Sealkeeper: He Who Binds
Chapter 175 "Godhood" or "World Beyond the Shinju"
Patron Release 2023.07.27
It took a moment for Naruto to process the words that even now continued to ring in his ears.
"Join me, Tsukuyomi, as my beloved husband everlasting, and I will raise you into godhood to stand at my side."
Ignoring the fact that it was probably the most abrupt marriage proposal to ever exist- from his perspective, at least. It was a bit more reasonable if she had been watching him for years, though that was a different issue entirely- it was an offer of godhood.
Or as much of a god as Kaguya was a goddess, anyway. Whatever she actually was clearly stood above regular mortals but to claim divinity was rather bold.
The irony of that thought was not lost to him, not when he'd been going about utilizing the name of the moon god as his own for so long.
He couldn't lie and say that the idea of godhood didn't appeal to him. Not for any personal power, of course, but for an even greater ability to look after and protect his Wolves. Kaguya had spent millennia trapped within the moon, looking down over the entire world and watching as she pleased. With that ability alone he would be able to identify threats to the safety of his people long before they drew near- assuming he didn't likewise have to be trapped within the moon in order to do so- and there was no telling what else might be within her- and potentially his, should he accept- capabilities.
And the cost was simply to marry her. He wasn't sure who actually presided over a marriage between gods- or a goddess and a man who would soon be lifted to godhood- but it seemed almost suspiciously low. He and his children would gain much through such an arrangement, but what could she possibly receive? He couldn't think of anything that would come anywhere close on his end and that didn't make him less wary.
There was also the not insignificant fact that the greatest threat to his Wolves originated with her. Perhaps not directly, he didn't actually know what her part in all of this was, but she was undeniably involved somehow.
Trusting the source of your troubles to provide you with a solution to them seemed awfully foolish to Naruto-
But so did simply dismissing the offer.
If this was real- and he didn't dare get his hopes up that there was even a possibility that it could be a legitimate offer with such a paltry price- then it was an opportunity to ensure his Wolves were taken care of until the end of time itself.
It simply was not possible to assign any sort of value to that ability, that guarantee for the good of his children.
"...Why?" It was a broad question, yes, but Naruto found himself with so many that he couldn't seem to narrow it down any more than that.
Why did she want to marry him?
Why was she willing to offer so much for his cooperation in this?
Why were the monsters released across the world?
Why was she locked away in that lunar palace?
And, of course, why him? She had mentioned that he had caught her attention but he didn't know why or when. How long had she been watching? What had she seen and how could it have possibly convinced her that he would make a suitable husband for the rest of eternity?
She gave him a fond smile while something close to nostalgia swirled in her pale eyes. "I should have expected you'd have questions." Hiding her mouth with a dainty hand she released a soft laugh. "And I suppose I should probably apologize for being so forward. I had planned on speaking with you longer before making that offer to help you understand who I am and build some trust between us but now that I'm here with you I simply couldn't restrain myself. I have been waiting a very long time for this, you know."
No, he really didn't. A long time for marriage or a long time to ask him for his hand in marriage specifically?
The first one made more sense, all things considered, but something within him said that she absolutely meant something closer to the second- only that was entirely absurd. Even if she had been watching him from birth that was less than twenty years. For a mortal that was a huge chunk of time but for someone who had been trapped in a prison for thousands- to say nothing of how long she may have lived before that- that was absolutely nothing.
He had to be missing something hidden in her words but whatever she was offering glimpses of was likely deliberate. The information was there, she was providing it, but he wasn't receiving it. That was hardly her fault.
It only made him more certain that she was up to something here.
When Naruto kept his silence she pouted for a second but after a small sigh started answering questions he hadn't been able to properly voice. "Humans are often afraid of things they cannot understand and there are two reactions they tend to have the most- either they flee in terror or they lash out." A look of displeasure spread over her face as she recalled a time long ago. "They also have the most irritating tendency to believe they're right. Their opinions. Their morals. Their rules. They don't like it when you break their rules and they don't care when they break rules that have existed for longer than their species has been walking upright." Displeasure became open disdain. "Unfortunately those facts don't mix well, especially when one of those children is also your son."
She leaned back with an irritable huff and brought her tea to her lips to calm back down.
"He was the result of my time spent with some king or emperor or daimyo, I don't really remember what his official title was, and he had been raised primarily as a human. Despite that, he had received more than enough divinity from me to make all the difference. The humans could be as mad at me as they liked and it wouldn't matter. He, however, had the potential to harm me." She gave a wan smile and finished with bitterness dripping from her words; "Not that I would have ever believed him capable of raising his hand against his own mother. The thought never crossed my mind, which proved to be my undoing."
"They didn't just lash out at you because you were a goddess." Naruto knew there had to be something else to it and was rewarded by another pleased smile.
"Of course, but they did come to fear me." With one hand she gestured to the tree beside them. "This is the Shinju, a sacred tree that grows the Seeds of Divinity. Your history might recall them as 'Chakra Fruit', assuming they remember that time at all, and you can thank them for humanity's ability to utilize Chakra at all."
"I'm getting the feeling that has something to do with why they sealed you away in the moon." Nami's Daimyo noted.
"Mmm, you'd be right. The Shinju belongs to the spirits, not man, and as the chosen guardian of the Shinju- chosen by the Shinju- authority over the fruit rested solely with me. Planting the Seeds of Divinity renewed the physical world's connection to the spiritual and consuming them was how some of the greater Kami and other divine beings sustained themselves. As only a single seed grew every decade, It was my duty to ensure each seed was allocated properly so that everything remained in balance."
"...And they stole one." Naruto could see where this was going. Humans had taken something from the spirits, the spirits lashed out, and the humans had believed the spirits to be violent and malicious because of it.
"Yes!" He was rewarded with a brilliant smile for his insight. "That's exactly what happened. To be more specific, my son stole the fruit for them. The Seeds of Divinity can only be reached by those chosen by the Shinju, the humans would have never been able to reach it on their own and they knew it."
