmly. "They'll sweep him into T&I - on either end."

Tobirama had sighed, but nodded.

Sasuke, of course, had wanted to know what T&I was.

(He agrees with Hashi-ji-san. He doesn't want to interrogate ghosts, and he's never seen a ghost less than a decade dead but no one's gonna believe that - )

-

A year after accepting that he can't tell anyone about his friends (yet), Sasuke's moping because his brother just poked him in the head again and went off to do something - and he doesn't even have team training or a mission, he's just avoiding teaching Sasuke - 

Tobirama sits next to him. Sasuke huffs and glances away. "Big brothers are annoying, aren't they?" Tobirama asks.

Sasuke glances over at him, and makes an agreeing sound. Itachi's always doing this. It's - annoying is the right word.

"Hashirama used to get into these moods. We're closer in age than you two are, but he still thought of me as a little kid… And in those days we were already warriors, even at your age," Tobirama says. "He even decided he'd rather hang out with one of our clan's enemies than me."

Sasuke, who's heard the tale of Hashirama and Madara's epic… something… by now, blinks and then nods. He hadn't really thought of Tobirama's side, but… He must have felt a lot like Sasuke does now. And Shisui at least is their cousin, someone Itachi's supposed to be friends with.

"How do I get him to - " and Sasuke makes a frustrated noise, not really able to articulate it. He wants Itachi to look at him, to train him, to be his brother and not less present than a ghost - 

Tobirama shrugs. "I'm not the charismatic brother. Trying to force the issue with Hashirama just got him to avoid me more."

Sasuke rolls over, flopping on his back. "Maybe if I catch up?" he muses, frowning. It always seems like Itachi's treating him like a kid, but if Sasuke can fight on his level…

"Hm. I don't think you'd like being a shinobi so young. It's tough, and Hashirama and I banned early graduation for a reason - yelling at Saru about removing the age minimum is one reason I'd wanted you to tell him about us…" Tobirama shrugs, even as Sasuke giggles a bit at the thought of the Hokage getting lectured by ghosts. "But," the ghost continues, "I can train you. It's shameful your education's being neglected like it is."

Sasuke sits up, eyes wide. "Can you?" he asks, almost vibrating.

Tobirama nods. His gaze is serious, but he doesn't force Sasuke to meet his eyes, which Sasuke appreciates. "Just promise to refuse any offers to graduate early," Tobirama says, evenly. "I don't want to see you on battlefields this young."

"I won't let you down," Sasuke says, clenching his fist. That sounds like a sensible rule.

"Good," says his new sensei, standing. "We'll start now."

Sasuke scrambles to his feet, Itachi almost forgotten as he scurries into the forest.

-

Training with Tobirama is fun. Learning's easy, of course - but Sasuke grasps age-appropriate things so fast he spends lessons bored, but grasps things so sideways no one knows how to challenge him. Tobirama explains things always just past the edge of what Sasuke knows, so Sasuke has to think and ponder and ask questions around it, and it's wonderful. Sasuke's never learned this much before.

Tobirama starts out teaching him to throw shuriken, which turns into how to tell where his opponent will throw, which turns into how to fake out his opponent, which turns into the evolution of shurikenjutsu, which then becomes how shuriken themselves have changed, and Tobirama knows how to make swords!!!

Swords are the coolest thing ever. Sasuke's pretty sure that's more true than 'the sun rises in the East', especially since Tobirama told him the sun's not rising, the Earth's spinning to face it. 

Sasuke is going to make a sword someday, and it'll be even cooler than the Seven Swordsmen's famous weapons, which are super cool to start with - 

"One of your clansmen carries a custom sword," Tobirama tells him, evenly.

Sasuke pauses in drawing awesome sword designs, eyes wide. "Really?" he demands, leaning forwards.

Tobirama nods. "Uchiha Setsune, though she's someone who isn't of Uchiha blood. She feels like one of the old samurai clans."

That settles it. Samurai have the best swords. Sasuke leaps to his feet, and pauses only to ask, "Where is she?"

His ghost sensei gives him directions, smiling a bit, and Sasuke runs off with a 'thanks!'

Auntie Setsune turns to him when he runs up, raises an eyebrow. "What do you want, little one?" she asks. Her voice sounds amused.

Sasuke bounces, biting his lip, and points to her sword. "I wanna make one," he blurts.

She laughs, says, "Good! I was worried you shinobi didn't care enough about proper weapon care. Come on, let me show you my shop…"

She has a sword shop!

Sasuke runs after her.

-

"Thanks," he eventually remembers to say to Tobirama. "For - " He gestures back towards Auntie Setsune's shop. She's not quite as good at explaining things as Tobirama, but she knows a lot more about swords, so it balances out.

Tobirama nods, solemnly. "You shouldn't forget the living," he says. "They have as much to offer you as us ghosts."

