Author's Notes: Hey, two chapters up in less than 24 hours, that's new for me! Joking aside, as I mentioned in the previous chapter I've already got several of these already done. I wanted to get the first two out quickly, but I'll be slowing up the release schedule for the rest; got to give myself time for further writing and editing, after all.

Enjoy!

Chapter Two: Fateful Encounter

Itachi's mind was racing as he rapidly assessed the situation. Since Jiraiya was here that obviously meant that he had died, and the list of people capable of taking down one of the Legendary Sannin was very small. Itachi had a few guesses as to who might've ultimately done the deed, but learning that was a secondary concern at this point. He knew that Jiraiya had perceived him to be an enemy when they were both alive, and not without reason; Itachi had been a member of the Akatsuki, a group that had sought to collect all of the Tailed Beasts, meaning that they had posed a direct threat to Naruto Uzumaki, Jiraiya's last disciple.

To make matters worse, the last time they had met in person, Itachi had been infiltrating the Village Hidden in the Leaves with his partner in the Akatsuki, Kisame Hoshigaki, with the purpose of their mission ostensibly being to capture Naruto. That had indeed been Kisame's intention, but not Itachi's; his had only been to serve as a warning to Danzō Shimura and the elders that governed the Village Hidden in the Leaves that he was still alive and would turn against them should they threaten Sasuke. Unfortunately, Jiraiya had not been privy to that knowledge or the fact that he was actually a double agent for the Hidden Leaf Village. As far as the Sannin was concerned, Itachi was nothing more than a murderer. He would have to play his cards with great care if he wanted to avoid a violent confrontation.

"You may understandably find this hard to believe," said Itachi, "but it was never my intention to bring any harm whatsoever to your student, Lord Jiraiya."

Jiraiya smirked. "Do you really think that throwing a fancy title in front of my name will make me any more inclined to trust your word? I know damn well that the Akatsuki were hunting the Tailed Beasts and extracting them from their hosts, killing those hosts in the process, and so do you."

"I do not deny it," Itachi replied calmly, "but I never once desired that fate for Naruto."

Jiraiya folded his arms. "Really? You had a funny way of showing it, sneaking into the Leaf Village with your partner like that and picking a fight with the Jōnin. You really worked over Kakashi in that little skirmish, you know."

Itachi's eyes narrowed. "If you recall that engagement, then you may also remember that all of the Leaf Shinobi that came to the scene survived the encounter, including Kakashi. I was fully capable of killing him and his comrades, and I imagine that you were well aware of that at the time. Did you ever wonder why I let them live?"

The Sannin had an incredible degree of control and discipline, but even so he could not hide from Itachi the oh-so-subtle shift in his brow; he was genuinely considering what Itachi had just told him. "Now that you mention it, I did find that strange… but you could've done that just to throw us off guard. You always were a crafty one, after all."

"Do not confuse me with Orochimaru," said Itachi, "I do not engage in psychological warfare for my own amusement, for starters."

"Maybe," Jiraiya replied, "but you murdered your own parents simply to test your power; not even Orochimaru went that far."

Itachi shook his head. "It is true that I killed them along with the rest of the Uchiha Clan, but it was not to test my power. The last thing I wanted was to harm any of them. If there had been another path to what I truly wanted, then I would've taken it."

Jiraiya seemed a bit taken aback by this. Itachi could feel the veteran Shinobi studying him intently. He did his best to keep his breathing calm. If it did come down to a fight, he did not know if he could win. His Sharingan was gone, as were the repertoire of ninjutsu and genjutsu that he had built up over the years. He had no way of knowing if Jiraiya had been similarly depowered, and even if that were the case that did not change the fact that the Sannin was known to be a strong physical combatant. Itachi believed that he might have a slight edge in speed over the sage, but he knew that Jiraiya was both powerful and cunning. A fight would be an absolute last resort, and if it came down to it Itachi would do everything in his power to withdraw before things went too far.

I don't know if souls can die, he mused darkly, and I'd rather avoid finding out firsthand if possible…

His thoughts were interrupted by a spine-chilling roar the likes of which he had never heard before. He saw Jiraiya's eyes widen slightly, but unlike Itachi there seemed to be a sense of comprehension in his gaze.

