Sea Dragon

Disclaimer: If I owned Naruto, Uzushio wouldn't be just a footnote in the history books. I mean, I'm not saying that there should have been an epic flashback to its fall with Balrogs and metal dragons a la the fall of Gondolin, but something, anything, would have been nice.

I – Great Is the Fall of Uzushio

Uzushio was dying.

Of course, it would be more accurate to say, 'Uzushio was falling,' or, 'Uzushio had been invaded and was now being ransacked,' or even, 'Uzushio was being torn to pieces and its inhabitants slaughtered in droves by Kumo and Kiri in their jealous anger and fear,' none of which statements ascribed any sort of life, even metaphorical life, to the village of Uzushio. Ordinarily, Sumiko valued such accuracy. She wasn't the poetic sort. Never had been. That wasn't to say that she lacked creativity; she had plenty of creativity. She wouldn't have devised so many insanely brilliant (or brilliantly insane – even she had to admit this possibility) sealing arrays through the years if she lacked creativity. However, she was practical and analytical, her mental gears poised to judge the truth of things and act upon such information with quick precision and accuracy.

Precision and accuracy were two vital qualities to have for a fuuinjutsu mistress such as she.

However, Uzushio was dying, and Sumiko supposed she could spare a moment of sentiment for the great village in which she had been born and lived her whole life. And in which she would be dying shortly. No two ways about that.

To think that today death was so close, when less than a week ago almost no one would have thought an invasion imminent.

Of course, there had been tensions among the Elemental Nations. When was there not? However, it could not be denied that international relations had been steadily deteriorating, approaching a level of frostiness not seen in twenty years, not since just before what was now known as the Great Shinobi War broke out.

Uzushio had not suffered as greatly in that conflict as the five great Hidden Villages had suffered. After all, Uzushio's long-standing policy had been to stay out of conflicts on the mainland that did not involve them or their territory. They had left the days of endless warfare behind them when several clans came together under the leadership of the Uzumaki to found their city on an island over a hundred years ago. In the days leading up to the Great Shinobi War, before any hint of the disasters that were to befall the nations had emerged, Uzushio had seen no need to completely abandon their tradition of non-involvement.

Even so, they had stepped away from their neutrality enough to form a military alliance with their younger sister village, Konoha. That had been primarily on account of the Senju, with whom the Uzumaki and the other clans of Uzushio had already had good relations – although the Uchiha might have had something to do with it as well. The Uzumaki acknowledged the common descent of those three clans from the Sage of Six Paths, and an unspoken hope that the co-founding of Konoha would be enough cause for their distant relations to stop squabbling had definitely been in the air.

Not even two decades after the founding of Konoha had come that year of hell, better known as the Great Shinobi War. Uzushio had given aid to Konoha, had assisted with honorable Senju Hashirama's mad plan to buy peace across the Elemental Nations with the Tailed Beasts, for all the good it had done. Scarcely had the accords been reached at that first Five Kage Summit than Hashirama-sama was dead, under mysterious and still-debated circumstances, and his brother had followed him several months later. Most of the villages found themselves already on their third kage when that year was up and wisely chose not to renew hostilities.

Sumiko did not like to think of that year.

Privately, she had resolved to do more, should world war ever stain the Elemental Nations again in her lifetime. She could not stand the thought of suffering such losses once more. Her notebooks from that year and the next few years after were full of terrifying ideas, her lines thick and dark on the page as she pushed too much ink into her designs and hacked away at the limits of the sealing arts. Now, she could look back with a clearer mind and observe that some of her ideas had crossed the line, so desperate had she been as she poured her grief and rage into her fuuinjutsu. Nevertheless, she had been prepared to do what she thought necessary to defend her own.

The embers of that grief and rage had never quite died in her soul, although she had wrapped them up carefully in her controlled mannerisms and her sealing paper and her bland little smile and her interest in her young daughter – her miracle child, her precious Hiromi, the sole light left in her life, the only reason she had not marched out of Uzushio in a rage when that terrible news came to hunt down the bastards responsible and wreak unspeakable vengeance on them, the only reason those horrifying ink-heavy seals in her notebooks stayed in her notebooks and had never been used.

She loved and had loved Hiromi so much, and yet she could never show it, could never properly relate to her, could not answer her questions when they touched too near the buried grief and rage in her heart. She could not even teach fuuinjutsu to her; it had reminded her too much of sitting next to another whom she would never see again and talking shop, going over each other's work and bouncing ideas off each other, scribbling things in the margins of each other's notes…

It hurt so much, and yet Sumiko, with all her clarity of thought, with all her love of precision and accuracy, with all her disdain of ambiguity, could not articulate it, could not explain to her daughter that it was not her fault, that she loved her, that she was proud of her, that he would have been proud of her, too… The words just would not come.

Emotionally constipated, Satomi would say. Sumiko could not really disagree.

No, Sumiko did not like to think of that year. However, she was not so blind as to omit it from her plans and her actions. She would stand with Konoha, should war seek to ravage it once more, and she would let loose her long-buried grief and rage upon its enemies.

Many others in Uzushio, it seemed, had similar resolve. And so, during this past year, as tensions heightened between the Hidden Villages and nations subtly or not-so-subtly probed the strength of their neighbors, Uzushio had made an announcement. It would not merely stand behind Konoha again, helping in minor ways. It would stand beside Konoha, and the world would tremble at the sight of the Uzushio spiral.

Uzushio, it was declared, would go to war in all its strength, if it deemed it necessary.

In retrospect, perhaps that had been what had terrified the other nations into concerted action.

A week ago, a diplomatic missive for the Raikage had been sent to the border of the Land of Lightning. Despite the open declaration of support for Konoha, Uzushio did not wish for war; if matters could be settled without bloodshed, so much the better. Uzumaki-sama was not unable to read the mood of the Elemental Nations, however, and had taken precautions. The three envoys carrying the missive had been accompanied by two other squads, who were instructed to keep pace with them and remain out of sight unless the missive handover at the border with Frost went foul or otherwise disaster occurred.