Sasuke bobs his head, then shrugs. "Thanks," is all he says.

Still, Tobirama seems to get the message.

-

After swords and shuriken and lightning swords, seriously why don't they mention Tobirama had a lightning sword in normal history lessons, Sasuke likes history the best. Hashirama actually tells that well - Tobirama tends to relay just the important bits, without any of the characters. Listening to him and Hashirama and sometimes Mito when she's around tell stories is nice.

Mito's an oddity, one he meets when he goes to the Academy finally. She hangs around that loudmouth Naruto, since he's her clansman. Her last one in Konoha, she explains once, though she can feel a small handful of others scattered across the nations. Hashirama acts really silly around her, and she acts like a princess or a samurai, not much like a shinobi. 

There's a lot more ghosts once Sasuke starts venturing out of the compound regularly, too. Not many, but they notice him, realize they can focus around him and he can see them, and start gathering around him. Tobirama scares them off a bunch of times, pretty much whenever they start bothering Sasuke.

A lot are Uchiha, and apparently the Uchiha used to live elsewhere in the village, all spread out, and a lot of the ghosts didn't move with the clan. A lot are Inuzuka. There's one Nara that he finds. A lot are quiet children who sit blank-faced in corners.

Those last ones bother him, but they won't talk to him, and will only report dully to the two Hokage. Seeing them seems to enrage both Tobirama and Hashirama, and depress Hashirama, though they don't show it around the kids. But Tobirama rants a lot when they're safely in the forest with no one around to hear, complains at length that he made a mistake putting Saru in charge, he hadn't thought the boy would give Danzo this much rein - 

Sasuke spends a while gathering the words, then solemnly tells Tobirama he'll become Hokage for them and fix this. Maybe he can't help the ghosts, but there's other kids still, aren't there - 

Tobirama tells him I believe you and expands his training into politics and diplomacy, roping in the most recent ghosts they can find for slightly more current events. 

Sasuke takes it more seriously than he ever has anything before, even if it promises to be really hard.

Chapter Text

Sasuke's seven when his world shatters.

-

It goes like this:

The clan's been getting tense for a while. Tobirama tries to have him help investigate, but the ghosts stop being able to focus whenever they're away from him, and it's really really hard to learn anything. Shisui dies, and people blame Itachi, and Tobirama says Itachi's signature was near Shisui's right before Shisui's death, but he thinks Shisui did commit suicide, and Danzo's signature was near him earlier - 

Sasuke gets really, really scared then. Not scared enough. He doesn't know how bad it'll get.

He tries to be supportive of his brother, tells him solemnly that he believes Itachi would never kill Shisui, and he loves him even if his brother's silly and annoying sometimes, since he's heard so many times about not getting to say goodbye, and Itachi's involved in something big and Sasuke doesn't know if he'll die like Shisui died - 

Sasuke doesn't know a lot, really.

It ends like this:

Sasuke's gone exploring the city after the Academy. He's too anxious to return home, and new ghosts have started appearing from the Third War, so he finds them to talk to them and see if they need anything. 

And then Tobirama goes really quiet and tense and glances at the district.

Sasuke breaks into a run back home through the silent streets even as Tobirama yells for him to stop, stop you idiot child you promised not to die - 

And the gate to the district is hanging open in the wind, and there's bodies, and what if Itachi's in there, what if Sasuke's brother is dead - 

Sasuke sprints past the bodies, past the blood, chest aching and vision blurring, hoping desperately Itachi's with their parents somewhere safe - 

He gets to the quiet main house. Freezes, scared, when he hears a thump, and then goes to open a door - 

And Itachi's standing over their parents' bodies.

Itachi's eyes are weird. He twitches his hand, and Sasuke recognizes the move Tobirama had shown him. Itachi's throwing a shuriken at him - 

And then something yanks in Sasuke's chest. His heart's beating out of sync, or maybe it's doubled, or there's a pressure in his ears - 

He can feel a lot more than he's ever felt before. The curl of plants outside. The soft murmuring as the summer swells.

His body dodges the shuriken and body flickers away.

"Sorry about this, come on we need to go - " he hears Hashirama shouting, except the voice is weird and echoes like it's in Sasuke's head - 

Oh.

He's being possessed.

Hashirama runs Sasuke's body away from Itachi, towards Konoha, chakra flaring brightly. Tobirama's keeping pace with them, shouting information about the location of the assailants. Mito's rushing over, even though ghosts can't do anything except apparently possess little boys - 

Itachi's in front of them, the black blades in his eyes spinning, haunting, drawing Sasuke inevitably in - 

Hashirama snarls something, and a wall of wood cuts off the view.

And then they're running again, the plants responding protectively, and they're into the trees which curl around Sasuke and lash at Itachi -

Itachi catches them again.

Hashirama brings them to the ground, wraps them in layers and layers and layers of wood.

Itachi burns it away.