"No…" said the Sannin softly, "Not here…"

There was a rustling coming from the tree-line across the river, and a few moments later a black ape-like creature the size of a single-story house burst out into the open. Itachi's eyes were drawn to two distinctive features; a gaping circular hole in the monstrosity's chest and white death mask where a face should've been.

"What is that thing?" asked Itachi as he shifted into a fighting stance.

"That," said Jiraiya grimly, "is a Hollow."

Itachi's eyes widened slightly at the word. The proprietor had mentioned that one of the duties of Soul Reapers was to fight unholy creatures called Hollows, but the old man had never described what one actually looked like. He also recalled the shopkeeper claiming that Hollows devoured souls, and a sickening feeling in Itachi's gut told him that his earlier musings regarding the possibility of souls dying actually had a chance of being tested tonight.

"Have you seen this thing before?" asked Itachi.

"Not this exact one," said Jiraiya, "but one similar to it attacked me when I first arrived here. It was all I could do to escape, although if I could still use ninjutsu it'd be another matter."

The Hollow appeared to be studying Itachi and Jiraiya at the moment, but the young man had a feeling that would change soon enough. Jiraiya's statement also confirmed to Itachi that the Sannin had been depowered in a manner similar to him. His gaze narrowed as he realized that there was only one way out of this mess.

"Lord Jiraiya," he said quickly, "If what you say is true, then our only chance for survival here is by working together."

Jiraiya's eyes widened a bit as he grasped the full weight behind Itachi's statement. "Wait a minute… you mean that you…"

Itachi nodded. "My Sharingan is gone, as is my ability to utilize ninjutsu and genjutsu. Taijutsu is the only weapon remaining in my arsenal, and it would seem that the same is true for you. Cooperation is our only viable option, especially if we are to prevent this Hollow from attacking the residents of this area."

"Why would you care about the people who live here?" asked Jiraiya.

"If we make it through this, you may yet get the chance to find out," Itachi replied hastily, "What will it be, Lord Jiraiya?"

He was surprised to see the sage smirk. "All right, I'll play along. Let's see what you've got without your Sharingan, Itachi."

Itachi nodded. The time for talk was over; the beast across the river looked ready to pounce. Deciding that offense would be the key to survival, Itachi made the first move. Surging forward, he darted across a series of rocks jutting out from the water and made it to the other side of the river in a matter of seconds. He didn't even need to look over his shoulder to know that Jiraiya was right behind him.

"This thing must have a weak point," he said, "Let's find it."

Jiraiya nodded. "Break right; I'll take the left."

Itachi did as Jiraiya said, and the Hollow moved right for him. The beast took a swing with one of its tree-trunk thick arms, but the strike was sloppy and Itachi was able to evade it. He seized the opportunity by leaping up onto the Hollow's arm and running across it. Reaching the creature's shoulder in a matter of moments, Itachi proceeded to punch the Hollow right in the neck.

The Hollow roared, and for a moment Itachi thought he might've hit a vein or some other vulnerable spot. However, the beast moved its arm to swat him from its shoulder a second later; it seemed more annoyed with him than anything else. Itachi flipped and managed to land on his feet, and as he did so Jiraiya charged in, slamming his fist into the Hollow's gut.

The creature bellowed and doubled over; it appeared that Jiraiya had actually done some damage to the beast. Unfortunately, it was not nearly enough to bring the Hollow down for good. It lurched forward, its jaws snapping as it tried to rip Jiraiya in half with its teeth. The sage backflipped to get out of the way, and Itachi used the Hollow's distraction to move in again. This time his target was where he guessed the creature's collarbone would be, and he brought his foot down in a hard kick. Once again, the Hollow screamed, but the creature's hide was tough, and Itachi could tell that he hadn't come close to doing serious damage.

However, Itachi's efforts were not in vain. Using the former Akatsuki's move as a distraction, Jiraiya charged in again. Swinging his fist in a vicious right hook, he caught the Hollow right on the jaw. There was an audible 'crack', and Itachi saw a small set of fissures appear on the lower left portion of the beast's mask.

Jiraiya chuckled. "Well, that's a start."

Itachi nodded as he rushed in again. "Indeed. Let's build on it."

He hit the creature in the exact same spot that Jiraiya had. The tiny web of cracks began to grow, but Itachi's fist stung from the impact; the Hollow's mask was harder than its hide. He was impressed that Jiraiya's punch had done as much damage as it had.