Hiromi, her precious Hiromi, had been chosen for one of those two escort squads because of her skills as a medic. It was nothing unusual. Hiromi had taken part in many missions that necessitated travel outside of Uzushio or Konoha territory before; she had passed through the Land of Hot Water on multiple occasions, so it was not as if she were wholly unfamiliar with the route. Additionally, she had acquired a reputation for level-headedness and determination in the field, traits that had served her well in dragging injured and exhausted teammates home with her. Her decent chakra sensing ability had likely been another factor in her selection for this mission.

Even so. Sumiko had harbored an irrational distrust of diplomatic missions ever since that terrible year. Too many had been thinly-disguised treachery, mere pretenses for further catastrophe. And then, when it had seemed that the fighting was drawing to a close, he had died on what was supposed to be a diplomatic mission.

Hiromi had been a year old. He had barely even seen her. And Kumo had betrayed him, had turned peace negotiations to a farce. Sumiko had only been further angered by attempts to console her and especially by statements such as, "It was his choice," and, "He would have preferred to go out fighting."

No, she had said to herself with gritted teeth, he should not have had to choose.

And here she had been, almost two full decades later, watching her daughter pack for her mission, and unable to tell her why it filled her with such dread.

An inexplicable urge filled her. She wanted to catch her daughter by the hand, to ask her to leave the packing for later – the squads were setting out in the morning, after all; it could wait an hour –, to hug her and tell her all the things she had been incapable of saying, to spill out everything about him and that terrible year, to plead with her to be extra careful on this mission, to beg her to come back alive.

Don't leave me, she wanted to beg. Don't you leave me, too. How can I live, if the last light of my life is taken?

But her throat had closed up and her tongue had cloven to the roof of her mouth, and as she turned away with eyes burning with tears that would never be shed she had rationalized it away to herself. It was useless to burden Hiromi with this information now. Such revelations and a mother's irrational fear would only serve as a distraction on this mission, and distractions were the last thing Hiromi needed.

No, she could not tell her.

Instead, Sumiko had hovered, as she hadn't done in years. Her unique brand of hovering mostly consisted of leaning against the wall with arms folded and a bland expression, asking rapid-fire questions about Hiromi's preparations. What was the planned itinerary? Did she know all the squad members? Could she trust them all to act as needed in an emergency? Was she sure she had packed everything? Maybe she should check her medic's pack again. Did she have enough seals stored on her? Sumiko could give her plenty; she even had a seal designed to hijack the body's nerve impulses that she really wanted to test on a Kumo nin – she suspected it'd be doubly effective on a raiton user. Hiromi could take it, just in case…

Hiromi had borne this with surprising grace. Honestly, Sumiko was surprised that their relationship was as good as it was. Sometimes she could not believe that she had raised someone as patient and kind-hearted as Hiromi, because she had certainly not gotten any of that from her.

Even Hiromi's patience had its limits, though. She finally sat back on her heels with a small frown. "Okaa-san, I can handle this."

Sumiko barely blinked. "I know you can."

Hiromi sighed. After a moment, when it had become clear that the endless stream of questions had dried up, she relented a little. "If you really want me to, I'll take a copy of that nerve impulse seal."

Sumiko twirled her fingers, a tag suddenly appearing between them. "Just in case."

Hiromi nodded, carefully stowing the tag away where she would not confuse it with seals designed for other purposes. "Just in case."

She didn't even go on her usual rant of how she would look at such a tag and think of the possible beneficial medical purposes it could serve while her mother would only think of the harm and havoc she could wreak with it. It was the closest they would get to Sumiko acknowledging her worry and Hiromi assuring her that she'd be careful.

Sumiko was not surprised when Hiromi did not even question her sudden outbreak of concern – for her standards – over a diplomatic mission. Hiromi had long learned, through years of non-answers, that it was useless to ask. Sumiko vaguely regretted that fact now.

Hiromi had departed before dawn the next morning. Over the next couple of days, Sumiko had very firmly resisted uncharacteristic sentimental urges to pester the hapless desk-nin in Uzumaki-sama's tower for news, to look at old keepsakes she had stored away, to stand on the walls of Uzushio and stare out at the horizon, to mope around or sit consumed by worry.

Sentiment would not help in the least. It had not before.

Instead, Sumiko had organized her notes and tidied up some of the mess that had accumulated around her sealing station. In a fit of fatalism, she checked that everything was good to go, should she die. It was only a prudent move with the threat of war hanging over the nations, after all. She even keyed Hiromi into the seals containing her records and old research, all the while trying very hard not to think about the other person still keyed in to those seals, even years later.

The envoys and their escort squads had not yet returned when the ninja assigned to Uzushio's outposts reported unusual blips on their monitoring arrays. No sooner had this been reported then they went silent, and alarms sounded in the monitoring stations embedded in Uzushio's walls.

Uzushio had not been protected alone by the eponymous whirlpools and raging seas girting the island. Generations of Uzumaki and other sealmasters before had erected a complicated and effective system of monitoring seals to keep an eye on their territory. No enemy would approach Uzushio without being seen, one way or another.

Yet now someone was systematically hunting these watchers down and taking them out, as if they exactly where to find them and how to nullify them or destroy them. Within a day, all the outposts had blinked out, and Uzushio's vision beyond the walls of its city had been stolen.

A general alarm had been issued for the city, and yet even then many of its inhabitants had not assumed the worst. The walls of Uzushio were tall and strong, formed of thick stone and engraved with so many seals that their extensive patterns seemed more decorative than functional. Their like unparalleled in the Elemental Nations, never once had they allowed foe to enter since the day they had been completed. In fact, a slightly fanciful telling of their construction was a popular bedtime story for children in Uzushio:

…Then Uzumaki Akira-sama said, Let us build a wall around our village, so that no enemies may threaten our people. And they all agreed. So Shimizu Sazanami-sama bade his dragon rip up the seabed, and it tore up great chunks of stone and laid them in a circle around the village. Then Fuyuchi Chiyo-sama held out her hands, and ice formed over the stones until the gaps were filled and they formed one wall. Then Uzumaki Akira-sama carved her seals upon the wall and its gate and poured her blood into them, and she said, As long as my blood holds true these walls shall never fall. And the people said, So let it be…

Legends meant nothing, however, in the face of oncoming war. Foreign shinobi marched to the mainland's edge and set out across the sea, despite the whirlpools said to be formed by the breath of Sazanami's dragon sleeping in the depths below. Foreign shinobi landed on the shores of Uzushio's island and swarmed up its cliffs, despite the rain of frozen droplets as strong as steel and kunai-sharp that were said to be Chiyo's tears falling from the clouds. Foreign shinobi came to the walls that were Akira's last defense for the city she had founded, and there they were stymied.

