Disclaimer: If I owned Naruto, mooks would take more than one tap to go down. But high-level jutsu would actually be deadly (and wouldn't be tossed around like confetti) and fire would actually burn, so it'd be a fair trade.
VI – Sinking Like a Stone
Tattered and demoralized, the weary survivors of Uzushio's downfall washed up on the southeastern coastline of the Elemental Nations like flotsam after the storm. Singly they arrived, or in pairs, or in tiny groups. Few of them had escaped injury. Those who had not suffered in the invasion itself had still braved enemy patrols, volcanic eruption, and ungoverned whirling tides to reach land.
Behind the bedraggled refugees, sea and sky raged over Uzu, and from deep beneath the waves the earth had responded with fire. Even the forces of Kumo and Kiri had fled for their lives in the face of the Blue Tiger's anger.
For the Blue Tiger was a mother, a proud mother who had given more than one son to Uzushio, and grief had brimmed her stomach with fire.
Beneath the grumbling peak, amidst the wreck and ruin, the oldest daughter of daughters of Usha's line had stood before the Wall of Genealogy in the Uzumaki quarter of the stricken city, watching death dates inscribe themselves into the stone almost faster than she could track. Before the eyes of she who had been born Nirupama, her kin were cut down like sacrificial offerings. The daughter of daughters howled, tenketsu along her spine lighting up with divine gold as she gave in to the storm of chains she had denied all her life.
With no formal senjutsu training, but with the chakra of her demigoddess foremother running in her veins, she had cried out to the sky, begging for the life of her slain son. No reply did the sky or her ancestors return to her. But the Blue Tiger heard her cry, and the grief and rage of two mothers resonated.
Mt. Loro Jonggrag, as the volcano overlooking Uzushiogakure no Sato was formally titled, roared defiance. Steam-blasts heralded her displeasure, as the elaborate sealing system that pacified the waves and chained the volcano's magma chamber was smashed apart, piece by piece. The earth had rumbled, the blue tiger of the victory goddess warning the invaders to get off her back.
The Kiri nin, at the very least, should have heeded the warning signs. Natives of the Land of Water, itself a massive network of stratovolcanic archipelagoes just like the Land of Whirlpools, they were accustomed to living cheek-by-jowl with volcanoes, if with less fuuinjutsu finesse than the Uzumaki. One of their most powerful shinobi clans, the Terumi, even traced their descent back in time via legend to the offspring of a wandering Uzumaki and the goddess of another volcano.
However, drunk on victory and spilt blood, greed fogging their minds as they looted all they could grab, the Kiri nin ignored the writing on the walls.
As it turns out, not even shinobi can outrun a block-and-ash flow of scalding gas and tephra sweeping down the slopes of its birth volcano.
The cloud of ash and airborne rock glowed wrathful red in the night. Ravines scoring the slopes of Mt. Loro Jonggrag directed the flow out towards the sea. Industrious Uzumaki with forethought had in previous decades undertaken earthworks further shaping these ravines to channel lava and tephra along the shortest route to the sea, funneling it to the southeast and so avoiding the city of Uzushio to the southwest. Thus, by fate and inadvertent design, the brunt of the Blue Tiger's fury fell upon the beachhead the Kiri nin had established.
Over two meters of pumice buried the Kiri camps and supplies. Sitting at anchor offshore, their transport and supply ships were steamed by noxious gases and shredded by volcanic bombs. Panicking shinobi dashing for the sea found their escape route cut off. Many lost their heads and ran for the open sea, only to collapse of exhaustion far from land and drown without enough chakra to support their feet on the heaving waves.
Elsewhere on the main island, neither the Kumo encampments nor Uzushio itself were spared. Any living souls yet remaining within Uzushio choked, dust clogging lungs as the dark deadly cloud rushed over the city. Some buildings that had withstood lightning and water smashed apart under giant chunks of burning rock from the Blue Tiger. Ash blanketed the streets. Many corpses would know no funeral shroud other than rubble and the Blue Tiger's burning vomit. Already punctured by jinchuuriki, the walls of Uzushio crumbled before mudslides. Overhead, dirty lightning lashed the sky.
North of the walls, what Kumo nin who managed to escape the wreck of a city abandoned their burning tents and baggage and fled for the coasts of Uzu's big island. Distance and prevailing winds spared their fleet the utter devastation Kiri's suffered, but it was with the haste of refugees that they boarded their ships and set sail, not with the triumph of hard-earned victory.
Both Raikage and Mizukage had believed the elimination of Uzushio desirable enough to risk what could very well have proven a suicidal attack, and their daimyou had agreed to this surprise military action. Kiri in particular had celebrated victory early, confident in a 'trump card' (left unexplained to their tentative Kumo allies) that would grant them easy passage through the Whirlpool Defense System.