Which implied they knew they were acting against the wishes of something, Naruto noted. Even if it wasn't some sort of written rule they knew there were forces who would attempt to stop them from taking that action. Had they not considered that those same forces- or forces tied to them- would seek retribution afterwards? Perhaps they expected her son to be able to defend them or assumed whatever they gained from the seed- Chakra, it would seem- would be enough to stave off such fates.
"But my son, my darling boy, he possessed a spark of my own divinity- just enough for the Shinju to be fooled into thinking it was I who had come to visit it. By the time it realized the hand that took the fruit was not my own it was too late." She continued. "And when I learned that humans had split apart and imbibed the Seed of Divinity for that decade to gain their own sparks I acted immediately to reclaim them."
"I'm going to assume that resulted in deaths."
"Oh, yes." She nodded. "Many deaths. Most did not survive having their 'Chakra Fruit' ripped from their bodies. The longer it was before I found them the more likely it was that the beginnings of divinity- even diminished as it was by the sharing between so many- had taken root. They did not survive the extraction-" She leaned forward and gave him a pointed look, as if daring him to contradict her next words. "-but I did not kill any of them."
Technically she did, but Naruto understood what she was saying. She retrieved what had been stolen, what belonged to her and other spirits by right, and in doing so some of the thieves died. The important part was what she hadn't specifically said-
"There are some who survived the extraction, and they're the ones who spread word of what happened." A frown tugged at his lips. "I'm assuming they didn't see it quite as you did."
Her chuckle was without mirth. "No, no they did not. And it was not just to their fellow humans but also to my son, who had taken the Seed for them. For his entire life he had been idolized by them and in turn he adored the humans whom he lived amongst. When he believed that I had lashed out against them for an action he had taken he decided to ensure I could never do so again."
She shifted in her seat and gave a nostalgic sigh filled with bittersweet remembrance. "But let it not be said that my son did not love his mother. While his only option was to trap me- not possessing the strength to slay me- he took care to ensure it would be in conditions suitable for a woman of my standing." A wry smile pulled at her lips but beyond the slight amusement was a hint of resentment that couldn't be fully hidden. "But in the end he was more human than spirit and his comprehension of time matched theirs. He believed he had provided comforts and furnishings that would last me forever because for a human in that time even a hundred years might have been an era. It was not long- not for someone such as I- before everything he had filled my prison with had succumbed to time that would not touch me. Only the white stone of the moon remained."
"But the spirits- the spirits did not forget me. One of whom was the one who had claim to the seed of that decade, the seed I retrieved and provided to them." It was her turn to frown. "I did not learn until later that it had been tainted by the traces of mortality that still clung to it. He was similarly diminished by their humanity and I cannot claim to have managed to retrieve all of that original seed, close as I may have been, but it had been enough that even to this day he remains in a much better state than the other unfortunate spirits who never had an opportunity to partake of a Seed again."
From the ground grew a plant-like man who matched descriptions given by Kisame. "Zetsu." The plant- and source of the monsters that had threatened Naruto's children- gave a deep bow at his name.
"Yes, very good. You're already familiar with him and, regretfully, I dare say you have met those other spirits denied the Seeds of Divinity that sustained them in this world."
Understanding blossomed immediately.
"The denizens of the Deep Cells, the spirits trapped beneath the earth- those are the spirits you tended to, aren't they?"
"They were, once. I cannot say what they are now. Truly, it is equally as impressive as it is horrifying that they've managed to cling to existence for so long."
"And that's why they wanted the clones, to help anchor them to this world."
"Precisely. They did, however, serve another purpose- they maneuvered you here. That, I think, is much more important." She paused, thinking, and then moved back to the previous topic. "But I didn't quite finish telling you about how I ended up in the moon and it would be a shame for you to not understand the origins of the power that flows through your body this very minute."
"I don't think there's much more for you to tell. I already know you didn't manage to get everyone who had partaken of the Seed and just as you passed a spark to your son they passed their own smaller sparks to their own children until now everyone has that tiniest bit of divinity granting them Chakra."
"Close, but not quite. The amount I missed was negligible and may have given birth to a few powerful families for a dozen generations or so- maybe even some exceptionally notable individuals more suited for their divinity- but it would not have lasted long, and certainly not long enough for everyone to have the spark. That's the only way it could be preserved, two individuals passing it down to their child. Otherwise it would have continued to dilute unto nothingness."
Which meant something had introduced more to the people of the world and Naruto could only think of one way that could have happened.
"Your son took the next fruit…."
"And the next, and the one after that for ten cycles before the Shinju stopped recognizing my divinity within him and took matters into its own hands. The next seed became a host of demons and each seed thereafter was shaped into a greater demon you know as the Biju. First with the Ichibi and progressively gaining more tails when that which was stolen had not been retrieved. My son spent the rest of his life fighting those demons and teaching the people to wield their new Chakra to defend themselves."
Naruto moved his gaze from Kaguya and up to the towering white tree that could apparently grant divinity once every ten years. A tree that had violently attempted to recover the Chakra- or, perhaps more accurately, the ability to utilize their Chakra- from humanity for a hundred years before presumably being stopped by Kaguya's son.
Presumably because if he didn't there should have been a Juubi and beyond, unless it had either given up or decided on a new course of action.
"Does the Shinju still seek the return of that fruit?" He asked. It had been millennium according to Kaguya- though that did bring up questions about what people were doing with Chakra for so long before the birth of Shinobi a few hundred years ago. Did they use it like the Samurai of Tetsu no Kuni?- but Naruto liked to think he knew spirits at least well enough to know that time held little meaning to them and that a grudge could be carried until reality itself unraveled around them.
"At this point there's nothing to retrieve. Generations of humans have mingled until those sparks of divinity have become just as much a part of you as the blood in your veins. One might even claim my son elevated your entire species a single step towards true divinity, they would not be wrong."
"And now you want to offer that divinity to me?" He understood some of her past now but that didn't shed any light on her current plans or motivations. "Shouldn't it go to the spirits who so desperately need it?"
