I have said it before but I will repeat myself once more, just for clarity sake: I know a lot of you have assumed that the past Sakura has been in, is not the past of her original timeline, but the past of an altered timeline. I have been very careful to avoid directly confirming this, because I've been dabbling in several time travel theories when writing this. Haha Some things have undoubtedly changed regardless. Izuna was supposed to die and would have, without Mizuchi intervening, but there's quite a bit Sakura just wouldn't know about the distant past. She wouldn't know every single thing she might have changed and what is left the same.
There was something to be said about the tranquility of the Senju compound's innermost courtyard. The trees were getting green again, and birds flitted by plucking up worms from the ground, or carrying nesting materials in their beaks. Down the winding, peaceful path touched by sunlight was the area Tobirama considered the true epicenter, his pride and joy really.
Built six feet deep, with a charming wood bridge arced across its surface for observation, was a pond filled with a colorful array of koi fish. They lived a very happy existence, their habitat carefully cultivated and maintained. A tiny waterfall spilled down the rocky overhang of arranged stones, its gentle babble easy on the ear. Lily pads floated across the surface, the fish nibbling the undersides now and then.
Special water-proof constructs that resembled hollowed logs rested at the bottom of the pond, providing any koi feeling shy with a place to lurk. A small river turtle Tobirama had found injured and rescued, sunned itself at the edge of the pond. At first, the Senju had every intention of returning it to its habitat once he treated its damaged back leg, but the turtle seemed content with its arrangement.
He kept the koi company, the fish curious but unbothered by his presence. When he had released it back into the wild, only to return the next day and find it stubbornly sitting exactly where he had left it, the shinobi grudgingly accepted the reptile as his responsibility and brought it home again. Now all thirty-five koi and the singular turtle coexisted in the pond surrounded by merry, fully bloomed flower bushes—which he would admit was thanks to Hashirama's gardening prowess.
At times when his study wasn't secluded enough, Tobirama trekked here for guaranteed serenity. While the courtyard was free for any Senju or invited visitor to explore, this area was barred from everyone else but him. Of course, it didn't stop Hashirama from occasionally following him; but chasing his brother away with a few threats to his garden wasn't difficult.
Before today, he would have never imagined willingly allowing someone else to join him in his sanctum. But if there was one person whose presence wouldn't be a nuisance, it had to be Sakura's.
They walked through the courtyard with her quietly remarking on whatever caught her interest, Tobirama calmly responding when needed. She didn't know exactly where they were going. Telling her there was something of interest to show her at the Senju compound was enough. The pinkette's usual curiosity had done the rest.
Now they neared the pond, the spot he treasured most in the entire village, and there was a very foreign feeling settling in his chest. Tobirama was a shinobi who had practiced regulating his emotions from a young age, in and out of battle. Of course that often led to others assuming he didn't have any. But if that were truly the case, the tingly sensation rubbing against his slightly racing heart would be nonexistent. This wasn't agitation, though. It was more so in line with anxiousness he occasionally felt during childhood. Was he…nervous?
Sakura, who was following close behind him, seemed none the wiser. The spike hadn't been enough to cause a disruption in his chakra. It was subtle enough for only him to be left mulling over what the appearance of this emotion meant. "Oh," he heard her gasp. "Is that a koi pond?"
Not wanting to spook the fish, who undoubtedly sensed a new presence, Tobirama nodded silently. Catching his cue, Sakura stood beside him on the bridge, peering down at the gathering fish in wonder.
Their glittering scales caught the sunlight breaking through the wisteria tree shadowing the pond as some of the more curious ones began to poke their heads out of the water. "I knew you raised koi, but I didn't think..." Sakura said in hushed exclamation. "This pond's landscaping is beautiful."
Ignoring the short flutter in his breast, Tobirama cast a softened gaze in the direction of his pretty fish. "It was a hobby I discovered unexpectedly as a child. In one way or another, my small pond of one fish grew to the number I have today. Some of them have been with me for years."