For a day battle raged on the walls of Uzushio. Identifiable at last by their hitai-ate as well as the lightning and water crashing upon the walls, Kumo and Kiri nin flung themselves at their enemies with fierce cries, desperate to kill them before Uzushio could turn its strength upon the world. Seals crackled and sparked along the length of the walls, claiming many lives in various fashions, some messier than others. Violent swirls of water marked Uzumaki ninjutsu masters challenging their Kiri foes in the art of suiton. Daggers and spears of ice flew from both sides; Kiri's Yuki Clan faced Uzushio's Fuyuchi in a staggering display of hyouton techniques that would never again be replicated in this world.

Then, on the morning of the second day, the invaders breached the walls.

Some said that Kumo brought a jinchuuriki; some said that it had been Kiri. Others dismissed this, saying that no one was stupid enough to bring a jinchuuriki into Uzumaki territory, where the Tailed Beast might be caught by the red-headed fuuinjutsu masters and sealed into one of their own. Many were the rumors, and the worst were those of treachery. The Uzumaki valued family and loyalty above all, and they had treated all clans to join them with love and respect. It was unthinkable that anyone would willingly deliver Uzushio into the hands of its despoilers.

Sumiko could not say. She had not been present at the first breach. She had spent a long day and a sleepless night rushing from one part of the city to another as part of the fuuinjutsu corps, strengthening defensive seals in one area, laying down landmine seals in another, and so forth. She had just managed to catch a couple hours' rest in a corner of the Sealing Tower when the news of the breach came in.

The fuuinjutsu masters there – those who remembered a time before kages, a time before the five younger Hidden Villages, who recalled all too well those days when news of a clan on the mainland being utterly wiped out by another was all too common – had all traded a long, silent look. Even before the order came from Uzumaki-sama, they knew what had to be done.

This went beyond emergency protocols. This called for apocalypse protocols. The invaders would not get their hands on Uzumaki techniques. The head of the sealing corps, Uzumaki Shinju, gazed out at her remaining sealmasters with eyes steely behind her glasses before sending them off to key places in the village. What could go into lockdown was to go into lockdown; blood seals that would only permit Uzumaki or members of their vassal clans to enter were preferred. She even gave them blanket permission to use the nastier seals that had been taken out of usage for one reason or another, as long as they went into keeping their village's secrets safe or into taking out its invaders.

At that pronouncement, Sumiko's thoughts drifted to a packet she had sealed away with the rest of the techniques she had developed in the depths of her grief and rage after the Great Shinobi War. Objectively speaking, it did not contain the worst of the techniques she had sealed away once sanity prevailed; like its original creator, whose work she had merely brought to perfection, she believed that this technique had a place in apocalyptic circumstances.

Surely, if any place and time were ever to qualify as apocalyptic circumstances, it would be now, she said to herself. Our need is dire, and it could possibly give us the edge we need now, unlooked-for and beyond hope. Ruthlessly, she shoved away any personal motives, instead focusing clinically on the technique, on its costs and its ramifications. Should I use it?

She considered it for a long, terrible moment, but in the end dismissed the notion. No, not even now will I use it, she decided. The cost is simply too high. The world is still not so beyond hope as to justify that technique. I suppose my preparations for it will be ultimately wasted.

She could not say what her heart felt at this decision. Relief, that she would not cross that line after all? Injured pride, that her work would all be for nothing? Rage, that she should be pushed so far as to even consider this technique? She shied away from thinking any further of this, lest she find other possibilities.

Pulling herself out of her thoughts, Sumiko glanced around at the other sealing masters present in the tower. Briefly, she allowed herself to wonder if any of them were entertaining similar thoughts. She would be honestly surprised if none of them had ever devised a technique and then hidden it away from the light of day, vowing to never speak or think of it again. After all, most of them were Uzumaki, and the Uzumaki had done great and terrible things with their fuuinjutsu in the past.

They had given the world plenty of reason to seek to wipe them out rather than become their target.

Shinju-sama's voice drew her full attention once more. "This may be the fall of Uzushio," she said, her voice cutting like a kunai through the silence. No sound of the devastation being wreaked outside the Sealing Tower could penetrate its walls, and the dissonant quiet made the moment all the more solemn. "This may be the end of us all. However, we shall make such an end that our enemies, and our enemies' children, and our enemies' children's children, shall shake with fear at our memory. We will make them pay in blood for every step they take into our city. For every harm they inflict, we shall return it tenfold. In our defeat, we will cripple them. Long after our deaths, they shall whisper, 'Great was the fall of Uzushiogakure.'"

As the day wore on, this grim resolve spread through the tired ranks of the defenders. In the attacking force, the Kumo nin alone might have outnumbered the active shinobi of Uzushio, and for every Kumo nin present stood two Kiri nin willing to take his place. However, the inhabitants of the Village Hidden in the Whirlpools fought with a viciousness they had not expected.

The boom of exploding tags and the crumble of fallen masonry formed a constant thunder echoing around the city. Lightning flashed, and fires ripped through the city despite all the water being thrown around. The canals were choked with wreckage and decaying bodies; the drainage and water treatment system malfunctioned and spilled sewage and sea water into the streets. Smoke hung over the city like mist over Kiri. The very air stank of death. Buildings shifted and tilted, leaning precariously over streets and canals and sometimes collapsing without regard upon invaders and defenders alike.