Now, however, both kage were forced to step back and take headcounts of their depleted shinobi forces. 'Decimation' seemed all too accurate a description of their losses; 'septimation', even, might have fit the bill.
Uzushio lay in ruins, but at what a cost.
Scarcely had Kumo's and Kiri's forces limped back to their hidden villages to rest and lick their wounds than their scouts and spies brought word in of fresh developments. Iwa, it seemed, had learned of Kumo and Kiri's joint venture against Uzushio almost at the last moment. Although time, logistics, and the sheer distance of intervening land had prevented Iwa from taking part in striking a fatal blow against the city almost all the hidden villages feared, the shinobi of Earth had not sat idle.
Iwa could have backstabbed Kumo while most of its forces were overseas. That had been yet another risk the Raikage had taken in advancing on Uzushio. Hatred of Uchiha Madara, of Senju Hashirama, and of the village those two had built together had overpowered Iwa's dislike of Kumo, though. Ohnoki had spotted how to twist the knife further in Konoha's gut.
Without Uzushio, Konoha stood alone in the Elemental Nations. (For Suna as an ally was as fickle as the breeze, and no minor shinobi village could be expected to render major military, economic, or political aid to the village of the Land of Fire).
While Uzushio languished in its death throes and Suna still sidelined itself, Iwa launched a wave of shinobi across its borders. The daimyou of the Land of Earth coveted the fertile grasslands and mushroom forests of the Lands of Rain and of Grass, and an access to waterways that flowed south to the warm gulf rather than towards the frozen northern sea was nothing to sniff at.
The territorial gains and strategic and economic advantages of holding two of the minor countries in the middle of the Elemental Nations were motivation enough, true. Feudal lords and civilians counted costs and analyzed risks, but the shinobi of Iwa had a darker hunger. Some older Iwa nin – and some younger nin as well, fed on too many stories of what-had-been and what-they-believed-should-be – deemed this their moment of redemption. Never again would they have this opportunity. This time, no insurmountable obstacle blocked their path.
They desired vengeance. They aimed to restore their honor. Now was their moment.
Their old enemies were long gone. Uchiha Madara had perished at his former friend's hand. The Uzumaki were neutralized; Uzushio no Arata had been forever silenced, falling far from the seas of his homeland. The terrible Senju brothers were two decades dead: no Hashirama to pin down a rampaging bijuu with a laugh and a clap of his hands, and no Tobirama to stand stock-still in a dusty canyon in front of a berserking jinchuuriki, only to open eyes that were no longer red and to summon the sea itself to wash the hills with oblivion.
Hashirama's pet Uzumaki was old, now; she had exhausted herself holding steady the walls of Konoha almost single-handedly in the First War against a hellish onslaught. She would not enter the battlefield. Hashirama's monkey of a student-successor had proven himself clever, but he lacked the sheer power of his predecessors. And Iwa had created at last a successful Yonbi jinchuuriki.
Iwa's shinobi crossed into the Land of Fire.
They did not go unopposed.
Per their daimyou's orders, Konoha mobilized against them, and all thoughts and words and nebulous plans of large-scale, funded efforts to locate and succor Uzushio's refuges vanished in the smoke of war.
(More than a few inhabitants of Konoha spoke in favor of searching for the refugees, even as the war raged on, but so few resources and men could be diverted to the cause. Sarutobi Hiruzen mourned the losses but obeyed his daimyou, steeling himself against Uzumaki Mito-hime's expression when the news' death-blow was delivered to her, hardening himself to the surprisingly united pleas of Uchiha Kagami and Shimura Danzou, his brothers-in-arms. Konoha could not stop now. If they faltered, they would fall.)
Sensing the opportunity to seize the fertile Land of Rivers to his east, the daimyou of the Land of Wind soon added to the chaos by discharging his own shinobi. He ordered them not only to repel Iwa from their buffer states on their northern border but also to invade and seize the neighboring nation – and to repel Konoha, if the Fire daimyou opposed them by sending his own troops to Rivers to deny his territory grab.
And so now Konoha found themselves beset on almost all sides.
As was their custom, at the outbreak of war the mysterious Mushroom Sages from the Elemental Nations' soggy center sent envoys to all daimyou and kage, begging them to reconsider their decisions and to step to the negotiating table instead. As usual, these pleas were ignored and even mocked, especially by shinobi who made their living off war, sabotage, and assassination. Also as usual, the Mushroom Sages returned civility for mockery and returned with their mission unfulfilled to their hermitages, for they had enshrined the Sage of Six Paths as a bodhisattva in their discipline and had embraced his pacifism.
At least the samurai usually treated the Mushroom Sages with courtesy.