"Take a nap!" shouted the sage as he nailed the beast on the chin with a brutal uppercut.

The Hollow staggered backwards, and Itachi seized the opening to move in again. This time he aimed for the eye-holes of the beast's mask, but before he could strike the creature suddenly started flailing around wildly with its arms. Itachi was caught in mid-air, and the heavy blow nailed him right in the torso. He was sent flying by the impact and wound up slamming right into the side of the bar that he'd made his earlier delivery to. It was all he could do to keep from losing consciousness right there on the spot. Struggling to regain his footing and massaging his chest, Itachi counted at least one cracked rib.

This thing has no combat training to speak of, he thought, but it makes up for that with raw power fueled by primal fury. Chakra no longer flows through Jiraiya or myself; neither of us have a firm grasp on this new spirit energy that's taken its place. This is clearly an uphill fight for us…

Itachi wasn't the only one who was injured; Jiraiya had taken a solid hit as well. The cracks on the monster's mask had grown even more, indicating a successful strike by the sage, but he had paid for it with what looked like a dislocated left shoulder. The Hollow was screaming in fury, currently consumed with pain, but Itachi doubted that would last for long. If there was any time that a withdrawal was possible, it was now.

It was tempting, but it was ultimately not an option that Itachi would take. If he withdrew it would only give the Hollow a chance to start hunting the souls of the Rukon District. It was true that Itachi didn't know any of them apart from the shopkeeper, but the fact remained that they were innocent people who had already died once, and Itachi would do everything in his power to prevent them from dying again tonight.

Much to his surprise he saw Jiraiya smirking at him. "I'll be damned."

"What?" said Itachi, his eyes narrowing as he studied the Sannin.

"I thought for sure that you'd take this chance to retreat," Jiraiya replied, "No Sharingan, no ninjutsu, no genjutsu, and you don't have a single weapon on you… and yet I can tell just from the look in your eyes that you're not going to run."

Itachi nodded firmly. "That's right. If you wish to withdraw, I shall not stop you. I will hold this beast back for as long as I can. In that time, you may be able to find reinforcements."

Jiraiya laughed. "Maybe, but I doubt I could find them before this thing tore you apart. I have no intention of letting that happen."

Itachi's eyes widened slightly. "What… why?"

"Don't get me wrong," said Jiraiya, "I've still got some bones to pick with you. However, the way you've been fighting tonight… well, if we both make it through this alive, I might just be willing to hear you out."

"You may regret that decision," said Itachi with a nod at the Hollow, "We've hurt it, but not as bad as it's hurt us."

Jiraiya chuckled. "Oh, I know that. Our backs are to the wall, no doubt there, but that's the time to fight harder than ever. If this thing wants to feast on souls tonight, it's gonna have to take mine first, and I'll be damned if I don't make it work for it."

Despite their situation, Itachi could not help but smirk ever so slightly. "Like master, like student… I didn't know Naruto that well, but from what I do know it would seem that his teacher is as stubborn as he is."

Jiraiya grinned. "You got that right! So, what do you say? Shall we put this thing in the ground?"

Itachi nodded as he saw the Hollow begin to regain its composure. "Can you shatter that mask?"

"Yeah," said Jiraiya, "I just need one more good hit. I'll give it everything I've got."

"In that case," said Itachi, "I'll make the first move. Once his attention is on me, make your attack."

"Watch yourself," Jiraiya cautioned, "Another hit from that thing and you'll have more than just a cracked rib or two."

"I'm well aware of that," said Itachi, "Here goes nothing."

He raced forward, picking up a rock as he did so. As soon as the Hollow's gaze was on him he threw it as hard as he could. His missile found its mark, going right into the eye-hole in the Hollow's mask. The beast screeched in agony but was still locked onto Itachi. The former Shinobi used that to his advantage, stopping long enough to crook his finger and motion for the monster to come and get him. In its fury, the Hollow was all too vulnerable to the taunt, and it came charging headlong at Itachi. He rolled to the side at the last moment and leapt up onto the creature's back before punching with all his might at the Hollow's neck. Once again, the Hollow screamed in pain before grabbing Itachi and throwing him. This time he hit the river and skipped over the surface like a rock before coming to a halt on the opposite shore. Even as he climbed to his feet he saw the beast charging him, and this time Itachi knew he would not be able to dodge.