No one was counting the death toll anymore. They had lost count a long time ago.

The night of the second day, word spread among those still in communication, however haphazard, with the core of the city. Uzumaki-sama had ordered an evacuation after the last emergency protocols and lockdowns had been put in place. Those with the evacuation would exit the city through one of the smaller gates and make a break for Konoha while the majority of the Kumo and Kiri forces were tied up in the seal-trapped city. There was a strong possibility that this evacuation attempt would only end in failure, that those in it would be pinned and slaughtered before leaving the city or that once they made it out the remainder of Kumo's forces – lurking somewhere out of sight, just waiting; everyone knew they could field more shinobi than this – would come down upon them like a hammer of wrath before they could reach Konoha.

But it was still an evacuation attempt worth making.

It was now approaching the morning of the third day. Sumiko was dead tired. Never before had she felt her age so deeply in every bone as she had now. Her eyes burned with weariness; her head throbbed with the effort of constant concentration and chakra usage. But her hands were still steady enough, and she drew on the buried rage and grief in her heart as an endless source of motivation, as strength enough to let her put one foot in front of the other and fold her fingers together into another handseal.

When news of the imminent evacuation attempt reached her, she accepted without fuss her role among those staying behind to give the invaders a fresh taste of hell as a distraction.

It's only fitting, she thought darkly, before she pushed that thought away. Even now, she did not want to think of that year. She did not want to think of diplomatic incidents gone wrong, of the very real possibility that Hiromi had been trapped and killed by Kumo to prevent news of the invasion from reaching Uzushio in time.

None of it mattered now. It could not be helped, anyway. Uzushio was dying, and soon she would be, too.

She stood up from her crouch, ignoring the shakiness of her limbs and the dull burn throughout her body warning her that she was already dangerously low on chakra. The newly-traced black lines of sealing script did not waver as she pulled her gloved hands away from the wall.

"Done?" asked Akio.

Sumiko turned. Uzumaki Akio still stood on the walk next to the nearby canal, his toes almost hanging over the edge and his hands locked in the Dog handseal. Below his feet, the water of the canal roiled, ready to rise up in righteous wrath should another invader try to cross. A couple of Kiri nin had tried already, rushing ahead to reclaim the territory they had been driven out of only a few hours before, confident in their own combat abilities and their mastery of suiton techniques, and had swiftly received a lesson in why it is not wise to oppose an Uzumaki master of suiton ninjutsu in his own land.

It could not last forever, however. Even from this angle, Sumiko could see the bruises mottling Akio's left side from where he had been thrown against a building earlier, the blood dripping from his temple. His voice was tight with pain and concentration, but his stance did not waver, and his chakra still seemed as deep and full as the canal itself.

Damn Uzumaki and their ridiculous reserves, Sumiko thought idly. It was not a new thought for her.

She coughed as a dark tendril of smoke wafted between them, dark brown against the gray sky. She had lost count of how many buildings in this district were on fire an hour ago. Or was it two hours? No matter. At least the hospital did not number among them. At least, not yet. They had achieved that much. Retaking this district had been costly, and the corpses outnumbered the living here at least seven to one.

Sumiko had seen battlefields before. She could keep her eyes from lingering on the torn and blood-stained bodies littering the shattered pavement, could divert her attention away from the automatic process of trying to link names to slack and deathly-white features. Akio did not have the same amount of unfortunate practice. There was just a little too much stiffness in his posture, just a little too much intenseness on the way he kept scanning the avenues leading up to the canal and wrecked plaza, too much focus in not looking down at the carnage around him.

"Yes," Sumiko replied, waving smoke away from her face before she could start coughing again. "The barrier we put up should hold them back from the hospital long enough for Ayako-sama and Akiko-sama to attempt the evacuation."

Akio nodded. "Is Akemi-sama still alive?"

"Last I saw, yes."

Akio's attempt at a smile looked more like a grimace. "Maybe she'll be able to pull off another miracle, save everyone's lives all over again."

Sumiko hmphed but said nothing. The boy's perpetual optimism had certainly suffered, but it had not been completely ground into the dust. Perhaps he felt the need to put on a brave face? She didn't bother correcting him. Observing how futile of a gesture this planned evacuation would be would change nothing. No words now could alter how unlikely it was that any of them would manage to escape this hell.

And what a hell it was. In the distance, the breaking dawn washed the sky and the sparse cloud cover pink and blood-orange. Between the flaming cityscape and the pall of dark, acrid smoke choking it, it seemed as if the whole world had been set on fire. The network of canals, once busy with punts and floating markets and garden beds anchored so they would not drift away, was now choked with wreckage and torn bodies. Bloody foam lapped against the walls of the canal, the slap of the small waves inaudible amongst the distant rumble of combat. A brief white flash lit up a distant street.

Sumiko sniffed the air. Charred flesh, burning wood, rotting materials, a metallic tang saturating everything. No ozone. The Kumo nin hadn't reached this section of the village yet. Once the breach in the walls had been established, their prong of the invading force had swept down to the lower districts of the village, a primarily residential area containing the markets and the main Fuyuchi Clan compound. There, they had made their intent to wipe the name of Uzushio from the history books all too clear, cutting down every soul in their path, whether shinobi or civilian, whether old or young, whether male or female.

The Kiri nin, more bloodthirsty and more reckless thanks to their clans' long history of on-again/off-again unrest with the Uzumaki, had instead swept towards the more heavily fortified upper districts, where the principal Uzumaki clan buildings and other important structures stood. They had been met with savage resistance. Sumiko's last glimpse of the seal-encrusted Uzumaki district gate had been half-obscured by smoke, but that had done nothing to hide the piles of bodies and body parts clumped around it.

It was a possibility, she supposed, that the gate no longer even stood. She had been called away to the defense of the hospital when some slightly more intelligent Kiri nin had attempted flanking the Uzumaki district and following the upper canal that led them past the Shimizu Clan compound and the hospital right up to the last gate before the heart of Uzushio and Uzumaki-sama's tower. After that wave of Kiri bastards had been dealt with, Sumiko had not bothered to return to the Uzumaki district. What was the use? She'd stay here and lend her last expertise to the defense of the evacuation along with the other survivors of that assault.