In the ensuing weeks after that calamitous invasion of Uzushio, Kumo and Kiri watched from afar as trenches, both figurative and literal, were dug in the soil of Grass, Rain, and Rivers. Grateful prayers were offered to hotoke and kami, to saints and sages alike, that Iwa had diverted Konoha's attention from them, and then that Suna had kept it there.
The Raikage elected to hunker down. His shinobi diligently patrolled Lightning's borders and fulfilled his daimyou's requests, but otherwise he involved Kumo as little as he could in the absolute butchery going down in Rain. His village's might had toppled Uzushio, but Kumo had reaped little reward beyond the deed itself: precious few fuuinjutsu scrolls had been recovered from that burning wreck of a city, and its inhabitants had, almost to a man, preferred to go out fighting with savage fury rather than let themselves be captured for breeding or study. Neither a Shiranui nor an Uzumaki had been recovered.
Even a Shimizu child they had captured, despite the ill luck inherent in her albino coloring, had managed to hijack her own chakra system and kill herself, preferring to choke on her own blood rather than spend another moment in their captivity.
A gain of valuable bloodlines for Kumo might have soothed the sting of needing to hunt once more for suitable jinchuuriki for the Nibi and the Hachibi, once they reformed. The Raikage drew up a list of possible candidates as he listened to reports of his shinobi solidifying their defenses and to analyses of the economic effects of a volcano-blasted wasteland amid important sea shipping lanes. After all, the Land's economic troubles soon became the Hidden Village's problems, one way or another.
Spies based in Kiri informed the Raikage in the following months of further butchery unfolding in Water's midst. If he had not recently lost so much in the assault on Uzushio, he might have pressed that advantage. He trusted Kiri not one whit more than he had a year ago, for all that they had sacked a city together without (much) backstabbing.
He had gambled enough for this year, however, and not even his devotion to the Sage of Six Paths would induce him to risk more.
While Kumo had contented itself with falling back and consolidating its position, Kiri had meanwhile descended into rebellion. Although sweet to the tongue, their triumph had soured in their stomachs, turned to rout in the ash-laden roar of the Blue Tiger. The annihilation of their fleet crushed them further. On the civilian side of matters, the loss of such an important port and economic hub as Uzushio quickly made itself felt internationally. Shinobi suppliers, domestic merchants, and even the daimyou of Water himself kicked up a fuss in the coming weeks. Markets swelled and crashed.
Already always tenuous, the Mizukage's control over the myriad shinobi clans of the Land of Water snapped. Many clans had borne grudges against others for decades if not centuries, and their union into Kirigakure no Sato since its founding had never solidified into anything more than an uneasy, watchful peace. Kiri had had no Senju Hashirama to talk ancient enemies into amity.
The Shodai Mizukage, Byakuren, had persuaded many shinobi clans into forming Kiri, using threats, promises, and bribes as necessary, but he had never possessed the personal power needed to properly cow so many pugnacious clan heads. His political and economic ties to the daimyou of the Land of Water and to other important land-owners and merchants had served him better in building Kiri and seeing it through its tumultuous first years. An old man, he had soon succumbed to the stress of his position.
Although his successor, Houzuki Gengetsu, had sufficient sway both political and chakra, he had found his reign cut short by Null Man Muu and the 1st Shinobi War. The champion of the clans dead on foreign soil, the spiderweb-thin bonds tying Kiri into a whole nearly dissolved then and there.
Elected as Sandaime Mizukage literally because no one else had wanted to treat with an irritated Senju Tobirama in the waning days of the 1st War (not that he had particularly wanted the job, either, but his peers had said, "As Byakuren's grandson, you are the most qualified for this," and had shoved him forward), Banri should not have lasted. Although he had inherited many of his grandfather's connections, he lacked his silver tongue and people skills. He had none of Houzuki Gengetsu's flair and pure personal power.
What Banri had, however, was ruthlessness. He cut down the assassins, both foreign and domestic, targeting him without batting an eyelash, and he then applied that same method to almost all of the problems he faced as Mizukage.
Naturally, he chose ruthlessness as his solution for the internecine squabbling that had erupted among Kiri's shinobi clans in the months after the (failed? successful?) invasion of Uzushio.
In Banri's mind, it was all very simple. Those to blame for Kiri's woes could be easily identified, he reasoned. He only had to look at recent history.
In the 1st War, Kiri had earned Senju Tobirama's wrath when some dozen battle-hungry Kaguya broke ranks against orders and plunged into a Konoha encampment, attacking everyone in sight. (The penalties Banri had levied afterwards against the Kaguya Clan had nearly been an afterthought; Tobirama and his students cutting down the last known adult bearers of the Shikotsumyaku kekkei genkai might have been punishment enough.)