That was where Jiraiya came in. Just as the Hollow was about to sink its teeth into Itachi, the wandering sage nailed the monster with an insanely powerful right hook in the exact spot he and Itachi had hit it before on its mask. This was no ordinary punch; Itachi could actually perceive what looked like an aura of white spirit energy surrounding Jiraiya's fist. It didn't appear to be deliberate; the Sannin seemed to have summoned it from pure instinct.

The blow was devastating. The Hollow's mask completely shattered, and for just a moment Itachi was shocked to see what looked like a human face behind it. It was only for a moment, though; a second later the creature dissolved completely.

Itachi fell to one knee, grasping his chest as he tried to catch his breath. "How… did you… do that?"

Jiraiya started laughing as he clutched his left shoulder. "Not a damn clue, but it felt good!"

I'll have to see if I can pull that trick off later, he mused, I can't believe he was able to do that, but I'm not complaining. We actually managed to win, and that's enough for now.

Or at least it was until a series of roars nearly identical to the one that had heralded their late foe's initial appearance ripped through the night.

Itachi's face paled as his eyes turned to the tree-line. "No…"

Jiraiya shook his head. "You have got to be kidding me…"

The two of them looked on as not one, not two, but three more Hollows emerged from the trees. They were all as big as the one they had just killed, and of the same general body-type as well. Itachi struggled to his feet and prepared himself for another round, but he would not kid himself; with how hard it had been for the two of them to kill just one of those monsters, they didn't stand a ghost of a chance against three.

And that was when a feminine voice sweeter than the finest rice wine rang out from behind the two of them. "Looks like you could use little break, boys. Mind if we tag in?"

Turning around, Itachi saw what could only be described as a goddess and an angel standing before him. The former was a slender and well-endowed woman with rich brown skin, radiant golden eyes, and neck-length purple-black hair. She was clothed in a single black sleeveless and backless uniform, with matching wrist-guards and a ribbon tied around her neck. A wakizashi with a black hilt and golden circular guard was sheathed horizontally behind her lower back, and her right hand was hovering over the handle. There was an almost playful light in her gaze, and the way she was looking at the Hollows somehow reminded Itachi of how a cat might peer at its prey just before it pounced.

As for the angel, she appeared very much as an elegant lady of compassion and grace. Her long and lustrous raven hair looped around her neck and was tied in braid that ran down the front of her body. Her eyes were a gentle shade of blue, but there was glint within them that told Itachi this woman was not to be trifled with. The black robe and white haori she wore fit loosely but still did not completely conceal her curvy and athletic figure. A full-length nodachi with an oval tsuba and red handle was tied to a string that looped over her shoulder, and like her companion her hand was held just above the handle.

The angel gave Itachi and Jiraiya a warm smile. "You needn't worry. These Hollows will be dispatched momentarily, I assure you. Please, rest for a bit. I shall examine your wounds shortly."

"You know, Unohana," said the goddess, "I can take all three of these guys; you don't have to get involved."

The angel shook her head. "I'm well aware of that, but I need to swing my blade every once in a while. It wouldn't do for a Captain to grow rusty with her swordsmanship, would you not agree, Yoruichi?"

Yoruichi smirked. "True. All right, how about this? I'll take the one on the right and the one in the middle, and you take the one on the left. Deal?"

Unohana nodded. "Very well, then."

The two women stepped forward as the trio of Hollows crossed the river and headed straight towards them. Despite the danger, the pair of ladies were completely calm. No, it was more than that; they looked utterly casual about the danger that they were walking into. They were completely confident in their abilities, and Itachi was curious to see just what they were capable of.

The trio of Hollows roared at the duo as they charged. As Itachi and Jiraiya looked on, Yoruichi seemed to flicker for just a split second before vanishing from sight altogether. She reappeared a moment later with her wakizashi drawn and thrust up through the chin of one of the Hollows. The creature had only just begun to dissolve when Yoruichi had disappeared again. A split second later she was behind the second Hollow, and in less than a blink of an eye she had thrust her blade through the back of the Hollow's head.

