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天逆毎

Ama no Zako

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Learning Phase: Realm of Hell

地獄道

Jigokudou


"An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind."

― Mahatma Gandhi


"It was the Senju!"

"A surprise attack? Who leaked the location?"

"It must have been the spies."

"…This place isn't important anyway. The exiles lived here, you know?"

"Lucky for us. We'll avenge our dead anyway."

She feels nothing as they speak.

It could have been me, Azami thinks.

The smell of burning corpses fills the air, and the girl can do nothing but stand there. Shaking, she covers her nose with a sooty kimono sleeve. It doesn't work. Too many things run through her mind, too many images, and too many smells.

A treacherous whisper in her head: If I stayed back, I would have died too.

For a moment, she is disgusted with herself. What kind of person is relieved when the corpses of their mother and sister burn in front of them? What should one feel?

"Girl!" a shinobi, about double her age of ten summers appears next to her. "What are you standing there for? Make sure scavengers don't get to the bodies."

Bodies. Bodies. He calls them bodies?

She clenches her jaw before nodding.

Disgusting.

They were people. They lived and loved. They trusted the clan. The clan betrayed them. The weak, the outcasts, the unimportant members were abandoned.

There was the old woman who sneaked her sweets. The farmers who gave her extra vegetables even though their crops were failing. There was the blind man who played the flute on clear nights, lulling her to sleep. There was her sister, so young and so frail—born sickly and unable to walk. The illness had stolen her sight also, as if the world hadn't robbed her enough.

She remembers her beloved mother, who convinced her to go to the main compound for clan training. You said you wanted to protect us? Well, my cute Azami.

Go and learn how to fly.

Azami loved these people. They were important to her.

Once, they were alive like her.

Of course, she cannot say anything. She is alone and at the mercy of the clan. For the clan, everything is for the greater good of the clan. Fighting the Senju and killing and killing and killing…

They could send her to her death at any moment.

"Girl? Are you deaf?"

Azami looks up at the ninja standing in front of her, his back proudly bearing that stupid fan insignia.

"No," she rasps from the smoke. "But don't you think they should get a proper funeral?"

He turns, frowning at her. "We don't have the time for that. Now get ready to leave on the signal."

Azami remains silent when he finally goes to hassle others. And just as the flames die, the last of her belief in the clan disappears.

And it is her fault. She is too weak to even protect her home.

It's all in the past now. The only way is forward, into the bleak future.


"Ne…'zami?"

Azami carries her younger sister on her back, tired from walking forest trails for the whole day. Although her arms feel like they're about to fall off, they never falter in its grip of her younger sister's lame legs.

"Hm?" she grunts, sweat-beads forming on her temple.

A small, soft hand wipes the sweat away. "Are you tired?"

She smiles, even though the younger girl couldn't see. "No."

"Really?"

"Yes."

The older girl re-adjusts her grip so her sister is more comfortable.

"Thanks, 'zami." –thin arms wrap around her neck in a hug–"I've always wondered…do…do you ever hate me because…because I'm useless?" she murmurs, her voice barely audible. "I can't see, I can't walk…All I do is cause trouble for you and mummy and the clan."

Azami stops in her tracks. "I…you're not useless!"

The girl trembles. "D-don't lie to me. I don't like liars. Please, tell me the truth."

Slowly, slowly, ever so slowly, she lowers the crippled girl to the forest floor. She embraces her sister, her precious, precious sister…the light of her world.

"Listen. Listen to me, and never forget my words," –the girl in her arms nods—"I could never hate you. If I hated anything, it'd be this shitty world and your shitty illness."

She giggles. "Y-you swore, 'zami!"

Azami gasps playfully. "Don't tell mum. She'll blow the roof off when we get back this late."

"Okay."

With sore arms, she lifts the little girl onto her back again, continuing to walk back home.

The small arms hug her neck again. "…You know, you're as pretty as your chakra."

Even though I can't see, goes unsaid. It lingers between them, a heavy statement.

She continues to walk, a sad smile on her face. "Really?"

"Uhuh! It's bright and wispy and kind. Just like you."- she wriggles closer- "I love you, onee-chan. Always."

I love you too. I love you so much.


For chakra is in everything, and everything is in chakra. Only once she becomes nothing, can she gain everything.


One: Acceptance

The clan couldn't be bothered about someone as insignificant as her. They need not to even tell her, she knows her meager worth.

Azami had been herded to live with the orphans who had no direct family relations left. Her new home is a small building on the outskirts of the main compound, slightly falling apart from age and disuse.

With nothing but the threadbare kimono on her back and a heavy heart, she walks into the house.

The corridors are swept clean, the floors well worn. She can smell the lingering scent of soap, and the drifting aroma from the kitchen.