It was only a matter of time before a new wave of attackers thought to follow the canal, after all.

"They'll be here soon enough," said Akio grimly, having thought the exact same thing. "Got any more tags?"

"I'm afraid I've exhausted my bag of tricks, Akio-kun," Sumiko responded without even bothering to check her equipment pouches. She had run out of pre-prepared tags a day ago, even with brief moments snatched here and there to write more. However, even as she spoke, her eyes were darting over the area, analyzing angles and calculating potential damage. Depending on who, exactly, was part of the next wave of attackers, she had a few options for causing the most damage.

She didn't even flinch when, across the canal, a couple of stray Kiri nin swung around a corner in pursuit of a wounded Uzushio nin, or when the water leapt out of the canal in a great twisting rope that wound around their torsos, bashed them a few times on the cracked pavement, and then dragged them into the depths of the canal.

Akio's bitter laugh was cut short with a grimace. Definitely bruised or broken ribs, then. "Come on. Really, Sumiko-san? No last minute stroke of genius to save all our asses once more?" Raising his voice, he called to the wounded nin, "You can come on over, Fuyuchi-san. Just watch where you step."

The girl the Kiri nin had been chasing crossed the canal gingerly, avoiding the floating splinters and branches where the once-proud avenue of trees that had stood before the hospital had been swept into the water. Her left arm clutched her shredded right, and her teeth were clenched with the effort it took to put one foot in front of the other. Her dark hair was soaked with blood, and her distinctive pale eyes held a weariness far beyond the physical.

Against her will, Sumiko wondered if, after today, Kiri's Yuki Clan would be the only users of the hyouton kekkai genkai left in the Elemental Nations.

As Akio pulled the Fuyuchi up onto the walk, she gasped out, "No good… back that way. All the market district… lost. Some bastard… suicide jutsu… hit the fountain… with a raiton. Killed almost everyone. That smell… the bodies… ugh…"

She couldn't have been more than a chuunin. She certainly wasn't out of her teens. Grimly assessing the girl's injuries even as she pointed her in the direction of the possible evacuation, Sumiko was reminded of Hiromi, and she was tired enough to allow the distraction.

Where is Hiromi now? Sumiko wondered with a heavy sigh. Did Kumo pretend to accept the missive and then proceed to slaughter every last messenger? Is she dead or dying somewhere in the countryside? Or did she manage to escape and tried to run back to warn us, only to be caught along the way? Hiromi… please live.

She squeezed her eyes shut, unable to stave off the comparison any longer. Love… please don't let her die the way you did.

Her unhappy train of thought was interrupted as from behind them Uzumaki Satomi walked up, dusting off her hands, a light of vicious satisfaction in her purple eyes. The scratches still bleeding on her cheek and arms only increased the ferocity of her expression. Her armor bore plenty of plenty of scratches and dents – and was that the splash of a raiton impact on her side? – but she carried herself without a visible sign of weakness.

Damn Uzumaki and their vitality, Sumiko thought again, without any heat.

Satomi jerked a thumb over her shoulder. "I set up some nasty traps down the walk after I finished with my corner of the hospital barrier. Should tie up the bastards for a while, at least."

Sumiko didn't doubt it. Satomi was one of her fellow fuuinjutsu experts and an excellent partner-in-crime (other people would have said 'friend'). Sumiko had held a healthy appreciation of Satomi's skills ever since they were six years old and Satomi had crafted a storage seal that blew up its contents whenever it was unsealed (no one knew even now whether Satomi had meant to do that or not). If Satomi said her traps were nasty, they were nasty. Shinju-sama would approve.

Akio nodded. "So we've got this stretch of the canal and that side road over there to worry about, mainly. I guess we're it?"

"Not many of us left to hold things here anyway. Everyone else is either helping with the evacuation, scuttling or sealing what they can to keep it out of enemy hands, or still fighting out in the rest of the village," said Satomi with a shrug. "I'd like to think that some will make it out, but it won't be us. Eh. We'll make them work for it. Shinju-sama went to go lock down the clan meeting hall and the libraries. I'm pretty sure I heard her mutter, 'Let's see them try to access this,' as she stalked off, so you can bet she'll apocalypse-proof them and then go out in a blaze of glory."

As if on cue, somewhere in the distance amid the tangle of listing towers, a beacon of otherworldly chakra suddenly flared. Tendrils of cold, dry air brushed across their faces, scattering the drifting smoke. Sumiko did not have to be a sensor to feel that oppressive presence; it was one that every living thing would feel and tremble before.

"…Shiki Fuujin," Satomi whispered, awe and terror having chased the fierceness from her expression. "Well, damn, Shinju-sama doesn't do things by halves, does she?"

"That's the fourth I've felt so far," Akio said in a low voice.

Sumiko said nothing. Deep down inside, she marveled at the power of that dreaded Uzumaki technique, which bound death itself to do the sealmaster's bidding, and she respected Shinju-sama all the more for her willingness to trade her life and her very soul away in exchange for such power. It was not a choice Sumiko could have made. Oh, she knew the requirements of the Shiki Fuujin and could, in theory, have performed it. She simply wasn't willing to trade her afterlife for anything short of a direct and pressing need to save Hiromi's life. And, as it stood, not even the Shiki Fuujin or related techniques could save Hiromi from uncertainty right now.

All three of the Uzushio shinobi in front of the scarred hospital were silent for a long moment, as the distant rumblings and screams faded to the background in the face of the silence of that presence. Only as that otherworldly chakra faded and the coldness leached out of the air did they dare to draw breath again. Around them, the world swam back into full harshness.

"Damn," Satomi repeated, still a bit subdued. "This really is it, isn't it."

"Yep." Akio rubbed his face, brushing off flakes of dried blood. "I hope imouto makes it out. She's only a genin…"

Satomi and Sumiko traded a glance, reminded of how much younger Akio and Chikako were than themselves. Suddenly, the differences between their generations – both physical and mental – seemed stark.

