The woman was dead, that much was obvious.
It had been for the last however many hours Bethany had sat by the river, too short arms wrapped around herself to keep the cold at bay. At first, she’d thought she was dreaming, adult mind trapped in a child’s body, tucked into an adult’s embrace. As time went on, however, it quickly became clear that the chest she snuggled against in a vain search for fading warmth had no heartbeat and the arms which held her fast were stiff, unbending prison bars. That panicked realization had her scrambling for freedom, but the limitations of this new, infantile body had her slipping down the muddy riverbank and into the, thankfully, languid water. By the time she made it up to dry ground both her hair and clothing were soaked through.
The woman was beautiful. This, too, was obvious.
Her hair was long and wavy, brown tendrils floating in the water like Millais’ Ophelia. Dark eyes stared unblinking at a fixed point down river, full lashes clumped together in the wet. High cheekbones and straight, dark brows reminded Bethany of the Korean beauty vloggers her little sister tried so hard to emulate. Pale freckles sprawled across a small nose and tall forehead, adding character to an otherwise porcelain face. Her full lips were parted, black blood caked at the corners where the river had yet to reach. Intricate tattoos snaked their way around her wrists in thick, black bands, writing Bethany couldn’t understand twisting in delicate swirls up to her elbow where the blue fabric of what looked like a Japanese kimono covered her body, red edged tears confirming a violent end.
Those tattoos were on Bethany’s hands, too.
So strange, to see ink on a child’s body. Let alone a child’s body with her in it. Her fingers were so small, so chubby, and so, so cold.
The sun was much lower now than it had been when she’d first made her mad dash for the riverbank, and she was starting to feel the effects. Little bodies got colder faster, but she didn’t want to leave the woman behind. It was entirely likely that she was the child’s mother, and Bethany was oddly hesitant to separate them. There was also the added fear of what dangers a child might face within a forest.
Heck, even in her own body Bethany wouldn’t want to go in there.
Maybe it was her new height, but it looked so big to her, the shadows between trees yawning maws waiting to swallow her up. What little camping knowledge she had would likely prove useless in her little body, but just waiting around to be rescued wasn’t exactly a solid plan, either. The woman, whom she had started to accept was her mother, had clearly been murdered. There were still knives sticking out of her back. If her killer were still chasing them, staying put was the worst possible decision.
Bethany rubbed her hands together roughly, partly from nerves and partly for warmth. The air was becoming crisper and she knew she had to make her choice soon. Part of her was still convinced it was all a dream, a terrible twisted nightmare she’d call her mom in tears over and then forget. Even if it was, there was no need to just accept her fate, right?
Shakily, Bethany got to her feet, almost toppling over as pins and needles ran up her legs. She turned away from the river, but turned back just as quickly, stumbling down the riverbank before she could change her mind. Wading through freezing mud, she reached over her mother’s back and pulled on one of the many hilts embedded in it. The blade came out with a stomach-turning squelch, the momentum sending her stumbling back. It was only after she’d fought down the bile that she recognized the object in her hand as a kunai blade. She’d bought a replica for her younger brother’s last birthday—an inside joke based on their shared love of anime—but this one was larger, heavier, and clearly effective.
She scrambled back up to the tree line, the growing darkness urging her onward despite the urge to wipe the blade clean. Having the blade was a cold comfort, but it was more than she’d had before, and it gave her the courage to enter the woods and leave her mother behind.
As she’d suspected, her little child legs weren’t capable of much. She was panting heavily sooner than she cared to admit. She was really starting to regret wallowing by the river for as long as she did. Night was truly settling in now and every shadow hid some strange menace her sullied kunai was too small to handle.
She sincerely hoped this was all some kind of lucid nightmare.
“Hey, now. What’s a kid doing out here?”
Bethany froze, white knuckled grip tightening around the hilt of her kunai. The voice came from above her, but she was too frightened to look. Had her mother’s killers caught up with her? Were they going to kill her, too?
Would she finally wake up?
“Easy, kiddo,” the voice was behind her now! “I’m not gonna hurt you.”
Swallowing thickly, she turned around. The person behind her was…
Sure enough, her first animated crush was standing right in front of her, a pale vest worn over a sleeveless tracksuit. His hair was silvery grey and had more volume than straight hair that short should. His face was covered by his iconic mask, but it left far less to the imagination than the anime version had.
She was definitely dreaming.