16 steps forward, 10 steps left, 6 steps left. She passes a worn wooden cupboard, a scroll with the clan crest hanging on the wall…every small detail is taken in. She observes and memorizes, missing nothing.

Running a hand across the wall, she feels the grooves and the pulsing residue energy around her.

This place must have been filled with children once. Now, they are sent to the battlefield to die for the clan.

Azami stops walking once she reaches an open shoji screen, following the sound of a woman humming.

"Excuse me," she intones once she steps into the room. Her bare feet make no noise.

"Ah! My,"- the lady turns, unperturbed -"Hello, child. You could have called for me- I could have come to pick you up!" She laughs, a merry sound that fills the air with warmth. It is unexpected, as she is thin and looks exhausted despite her youthful face.

She smiles at Azami, her eyes gaining vigor.

The girl stares for a moment, dark eyes wide and bright. "Hello. I am Azami. You must be Kozue-san"-she bows politely-"I am in your care."

"What good manners you have! You have been taught well, Azami-chan," Kozue steps away from the stove, crouching down to her height. A gentle, chapped hand pats her shoulder. "Even though you are so young…"

Age doesn't matter when the clan decides that it's time for you to be skewered by the Senju, Azami thinks snidely. She bites her lip to stop herself from talking, lest she is cast out of the only place that will shelter her.

The woman-Kozue, smiles knowingly at Azami's tense silence. She stands, taking the girl's small hand in her own.

"Come. I'll show you your room. I've prepared everything you already," Kozue says, her voice gentle as she tugs Azami along. "Everything will be okay, you're safe here."

They walk along the outside corridor. 5 paces…11 paces…left…right turn.

Just as Kozue is about to slide open the door, Azami speaks.

"We are never safe."

Her eyes meet Azami's, and she notices the shade of her iris is slightly off from the typical midnight blue. It is a dark pine green, the green is only revealed under careful scrutiny. Kozue leans closer to examine the girl's choppy hair under the light.

She suspects it is the darkest shade of carmine. Carmine red. Her features are mostly Uchiha—the pale skin, the delicate nose, high cheekbones…undoubtedly an Uchiha.

All throughout this, Azami is frozen still. She speaks again, voice brittle as honeycomb.

"Not now, not here. Never."

Kozue straightens herself, realization dawning.

"Never," she agrees, the word a ghostly whisper on her lips. She remembers the laugh of an innocent child, a faceless man's embrace and the bloodshed that stole them away from her.

Could it have been during an enemy attack, or an unfortunate accident?

-running- an overturned carriage- screaming- off the cliff- I'll protect you – yelling – it's the Senju!

Suddenly, Azami is gazing into the depths of the Sharingan, the pride of the Uchiha. It is the first time she's seen it so close.

"I hate them," Kozue murmurs. "I'll never forgive them!"

Azami observes, utterly captivated.

"Me too,"-she replies: never, ever, forgive- "…Me too."


She decides to attend clan training again.

So Azami rejoins the class nonchalantly, uttering nothing about the happenings of the past week. She stands to attention, listening to the instructor with feigned interest.

"Today, you will learn how to create a fireball. If you haven't gotten it yet, watch closely. If this is your first time, watch even closer! Those who succeed will be given the privilege of wearing the clan crest, and will be recognized as adults. Do the clan proud!" He lectures them as he waves his hands animatedly.

Fire. Fire.

He goes through the hand seals, and she watches so intently she might as well set him alight with her eyes.

Azami loved ninjutsu classes the most before everything that was precious burned away.

Fire. Fire. Fire.

Tiger. Ram. Monkey.

She isn't sure if that is the case anymore.

Boar. Horse. Tiger.

"Katon: Goukakyuu no Jutsu!"

But once the teacher breathes fire, and the massive orb of roaring flame surges upwards towards the sky, she is sure.

Although the residue of heat lingering in the air makes her think of unpleasant things, she locks away the shadows of her past without hesitation. She is distracted by the display of power in front of her; the sheer possibilities of chakra unravel in her mind like a starry night sky.

…And Azami knows. She knows she thinks differently from other people. It isn't normal, for such a child to ponder about the potential of chakra, the infinite number of feats one could do with sufficient control, and amount.

She also knows that the consequence for mastering this fire technique is conscription to the battlefield. Unlike the other children, she does not rush.

Slowly, she runs through the hand signs. Fire. Tiger. Ram. Monkey.

She watches the other students as she pretends to have clumsy fingers. Of course she doesn't, how many times has she threaded a needle to mend her sister's clothes?

How many times has she run through this sequence?

Countless.

Boar. Horse. Tiger. Again. Again.

From the corner of her eye, she secretly watches a fellow student standing a distance away from the clusters of children. He is concentrating, hands resting in the tiger position.

Another boy, evidently younger (both are younger than her) is watching on the sidelines, bouncing on the balls of his feet in quiet anticipation.