Before and after the 1st War, the Houzuki Clan had displeased the Water daimyou by repeatedly harassing Uzushio shipping until the Head Uzumaki slapped Water-based merchants with an embargo. The economic fallout of that move had had the civilians of the Land of Water howling for Houzuki blood.
Although skilled and loyal, the blue-skinned Hoshigaki Clan had become only dubiously human. Generations of summoning sharks and tying their chakra to those great toothed fish had rendered them blue-skinned and gill-necked. Could such cold-blooded individuals truly be trusted? Rumors of cannibalism drifting through the archipelago were not new, after all.
The Terumi Clan claimed descent from a wandering Uzumaki who became the paramour of a volcano goddess. Family ties to foreign blood had not seemed to sway their allegiance so far, but what man could say what the future would hold? Could the Mizukage rest assured of their chakra and their oaths in the years to come?
Most recently, the Harionago Clan and their ancient kekkei genkai had provided a way through Uzushio's Whirlpool Defense System in the recent invasion. But how well had that turned out for Kiri? Had the Harionago intended such a disaster all along for their Kiri masters? Could they have deliberately led so many Kiri nin to their deaths? If one traced genealogies back enough centuries, the Harionago could claim to be cousins of the Uzumaki, after all.
And now, in the invasion's wake, within the Land of Water itself, clan had turned against clan. Instead of working together to regroup and rebuild, shinobi clan and civilian clan alike blamed each other and reignited old, petty grudges. They reverted to territorial warfare across the islands, ignoring the Mizukage or answering his call only when they felt like it. The daimyou's orders suffered from the same lack of obedience.
Clearly, said Banri, the shinobi clans, especially the arrogant ones with kekkei genkai, were at fault for all of Kiri's problems.
And so Banri ordered the first of what would be many purges to come, and a mist of blood descended upon the Land of Water.
Saburou didn't seem sure what to make of Hiromi.
That was fine. She wasn't sure what to make of him, either.
She had not had much contact with mainlanders, especially mainlander civilians, her missions having kept her mostly within the Uzu archipelago. Still, she wasn't surprised. His mix of wariness and grudging curiosity posed no challenge for her to ignore, and she doubted he would mean her any harm now. Anyway, Akiko-sama had always been far frostier and more disapproving throughout all of Hiromi's life.
This was nothing.
Not that Hiromi didn't understand why Saburou-san watched her warily. She knew she must present quite a sight, with her unwomanly height and rare albino coloring, to say nothing of her obvious shinobi training. The way the poor boy flinched back from direct eye contact with her made it all too easy for Hiromi to believe the legendary Shimizu foremother, Yuuki, a mikogami daughter of a river dragon, had indeed been shunned as a monster by the common populace for her appearance. According to the clan's oral traditions, Yuuki had fled into the wilderness rather than face their mistrustful stares.
For her part, Hiromi had no plans of fleeing blindly into the hills. She focused herself on healing as rapidly as possible. With weeks' worth of supplies tucked tidily away in her personal storage seals, she imposed on Meisha-san's hospitality as little as she could. A corner of the nouka in which to curl up, away from the elements, did well enough.
Mostly, she slept. Too exhausted to dream, she let the hours slip past in sweet oblivion. Each time she woke, she pressed a still-shaky finger to the earth to check for any whisper of Kumo pursuers. None seemed to have veered in her direction, however, not even a tracker or a stray scout. Undoubtedly, some Kumo commander had decided to stop wasting squads and had steered his forces back towards the coast and, ultimately, Uzushio. One survivor hardly merited such effort.
At least, not yet.
Hiromi barely settled her nerves enough to eat and to sleep again, and hours whirled past.
…Why was her chakra returning so slowly? Surely it could not be the damage her chakra system had suffered from overdosing on soldier pills alone.
Come to think of it, she had depleted her available chakra too quickly during that ambush. She had always had comparable reserves to an Uzumaki, and even with all the healing she had done, surely she should have been able to do… more. Something. Somehow.
She should have been able to save Matsuri.
She should have been able to-
Savagely, Hiromi cut that thought off, as if the more completely she shut it down the less real it would become. She checked her surroundings once again, but the Kumo forces had largely moved beyond her sensing range.
Deciding to err on the side of caution, Hiromi allotted herself almost a full forty-eight hours before attempting to address the injuries to her chakra system. As yet another dawn crept over the horizon, she slowly, oh so carefully, stitched back together every minute tear in her chakra capillaries, shored up every stressed tenketsu. She paused every breath to check the stability of her work, occasionally halting her progress entirely to re-center herself with a few minutes of meditation. Tiny fractures that could be left well enough alone she passed over, trusting her chakra system's vitality to tend to them in time.