It was hard to tell from his one eye, but Bethany felt like he was sizing her up. Suddenly, he squatted down, catching her when she leaned too far back in surprise.
“Oops, didn’t mean to scare you,” he said with a laugh. “Now, want to tell me where a little tyke like you got a blade like that?”
Bethany adjusted her grip on the kunai. “M-my mother,” she stammered, focusing on his kind, dark eye. “At the r-river.”
Kakashi looked up. “You get that?”
“Already on it,” someone replied, and Bethany kicked herself mentally for thinking he was alone.
He placed a hand on her head, ruffling her hair. “There now, he’s gonna go get her, ok? How about you tell me your name while we wait, hmm?”
“Is this a dream?” She had to ask. There was no way Kakashi Hatake was asking for her name.
His expression had settled into friendly nonchalance, but her question seemed to take him aback.
“I don’t think so,” he replied, a smile in his voice. “If it is, then we’re having the same one, and that’s pretty amazing, don’t you think?”
Oh, he was good. If she were really a child, she might have been comforted. Alas.
“She’s dead,” she said haltingly. “My mother is dead.”
While she’d meant the woman in the river, it suddenly struck her that, if this wasn’t a dream, her mother may as well be dead. She’d never see her again. Or her siblings. Or her cat.
It wasn’t until Kakashi wrapped her up in a hug that she realized she was crying. Of all the times for her preteen fantasy to come true, it had to be during a breakdown.
Then again, maybe that was the best time.
“Can it please be a dream,” she whispered into his chest. “I want it to be a dream.”
Kakashi said nothing in reply, running a gloved hand over her back. After a moment he stood, bringing her up with him and propping her up on his hip.
“You found her,” he said lowly, his voice a rumbling comfort.
“Yes,” his companion replied. “What do we do now?”
“We go back,” Kakashi replied matter-of-factly.
“But the mission-.”
“Is not time sensitive.” His voice was firm. “We’re going back.”
Bethany burrowed into Kakashi’s chest as he took to the air, bracing herself for impact when he inevitably landed in a tree or something. It never came. If he did touch ground, it was too smooth to tell. If it wasn’t for the wind in her hair, she would have thought he was standing still.
She took the opportunity to cry with impunity, letting herself mourn for the life she’d lost and the cruelty of her situation. Reincarnation was one thing, remembering your past life was another. There was still a slim possibility that it was a dream, but she really doubted it. Kakashi felt too real under her little hands, warm and moving and alive. How many dreams had she had of him over the years? Had he ever been so tangible? Not that she could remember.
By the time Kakashi began to slow, Bethany’s tears had all but dried. She was still hiccoughing when he stopped.
“Take her to the morgue,” he said to his partner. “Then meet me at the hospital.”
So, they were in the village. Or a village. Somewhere with a hospital, at least. She hid her face in Kakashi’s chest as they stepped into a building, the bright lights threatening to invade the safe space she’d carved from his warmth. He spoke briefly to what was probably a receptionist before moving on, and Bethany’s mind began producing irrational fears.
“Hey,” she whispered, tugging on his vest until he met her gaze. “Are you gonna leave me here?”
“Don’t be silly,” he said without missing a beat. “Can’t just leave my favorite kiddo all alone, now can I?”
“What about your mission?” He looked down at her sharply and she flinched. “The other one said you had one.”
“Ah,” his expression relaxed. “Don’t worry about it. It’s not important.”
Somehow, she doubted that. His laugh rumbled through her when she told him so.
“Alright, it’s important, but it can wait. Besides, we need to figure out who wanted to hurt you.”
There was an unspoken question in that, but Bethany had no answer for it. “You can put me down, now,” she said instead. “I can walk.”
He gave and exaggerated huff. “Oh, thank god. I thought my arms would fall off.”
She smacked him. “Rude!”
His laughter was warm as he set her down, taking one of her hands in his as he led her down a sterile white hallway. “We’re almost there,” he said reassuringly. “They’re just gonna do some tests to make sure you’re healthy, ok?”
Bethany nodded. “And then what?”
“Then, someone will probably come and ask you some questions to find out who attacked you.”
“Then, we’ll figure out what to do with you.”
“Then,” he said with a mock glare. “We’ll feed you to the monster under Hokage mountain!”
She opened her mouth, fully intending to milk her child status for all it was worth, but someone interrupted her.
“Captain, I’m here.”
