Author's Notes

The first scene of this chapter takes place during the Akai attack on the Arashikage compound that took place when Tommy was 14. In my verse, Kimi is 8 years younger than he is, and therefore 6.

If you're curious, more details on the Akai attack can be found in the story Clan War. That story also features the Fearless Master as he is when he's actually serious. Not a very common sight, but it has been known to happen in extreme circumstances… after all, he wouldn't have lived through such circumstances otherwise.

Chapter 4: Ghost Story

"But Mooom! I'm SIX! I'm a big kid! I can fight! I'll fight other kids!"

Misao Arashikage scowled at her daughter, then took a deep breath and counted to ten. She needed to explain this calmly if there was any chance of Kimiko obeying her instructions. She glanced around, looking for her nephew: the teenager was often able to reason with his young cousin, and barring that, could be trusted to hold her still for as long as needed. Tommy was nowhere to be seen, however; he was no doubt on a roof with the other older students, helping out by killing what Akai they could with their arrows, as opposed to here in the rafters of an out of the way building.

She knelt in front of her child. Outside, many battles were raging, and the dead were multiplying – many of them Arashikage. She put her hands on her daughter's shoulders.

"Kimi, I know you're a big kid. You're incredibly courageous, and you're a very good fighter for your age. But there are no kids out there for you to fight; they're all grown ups, and your arms and legs are too short to fight grown ups. You understand that, don't you?"

"But I want to fight!"

Ah, the infamous 'but I want' argument… the kunoichi felt her patience waver again. "If you try to fight today, you will die. Is that what you want?"

"No, I won't!"

"Yes, you will. Kimiko, even Tommy's not allowed to fight, and you know he can knock you down in half a second flat. You will stay here, and I don't want to hear another word," she concluded in a stern voice. "Do I have to get your aunt here?"

The threat of involving the Goblin Granny worked; it always did. Kimiko swallowed back whatever answer she'd been about to give and shook her head.

Misao nodded, gave her daughter a hug and dropped to the floor to go join the fray. A quick listen having revealed that nobody was standing right outside the door, she let herself out and ran to the edge of the compound before heading back towards the battles; she did not want the Akai to see her arrive from the direction her daughter and several other children were hiding.

She immediately spotted the group of Arashikage in most desperate need of help: four of the wage earners were being overwhelmed by twice as many Akai. She joined the battle, and was able to deflect what would have been a fatal hit on one of her brothers and to dispatch one of the enemy before a blade ran through her heart.

This wouldn't do. She couldn't just die, she needed to watch after Kimiko. She needed to make sure the Akai didn't get her. Foolish child could sneak out of the rafters anytime… she had to keep an eye on her, she had to protect her.

Her body fell, lifeless, but Misao kept fighting, oblivious to the fact nothing she did had the slightest effect on the combatants. When she ran out of opponents, she went home; she had to make sure none of them were in there, had to make sure the house was and stayed safe for Kimiko.

- Two months later -

"You're STILL here?"

Tommy ignored his fellow student, narrowed his eyes and released his arrow, letting it fly straight to the target and, much to his satisfaction, partway through the concrete wall that target was attached to. He turned to his brother with a smirk.

"See that, Takeru-kun? I bet I get it right through by next month," he declared.

Takeru snorted. "You're a menace to concrete buildings everywhere," he said. "Now if you're quite done overachieving, we're going out to the festival tonight… we got actual permission and everything. You coming too?"

Tommy shook his head, putting his bow away. "Not with you guys, sorry; I'm babysitting Kimiko tonight. I'm going to take her to the festival after dinner, but we'll probably be back before you guys even leave here."

"Ah well," Takeru said, shrugging. "Win her a hideous stuffed toy."

Tommy snickered. "I'm pretty sure she's going to con me into winning her a bunch of stuff. AND into carrying it all, not to mention carrying her on my shoulders all the way back here."

"You're whipped. By a six year old."

Tommy shrugged. "Least I can do," he said. "Besides, she's cute."

"I knew this would happen, you know," Tommy informed his cousin. "I chose to let it happen."

Kimiko giggled from up on his shoulders. The two were just getting back to her house after a couple of hours at the festival, where she'd successfully made her big cousin win her at least one prize from every skill game there. She was now enjoying a piggy ride back home.

"Am I too heavy?" she teased.

"A bit," Tommy teased back. "Must be those cakes uncle sends you…"

She blew a raspberry at the back of his head. "You just need to get stronger."