Not even all fully trained iryou-ninjutsu could handle damages to the meridian system – it took a far more delicate, far more spiritual touch than the already complicated control needed for the Mystical Palm Technique alone. Diagnosis itself could be tricky, too. A fairly spiritually aware clan, however, the Shimizu had been doing this this for centuries. Hiromi's potent chakra sensing lent her an advantage here; she had no need to hold a separate scanning technique to observe the effects of her work, and so could confidently operate in real-time. More than once, Akemi-shishou had sighed while supervising her, shaking her head in mock jealousy.
Such an amazing gift you received, Hiromi, she had said. It gives me joy to see it put to so noble a use. May it always benefit you.
After another brief rest, Hiromi marshaled her attention towards the handful stenoses in her chakra channels. Patiently, gently, she tugged at them, soothing inflammation and expanding them to their proper diameter. Shimizu usually had fairly narrow chakra channels, as their low average reserves meant their systems had no need to develop large channels to transport large quantities of chakra, but once again Hiromi proved the exception.
Unbidden, the little song Shimizu medics-in-training had composed to assist in the memorization of the Twelve Principal Chakra Channels floated through Hiromi's mind.
From the Hand branch six
Metal of Greater Yin shields the Lung
Fire of Lesser Yin kindles the Heart
Faint Yin wraps the Heart with warmth
Fire of Lesser Yang lights the coils…
And so forth.
It had once all been so easy.
Of course, then she had grown up and learned academics squabbled over the proper typing of channels, coils, and tenketsu, with their associated properties, and over which classification system was the most accurate or the most auspicious. Some argued for nadi, some for qi, some for chakras, some for dantian, and Hiromi had almost quailed at the prospect of making sense of it all.
"Worry less over terminology. Just concentrate on, 'Can I fix this?'" Megumi-onee-san had advised, all business-like. Of course, she largely traded her chakra scalpels in for swords and fireballs in the following years after running off to sea, but she did know her iryou-ninjutsu, as was to be expected of the daughter of the great Shimizu Akemi. Still, the advice had helped.
Well, then. Physician, heal thyself.
Hiromi did what she could, and then set herself to rest for several more hours, so unobtrusive that even the most suspicious of the hamlet's inhabitants' worries for an imminent shinobi apocalypse had dimmed. She would examine the fruits of her handiwork then and adjust as necessary. She had encountered no significant complications – so why did unease steal over her soul? Ignoring her restlessness as best she could, she tried to sleep.
Like an unwelcome shadow, the unease followed her into her dreams, tormenting them with death and darkness, and it sat beside her when she awoke, whispering inaudible promises of doom into her ear.
Frowning, Hiromi pressed a finger to the ground.
Nothing new. And yet…
Curling her fingers into a fist, Hiromi pressed it to the black-edged corpse scrolls she bore. Of course she would be uneasy. She would never be at ease again, not with -
Well, not with the lives that had been lost.
Her soul keened. Within her heart, it was raining, raining, raining.
Rain was supposed to bring purification and prosperity, so why had she been plunged deeper into mourning, when she had seen nothing more?
Screwing her eyes shut, Hiromi shuffled to place her palm flat against the earth. She drew in a long breath, held it, and released. Her heartbeat calmed. Around her, the noises of the hamlet faded to the barest murmur. Her chakra reached out to the vast energy of the earth, watching it, listening to it, and finally mimicking it so as to hear what it heard. Even faint echoes disturbed the air; even the lightest footstep touched the soil. She only had to concentrate.
Across the vast miles, rippling through tectonic plates like a chthonic cascade, echoed the belch of magma, the crumbling roar of mountainsides shifting, the hiss of gas and ash. An erupting volcano – so colossal a shift in the natural energy of its locale that reverberations could no doubt be felt, however faintly, at even the opposite end of the Elemental Nations. The winds would scatter ash over land and sea for weeks to come. She tracked the echoes to their epicenter, recalling the names of all the fiery peaks in Uzu and Kiri, noting absently that this one smelt far too familiar…
And it came from the southeast. From home.
Distantly, Hiromi noted the chill settling across her skin, the blood draining from her face. Her breath froze in her throat.
Mt. Loro Jonggrag, she told herself numbly. The Blue Tiger of Whirlpool. She has burst her chains.
But… how? How had it come to this? Uzumaki Akira and her compatriots had not neglected the volcano when setting up defensive and monitoring seal arrays across the archipelago. Hiromi knew more of this than the average Uzumaki not involved in the Whirlpool Defense System, having listened indulgently when Araya lay with his head on her lap and described to her the complex fuuinjutsu and interlocking processes, hands animatedly drawing out seals in the air to further illustrate his ancestors' work. Barriers were not his field of expertise, but he took pride in learning what he needed to know; he suspected that Ashura-sama meant to leave him the seat that his grandfather had refused to take.