"It's too late for them, I'm afraid. Just as those tiny portions of divinity have become a part of humanity, the lack of it has permanently changed the spirits who required it for sustenance. Giving it to them now would change them, yes, but not back into what they used to be and I can't imagine whatever they do become would be pleasant given their current state. Does your world really require more monsters?"
"Then why me?" That was probably the biggest question he had. Of all the people in the world she could have chosen, what was it about him that had drawn her interest?
"A young man all on his own who takes charge of discarded military assets, builds himself up an army, allies himself with some of the most dangerous people your world knows, takes over a country, and catches the attention of an entirely different god- and you never seem to ask why Au had chosen you, I might add- and you wonder what could have caught my attention?" She seemed genuinely amused. "My dearest Tsukuyomi, you have always been extraordinary and you have always had my attention."
That was…flattering, certainly, but he really didn't think much of his 'accomplishments'. He just did what needed to be done as best he could. He'd made plenty of mistakes over the years and if she'd been watching him then she should be well aware of that.
"I know that look." Her voice broke him from his thoughts. "You're thinking about the mistakes you've made." There was a slight frown on her pale lips and a chiding tone to her voice. "Stop that. I'm not interested in you because you're perfect, Naruto, you caught my attention because you're you."
He would be lying if he said a pleasant warmth didn't suffuse through his chest at her words but the underlying issue still remained- could he accept her hand in marriage? This offer of godhood? Could he trust that the woman before him now was the same woman he would be spending eternity with or was it an act to draw him in? Could he take that risk? Could he afford the time it would take to really get to know her?
In the end he came to the conclusion that he really couldn't, not when the wellbeing of his Wolves could depend on it.
She leaned forward eagerly, as if anticipating that he had made his decision, and he gave his answer.
There was no way the disappointment on her face could have been hidden and she didn't even try. It was an almost physical pain he could feel at the sight of it and he very nearly took his answer back before managing to harden his resolve. She saw this too and the smile she offered was bittersweet.
Ōtsutsuki Kaguya found herself disappointed but hardly surprised. Naruto was stubborn and strong-willed, anything that he thought put his children at risk would be instantly rejected and she could hardly blame him for it.
That devotion to his people was just one of the many reasons she had fallen in love with him so long ago.
She really hadn't done herself any favors approaching him as the result of a threat to his children. The Rabbit Goddess mentally frowned, wondering why on earth she had chosen that of all things as her introduction. Beyond dramatic flair she couldn't think of anything and Naruto was hardly going to be won over with dramatics. Amused, probably, but not swayed to her side where he belonged.
What options did she have left? How could she salvage years of planning and maneuvering things into this exact moment without having to start all over again? She could accept his answer, she supposed, and continue trying to court him. Perhaps offer things that would improve the lives of his precious Wolves and provided the safety he sought for them- though she could hardly think of anything better suited for that than his own godhood from joining her- until he realized she had no agenda beyond him and could start trusting her.
But she was already in a bad position for that, having endangered- indirectly as far as he knew- both his Wolves and the people of his little country.
She really should have exercised more control over what Zetsu and his monsters were doing but then there was no guarantee he would have been dragged out for her dramatic emergence. Really, this whole plan was a mess now that she was looking back at it- and the results, of course- and she could only assume she'd gone for it due to a dangerous lack of sleep or deathly amounts of sheer boredom. Trying things from a new angle was good and all but this had definitely been pushing things a bit far.
Her other option was…well, she didn't really have much in the way of options at this point. What Naruto knew and understood was that Zetsu had caused all this damage in his plot to bring her back to this world. That gave him no reason to trust her and plenty of reasons to want nothing to do with her. If he just understood all she had done-
She paused, contemplating. She hadn't ever tried that, had she? Simply telling him? Could that actually work? Kaguya tried to think of any negative repercussions and none were coming to mind. If it still didn't sway him she'd just have to try again, it was that simple. If that happened she definitely needed to figure out a better approach though. What the hell had she been thinking?
Of course, she already knew what she'd been thinking. Ironically considering how long she had spent waiting, Kaguya wasn't exactly a patient woman and she had rushed things.
One of these days she was going to get this right but, until then, she had one last thing to try.
"I see. I've rushed things again, haven't I?" She mused aloud and Naruto immediately wondered what he was missing. "This approach has never worked before but I've always worried that if I tried something earlier you wouldn't grow into the man I know and love. So far you've become him each time, though, which is encouraging enough. Perhaps we'll try something new if I can't manage to change your mind."
"I said-" She raised a delicate finger to pause his objection.
"I know, my love, and I also know just how wonderfully stubborn you can be but there's more you do not know and perhaps that will make all the difference."
Golden eyes narrowed suspiciously. "And what truths do you have that you believe will sway me on this? I've made my decision."
"Not just truths, beloved, the truth." With her words it felt as though a veil was being lifted away, the brush of silk against his eyes and his skin, his soul and his very being.
But nothing really changed. He was still standing by a table carved from the root of the Shinju as she sat comfortably in her chair. The tea service sat patiently awaiting someone to serve, the steam that had been wafting from it uninterrupted by the strange sensation that had overcome him.
The Shinju was unchanged, still rising up and piercing the heavens like a spear of the gods or, perhaps, like a god-killing spear. The moon and the delicate palace cocooned within still glistened with soft silver light only slightly more empty than it had remained for all the years Kaguya had remained encased within its falsely-fragile shell.
His eyes trailed back down to Kaguya who looked just as lovely and ethereal as she had before and he raised one questioning brow. Her answer was a soft smile as she rose gracefully from her seat and extended a small hand in invitation.
Against his better judgment he took it and was rewarded with another- delighted- smile from the Rabbit Goddess. Rather than using her grip on him to pull Naruto to her, she instead chose to step to his side, tucking his arm close, and then turned both of their bodies to see the world beyond the Shinju.
If pressed in that moment, Naruto would have to admit he didn't see many changes. The sky had entered into night and was filled with countless tiny stars. The smell of rain from the nearby and aptly named Ame no Kuni was sweet and the breeze that played with his hair was warm and gentle. Had he simply walked outside on a night like this he probably wouldn't have noticed anything wrong at all.