Incredible, thought Itachi as the second Hollow disintegrated, It took everything Jiraiya and I had to take down one of those things, but she just killed two of them in a matter of seconds!

The third Hollow was rushing headlong at Unohana, who drew her sword in a single fluid and elegant motion. The smile on her face was that of a teacher about to knock a troublesome student down a peg or two, and as the Hollow lurched forward with a haymaker the raven-haired angel effortlessly took its arm off with a single swing. As the beast howled in pain, Unohana almost casually removed its other arm before administering the coup de grace with a clean swing right through the monster's neck.

To his right he heard Jiraiya whistle as the last Hollow dissolved. "Pinch me… I swear I'm dreaming…"

It was a sentiment that Itachi shared. He had seen his share of powerful Shinobi in the past, but these two women were in a league of their own. Blinding speed, graceful fluidity, lethal precision… Itachi had never seen anything like it.

Yoruichi sighed as she sheathed her wakizashi. "Ah, man, that's it? That doesn't even qualify as an after-meal warmup. Guess I'll have to work off those rice balls the old-fashioned way."

"Something tells me that you'll have little difficult with that," said Unohana, "Now, I believe I have a pair of patients to examine here."

Jiraiya grinned as Unohana approached. "Oh, yes, please! Examine to your heart's content, my lovely…"

Without the slightest bit of warning the raven-haired woman popped Jiraiya's dislocated shoulder right back into place. The Legendary Sannin let out a rather undignified yelp at the sudden and no-doubt quite painful field first aid.

"Ow, ow, ow!" he hissed as he rubbed his shoulder, "Hey, couldn't I have gotten a little warning first?"

"Work on your manners," said Unohana as she turned her attention to Itachi, "and next time you may just get that luxury."

Yoruichi smirked. "Face it, pal; you walked right into that one."

By contrast, her treatment of Itachi was much gentler, although he supposed that was in no small part due to the fact that he wasn't blatantly trying to hit on her. "Please, sit down and remove your shirt, young man. I promise that this will not hurt a bit."

Itachi did as he was told, and a moment later the woman knelt before him and placed one hand on his chest and the other on his shoulder. She gave him a warm smile, while over her shoulder he saw Yoruichi studying him closely.

"Try to relax your breathing," said Unohana, "This will not take long."

Itachi nodded, and a moment later he felt a sudden warmth flowing through his chest. Looking down, he saw that the hand on his chest was bathed in blue-green energy. It reminded him of medical ninjutsu that he had seen in the past, but it had its own distinct feel to it.

"That's it," said his healer, her voice as soothing as the whisper of a flowing stream, "Calm breaths, young man. Peace will encourage your recovery. You fought bravely, and I would not have you suffer for your courage."

"She's got that right," said Yoruichi with a smile, "You've got some serious guts. Your moves weren't half bad, either."

"How long were you watching us?" asked Itachi.

"Since just after the two of you started fighting the Hollow," Yoruichi replied.

"That's odd," said Jiraiya, still massaging his shoulder, "I never sensed so much as a hint of either of you. Usually I'm pretty good at picking up when someone's got their eyes on me, especially when it's a pair of lovely ladies."

Itachi nodded. "I, too, am normally able to detect when I am under surveillance. How is it that you were able to conceal yourselves so completely?"

"We've both trained to suppress our spiritual pressure," said Yoruichi, "Every Soul Reaper learns to control the energy they outwardly exert, but with practice one can go further than that. It's not one-hundred percent concealment, but it's still quite useful."

"If we did not suppress our spiritual pressure," said Unohana, "we would cause great harm to the people around us. We would also be walking beacons for Hollows."

Yoruichi smirked. "You say that second bit like it's a bad thing. If a few more came our way tonight I might be able to burn off those rice balls."

Unohana gave a warm laugh. "Come now, Yoruichi, we both know you better than that. You hardly need a fight for exercise."

Yoruichi nodded. "That's true. Actually, to be honest I'm a little worried. It's been a while since Hollows managed to get all the way to West Rukon 37."

Unohana sighed. "My thoughts exactly. The Head Captain will want to hear of this."

"Like we don't have enough on our plate as it is," said Yoruichi as she rolled her eyes, "I'm the Captain that's supposed to proctor the entrance exams tomorrow, and you're on call for the student physicals."