Had the Blue Tiger burst her chains? Or had she been freed of them by deliberate hand? Was the news Hiromi bore truly too late beyond all help now, and the Head Uzumaki had found his city so hard-pressed that he had chosen to bury them all in ash and fire rather than suffer his people to return to a life of torture and captivity?
No… by all the thousand little kami… no. No, it can't be.
Uzushio was burning.
Hiromi crammed her knuckles to her mouth, stifling a sob. Her scans scant hours ago informed her that her lungs and diaphragm were in perfect working order, but she couldn't seem to breathe. She couldn't choke down a breath. She tried to rip her attention away from the terrible echoes painted in the earth's natural energy, but she couldn't. Her spiritual gaze was fixed on them in horrific fascination.
She was too late.
She had given it her all, nearly killed herself fighting off Kumo squads and racing for the border of the Land of Fire, and it had not been enough.
She was too late, and Uzushio was burning.
Her limbs tensed; she wanted to jump up, run with reckless abandon for her home, throw everything she had at the ruin in futile hope it would alleviate anything. Her gut rolled, horrified at her inaction, twisted up in her failure. Her focus turned inwards, wildly grasping for answers, any at all – what should she do? What could she do? What should she have done?
Although logic dictated the result would not have changed much from half an hour ago, she feverishly checked her chakra system again. How was it healing? When would she be battle-ready again? When could she arise and face her failure? When would her shaky legs bear the weight of those corpse scrolls without faltering? When could she go to her people?
Why was she so weak?
Still in tune with the natural energy, Hiromi's chakra sense unfolded even the most minute of details to her scrutiny. Fear, dismay, and guilt tearing her thoughts every which way, she found herself seizing upon small details of her chakra system here and there.
The ruptured chakra channel of her right calf, sewn back together but still threatening to bleed.
Her strongly developed middle chakra coils, which let her spit off handseal-less water needles with such precision.
The tenketsu along her spine, perfectly normal in every way. Matsuri's had been slightly enlarged, as was typical of Uzumaki. Araya's had been sturdy and brimming with golden chakra, almost ready to snap out in a glorious clatter of chains.
(His chakra had dazzled her eyes, like sunlight on the sea; had warmed her skin, like his lips on her neck; had burned within her like fire- )
Her Eighth Gate, the Gate of Death, now naturally ajar instead of completely shut, as it had been when she went into chakra arrest and her heart had failed her. Elevated by her distress, her heartbeat throbbed in her throat, urging her to breathe, but she couldn't.
Her lower chakra coils, nestled deep beneath intestines and kidneys, strangely doubling over on themselves, diverting a steady stream of chakra they produced from the rest of her body, only really noticeable now that she was so low on chakra, diverting it to…
The chill on Hiromi's skin deepened.
(Scarce a couple of weeks ago, following Araya on a walk around the perimeter of Uzushio – some Uzumaki ritual she did not fully understand but humored all the same – his hands on hers, in earnest plea – voice asking her to marry him – so caught up in his warmth, his dazzling chakra, his sea-gray eyes under the night sky, his smile, fears falling away and agreeing, logistics left for later – mission first, they'd figure out later how to explain a relationship she'd insisted be kept quiet – but it wasn't enough, not enough, she wanted him to be hers now- )
(And he threw himself headlong into it with her, delighted, overawed, breathless from kissing her – suddenly she fathomed all too well how his lookalike grandfather had broken so many hearts – but he was hers, all hers now, and- )
She was with child.
By an Uzumaki – no wonder the child had survived, even when she had almost died. They were hardy, too hardy – just ask Araya's mother…
Araya's mother, beautiful Natsumi-san with her impatience for nonsense and hidden love of explosions and the secretive little smile she had given Hiromi on hearing Araya laugh – that smile Hiromi had pretended she hadn't seen, because that meant others knew, and –
Natsumi-san, who should have sat in Ashura-sama's seat, but refused because it should have been Arata's and she wanted nothing to do with him – who would have held the chains of the Blue Tiger if Ashura-sama fell, who maybe had already held them by birthright –
Natsumi-san, whose son was dead because Hiromi was a failure and –
Hiromi coughed, choking for air. The back of her neck tingled as if pricked with a thousand tiny icicles. The chill on her skin evaporated, burned away by the welter of emotion inside. Drawing up her legs, she pressed her forehead to her knees, but hiding her face could not stop the heaving breaths or the wetness overwhelming her tired eyes.
That was how Meisha found her, an hour later, sitting on the floor and still sobbing in that slow, wrenching way of the utterly exhausted.
Yanagikage Tarou had no sensors on his team of three chuunin, a rather frustrating fact when their assigned mission was to search for a missing squad, assigned to an outpost on Fire's border with Hot Water. Well, technically, his team had been assigned to take the missing squad's place at the outpost and man it while the actual tracking team – Inuzuka included! – searched the hills for their lost nin and for Kumo activity.