But there was one thing that did catch his attention.
The fields where various Shinobi fought each other- and later fought beside each other- were completely devoid of bodies.
That shouldn't have been too surprising considering the fact that everyone- with the exception of Iwa- was on the retreat but it wasn't just living bodies that were absent. Gold eyes scanned the ground with the aid of the moon's soft glow and yet he could not see a single corpse.
Nor could he see a single Zetsu.
Had they all followed the retreating Shinobi? Likely. But even the Zetsu- the original- Kaguya had introduced him to had seemingly vanished. Surely he had not been in her company for that long. But maybe he had, so he placed that observation to the side and continued to stare out into the world for the truth she wished to show him.
And then he realized what his eyes had been searching for corpses in.
Was that grass?
Of course there should be grass here, this was some of the most fertile ground in Hi no Kuni, but it had all been reduced to ash and blood-soaked mud by the time he had arrived from Tetsu no Kuni. There certainly hadn't been enough time for it to begin growing back and it wasn't as if this was freshly-sprouted either. The blades that danced in the breeze would easily come up to his knee and each and every one of them was a deep red.
A field of crimson that rippled like a pool of blood beneath the shattered moon.
But if she could grow the Shinju surely some measly grass was no great difficulty. Still, something about the situation put him on edge and he couldn't identify what was wrong.
He just knew something had to be.
"Do you see it?" She asked from beside him, her lips nearly to his ear and her soft voice warm against his skin.
"No." He admitted. There was no point in pretending. "I know something's wrong, I can feel it, but I don't know what it is."
"I wouldn't say it's wrong, darling, only different." Her free hand swept across the crimson field and the grass bent away as if bowing in the wrong direction. Above and behind, the glow of the moon increased to better aid his eyes. Splotches of white amid the red caught his attention briefly and he initially disregarded the objects as stones, but the light of the moon cast shadows over one of them and an animal looked back.
It was a mask, he realized. Not a Wolf, as far as he could tell, but it was obviously an ANBU style mask just like his Wolves wore. He examined the other masks he could see, noting that they also bore some resemblance to animals, but there was something off there, too.
Because even if these were ANBU- and he didn't recall ANBU becoming directly involved in this conflict, let alone this newest battle that had taken place only this afternoon- there shouldn't have been any duplicate masks. There was only ever one ANBU of each mask at a time and they were not quickly recycled. That was especially true if the previous wearer of the mask had been killed in the line of duty. Naruto couldn't think of any reason the ANBU- Konoha's or anyone else's- would have had to create duplicate agents.
So there was a very good chance that, like his Wolves, the previous owners of these masks did not belong to ANBU at all.
His feeling of unease only grew.
Naruto continued trying to figure out what was so special about these masks before he noticed something very important- the masks of the same animal were all in roughly the same condition.
The realization physically struck him and he flinched slightly from a fact he hadn't fully realized.
"These are all different groups, from different times." He voiced his observations. "...And they all died right here."
"At the foot of the Shinju," Kaguya confirmed with a pleased smile. "Yes."
"But why?" That's what he couldn't figure out. The how was easy enough, he just assumed Kaguya had slain them.
"They all had one thing in common, can you guess what it was?" When Naruto could only offer silence she continued. "You, Naruto, they all died for you."
Sealkeeper: He Who Binds
Chapter 175-B "As Long As It Takes"
Patron Release 2023.08.03
The waters of the Nanmen ocean were as black as the sky above them, the soft light of the moon catching against its waves in an imitation of the distant stars. The warm waters lapped at the shores of Kaze no Kuni, where the wind played with streamers of loose sand to create an ever-changing painting only the gods were high enough to bear witness to.
Sunagakure was nestled amidst the wind's art, mud-like adobe slowly chipping away with each gust to return to its natural form. The streets were empty, save the scars from Kurotsuchi's passing. Hanging above a few brave banners and forgotten articles of drying laundry waved to the world around them, their edges greatly frayed and their continued position so high nothing less than a minor miracle in the face of the unrelenting wind the country had been named after.
It was all terribly quiet.
To the north Ame's rains continued, a never-ending drizzle that impacted lightly against the eternally wet cement walkways and slid off towers of twisted, rusting metal and glistening glass windows. In its own way, it too reflected the sky. The darkness of the shaded alleyways and the complete lack of lights allowing the reflection of the windows to gleam all the brighter. Water was collected and drained without any intervention from human hands, the massive city designed specifically to ensure its residents would never have to worry- or even think- about being flooded in their homes by the constant downpour.
In their absence, the aqueducts and drainage systems continued without pause. There were no thoughts given to their creators.
The great Shinju stretched to the heavens, a bridge between the mortal and spiritual worlds. Soft lavender leaves gently caressed the delicate moon it held in its boughs and their shifting cast dancing shadows down on anything between its massive roots while the perfect white bark glowed gently enough for Naruto to see the world around him without issue.
But he didn't see any of that.
Not the bowing carpets of crimson grass, not distant mountains, not even the beautiful goddess who stood pressed to his side. She was looking at him still, he was dimly aware, those luminous eyes staring at his face and patiently awaiting a reaction to her words.
The only thing he could see were the remains of white masks resting in fields of red.
Not Wolves but his all the same, even if he had never known them. Dozens of different groups tied together only through him and all of them long since passed.
He was starting to understand, as much as he didn't want to. The truth being painted in his mind was one he couldn't bare to face.
"...How many?" He dared to ask after another minute of silence.
Kaguya didn't need him to elaborate, she understood exactly where his mind was at the moment. "I haven't kept track." Was her honest reply. "Sometimes it's just a handful, other times entire armies have been risen in your name."
Golden eyes closed as he processed her words and the confirmation they contained. It sounded impossible, should have been impossible, but the moon was close enough to touch if he only climbed a single tree. Impossible didn't exist here, not anymore. "Are the souls….are they the same?"
"Oh?" He could hear her eyebrow raise with her voice. "It appears you've caught on quickly. Usually it takes another question or two before you allow yourself to accept the truth of it all. Tell me, beloved, what conclusion have you reached?"