Akio wore one of those new flak jackets instead of the armor sets that the two women had never abandoned – Satomi's of red metal plates over a black gambeson, Sumiko's of lilac metal plates over a gray gambeson. They both carried extra weapons for last-ditch defense and had scrawled seals over their skin to hold days' worth of supplies, among other purposes. Where younger shinobi prepared for their missions as they thought best, Satomi and Sumiko's generation prepared for each mission expecting a total disaster. Faint wrinkles lined the corners of their eyes and mouths; Satomi's red hair was streaked with gray. Akio's short red hair was stained with blood and dirt and other unidentifiable substances, but it held no gray; his face was unlined and still retained some baby fat around the cheeks. He held himself despite his injuries with the pride of a young man who, deep down, did not actually want to die.

Sumiko and Satomi, on the other hand, looked out at their ravaged city with the eyes of ones who would spit at the Shinigami's face when he came for them or who would ask him, "What took you so long?" before harnessing his power to wreak some extremely last-minute vengeance against their foes.

They were both over fifty years old. They remembered a time when the Elemental Nations were even bloodier than they were now, a time before honorable Senju Hashirama laid out the streets of Konoha in imitation of his wife's Uzushio and the other lands scrambled to follow suit. They remembered how casually a clan could be hired to wipe out another clan – as apparently hidden village could conspire to wipe out hidden village now.

Despite their safer lives in Uzushio, they were children of an era that had known endless war. They may not have grown up in the thick of it as the Senju had, but they had witnessed it. It had shaped their lives to a degree the generations after them could not understand.

"Akio-kun, if you would like to help guard the evacuation…" Satomi began, trying not to sound too gentle.

Akio tried to smile, but without much luck. "I think I can be most effective right here. If we can bottleneck them, hold them back for as long as we can… that'll be enough. It'll have to be."

Sumiko squeezed her eyes momentarily shut, desperately trying not to remember the voices telling her, It was his choice…. He would have preferred to go out fighting…

Akio paused, glancing at a spot in the distance as checked his chakra sense. "I think they're emptying out the market district before they come this way."

"Hopefully, they'll approach in a nice, compact formation and I can blow them to bits." The ferocity had returned to Satomi's expression. She knelt down to tap the pavement. Lines of ink briefly appeared, burrowing towards the canal before vanishing under the water.

"If they're Kiri nin, maybe," huffed Sumiko, privately grateful for her partner-in-crime's rather bloodthirsty sense of humor even in times like this.

Satomi let out a bark of laughter. "I swear, all the Kiri nin I have ever encountered fall into one of two categories: homicidally insane and scarily talented, or…"

"…or as dumb as a bag of rocks and with the same amount of skill," Sumiko finished. The two partners-in-crime traded a fierce grin, decades of shared experiences in that expression.

Satomi stood again. "Well, I remotely set some more charges. You handling that side road over there, Sumiko?"

Sumiko drifted a few paces to the right. "Yes. I think we have the same idea?"

Satomi waved a hand. "Exploding seals under their feet, mass paralysis and stun seals to slow them down, chakra absorption zones, air bursts to redirect any poison clouds back at them, some of Mito's more terrifying compact barriers – the works?"

"Sounds good."

Akio snorted. "And here I thought you said you had exhausted your bag of tricks, Sumiko-san."

Sumiko bit back another coughing fit, blinking to remove the smoke particles from her eyes. She still managed to sound appropriately smug as she answered, "Ah, but those aren't tricks, Akio-kun. Those are only the basics."

"And you wonder why we poor ninjutsu specialists live in fear of you sealmasters, recreating the world to your whim as you do." He winced, his posture unconsciously reorienting as his chakra sense pinged at him. "I think they're regrouping now in the market district."

Sumiko made a vague noise of acknowledgement and resumed slowly walking towards the section of the canal facing the side road Akio had pointed out earlier. The graceful stone arch that had provided a walkway over the canal there had been smashed to pieces earlier when the row of trees in front of the hospital had been ripped up and flung into the water by an overly zealous Kiri invader earlier. He had been flung into the water, too. In several pieces. The seals carven into that arch had reacted in a rather… spectacular manner when the stone shattered.

"I wonder if Hiromi is still alive…" Sumiko heard herself murmur.

The soft comment did not escape Akio's ears. "She'll be all right. She's a smart girl; she can take care of herself," he said, as consolingly as he dared. He might have even believed it. "Maybe Chikako will find her."

"Heeeeeeyyyyy," drawled Satomi, in the unmistakable tone of someone who thinks they have just arrived at a wonderful conclusion. It was a tone of voice that annoying siblings and annoying best friends all over the world have perfected to an art form. "Sumiko, this is it. This is the end," she said dramatically, even as she continuing setting up fuuinjutsu traps. "You have nothing left to lose now, nothing left to fear. You can confess. Just admit the truth to the whole world. Make me a couple hundred ryo richer and confirm for me now that Hiromi is, in fact, his daughter."

Despite his increasingly tense posture, Akio glanced over expectantly.

Sumiko spared a short moment of exasperation over the fact that even people such as Akio who were not very closely connected with her life or her family had an interest in the conspiracy theories over the identity of Hiromi's father. Come to think of it, most of said conspiracy theories were probably formulated and spread by Satomi herself…

Ugh. Damn busybody, Sumiko thought to herself, without even half of the annoyance she would have liked to put into it. Mito, at least, was kind enough not to pry. Then again, she was the oldest and the most mature of our little squad… I wonder if news has reached her in Konoha yet.

Sumiko's huff turned into a cough as she caught another lungful of smoke. She dodged the issue as she responded to her longtime partner-in-crime. "Satomi, the other members of your little betting pool aren't even here for you to collect your winnings, and said winnings would do you no good, anyway."

Despite the situation, Satomi's face lit up with a ridiculous grin. "But you do finally admit it?!"

Still listening to their conversation with half an ear, Akio smothered a laugh with a wince.

Sumiko smirked evilly. "I admit to nothing. You will die as you lived, ignorant and unsatisfied."