"It's my duty as Captain of Squad Four, after all," said Unohana with a smile, "I don't mind handling the report for this incident as well, though."

Yoruichi grinned. "Are you serious? You're the best, Unohana!"

"Just don't make a habit of asking it of me," Unohana replied, "A Captain that shirks her paperwork on a regular basis needs to reevaluate her position."

Unohana continued to smile, but there was a sudden darkness behind her serene gaze that Itachi found to be highly unnerving. "You would do well to think carefully should you wish to pass off your reports to me in the future, Yoruichi. Is that clear?"

Yoruichi sharply nodded, and Itachi could not help but notice her stance had stiffened ever so slightly. "Yes, Captain Unohana!"

Several lightbulbs began to go off in Itachi's head as he recalled his conversations with the shopkeeper. "So, you're both Captains in the Thirteen Court Guard Squads?"

Jiraiya whistled. "Impressive."

"Oh, yeah, that's right; we haven't properly introduced ourselves yet. Sorry about that," said Yoruichi as she gave Itachi a friendly smile, "The names Yoruichi Shihōin. I'm the Captain of Squad Two."

The woman healing Itachi nodded. "And I am Retsu Unohana, Captain of Squad Four."

"My name is Itachi Uchiha," he replied.

Yoruichi knelt next to him and held out her hand. "Nice to meet you, Itachi!"

Itachi nodded as he accepted her hand. "Likewise."

"The same here, as well," said Unohana, "It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Itachi."

"So," said Yoruichi as she turned to Jiraiya, "What do we call you?"

Jiraiya grinned. "Oh, you lovely ladies can call me whatever you want!"

"So buffoon would suffice, then?" asked Unohana with a giggle.

"I was gonna say hedgehog," said Yoruichi with a smirk, "Seriously, look at that hair!"

The sage chuckled. "Well, I suppose I was asking for that one. My name is Jiraiya. I'd like to sincerely thank the two of you for helping us out here."

"Yes," said Itachi, "We owe you both our lives… or I suppose that would be 'afterlives' now."

"Ah," said Yoruichi, comprehension dawning, "You guys are new arrivals, aren't you?"

"That's correct," Jiraiya replied, "I'm not sure when Itachi got here, but my arrival was just a few weeks ago."

Itachi nodded. "Mine was precisely two weeks to this day."

"I see," said Unohana, "You are most fortunate that we found you when we did. With the way your spirit energy was fluctuating earlier, I imagine Hollows would find you to be most appetizing morsels."

"She's right," said Yoruichi, her expression quite serious, "In fact, I bet those Hollows were hunting you specifically. Your spirit energy drew them in like moths to the flame, and you can be damn sure this won't be the last time it happens."

"Damn," said Jiraiya with a grimace, "I was afraid that would be the case."

Itachi sighed. "It's not just that. When I'm near people, sometimes they collapse, and I've learned recently that it's because of my spiritual pressure. I've done my best to keep a safe distance from others to minimize harm, but still…"

Jiraiya nodded. "I think I know what you mean. I've had similar experiences since I've arrived here. So far things haven't been that bad, but I think it's only a matter of time before someone gets seriously hurt."

Itachi saw Yoruichi turn to Unohana. The two women stared at each other for a moment, and it seemed as if there was an unspoken exchange happening between them. A few seconds later they both nodded and turned to Itachi and Jiraiya.

"What if I told you that we could give you both the chance to control your spirit energy?" asked Yoruichi with a smile.

Itachi's eyes narrowed. "What would this involve?"

"As I'm sure you heard her mention earlier," said Unohana, "Yoruichi is in charge of proctoring a series of examinations tomorrow. To be more precise, she will be overseeing the annual entrance examinations for Shin'ō Academy, the institution charged with instructing future generations of Soul Reapers."

Yoruichi grinned. "I'll put it to you straight; I want you two to enroll. You guys might not know how to properly control your spirit energy, but you still managed to take down a Hollow using nothing but teamwork, your bare hands, and some serious balls. You've got some major potential, and it'd be a shame to let it go to waste."

Unohana smiled. "She is quite correct. It's not every day that we see talent such as yours. If you enroll in Shin'ō Academy that talent will be nurtured, and upon graduation you will be able to put it to good use."