Regardless, Tarou and his teammates had been ordered to keep their eyes peeled for anything unusual or any clues that might point to recent events.
They had discovered the location of a recent struggle, burnt underbrush and all, but the forensic nin had not yet arrived to go over it with fine-toothed combs. Everyone's attention was fixed on the horrific news flowing from Whirlpool – or, well, from what had been Whirlpool, Tarou amended his thoughts guiltily.
War had arrived; it merely had not been officially declared yet. Recent word of Iwa forces charging over their borders only confirmed that.
Communication with Konoha's allies, the shinobi of Hot Water, indicated that outlying groups of Kumo nin had swept through the area a week ago, silencing all who attempted to oppose them or report their presence. It seemed the Konoha squad had ventured over the border to check out the disturbance; they had relayed to neighboring outposts that they were investigating, but they had never returned. Their fate was not too difficult to guess.
Even with his team's lack of sensors, they really should have noticed some sign of the woman's approach before she appeared, seemingly out of thin air, in front of the outpost.
Tall and well-built, wrapped in a sea-green flak jacket, she towered over Tarou, who was on the smaller side for a Yanagikage at almost 163 cm. Her bloodless skin, limp white hair, and dark circles under her eyes behind her visored happuri could have convinced him she was the vengeful soul of some drowned woman, having clambered out of some snowmelt-fed river in search of fresh chakra to devour. But her narrow red eyes, and the three needle-thin red slashes on her face – those were features he had only ever seen before on portraits of the Nidaime Hokage.
She did not speak, merely stared at the three of them as if picking apart their souls with her dead red gaze.
Tarou stifled a shiver.
Quicker on the uptake, Akimichi Katashi had noticed the red whirlpool emblem on her sleeve and jacket. "Honored ally. What can we do for a nin of Uzushio?" he asked, with a little bow.
Again from seemingly nowhere – but, realistically speaking, probably from some seal – she withdrew three scrolls, their edges dipped in black ink. Ignoring their distress at that fatal indicator, she held the macabre offering out to them on a flat palm, not moving any closer.
Tarou was really beginning to wonder if a ghost had taken it upon herself to deliver the bodies of their fallen comrades back to Konoha custody.
Finally, Katashi stepped forward and retrieved the scrolls, his grip gingerly. The Uzushio woman faintly nodded, lowering her arm. Not any more comfortable in this situation than Tarou, if concealing it better, Katashi rapidly fell back in line with his teammates. Again he bowed, the other two following suit.
"Konoha thanks you for returning the bodies for proper burial," Katashi said, fumbling for some proper-sounding courtesy. He had little experience with this sort of thing – although it looked like he might be gaining a lot more in the future.
"I'm sorry," the Uzushio woman whispered, her voice as quiet as an echo on the wind.
Then she vanished.
Yanagikage Tarou, Akimichi Katashi, and Togeito Takeshi scanned their surroundings wildly, but not so much as a blade of grass outside their outpost seemed to have been disturbed by her passage. Tarou thought he might have felt the brush of wind left behind by a shunshin, tinged with the faintest taste of salt, but no more.
"Was that a spirit?" Takeshi demanded. Tarou was merely glad he had not been the only one questioning that.
"If that was a spirit, it was a… Shimizu one, I think," said Katashi, looking down at the scrolls he clutched with marked care in his meaty hands. "Like the the Shodai and Nidaime's mother. Kumo believes they're bad luck."
"If they all look like ghosts, I can see why," said Takeshi, poking at their unease with a pin of ill-timed humor. It did nothing to dissipate the nervous bubble.
With the return of the funeral scrolls and the reported sighting of the Uzushio nin to Konoha, an addendum was added to their orders, straight from the Hokage himself: to watch for and to aid any refugee of Uzushio whom they might chance across while serving their mission at the outpost. Later, the notice to be on the lookout for any Uzushio survivors was added to general orders for all Konoha shinobi for the duration of what was soon labelled the Second World War.
Glimpses were occasionally caught, rumors swirled of redheads on the coastlands or caught in the crossfire in Rain and Grass, but scarce another Uzushio citizen willingly approached a Konoha squad in the following years. In fact, almost to a man they fled from leaf-etched hitai-ate and from any emblem belonging to a Konoha clan. As soon as Konoha's information network caught wind of a traveling redhead or learned of a hidden refugee community, those evaporated, too.
They had vanished, gone to ground, no longer trusting their allies in Konoha – or, more depressingly, perhaps so few of them had survived that they simply weren't there to be found.
And as avidly as Konoha searched for survivors of their allied city, with largely benevolent intentions, so too did the other hidden villages of the Elemental Nations search for them, for slaughter or for worse.