Satomi made strangling motions in her direction. "You pretentious little…! Fine! It doesn't matter! You couldn't fool me with your distractions! I know it had to have been him; he was the only one you were ever sweet on, if you can call plotting together to revoke the laws of reality and shred the space-time continuum being sweet on someone. I'd just like some confirmation here!"

"You will have none. None at all."

Satomi's scream of frustration cut off as Akio began flipping through handseals, calling out, "Incoming!" Instantly serious, she triggered select portions of the invisible seal matrix she had seeded around the area, blowing the first few onrushing Kiri nin sky-high. A stun seal glowed to life on a nearby blood-smeared wall, and a few more dropped. Other seals came to life with small flashes as Akio's water dragon roared up out of the canal and smashed through the knot of howling invaders.

Sumiko's clan had always held that that water dragon jutsu was but a pale imitation of the real thing, citing legend about the boss of their summons contract. Oh, they still held the contract, yes, but none of them had had the sheer chakra power to summon anything big since Shimizu Sazanami, one of the legendary founders of Uzushio, who had made peace with the Uzumaki over a century ago and sworn allegiance to them when they built their village. The Shimizu had always liked to imagine that their sea dragon slept among the whirlpools and eddies ringing Uzushio, like an extremely badass watchdog.

If only the dragon had risen from its slumber to fight the invaders…

Sumiko shook her head. Distracted again by sentiment. Angry cries from that approach and the side road indicated that more enemy nin were coming. She sniffed the air again.


She heaved an internal sigh. Straight to that plan, then. Tearing off a glove, she deadened the pain receptors on her finger and bit through the skin. She carefully traced a sympathetic seal onto the blade of a kunai with her blood, breathing on it in a quick huff to dry it and bond her blood to the kunai's iron, and tossed the weapon over the canal right into the center of the side road's egress. The air beginning to hum in her ears, she knelt down and painted her seal array, forcing more blood to her torn finger with her medic-quality chakra control.

Hah. Maybe if I had been a medic-nin, like most of my clan, I would have gone with the evacuation. Maybe I could have taught Hiromi how to keep herself alive better. Sumiko sighed. Maybe… maybe, maybe, maybe. No use indulging in maybes now.

She straightened, staring across the canal at the Kumo nin hurtling down the side road, lightning crackling around them. A stun seal dropped one. The man next to him readied a lightning attack with a roar of defiance – just in time for a rough facsimile of her nerve impulse hijacking seal to glow to life beneath his feet.

His body spasmed out of control, falling to the torn pavement and tripping his fellows behind him. They slowed their advance, tossing kunai and tags across the canal. Her barrier seal reversed their weapons' trajectories and dropped the tags on their heads. They scattered, screaming.

Sumiko pursed her lips. Hmm… the barrier won't hold for more than a few more of those volleys. It'll go out with a single raiton. Didn't have much chakra to put in it.

The deep-seated burn warning her of chakra exhaustion had spread to her limbs – that cold and shaky feeling of the Shinigami's breath on the back of her neck she had only experienced once or twice before. Blinking did nothing to clear the black spots from her vision. Still, her eyesight was clear enough to spot the glow of lightning chakra gathering around a Kumo nin's hands.

Ah, and there's the raiton. Sumiko smirked tiredly. Time to say goodbye, you Kumo bastards. Your deaths might buy Satomi and Akio-kun a few minutes.

She flew through a few handseals – no need to call on her clan's remarkable affinity to water to condense it out of the air when such a large source lay right in front of her in the canal. At the very least, that pseudo kekkai genkai would allow her to be efficient enough with the technique to use it even this low on chakra.

Hah, she thought to herself, as she formed the last seal. Shimizu Sumiko. Headstrong daughter, aloof sister, know-it-all student, insufferable genius, apathetic teacher, unsympathetic friend, cold lover, grief-crazed researcher, unapproachable mother… I've failed at everything other than my techniques, and even those won't be remembered.

…Just as well.

She released her jutsu, at the same time triggering the array beneath her feet. The pavement on the opposite side of the canal lit up in an identical pattern around her kunai. Cracks shot through the walk and the walls of the canal, dust rising from the cracks in the surrounding buildings as their foundations heaved. As if blown by the breath of the storm god, the wreckage-strewn waters of the canal rose on high, several times the height of the approaching invaders, and slammed down upon them, swallowing their shrieks. Their own lightning ripped through the water, electrocuting everything it touched. Between water, stone, and lightning, six Kumo nin were buried and the torn bodies crushed to the bottom of the canal.

Six down, but so many to go. Sumiko stumbled, her vision nothing more than a rapidly fading blur. Intermittent explosions and the rushing of Akio's water jutsu drowned out the quiet fzzzzt of Satomi's seals triggering and the onrush of the next wave of invaders. The airborne dust tore at Sumiko's throat and nose, just another burning sensation to add to the fire of chakra exhaustion deep in her bones' marrow.

How could her fingers, her skin feel so cold, when she could feel that burning emptiness consuming her from within?

Chakra sensing had never been Sumiko's area of expertise, and any such sense would have been wonky now, as close to the edge as she was. Her vision was all but gone and her hands shaky, but she still stood, and she still had her hearing.

The shifting of rubble to her front and right alerted her to a new presence. Sumiko jerked back to avoid a barrage of shuriken; they whistled past her ears as her hand dipped to her pouch in a long-practiced motion and then snapped out. She might not have any pre-prepared paper tags left, but she still had a few kunai already sealed with useful designs. None with that nerve-scrambler. Pity. She'd never find out how well it worked now. After all, she needed at least three trials with it to get a standard deviation and reach a conclusion.

A woman's choked cry and the thud of a toppling body told her that the paralysis seal's area of effect had claimed another victim. Sumiko liked her version of that seal. It was twice as difficult to negate, even for shinobi with lightning chakra natures. She didn't believe in doing things halfway, after all. Paralysis should mean paralysis.