Sasuke wonders what happens if he dies while Hashirama's possessing him.

His view of the world goes very, very weird.

There's a pressure building up behind his eyes, and as Itachi starts talking the blood rushing in Sasuke's ears drowns out all words - 

The dam in his eyes bursts. The world distorts, rushing, throwing Itachi away.

And Hashirama moves them again, this time underground, the tree roots cradling them.

"I'll bring us out when Tobirama says it's safe - ANBU are getting close - " Hashirama says.

Sasuke nods, then realizes his head's his own. It's weird. His vision's still weird.

Hashirama hugs him, not that Sasuke can feel it.

And the night drags on.

-

Sasuke's vision doesn't go back to normal until they climb to the surface, and he sees the Third Hokage's grim face, and Hashirama steps out of his body, and Sasuke bursts into tears.

He's seven, and everyone but Itachi is dead.

Chapter Text

"You'll be staying in the compound, of course, once it's cleaned…" he hears the Hokage say, two days later. 

Sasuke's still numb, but that sounds like a spectacularly bad idea. He… Doesn't actually know how to say that. He hasn't talked, since, not to the people questioning him about the weird eyes or the trees or anything - 

There's a hiss of breath from Tobirama, and a low: "Repeat after me."

Maybe Sasuke can do that at least, and Tobirama knows politics, knows the Third, knows the law…

(Tobirama argues him into a small house. On the opposite side of the city from the compound.)

(Sasuke has never been more agonizingly grateful.)

-

The door clicks behind the chuunin that dropped him off. Sasuke stares blankly ahead, unable to really process that he's alone now, he doesn't even know how to grocery shop or cook more than simple things or repair clothes or anything

"What the fuck Saru, seriously what the fuck, there's no way no one's available to take care of a kid, if this's about politics I'm gonna have words," Hashirama mutters. "Ah, Sasuke - is it okay if I step into your body? I want to make a wood clone, so I can help you get set up."

Sasuke nods, jerkily, and relaxes when he feels that warm haze settle over him. There's weeds in the yard. Struggling flowers in the overgrown beds. Moss on the roof. The entire building thrums, reaches for him like an old friend.

Hashirama carefully has him close the blinds, then forms a wood clone out of the framework. "This's one of the ones I made, when we first founded Konoha, you know," Hashirama says, cheerfully. "Good to see it's stood so well so long, though there's some shoring up I could do…"

The wood clone looks like Hashirama, and he's not really sitting in Sasuke's head, apparently focusing on the clone, which Sasuke can only kind of feel. It's… Nice. More companionable than being alone, not as scary as being taken over.

He wonders if Hashirama will be able to tell that Sasuke would kind of like an adult right now, without Sasuke having to say it.

"Can I pick you up?" Hashirama asks, and with a rush of relief Sasuke nods. He clings - the wood's not at all like flesh, it just looks human, but that's okay - as Hashirama picks up the few supplies he was left with, and starts arranging the apartment. The man tsks over the furniture, breaks it down and rebuilds it nicer. Sasuke can't help but smile a bit at the fanciful knotwork Hashirama insists on embedding.

It feels weird.

He shouldn't be smiling, but Hashirama is…

Sasuke doesn't really know, but he knows that the futon and blankets Hashirama makes are the perfect texture (Sasuke's always had such trouble, with sheets and clothes, and it makes him start crying again, which is the dumbest reason to cry…). He knows that the meal the wood clone cooks tastes kind of odd and old-fashioned but good. He knows that hearing Hashirama's endless stories as the wood clone refuses to set him down, the words vibrating through his chest, makes the world feel less empty.

"You have enough food for a few days," Hashirama evaluates, after dinner. "So we can wait a bit on going out."

"...Are you going to be able to - come with me?" Sasuke asks, quietly, fidgeting with his chopsticks. Obviously the ghosts will follow him, but… He means more than that.

Hashirama looks thoughtful. "I wouldn't want to send the wood clone out - it's too obvious - but I can be possessing you, if you'd like."

Sasuke nods, slowly, looking away.

"We'll figure things out," comes Tobirama's voice, almost unexpected. Sasuke looks up, and Tobirama gives him one of his serious-but-not-eye-contact looks. "It doesn't ever hurt less. You'll have days where you barely remember, and days where it hurts as much as now… But you're smart. You're strong. And you have allies."

"...Thanks," Sasuke says, after a few long moments. It doesn't seem enough, but…

(There's a part of him that wishes he could rip Uchiha off himself, that he could tear everything Itachi from his bones, that he could wrap himself in wood and curl among the old Senju district, because the Senju never slayed their own, did they - )

(He knows the ghosts love this village, that they put their all into it.)

(He's not sure he can love somewhere that produces a man like Itachi.)

(But Hashirama looked at a broken world, and changed it, and it hurts too much now but maybe there's a part of Sasuke that can do the same…)