"It's a cycle," Answered Naruto. "This is where it ends."
"And begins, my dear." The Rabbit Goddess added gently. She swept her hand out around them again. "This is where I first met you, you know, and it is where I will wait until the day you decide to join me." She was absolutely certain of that fact, he noted, she believed without a shred of doubt that one day he would end up accepting her offer.
And who knows? Maybe one day he even would. In a world of infinite chances, what was the probability of a single outcome occurring? Likely far less than it never occurring, he would be willing to bet.
He prompted her again with his previous question. "The souls?"
"The same." Was her assurance. "They may live slightly different lives, much like yourself, and I may nudge them from time to time to shape an outcome but in the end the people you know are still the people you know each and every time." She leaned in closer, as if to impart some great secret. "As it turns out, the cycle of reincarnation objects far less to me…suspending…these souls in that cycle than it would if I were to force souls to come and go naturally while conforming to the world I need to shape. They are, in a way, going through their own reincarnations, I suppose."
"You nudge them?" His eyes moved back up to meet hers and a slightly sheepish look crossed her face.
"Well, yes, an inner thought here or there, perhaps a bout of inspiration…." A dusting of pink spread over her cheekbones rather alluringly and she momentarily diverted her eyes to continue. "Though I must admit I do sometimes get carried away. After all, when you lay with a woman in this world it's almost as if you're taking me to your bed."
He wanted to be surprised or alarmed, maybe even disgusted, but all he could concentrate on was that suddenly things made so much sense. How else would he, a young man with horrible social skills, end up with a dozen lovers? Most of them willing to join him at the same time, even? There should have at least been more conflict between them all, but there had been nearly no friction as far as he could remember. Maybe some competitiveness, but that was it.
That left him with two major questions. What else had she meddled in and had he really ever been with those people- not just in this life, but in any of the times he'd gone through- or was he just with Kaguya unknowingly? He couldn't decide which one was more important to him, either.
Or, he couldn't at first. When he broke it down, though, one of those questions was primarily about himself while the other concerned those he cared for. It was not a difficult decision to make.
"Was I with them or with you, Kaguya?" She shivered again as he said her name and the pink against her pale skin darkened noticeably.
"And who says it was not both?" Proposed the goddess. "They remain in this world by my power and, in a way, have become a part of me. I do not force them to be attracted to you, there is no need. Some of them have gone many lifetimes developing various feelings for you. Directing that affection into something more…" She paused to consider what word to use and immediately discarded her first choice of 'carnal' and her second of simply 'physical'. "...Romantic was not overly difficult. And, of course, I find that the more of them I have around you the more time I get to spend around you, even indirectly. That is worth more to me than you can possibly understand."
When he didn't look entirely convinced she added "For the most part, I don't need to nudge them at all." Kaguya tried to assure him. "Not to want to be with you, that is. I just help them get along with each other. I know you wouldn't want them fighting and we both know they wouldn't want to make you unhappy."
Well, one of them did. Naruto wasn't entirely convinced she was only adding her own input sparingly but he supposed that unless he joined her he'd probably never be able to really know.
Because he'd probably end up doing the same thing. He wasn't entirely comfortable with that thought. It would make it easier to protect and provide for his children and all of those he'd come to love over the years but at what point was it no longer them living their lives and could he really keep himself from interfering forever? Naruto was fairly confident in saying he'd only last until tragedy struck once, so would he just spend an eternity staving off anything dangerous? His Wolves would probably lose their minds.
Closing his eyes, Naruto took a slow, deep breath.
"They are the same souls?" He asked again.
"Absolutely. All of those you have met this time are with me and have been with me since the very first time I tried this. Regretfully I don't have any of those who may have died before I saw you originally but everyone else has been mine for quite some time." She pulled him tightly against her and gently stroked one of his cheeks with her thumb. "And I will happily surrender them all to you when you take your rightful place beside me."
"You wouldn't be willing to give them to me first?" It would go a very, very long way to prove her intentions and earn his trust. She seemed to know that too as her expression turned sorrowful and a very real regret entered her full-moon eyes.
"You've asked me that before, my love." Her smile was slightly wry but it was obvious she was trying not to frown at having to disappoint him. "And I would give them to you in a heartbeat if I could, I hope you know, but you are still just a mortal soul. Your spirit is not strong enough to fight against the cycle as I do on your behalf. Not yet. Allowing you to live with them again and again is the best I can do."
She seemed sincere. He couldn't deny that. Kaguya genuinely seemed like she would hand them over on his request if only she could and her reasoning made sense to Naruto. It didn't make it sting any less, though.
He took a moment to accept that, processing the fact that every single person that filled this entire world was being held here by the presence of Kaguya's soul. It could have been an active effort on her part- though if that was the case she made it seem absolutely effortless- but it seemed more to him that the weight of her own soul was so great that it kept the others drawn near like a heavenly body trapping a million shooting stars in orbit around it.
For a woman trapped within the moon- and who resembled it so perfectly- she was very much like the sun in this moment. Or, perhaps it would not be incorrect to say she was the center of the universe. His, anyway. Everything he had ever known came from this woman who still pulled him closely to her in the middle of a silent world.
"You're the center of it all, aren't you?" He managed to ask. "Everything in this world revolves around you."
"Oh, no," She gave a melodious laugh. "You're close, but I'm afraid you're missing the obvious." The smile Kaguya graced him with was brilliant and warm, filled with all the affection and adoration she felt towards him with just a touch of humor. "It's you, Naruto, you're the keystone that keeps it all together. None of this would still exist if not for you."
That was difficult to wrap his mind around, honestly. Much more difficult than accepting the fact that there was a singular deity- a deity you were meeting with in the flesh- who was personally maintaining a little fold amongst infinity just so that your world could wait for you to live lifetime after lifetime.
He was, in a way, responsible for an entire world. He couldn't begin to imagine what sort of responsibilities might lay on Kaguya's shoulders when she was capable of doing this- why? Because he had caught her interest? It seemed like such a flippant reason to halt the progress of an entire world but in the grand scheme of things how much was a single world even worth?