The whine of a raiton behind Sumiko and Akio's defiant yelling almost concealed the approach of another shinobi in the paralyzed woman's path. Drops of water sprayed the area with the force of senbon, settling some of the dust and smoke and rattling on Sumiko's armor. A choked gurgle behind her barely distracted her; she ordered her hands to form a handseal and hoped they obeyed. Between the numbness of her fingers and the dark blur her vision had become, she couldn't tell for sure.

The seals on her pre-prepared kunai used ink with her blood and chakra, of course. They were already sympathetic. No need to rig a separate seal for that.

A twist of her chakra – white-hot pain like a kunai to the gut – and the paralysis seal triggered once more. A man choked and tripped; a splash indicated he had tumbled into the canal.

Sumiko fumbled for another of her sealed kunai. An exploratory probe of her chakra – her fingertip throbbed in protest – confirmed it was another paralysis seal. That left the two kunai with explosion seals. Those wouldn't be reusable, of course. But they were for last-resorts and packed quite a punch.

They had been designed for this hour.

Sumiko lobbed the paralysis kunai at a suspicious sliding of broken masonry and triggered it. The flare of protest her chakra system put up at this staggered her once more, and she fell on one knee, panting. Satomi's explosions and Akio's water jutsu were smoothing into a continuous background roar, little more than an irritation after the white-hot fuzziness enwrapping her senses.

More shifting of rubble, the approach of harsh voices. The scream of lightning. A sudden, almighty whooomph as Akio lifted half the water out of the canal and hurled it in a wave of wrath and wreckage across the way. The buzz and crack of other raiton jutsu, the smell of ozone ripping through the air in its path.

Again Sumiko reached for a kunai, gritting her teeth and cursing herself when her numb fingers missed her pouch. She tried again, forcing a tiny bit of chakra out to probe the seal to check that the kunai was in her hand, clenched however loosely. Shifting her weight, she tossed it at one of the locations she had noted earlier.

A crack and boom of displaced air, thunderously loud even to her fading hearing, signaled that a large-scale raiton jutsu had just been thrown down. This much charge being thrown around wasn't good for the human body, but Sumiko ignored it. Her heart was beating quickly and erratically; each shallow breath was struggle all on its own. None of it really pained her, though. The gnawing, burning emptiness inside had swallowed all physical sensation, and Sumiko strove against its implacable hunger as she grabbed her last kunai on the third try and sent it soaring towards her target.

Gasping, eyes closed, Sumiko let herself fall onto all fours. Jagged bits of rock skittered over her fingers and collided with her legs. Voices inched towards her, faint compared to the roaring silence in her ears. The slick, grimy pavement beneath her hands still pulsed weakly with the seal she had laid down there earlier. If Akio's small tsunami hadn't washed away the kunai she used with her earlier detonation, she should be able to cause one last, intense explosion.

She reached out for the seal anyway, scraping up the last bits of chakra she could. It responded weakly, still close enough for her to use. The other two kunai she had saved for last had managed to hit close enough to her targets, so that together they formed a triangle before her.

She could see the detonation in her mind's eye. What remained of the walk on both sides of the canal would collapse. The two buildings framing the side road would twist, curling down and inward as the canal bank collapsed. She'd activate the waterspout clause of the seal again if she could, but dropping the ground out from beneath them all and burying them under as many tons of rock as she could took priority.

A voice abruptly shouted at her, echoing as if down a long tunnel. A large, sandaled foot smashed into Sumiko's armored side, knocking her over. Rough laughter danced around her – Kumo nin, if she still had her sense of smell and wasn't merely imagining the ozone. Several of them.

The twitch of Sumiko's lips would have been a smirk on a better day. The overconfident bastards.

Well, love, I hope I've managed to go out with half as much style as you must have. I'll be seeing you soon.

She spread her hand flat on the pavement and pushed the last bit of her life into the lines of the seal on it.

Author's Notes:

Hello, Spinner here. Yes, I've lost my mind, writing a Naruto fic like this. The world-building urge just got too strong to ignore.

As usual, I'll try to explain my reasoning in my author's notes; as I like logic, these may get very long and complicated, so feel free to skip them if you like. Fair warning: I may also bounce between English and Japanese terminology. (I'm bilingual, although not with Japanese, so this sort of switching back and forth between languages is just how my brain works. I'm sorry. Deal with it.) Further fair warning: I've looked at canon and have decided to make use of it where it makes sense and make my own sense where it doesn't. Seriously, the timeline makes me want to pull out my hair, it's so shining an example of Authors Can't Do Math.

If you see anything you don't understand, ask me about it! I'll try to explain in an author's note. If you see anything glaringly wrong in here about the Narutoverse, let me know! I'll try to fix it. Or go into an existential crisis over my inability to fix it, one of the two.

Yeah, I decided that Uzushio had been standing a while before Konoha. I'm pretty much making up everything about it. Hey, if Kishimoto gave me a blank page, I see fit to scribble what I want. The Shimizu and the Fuyuchi? Totally my invention. They'll be explained in more detail later. I just figured that the Uzumaki couldn't have been the only clan in Uzushio. I've seen fans suggest that the Uzumaki just adopted everyone who entered their village, but I'd like to think that there were a few minor clans living there as well. However, the Uzumaki were the undisputed rulers of Uzushio, so the Shimizu and the Fuyuchi held a sort of vassal position in regards to them.

Also, I don't in any way, shape, or form speak Japanese, so if you ever see something that looks unbearably weird or even a little bit funky, please let me know. The same goes for Japanese idioms, culture, and other little things I might overlook. These tidbits matter! I'll also probably be asking for name suggestions in the future, as I seem to have terrible luck with baby name websites.

I've decided to label this fic M as a precaution, although I don't plan on including any scenes of incredibly graphic violence, any super-bad language, or any smut. This fic should be mostly T-rated. I just don't want someone to come whining to me later. Also, all shippers, put down your goggles now, please. That isn't what this fic is about.

Spinner, signing out.

Dead: Uzumaki Akio, Uzumaki Ayako, Uzumaki Satomi, Uzumaki Shinju, Shimizu Akemi, Shimizu Akiko, Shimizu Sumiko

Relevant Character Death Toll: 7