In a lonely wooden house in Konoha, nestled beneath trees the Shodai had grown to please her great-aunt, a little redheaded girl listened in vain for accounts of rescued refugees and deemed herself abandoned. She bit her lip until she tasted blood instead of the salt of her home's sea-breeze, and she wrapped her hurting in anger.
Miles away, an anxious godfather scanned the scant reports of Uzushio refugees with whirling red pinwheel eyes, hunting for names he never found one way or another.
Orders drew him away from the search of the eastern coastal towns he would have conducted himself. After all, he was a good shinobi, and good shinobi obeyed. So he tightened his hitai-ate and marched westwards off to war again.
He never stopped listening for names he longed to hear. He choked upon secrets that were not his to tell, and he could never shake the belief that he had failed them all.
Miles upon miles to the southeast, a pirate junk anchored itself in the debris-choked seas off the Whirlpool main island. A red-eyed cousin leapt overboard and staggered through the ruins, pawing apart rubble and broken bodies in pursuit of specific corpses.
She did not find what she sought. It made no difference. Even without proof, she knew. Her famous and headstrong kaa-san, her clever but fragile ba-san, her favorite imouto – they were all gone. Gone forever beyond her reach, and even if she invoked the power of Izanagi she knew she could not retrieve them from the underworld.
She was alone in a sea of death, and her mind and heart cried for vengeance.
With a scream, she fell to her knees on the black volcanic sand. She sobbed and howled at the gods, cursing every entity she could frame for this ruin. Finally, she collapsed on the beach, shivering and shaking.
Only her crew's shaken expressions when they tracked her down alerted her that something beyond the obvious was wrong. Even her medic husband, fishhook-sword slung on his back, who had helped drag her back from the brink of death so many times before, evinced concern as he gestured to her face. It seemed she had wept tears of blood, which had dried on her face as if in cruel mockery of the three delicate red slashes that had decorated her dead mother's features.
No wonder her eyes had burned.
Distantly, she studied the flaking brown bits of dried blood on her hands. Unbidden, a doujutsu technique name and details populated her memory. Hysterical laughter bubbled to her lips, but she wrestled it back down. She'd cling to her sanity by her very fingertips if necessary. She would not abandon her sons the way she had been abandoned long ago, father lost to the Uchiha madness.
"Dammit, oyaji," she gasped, turning her face up to the empty sky. "Of all the shitty traits to inherit, did it have to be the Mangekyou with such cruel irony?"
Yeah, so here's my take on the outbreak of the 2nd Shinobi World War. The timeline with Kiri is so messed-up that honestly only a dragon break could explain it at this point, if I may borrow terminology from Tamriel. (Is the Sharingan so hax it can break Akatosh? It would not surprise me at this point.) My solution is to push most of the Bloody Mist mess back in time into the Sandaime Mizukage's reign. He's enough of a blank slate that this works, so I gave him a name and a history. Thus, when Yagura ascends as Yondaime Mizukage, he will only be continuing in this 'fine' tradition (presumably with some flavor of Tobito Dorito making things worse for no reason I can determine other than the evulz).
Saburou single-handedly delayed this one particular chapter for 1 ½ years until I agreed to write him out of the story. So I did. I've changed my plot forecast and we shall hear no more from him. Take that, bland OC.
The godfather in the chapter's cryptic ending? A canon character who, thanks to developments from this AU's premise, did not meet his canonical death. The cousin? An OC. The cruel irony? She wanted to retrieve the souls of her loved ones from the underworld. Her Mangekyou lets her send souls to the underworld. Her father is canonical, his Mangekyou less so, as frankly I found the Sharinghax business too confusing and decided to make my own logic. Its cruel irony? He wanted to save the lives of his loved ones. Instead, his Mangekyou warps space-time to keep him, and only him, alive.
I find this all far more sinister and satisfying than the whole 'Curse of Hatred' business in canon. If people go evil in this AU, it's because of their own choices and experiences, not because magic eyeball BS said so. However, I have decided to imply that there is something literally cursed about the Sharingan, in that it shouldn't be linked inextricably with suffering and negative emotion and shouldn't be composed of cruel irony, but that it nevertheless is. Note that Uchiha undergo trauma to unlock the Sharingan, while the Hyuuga apparently have unlocked Byakugan from birth.
(SPOILERS - Hagoromo in this AU cursed Indra to only ever use his doujutsu with pain, and his descendants are still paying for that. Because who cares about brother vs. brother reincarnated warfare nonsense when I can make #Ootsutsuki Hagoromo's A+ Parenting a thing?)
And, now that I've said all this, the Sharingan probably won't appear again in this fic for at least a dozen chapters. Whoops. But I do have PlansTM.
Dead this chapter: Uzumaki Nirupama/Natsumi
Relevant Character Death Toll: 20