Tiger. Ram. Monkey.

Azami feels a sudden increase in chakra, and even before he finishes the hand seals, she knows he is going to succeed.

Boar. Horse. Tiger.

A moderately large fireball rises up into the air.

"Wow! Madara did it!"

"It's always him, no fair."

"That's amazing for his first try."

She knows that boy is talented. Even though he is two years younger than her, he blessed with natural ability.

His pint-sized brother is the only one that could probably keep up.

"I'm not going to lose to you, Madara!"

Azami watches him blow a small fireball into the sky. Still quite impressive, even though he needs to practice more, and maybe grow up a bit so that his chakra coils could mature. It is natural that Madara is stronger than Izuna. He is older, so the law of nature dictates that he would be more experienced.

She thinks Izuna is slightly daft in competing with his brother all the time.

(Once, as part of a training exercise, she had to spar with Madara at the teacher's behest. During Izuna's protests, she was sorely beaten in only a few moments. It hadn't been one of the proudest moments of her life, eating dirt.)

That stain on her dignity had been a year ago, on the first day of his induction into clan training. It had been humiliating, losing to the new kid.

Turning her attention away from the unfairly talented brothers, Azami decides to use them as a distraction for attempting the fireball jutsu away from public scrutiny.

She closes her eyes, and vanishes the lurking memories of fire, and any thoughts of negativity. She can feel the pulsing of chakra under her skin, the life energy flowing through her in an interconnected stream.

Tiger. Ram. Monkey—

Azami focuses on her pooling her chakra, compressing it, feeling its warmth under her skin. She knows the precise moment it transforms into dormant fire.

-Boar. Horse. Tiger.

She takes a deep breath, feeling it surge…

(She stops the torrent, molding the output into a steady trickle)

…and blows out a small stream of fire. Of course, she is laughed and jeered at once the other kids notice her. Paying them no mind, she continues to blow the small stream of flame, letting it dissipate into the air.

It looks like a joke.

The teacher shakes his head at her, patting her on the shoulder. 'Do better next time', his expression says.

She ignores the snarky remarks because she stands out in the normal education classes, mentally throwing that self-assured Madara into the metaphorical dirt.

She also pretends not to notice his piercing glance in her direction.

.

.

.

Azami tries to ignore the stare that is boring holes in her back.

A week has passed with her trying to do normal day-to-day activities—like washing her clothes, sleeping on the grassy knolls somewhere else in the forest, eating lunch…with a shadow lurking behind her.

It happens at irregular intervals during the day, making her conclude that Madara follows her around in his free time, otherwise there would be two lurking stalkers, both smaller than her and double the annoyance.

She cannot find any shred of kindness or maternal instinct in her cold heart to see Madara as endearing. Her patience gauge steadily depletes by the second.

Stopping her run through of the basic taijutsu katas, she addresses the nuisance.

"Can you stop creeping around behind me and just say your piece to my face, Madara?" She tries not to sound threatening, but she has reached her limit.

Like a walking shadow, he sidles up to her. "Hey," he greets her, no semblance of respect for his elders in his tone.

She doesn't let her annoyance seep into her expression, keeping both her demeanor and voice passive.

"Don't hey me."

The boy shoots her an affronted look. "How else am I supposed to call out?"

She is amazed at his audacity. However, she will not place him on pedestal like the others.

Looking down on him from her superior vantage point, she draws attention to the fact that she is taller than him. His insulted glare gives her petty satisfaction.

"You should greet your elders with at least some modicum of respect," –a hand quickly grabs his chin in a pincer grip before he can react, squishing his cheeks in the most unflattering way—"An example would be a: 'Hello, Azami-san, I'd like to talk to you, do you have some time?' and you wouldn't disturb their lives where all is well," she finishes darkly.

"Baabashamu," he replies as her right hand is still squishing his face. His hands grab her wrist, trying to shove it off.

They grapple for dominance.

Azami swiftly lets go of him, instead performing a chokehold. "Why don't you repeat that?" she smiles sinisterly.

Madara scowls at the ground, common sense and pride battling inside him. He mutters lowly.

"…Bakazami."

The smile turns severely strained. She slowly releases him, and his hands are on his hips, that prideful look on his face.

He raises an eyebrow. "You asked me to repeat myself."

"I did, didn't I?" she muses to herself.

Spinning around, she kicks him in the stomach, initiating a spar even though she has vowed to herself never to train with him in her life.

.

.

.

She lies on the ground like a starfish, once again beaten. However, this time, she has given him many nasty bruises.

"You act like Izuna," Madara says as he leans back against a tree trunk.

Dark green clashes with onyx. Azami takes a deep breath, as she stands up next to him, steadying herself by gripping his shoulder with painful intensity.