Less than he was, as far as Kaguya seemed to be concerned. It was a little flattering.
He tried to place himself in her place, to understand how she was seeing things. What was it about himself that could possibly be worth all this?
…No. He was looking at it wrong. She was doing this not because of who he was, but because she loved him. That wasn't the same. To understand he would need to consider what he would do for someone he loved. How far would he go for them?
He had thrown himself against an entire clan for Tatsuki.
It popped into his head immediately, bringing with it an ache in his heart. If he could save her, go back undo that night, wouldn't he tear away the world and shape its reality just to make it so? His first friend, very possibly his first love if he'd been granted more time to understand what he felt for her, and for a moment he thought he might understand what Kaguya might be willing to do just for the chance of being with someone she loved.
Whether she really did or not was irrelevant, she believed she was and would continue to do whatever it took to gain him by her side even if it meant fighting reality itself.
It struck like a molten spear to the heart.
If Kaguya had every soul he had encountered in this world-!
There was a pain in Kaguya's eyes, but also a patient understanding. Loosening her hold she swept one hand to the side and from the ground a familiar form grew like the Shinju.
Tatsuki looked at him and smiled.
The world could have ended in that moment and Naruto wouldn't have been able to tell.
Perhaps it even did.
She looked exactly as he remembered her and she was even wearing her favorite dress as if his chains hadn't pierced through it all those years ago. Perhaps it was a new dress, just like it was a new Tatsuki. It had to be- both her and the dress- as his chains had spared neither.
His heart seemed to constrict until it ached while a poisonous hope flowed through his veins. His stomach dropped away into itself, a hollowness that could not be filled and even seemed to spread until it had filled his very bones.
"You've really grown, Naruto-kun." Her voice was as warm and playful as it ever was, as if she had snagged him from the middle of the market to drag him off to share a quick lunch together. It was filled with all the affection she had expressed in those final moments while her blood stained his chest and its copper taste lingered upon his lips.
"T-Tatsuki…?" His voice carried with it all the hope he tried desperately not to feel. It was a losing battle.
"Mou," She pouted in response. "What happened to 'Tatsuki-Hime'?"
He didn't want to think about what had happened to 'Tatsuki-Hime', he really didn't, but she was here now, wasn't she? Only the two of them knew the words they exchanged in her final moments.
Well…. Naruto's gaze briefly shifted over to Kaguya who was looking at the two with a long-suffering indulgence, like a wife humoring her husband's strange hobby. Perhaps there were three who knew what was said. He didn't like it, this doubt over what parts of his relationships were his own and what had come about due to the background machinations of the Rabbit Goddess.
"...I thought I had lost her." He eventually managed to find his voice.
"You weren't getting rid of me that easily, darling." One brow rose accusingly. "Now, I seem to recall it falling to one of us to have children and despite the impressive number of women parading to and from your bed I haven't seen any little ones running about, would you care to explain?"
Naruto blinked, surprised that she knew about that at all. "You know about-"
"Everything, darling. We're all still in this cycle, even if we can't remember it while we're 'alive'."
"Does that mean you remember previous lives too?"
She gave a shrug. "I could, I'm sure, but I try not to think about them. My life played out pretty much the same in all of them until you became part of it. Those months I spent with you were better than everything else by far."
"But you could have had years, you should have had years!" He protested. There was no way the time she spent with him could outweigh her entire life when she should have had at least half a century remaining.
"Naruto." Her voice was patient and understanding. "I don't ever survive that night."
His entire world lurched to a halt. "You…what….no…."
She treated him to a gentle smile even as her words spoke of such horrible things. "In all the lives I've led here, just a person in the background whom you never encountered or directly interacted with, I never survive that night you tried to save me." The smile became slightly wry. "Half the time I don't even make it that far, apparently."
He couldn't believe it but…no. He just didn't want to believe it. He understood just how easily it would be for her to end up in a bad position and lose her life with the sort of people she made a living spending time with. To think she never had a chance to live a full life, however, still caused him pain.
She deserved so much more.
"If you join me, Naruto, you'll be able to ensure she gets the life she deserves." Kaguya promised from his side. For a brief moment he wondered if she could perhaps read his mind but if she was capable of that she'd probably have been much more successful in convincing him to join her over who knows how many years they had been at this. "Her and every other soul you've come to love so dearly."
It was actually sounding more tempting by the second if he was honest with himself, but he still wasn't entirely convinced it was the right choice. Then again, in the end, was it even a choice at all? Either he joined her or he continued going through life until he had become someone who was willing to accept her offer. It seemed inevitable that this would happen, so was there really any point to postponing it.
Still, some things sat uneasily with him.
"You had the entire world in your hand." He turned his attention to the Rabbit Goddess. "You had control over everything that happened, and yet Tatsuki was taken from me." The accusation was clear in his voice.
"I provide nudges here and there, Naruto," That was the second time she had called him by his name rather than Tsukuyomi part of him idly noticed. "But were I to exert complete control I would run the risk of you becoming someone else and that just isn't worth it."
"So you didn't have anything to do with Mito's actions?"
Kaguya was silent for a few seconds before admitting; "I wanted her jealous, in hopes that she would be forced to confront her feelings for you. I thought having such a strong bond with the Kyuubi early on would do you good. I did not anticipate her…possessiveness, though perhaps I should have considering I often feel much the same."
Taking a deep breath to maintain his composure he pressed on to another question that had been raised. "And I haven't turned out differently in all these lives? If I'm always the same and always say no, why do you keep trying?"
"There are some differences, yes, quirks one might say- but you are always you in the end. The man I love. Strong, ruthless, protective, and willing to forsake your own desires for the benefit of those you love. Life after life, that has never failed to be the case. You may be more dour in some and positive in others, you might have different goals and ambitions or value things in a slightly different order, and there have been no few habits you've picked up along the way but I find them all endearing nonetheless. You are a brilliant gem, Naruto, and each life just allows me to bear witness to another of your shimmering facets."