He waved a stuffed pink elephant at her. "This says differently."

She grabbed the elephant and squeezed it, easily balancing herself on Tommy's shoulder without using her hands. "Thanks for the prizes," she said.

He acquired a very smug look. "You're welcome," he said. "it's not like it was difficult. Those games are child's play for a nearly fully trained ninja."

She giggled again. "I'm going to show them to Mom," she said.

"Good idea," Tommy answered, figuring Kimiko just meant to show the toys to her mother's altar and so to her spirit.

He put her down once they were inside the house, and she eagerly grabbed the various prizes from him. She didn't go to the altar however, instead turning right back towards the door.

Tommy cocked his head. "Err, Kimi? Don't you like the altar?"

Kimi sighed heavily. "You can't see her either?" she whined, pointing at the door. "She's right HERE!"

Tommy's eyes widened and he swallowed. He did in fact feel a presence whenever he came in the house lately, but the feeling always went away pretty quickly. He'd gladly concluded he'd been imagining things, but if Kimiko was right, he stopped feeling the spirit simply because he was stepping away from where it was.

But that wasn't how spirits worked, it couldn't be. He could feel his mother's presence when he thought about her very hard, but although it was easier to do that when using her altar, he had never thought her to be in one particular spot, and he had certainly never seen her.

He walked back towards the door. After a few steps, he shivered violently. He forced himself to stay put and to focus on the feeling. He could almost hear something… he was forcefully reminded of his early seeing ear training, when he'd train himself to hear the change in the movement of the wind as it moved around obstacles. He closed his eyes and visualized his aunt as she was before her death, and that's when the feelings hit.

Caring, fear. Love, despair. Powerlessness, determination. Every emotion powerful, overwhelming.

He jumped away from the door with a yelp, lost his balance and fell on his backside.

"Kimi…" he breathed, not bothering to get up just yet. "You can SEE her? With your eyes? Don't pretend now, this is important. We can go right back to pretending after, okay? But tell me for real."

His cousin pouted. "How come nobody else can see her?" she asked angrily, fists clenched. "She's not THAT transparent!"

Tommy swallowed again before he could get a hold of himself.

He then got back up and forced himself to snicker. "Don't ask me, I'm terrible at this stuff. I can't even see MY mom. I can tell you're right, though, Aunt Misao IS there. So, aren't you going to show her your new toys?"

He stepped back while Kimi started doing just that, detailing for her mother the full story behind every prize. He supposed he shouldn't let her go on like that, it was obviously a tactic to delay her bedtime, but he needed a few minutes to think so he let her have her fun.

He had never felt his mother's presence nearly as strongly, he'd never been able to tune in to her emotions like that. And he dared hope his mother was not experiencing anything this intense, this terrifying. And Kimiko could actually SEE her, clearly enough to be constantly surprised and frustrated that nobody else could.

His aunt had almost certainly been fearing for her daughter's life when she had been killed herself, and it was now clear that she had not left that fear behind to move on. His aunt, to whom Kimiko was happily explaining that the plastic snake she was waving around had been won by popping a balloon with a thrown needle, hadn't moved on at all and was trapped in her own emotions, quite possibly forever.

He took a deep breath; he had no idea how to explain this to a small child. He wasn't even sure that he should. He needed advice, and until he could get it, he needed to pretend everything was perfectly fine.

When Kimi finally ran out of toys to talk about, he told her to say goodnight, did so himself as well, and started her normal bedtime routine. If he let on at all that he was bothered by her being able to see her mother, she didn't notice.

- 8 years later -

Kimiko would be safe.

The Akai would not get her daughter; she would never allow it. She was standing guard, they would not get in the house.

They wouldn't get her baby.

Someone coming in… not Akai. She ignored them and returned to her watch.

"Is she always like this?" the Hard Master asked, waving a hand in front of his sister's face.

"Yes," Ayame answered softly. "She can see and hear us, but she immediately dismisses our presence. She completely ignores us."

"Eight years," the Fearless Master growled. "Eight years she's been here, standing guard even when Kimi's not even home!"

The Hard Master frowned; since their niece was in fact not home tonight, having been sent to look for Tommy along with the other students, his brother was obviously right. "Can't she see Kimi? Didn't she see her leave tonight? Doesn't she see her leave every day?"

"Yes," Ayame answered, "she even tries to keep her home, I've seen it. She just forgets right away."