"You're insinuating that my maturity is at the level of a seven year old." She lets him shake her hand off his bruised shoulder.

Passively, she hooks a leg behind him and trips him, giving a further push so he lies on the grass face down.

"…You're worse than Izuna. Much worse."

She contemplates grabbing his arm and dislocating it. Her imagination puts her mind at rest. Sitting down next to the nuisance, she graciously ignores his verbal jab.

"Now, you're testing my patience. Would you like it if I hunted you in my spare time, lurking right behind you?" she questions him exasperatedly.

"No way! I hate it when people stand behind me!" Madara raises his head off the ground to yell.

She gives him a pointed stare. He meets her gaze directly, which annoys her further because he doesn't have the capacity to understand the subtleties of a mature conversation.

Grinding her knuckles on either side of his hand teaches him a lesson. "…Then don't do it to other people." Dimwit, she adds non-verbally as she lets him suffer the after-effects.

Strangely, he is perceptive to the most useless things. "You called me stupid in your brain just then, didn't you?"

Azami sighs. "Please. I don't want to deal with you anymore. What do you want, Madara? Just say it already, so I can leave for peace and quiet."

He doesn't answer her, slowly getting to his feet. He crosses his arms as he stares down at her.

"Why did you screw up the fireball jutsu on purpose?"

All joking and feelings of annoyance aside, Madara is seriously asking her. For a moment, she thinks that he might try to blackmail her into servitude. She dismisses the idea as quickly as it appeared. Over-estimating a person's intelligence never does anyone any favours.

Azami ponders her answer, thinking of a way to avoid directly reply and lie by omission.

"Don't lie to me," Madara says sternly. "I don't like liars."

She doesn't care what he thinks of her, but his words create a wave of nostalgia to that crashes down.

'Please, tell me the truth' A small, frail voice echoes in her mind. It induces aches in her heart. It makes her painfully aware of the two voids in her chest, torn by force and taken by death too early.

She breathes in deeply. "Fire…brings back sad memories. My mother and sister—died…and-and the clan burned…every-thing. I don't—it feels so unreal. It can't be true. I…I don't want this to be the truth!"

(Thanks, 'zami.)

She buries her face in her hands. "I'm tired of this, Madara. I'm so tired. I don't want to say anymore"-she wails-"I-I'm just so tired!"

Surprisingly, he remains silent, just listening.

"…Why do you even care? We're not even friends."

The boy, no longer a nuisance, furrows his brow in thought. "I'm Uchiha Madara," – he ignores her sarcastic remark about mental deficiencies—"And you're Uchiha Azami. We're both Uchiha, so we should help each other, because I'm on your side. Always."

Trust Madara to always be so self-assured, even when he doesn't make sense.

…I'm on your side. Always.

(I love you, onee-chan. Always.)

The lock breaks. And the tears fall, for the first time since they died.

"Oi. Azami…what's wrong with you?"

She sinks to her knees, sobbing grievously. "I…I don't"-a hiccup-"kn-n-ow!"

Madara freezes in confusion before reaching out and patting her head, the motion stilted. His late mother used to stroke his head, when he had been young—too young to even remember her face.

His touch is gentle, and Azami cannot stop crying.

(You know, you're as pretty as your chakra. It's bright and wispy and kind. Just like you.)

She weeps for her sister, her mother and her home. She weeps for the ashes of her past. She weeps, and remembers.

Azami remembers that the past it long gone.

- bright and wispy and kind –

Just like Madara.


At night, she dreams.

She dreams of huge black birds wearing terrifying masks and flying across the sky like an ill-omened shooting star. On the ground are mammoth-sized beasts—one roar leaves only death and destruction in their wake.

She dreams of endless forests, one step inside and it comes to life—the wood is growing, growing, growing into a huge, gnarled tree. A forbidden fruit hangs off an ancient branch, waiting to be plucked.

She dreams of the truth. She sees it, that light so close yet so far and reaches out, fingers grasping—

By dawn, she forgets everything.


つづく


End notes

This is my tribute to the anime of my childhood. Naruto has ended, but it still continues on within my heart.

Azami is the darkest and most complex character I've ever created. I will enjoy writing her. This chapter was about her coming to terms with the world. Now she needs to find out what to do about it. (The ages are: Azami is 10, Madara is 8, and little Izuna is 7)

I originally planned this fic as a short, three-chapter story dedicated to the end of Naruto, but I kept adding arcs in and I went on huge tangents and I started including many of the cast characters of Naruto for different arcs and I'm still expanding on things that I want to write about. This is a test chapter, to see what kind of feedback and reader interest and all that stuff.

This fic will adhere to canon. There will be some kind of romance sub-plot with a character I've already chosen, but that's not the point of the story.

Any questions? Thoughts?

Much work to do,

Tollpatsch