"So why do you keep trying?"
"Why wouldn't I?" She asked, amused. "Not only is this something you can do for those you care for but I hope to be one of them some day. If that takes eight thousand lifetimes, so be it."
The easy thing would be to say yes, not just for this lifetime but for all the lifetimes he might go through after this until another him was willing to accept her offer. The fact that she had Tatsuki didn't make the decision any easier either.
Golden eyes met Tatsuki's green. "So if you know everything, you know what sort of effect I've had on the world. A horrid place, and I just helped make it worse."
"Naruto," Her words were almost chiding. "I love you. No matter what sort of person you've become, no matter what you do, I will continue to love you. I might not approve and I might try to convince you to alternatives, but that's because I love you."
His eyes screwed shut. "Kaguya?"
"Are you influencing her in any way right now?"
Silence greeted him for long seconds.
"I may have…suggested that some of your decisions were because you didn't have her there to advise you when you became…lost to your passions, should we say?" Honesty rang through every word she spoke, just as it had since the beginning. Perhaps that was why he had the strange feeling he could trust her upon their first meeting, because every single other him had discovered the fact that she always spoke the truth.
It was what she didn't say that could be dangerous.
"Then I think I have come to my decision." His eyes opened again and immediately flickered to Tatsuki whose own gaze was sad but understanding- she obviously realized what he was going to do- and then to Kaguya's who did their best to hide her hopefulness. "Thank you, Kaguya, for your honesty." The hope started to dim as she realized where his thoughts were taking him.
"But while I can trust your words, I don't think I can bring myself to trust your actions. I will not join you."
Silence stretched beyond the three, covering the entirety of the world and, perhaps, even their little corner of the universe.
A defeated sigh was expelled from Kaguya's lips. "I see. I know better than to continue trying when you've made up your mind, you wonderfully stubborn man." There was a bitterness shining in those luminous moons but no less affection and adoration. "Very well, we shall try again. But Naruto?"
"One day, I will be the one who makes you happy. I promise you that." And he had no reason not to believe it. "Now, say your goodbyes. It may be some time before the two of you end up meeting again."
"Tatsuki-" He didn't get a chance to continue as she pulled him in for a kiss.
"Much better without the blood, isn't it?" She grinned impishly. "I'll see you around, Naruto. Don't go forgetting about your wife now, alright? I'm still expecting you to give me a little Hitomi one of these lives." With a wave she shimmed and faded until only the glow of the moon occupied her previous position.
Perhaps that's all that had ever been there.
"Alright, I guess that's-" His turn back to Kaguya was interrupted by the Rabbit Goddess's pale lips capturing his. She broke away nearly a minute later, sultry victory dancing delighted in her eyes and playing at the corners of her mouth.
"And that's my goodbye, beloved." The world slipped away from him but the feeling of her lips remained. "Do dream of me, will you? It will help make the wait more bearable."
He didn't have the chance to respond as his world became a yawning abyss and everything else vanished. The last thought to cross his mind was, perhaps, not the most grandiose for a man who was being courted by a god and living life after life until she convinced him to take her hand in marriage.
Despite her failure, Kaguya felt a deep well of hope blossoming in her chest. She had been close this time, so very close. So close in fact, that she could almost taste it just as assuredly as she could still taste Naruto on her lips.
The only thing to keep him from accepting was a lack of trust, and that wasn't too surprising considering they had only just met. The ...influencing... of his loved ones hadn't done her any favors but lying to him about it would have been out of the question. He trusted her words instinctively because she had never lied to him. Not once. Skirted the truth, perhaps, avoided topics, but she never told him a full lie and his own soul knew it.
She would not be sacrificing that on the off chance he wouldn't recognize her dishonesty.
Perhaps if she had been a little less forward, maybe given him some time to get used to the idea and get to know her, he would have been more agreeable. Offering him a position as her consort until he knew her well enough to become her husband would have been something good to try; she'd set aside the idea for another attempt.
But for this next life, what would she do? This one was damn near perfect as far as she was concerned- because her only criteria was for him to join her- so did she do it again and nudge things along differently? Perhaps she should go completely hands off, so she would be able to honestly tell him that everything that happened was completely the decisions of those around him.
It held potential, it really did, but it also involved a lot of waiting around and hoping for the best. Perhaps something new, then. Maybe if she took a more active role this time, was with him for longer instead of suddenly appearing after he'd become the man he always did, he would have developed enough trust to join her.
And if it failed? Well, one life where he didn't become the man she loved would hardly undo all the lifetimes that he did. That made this an experiment of sorts and also a break from the usual pattern, she found that to be a very enticing concept.
Surrounded by an empty, silent world Kaguya smiled. "Well, if I'm already using this as a test I suppose there's no reason we can't make sure you enjoy yourself as much as possible, beloved. Enjoy your vacation."
Behind her, hanging in the sky and blocked by the shattered moon, a blackened sun pulsed once in agitation before falling still.
"Hey, wake up sleepyhead." The voice was kind but distant, the whole world around him dark and warm. He was comfortable. More comfortable than he could ever remember being and probably more comfortable then he would ever be for the rest of his life.
And then a weight jumped on his side. "Oooof!"
Blearily, Naruto opened amethyst eyes as he rolled onto his back. The weight shifted with him, a blob of blonde and orange until he managed to dig one of his hands from his comforter and wipe the last dregs of sleep from his eyes.
Naruko grinned down at him, mischief shining in her eyes, and quickly sprung up and away as he attempted to grab her. Her laughter followed her out for the room as she slipped past an amused Kushina in the doorway.
"Come on, Naruto, you're going to be late for the academy if you don't get up."
Naruto heard that, processed it, and then gave a rather eloquent grunt of disdain as he dismissed the world in favor of returning to the comfort of his morning sleep.
Kushina's laughter was sweet and he knew she would be shaking her head as she looked at the pile of red blankets with a nostalgic fondness. According to Tsunade-Oba his mother had been very much the same when it came to mornings.