"It's no walk in the park," Yoruichi added, "The standard curriculum lasts six years, and advanced tracks can pack more into that same time period if you've got the aptitude for it. You'll be put through your paces, but if what you were capable of doing tonight is any indication I think you guys will put your fellow students to shame. What do you say?"

"Would we even be able to take the entrance exams?" asked Itachi, "As you guessed, we are new arrivals here. Our knowledge of the Soul Society and all its aspects is sorely lacking."

"Not to mention you said that the exams are tomorrow," said Jiraiya, "I'm all for a good cram session if it comes down to it, but the timeframe here might be pushing it."

Yoruichi shook her head. "The entrance exams are not your traditional academic tests. There is a written portion, but the ability to pass it is not determined by whether or not you studied beforehand. Someone can walk right in from the Rukon District with no prior education and still make it through. In fact, more than a few have done precisely that."

"That is not to say that the examinations are easy," said Unohana, "You will be pushed, but if you follow your proctor's instructions you will have a fair opportunity to pass on your own merits."

Itachi looked at Jiraiya. The Legendary Sannin was studying him carefully, and Itachi was all too aware that just because they had vanquished a Hollow together did not mean that he had completely earned the sage's trust. He had no doubt that Jiraiya would be watching him like a hawk if he enrolled in Shin'ō Academy, but he was willing to endure that extra layer of scrutiny if it meant learning to control his powers.

Finding out how to suppress and regulate his spiritual pressure was not the only reason he wanted to enroll, though. He turned towards Yoruichi and found that she was studying him just as intently as Jiraiya was. She intrigued Itachi in a way that he had not felt about a woman in a long, long time. Putting aside the fact that she and Unohana had saved his life, the abilities that she had demonstrated in that utterly one-sided slaughter of the Hollows had been nothing short of astounding, and Itachi was sure that what he had witnessed was but a tiny fraction of what she was truly capable of.

After a long moment Itachi nodded, his gaze still fixed on Yoruichi. "Very well, then. I will not presume to speak for Jiraiya, but I shall enroll in your institution."

Yoruichi was practically beaming at his response. "I knew you'd come around. Man, I can't wait to rub it into Jūshirō's face that I scouted the top student this year!"

"Hey, now," said Jiraiya with a smirk, "He's gonna have some competition for that spot; I'm in."

"Splendid," said Unohana with a smile, "I'm looking forward to seeing your results. As Yoruichi mentioned before, I will be in charge of the student physicals as well, so you can expect to see me once the primary examinations are complete."

"Oh, really?" said Jiraiya with a grin, "That'll be a physical to look forward to, I'm sure!"

Yoruichi chuckled. "You really might want to rethink that, Jiraiya. Unohana might be the greatest healer in the Soul Society, but if you get on her bad side they'll be picking up pieces of you across the Rukon District, and it'll take them at a least a century to find them all."

"Well, you know what they say," Jiraiya replied with a laugh, "Fortune favors the bold!"

Unohana giggled, but there was a hint of steel behind it that sent a chill down Itachi's spine. "Perhaps so, or perhaps not. Lady Luck is a fickle mistress, after all. You'd best be prepared for whichever way her mood swings, Jiraiya."

She turned her gaze back to Itachi, and it once again took on that maternal warmth she had blessed him with earlier. "I believe that should do it, then. Rub your chest and tell me how it feels, Itachi."

After she had removed her hand and he had put his shirt back on, Itachi did as she ordered and was surprised with what he found. "It… it feels good. The internal damage I took from those hits before… you were really able to heal it all so quickly?"

Unohana nodded. "Normally I would still advise that you take it easy for a few days, but since the entrance exams are tomorrow I fear you will not have that luxury. Do not worry, though; I shall take special care of you when the time comes for your physical."

"What about me?" said Jiraiya with a sly smile, "Will I get any of that special care, Lady Unohana?"

Unohana laughed. "Adding a noble title to my name will not aid your chances, but I suppose it will not hurt them either."

Yoruichi held out her hand. "Can you stand, Itachi?"

Allowing her to pull him to his feet, Itachi didn't feel any worse for the wear, which was rather remarkable considering the harrowing fight he and Jiraiya had gone through just a little while ago. "I think I'm all right. Thank you, both of you. I owe you my life, and I promise that I will find a way to repay you."