She and Kakashi both turned around to see-
Long dark hair, equally dark eyes, and incredibly deep tear troughs under his eyes giving him an exhausted appearance. Despite his canon reputation as a handsome man, Bethany noted that he wasn’t particularly attractive—at least, not to her—and she felt a little ripped off. He was dressed similarly to Kakashi, with an anbu mask hooked onto his belt.
Once again, Bethany found herself questioning the veracity of her situation. It was hard to accept when every new addition made it even more dreamlike.
“Yo, Itachi,” Kakashi said amiably. “That was fast.”
“There were no other autopsies scheduled, so they called the coroner in right away. I assume you’ve let Intelligence know about this.”
“I had the hospital give them a call,” he said with a shrug. “I figured it was best if I stayed with the kid.”
Itachi didn’t seem to agree, but he kept that to himself. “What now?”
“I need you to report to headquarters. They need to know if there are hostiles that close to the village.”
Again, Itachi seemed displeased but didn’t voice it. Bethany tugged on Kakashi’s hand.
“You can go if you have to,” she said calmly. “I can go by myself.”
Her attempt to smooth things over backfired as Itachi looked away, visibly ashamed. Kakashi looked down at her with a smile. “Don’t worry about it, kiddo. I can stay.”
“But won’t you get in trouble?” She really didn’t want to get between these two if she could help it. Better to just go on her own while they did whatever it was ninjas did.
Kakashi sighed and turned to Itachi. “You take her, then. I’ll be back.”
In half a second, Bethany and Itachi were left alone in the hallway.
“Where did he go?” She asked incredulously, meeting Itachi’s gaze with wide eyes.
He didn’t answer, taking her still raised hand in his own and pulling her along behind him.
“What’s your name?”
Bethany hesitated. Although there were other ethnicities represented in Naruto—not particularly well, but still—she doubted her actual name would be received without suspicion. She’d done the typical weeaboo thing and tried to find the Japanese equivalent but ended making her own amalgamation. It wasn’t really a name, but it was better than Bethany…
“Hanako,” she said quietly, already regretting her decision to say it. “My name is Hanako.”
“Flower child,” he said as they came to a stop in front a door labeled 304. “That’s a nice name.”
“That’s not how you write it,” she said under her breath, still unhappy with herself for saying it. Luckily, a doctor ushered them in before Itachi could ask about it.
“Hello, there,” the doctor said with a gentle smile. “What’s your name?”
“Hanako,” she replied, committed now.
“Well, Hanako, I’m going to have you come over here,” she gestured to an examination table. “So we can make sure you’re nice and healthy, ok?”
Bethany nodded and scrambled onto the table with some difficulty. She sat on the edge, swinging her little legs back and forth.
“Now, Hanako-chan, I need to remove some of your clothing. Are you comfortable having Uchiha-san here?”
She looked over at Itachi and he met her gaze levelly. “I don’t mind.” Canon had never established his sexual preferences in any detail, but she doubted he was a pedophile.
The doctor then helped her remove her shirt-kimono hybrid, gasping audibly at the sight of her chest.
Bethany had to admit, it wasn’t a pretty sight. Between the tattoos winding around her shoulders and a myriad of bruises she hadn’t felt before then, her body was a mottled mess. Now that she wasn’t wallowing in her own misery or trying to stay alive, she noticed that her tattoos were rather fresh, the edges still raw and peeling.
“Oh, baby, how did this happen?” The doctor asked with real concern.
“Probably the river,” she said, twisting in her seat to see how far the tattoos went. “I think we fell in.”
She looked up at Itachi, her face carefully blank. “I can’t remember. Maybe I hit my head,” she rubbed at it for emphasis.
“We’ll check, sweetie,” the doctor assured her, cheer a little less genuine. “Don’t worry.”
The doctor conducted a very thorough exam, and Bethany began wondering whether she should have let Itachi stay. How old was she, anyway? Her hands were chubby and cute, but maybe she was just a chubby kid. She got on the table by herself, but Kakashi carried her with no problem. She determined to look in a mirror as soon as the opportunity presented itself.
“How old are you, sweetie?”
Bethany cursed silently at the doctor’s benign question. She looked down at her little legs and hedged a guess.
“Five,” she avoided both their gazes. “I’m five.”
“Wow! You’re very articulate for a five-year old,” the doctor exclaimed in amazement as she scribbled on a clipboard.
“Thank you,” Bethany replied lowly, an odd pit of guilt welling in the pit of her stomach. Was it a lie? It’s not like they could check that, right?