"Oh, well. That's a shame. Guess I'll just leave you up here to sleep." Kushina stepped out of the doorway and began closing the door only to add; "And I suppose I'll just have to tell your friend she wasted her time coming over to walk to the academy with you."
It took a second for him to understand and when he did he was quick to untangle himself, earning another laugh from the Uzumaki matriarch. It took less than a minute for him to throw on a clean red shirt and simple black pants. The woven sandals he grabbed weren't exactly practical but they only had theoretical subjects today so it would be fine.
Kushina had already headed downstairs and he found her in the kitchen plating up breakfast. Naruko was already halfway through hers as usual but Naruto's attention went to the other occupied seat.
"Tatsuki!" The eight year old Yamanaka grinned at his arrival but quickly forced a scowl onto her face.
"Hey, don't you know better than to keep your future wife waiting? I expect you to break that habit by the time we get married." She demanded with a huff.
Naruto rolled his eyes and took the seat next to her while Kushina reached over to pat the girl on the shoulder. "Don't worry, dear. Boys are clueless at this age. When he's old enough to understand you're right he'll also be so used to the idea of marrying you that he won't even look at anyone else as his wife"
"Well of course not," Tatsuki agreed with a nod of her head. "Any other woman will just be a mistress."
On the other side of the table Naruko began choking on the last of her breakfast while Naruto just shook his head. This was hardly the first time she'd said something like that and he'd given up trying to argue.
Sort of like he'd given up trying to argue about their eventual nuptials. It just wasn't worth the time or energy.
"Ooh, aren't you just the cutest?" Kushina cooed. "I knew I liked you." And considering Kushina was under the impression that it was solely Naruto's responsibility to bring back the entirety of their clan- which he was pretty sure was impossible but he'd given up trying to explain that to his mother- she supported Tatsuki's strange ideas about their future relationship all the way.
Finishing up his breakfast while Tatsuki and his mother discussed the merits of various Kunoichi- and it was only Kunoishi, for some strange reason- becoming an Uzumaki mistress in the future- and he ignored the fact that many of the favorites had children in his academy class- he took a look at the time and dragged Tatsuki from her seat.
"Come on, going to be late."
Naruko had long since recovered- and cleaned up- and was already waiting by the door while Kushin joined the three academy students at a more sedate pace.
"Alright, kids. Have fun and learn lots, okay?"
"Yes, Kaa-Chan." Chorused the Uzumaki children while Tatsuki said "Yes, Kushina-Sama."
"Oh, none of that Tatsuki-Chan. You'll be my daughter one day so go ahead and call me Kaa-chan too, alright?"
"Yes, Kaa-Chan!" Beamed the girl.
Naruko went for the door and Kushina cleared her throat as she opened her arms, obviously expecting a proper goodbye.
Sheepishly Naruko hugged her around the waist and was given a kiss to her forehead in return. She was followed by Tatsuki who gave and received the same. On Naruto's turn, however, Kushina crouched further down to the floor and hugged him to her chest. When he pulled back a bit afterwards she leaned in to give him a quick peck on the lips.
He didn't understand why she did that- and only to him- but it was…nice, he had decided back when she first started doing it. Naruko and Tatsuki never seemed to comment about it and whether that was because they thought it was normal or because they had been let on a secret he didn't know he had no idea.
Sort of like the three eyes that gazed so lovingly from his mother's face, something she promised to explain when he was older. Maybe her kisses would make sense then, too.
"Have a good day, darling." She whispered gently as he left her arms to join hands with Tatsuki and his sister. "I'll be waiting-" Purple eyes shone silver for a single sliver of a second.
"-For as long as it takes."
And we're done. Nearly eight years and we've reached the end. Well, almost. I still owe you all that AU oneshot where Tatsuki lives. I have it outlined already but need to get it typed up. I'm also toying with the idea of adding an alternate ending where Naruto accepts Kaguya's proposal but I'm going to put that on hold for a bit to work on some of the other projects I have filling up my backlog and to give me a bit of a break from Sealkeeper.
Pretty sure that means I have to write up that FemDanzou oneshot I promised years ago. It should be...interesting.
I'd like to thank you all for sticking with me and this story for so long and I'd especially like to thank my Patrons who helped support me over the last few years. And, speaking of Patrons, if any of you are reading the story here rather than on the other site you really should either drop down to the $1 tier or remove your pledge entirely. I'm not sure how long it will take to get some of my other projects typed up and ready for posting so I'd hate for you to feel like I was ripping you off.
I probably should have more to say here but nothing's coming to mind- which means it will just start haunting me as soon as I post this- so we'll wrap this up with a list of Patrons at the time of posting.
Cephalon Keeper, Michael Huber, B4NH4MM3R
Ronji, Luxano, Theepicslime
The SHARP fox, StayFrosty, Noah, Alex Robb, Jeremy Webb, Jamel, McKinzie, Tjk9399, magicheart 0, Gamer91, Marcothephoenix
Tim Keizer, Daron Smith, gabriel reynoso, Romulan, Shi_no_Kage, Whatzzzzzzzup, Nick Payne, Christopher, Desertgem1, Liam Kearney, TormisD92, Sedition, Michael Vargas
Angel Morales, Brendon, Joe Schumacher, Michael Friede, Nilzor, Chase, Maroner, Forseeti, Carlos Campbell, Thanyx, Slip123, Nicholas Hoover, Supernowy, Milton Pereira, YGO, Louis Lennin, OldManCain, Brandon Romero, MB, Brandon, LoneSaiyan, Para, Nekrull DeUmbrus, Jennifer carpenter, HKaz, Pantheras, J. G., Tyrell2000, Gobo, June Tai, james escobedo, Sebastiaan asselbergs, TheGreatBubbaJ, TheAbsoluteMonarch, JonCotterill, Zack Crum, SMatatabi, Matthew Smith, DamnedThrice, Carl Confoy, James Fleming, Sivellan, Marin Dimovski, J. G., DARKAR, Mike Law, Pope Gregory Trivium III, Zachary Smith, MythicFool, Xerxes8796, Peyton, Jacklefrackle
Until I next have your attention, I remain,