"She's trapped, Brother," the Fearless Master said, "she will always be. Are you still going to tell me we need to forgive the Akai and let bygones be bygones? This is NOT a bygone!" His voice rose and he moved to talk straight into his older brother's face. "LOOK AT HER!" he roared. "She's scared! It's obvious she thinks the attack is still going on and that her daughter is still in danger! She's going to be here, scared to death for Kimi, forever! And trust me, the Akai is going to pay forever too," he finished, his voice going back down to a low growl.

"I assume you've tried telling her the battle was over?"

"Of course," Ayame said quickly, cutting off what would no doubt have been a much angrier answer from her husband. "So has Obake Obaasan."

The Hard Master's eyes widened briefly at the mention of his wife. Although he had respected it, he had never shared her belief in ghosts and spirits. Because of that, he'd never been of any assistance to her whatsoever in dealing with the dead; for all he knew, the only reason his sister was currently the only ghost in the compound was because his wife had been successful in sending others to the afterlife.

Perhaps precisely because he'd just been thinking of her, he was the first to hear his wife approach. The three spirits stayed put and waited, curious as to the woman's purpose in coming here at a time like this.

The Goblin Granny had the same effect, when she came in, as her deceased husband and brother and sister-in-law had had: the ghost looked at her briefly, then proceeded to act as though there was nobody there. The thus admitted living visitor bowed to the ghost and then looked towards the three other dead presences looming there.

"I thought you might be here," she said. "Considering how emotional he tends to be, I'm guessing none of you can go near Tommy right now without making things worse. I thought you'd like to know that he is still at large."

She paused for a moment. She could feel the agitation from the spirits, and although she could not hear them, she could guess that at the very least, Tomisaburo Sr would need a few seconds to rant.

"As for Misao," she continued, locking her eyes on the ghostly shape of her unfortunate sister-in-law, "I believe she will only find peace when she realizes her daughter no longer needs her protection. So far, I have been completely unable to impress upon her that the rest of us will take care of Kimi. It's possible she will be less worried once the girl has grown up into a fully capable kunoichi."

"Ayame says she can see her," the Hard Master said. "Doesn't she realize she's grown? Can't she see the battle with the Akai is long over?"

The Goblin Granny shook her head sadly. "I wish I could hear you, husband, but I can barely tell you're trying to talk to me." She took a deep breath. "I have no other insight or information. I suspect you will generally be able to keep tabs on Tommy better than me. I will of course assist him when I can, and will continue to try and force some sense in my brother in law's thick head."

She took another deep breath, turned around and walked out. The spirits had no comfort to offer her beyond the knowledge of their existence, and not being able to fully communicate was more than ever extremely frustrating. She was better off starting her search for her husband's real murderer than lingering here.

The Hard Master sighed, fists clenched in frustration. He'd almost tried to grab his wife to keep her from leaving, hoping that even if he could not physically touch her, she'd somehow detect the attempt and stay a while longer.

"You can follow her wherever she goes," Ayame said. "I just found it frustrating, but unlike MY spouse, she at least knows you're there. Maybe it won't be as bad for you."

"You followed me around?" the Fearless Master said. "Really? I never noticed anything at all. Couldn't you have given me some nice dreams at least?" he asked with a roguish grin.

"What makes you think I didn't?" she replied with a smirk. "But the fact is, you're just as oblivious to spirits as your brothers. I followed you around for several days, and only gave up on it when you almost got yourself killed. I was worried I was somehow making you more distracted."

"I can't do that," the Hard Master said in answer to his sister-in-law's suggestion, willfully ignoring the exchange that had followed. "Even just these few minutes were difficult for her." He shook his head to clear his mind and turned back to the ghost; she was still standing watch, paying them no mind at all.

"What will it take for you to know Kimi will be fine?" he asked Misao. "She's practically grown now, and it certainly doesn't seem to be enough to convince you." His eyes widened. "It wouldn't, would it? She was an independent little thing, always claiming she could do everything herself and that she was a big kid. You knew better then, and you think you still know better now."

"She's not practically grown anyway," the Fearless Master remarked. "She's barely a teenager and she's small for her age."

Ayame nodded. "A few more years may do it. I know it's difficult to just wait, but we don't have any other options right now."

The Hard Master reluctantly nodded. He didn't think Kimi being taller and older would be enough to convince his sister, but it was certain to be one of the things necessary.

After swearing to be back, promises which were not acknowledged in any way by the ghost, the three spirits left.