"Anytime," said Yoruichi with a wink, "and don't sweat it. It'd be a shame for a guy like you to end up as Hollow bait."

Next to him, Jiraiya switched gears and gave the two women a formal bow. "You have my gratitude as well. I won't forget this night. I'm in your debt."

"You are most welcome, Jiraiya," said Unohana.

"You two should find someplace safe and get some shuteye," said Yoruichi, "Exams start pretty early, and I know you two don't know your way around the Soul Society very well yet. Can you at least make it to the Seireitei by sunrise?"

Itachi nodded. "Yes."

"No problem," said Jiraiya.

"Good," Yoruichi replied, "Wait in front of the White Road Gate; that's the western entrance to the Seireitei. The Gatekeeper's Jidanbō Ikkanzaka. Don't let his size give you the wrong impression; he's actually a pretty nice guy once you get to know him. I'll have one of my subordinates waiting to escort you two to the Academy. Don't worry about knowing what she looks like; I'll give her your descriptions, so she'll know you when she sees you."

"Do be careful," said Unohana, "It would be a shame for either of you to get hurt on your way to the Seireitei."

"They'll be fine," said Yoruichi with a smile, "Come on, Unohana. We should get back before our Lieutenants start worrying about us."

"Hold on, Yoruichi," said Unohana, "Aren't you forgetting something?"

Yoruichi raised an eyebrow. "What are you talking about?"

Unohana simply nodded at her, and apparently that was enough for her to get the hint. "Oh, crap, my haori! I must've left it at the bar. I hope it's still there. Man, Kisuke would tease me for weeks if it got stolen!"

"You'd best go back and grab it," said Unohana with a laugh, "I'll meet on you on the road."

Yoruichi nodded before giving Itachi and Jiraiya one last smile and wink. "Sounds good. See you guys tomorrow!"

The two women disappeared a split second later, leaving Itachi and Jiraiya standing by the river. Itachi certainly had a great deal to mull over, but he couldn't help but notice that Jiraiya was looking at him again.

"What is it?" he asked.

Jiraiya's eyes narrowed. "I'll let it go for now, but sooner or later you and I are going to need to talk about what you did back when we were both still alive. I'm not necessarily saying that I'll believe every word you say, but it sounds like you at least have a case to plead, and I'll let you do that before passing final judgment."

Itachi nodded. "I understand. I would expect nothing less from one of the Sannin."

Jiraiya chuckled. "Don't make us out to be saints. Hell, you met Orochimaru; you know full well how far we can fall."

"Agreed," said Itachi, "Still, two out of three isn't bad. The Third Hokage would be proud."

Jiraiya smiled. "Yeah… I suppose he would. Who knows? Maybe we'll run into him somewhere up here. It's a pretty big afterlife."

"That it is," said Itachi.

Jiraiya turned to go, giving a brief wave over his shoulder as he did. "See you tomorrow, Itachi Uchiha."

….

Yoruichi whistled with relief as she caught up to Unohana. "I lucked out; it was still draped over the chair right where I left it."

Unohana and smiled. "That's good to hear. Fortune really does seem to favor us tonight."

Yoruichi nodded and grinned. "Yeah, no kidding. Here I was thinking the two of us would just grab a friendly drink before getting buried in work from tomorrow's entrance exams, and we wound up not only taking out some Hollows but finding some star students as a bonus! Talk about a win-win, right?"

"Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves," Unohana replied, "They still have to make it through the exams, after all."

Yoruichi waived her hand dismissively. "Come on, Unohana. You saw the way they handled that first Hollow. They had no control whatsoever over their spiritual pressure, but they still found a way to take it down. If they can pull that off, then they've got the entrance exams in the bag."

Unohana gave a soft laugh. "I suppose we'll find out soon enough."

Indeed, we will, she mused, her thoughts lingering on the black-haired young man in particular, I can't wait to see what you can do, Itachi Uchiha!

Author's Notes: And with that, both our leading men and leading ladies have taken center stage! Since they've died, Itachi and Jiraiya are going to have to build their power back up from square one. Still, they're not exactly helpless; after all, they've still got their combat experience and highly honed instincts and reflexes as a base to build on. Needless to say, the Soul Reaper Academy's not going to know what hit it when these two show up for the entrance exams.

Until next time! Please review!