"I've heard that serious enthusiasts raise koi for their patterns." The kunoichi mumbled. "The more unique they are, the more the fish is worth." That was very true. Tobirama knew that at least a handful of the koi he owned would fetch a large profit, should he ever choose to sell them. Not that he would. What the fish gave him had an intangible value beyond money. Plus, the Senju were a well off clan. There was no need to barter off his pets when there was no one he trusted to take better care of them than himself.
"Yes, that's true. Some are worth their fair share to other hobbyists looking for only the rarest fish."
"But not to you," Sakura said softly, knowingly.
Tobirama huffed. "You know me so well these days, do you?" he asked rhetorically, opening the bento container he had brought. As if they heard the sound of the lid sliding off, the fish below grew frenzied, bobbing their heads in anticipation. Even Gyo the turtle slid from his sunning spot and swam into the middle of the pond among the fish. Every last one of them was spoiled.
Tobirama dropped a peeled apple slice into the water, the soft plop barely heard above the noise of the fish moving frantically. He dropped another slice of apple, then some bits of banana. The fish and Gyo descended on that just as hungrily.
"I didn't know koi liked fruit." Sakura mused. "They're really going at it."
"Fruits are a good source of vitamins for them, as much as they are for people. I only indulge them on certain occasions, so they're excitable, to say the least." Sakura watched his largest, oldest fish slowly swim through her fellow koi, and Tobirama made sure to throw some treats her way.
Kako was a physically unremarkable orange koi, a few spots of white just above her tail. She had been with him the longest, sparking his interest in keeping a pond.
Although there was no true way to know her exact age, Tobirama suspected due to her size and immature coloring when he found her, that she'd been young herself.
That put her present age at roughly fourteen, possibly fifteen. She snacked on the slices of orange he tossed down to her, and as if out of respect, the others gave her some breathing room.
"Do you think they would let me feed them?" Sakura finally asked, staring hopefully up at him.
Tobirama wouldn't admit that her taking an interest in his koi was a pleasing sentiment, even though it was what he hoped for all along. "You can try." He gave her a bag of oats, and to his mild amusement Sakura rushed down the other side of the bridge, crouching at the pond's edge. While some of the fish remained just where they were at the center, ready for him to bestow more fruit on them, others swam in the pinkette's direction.
She wasted no time jamming her hand into the sack and sprinkling out a handful on the water's surface. Quickly getting the idea that they were indeed being fed by a second person, the koi swallowed up the wet oats and swam closer for more.
It wasn't long before Tobirama had run out of fruit, and those koi (plus Gyo) that had been eating it swam to the side of the pond where treats were still being dispensed. Sakura had several fish eating from her hand, which she'd submerged into the water. Knowing how gently they nibbled, the Senju imagined it must have tickled when their mouths touched her fingers.
Tobirama crouched beside her and simply watched. A warm breeze blew some of Sakura's shiny pink tresses under his nose, and he tilted his face away. "I have to say, even I didn't expect all of them to take to a new person so soon."
Her brow furrowed, "That makes it sound like they don't have interactions with many people."
It was of no surprise to him that Sakura would immediately be able to draw the true meaning from his words. "I don't see the need in bringing anyone here. That would defeat the purpose of having a spot for seclusion." Tobirama explained.
"But…I'm here." Sakura said, slowly.
Tobirama willed his face to stay its normal, pale color. If even a hint of pink surfaced, he would all but be found out. "I only thought…you'd be interested in the koi, and able to appreciate the atmosphere without disrupting it." It wasn't untrue, in any case. Though, lately he found he really had come to enjoy spending time with someone he could have a rousing discussion on just about anything with. It helped that it was…Sakura.
"Then, thanks for trusting me." She sounded happy, not suspicious, and his body untensed.
"I've had to trust you with my life, my body and my soul. By comparison, this isn't nearly as intrusive."
The jade gaze he had come to know so well flickered his way, Sakura's cheeks flushing as she avoided eye contact. "That's…that's true."
"Was I somehow too blunt?" he asked.
"A little…" Sakura scrubbed both hands down her red face. "Things were really…intense back then, you know. I…I mean of course you should, because you were there but," she sucked in a deep breath, finally uncovering her face. The blush was just starting to fade. "Anyway, thank you for sharing all this with me."
Watching the fish finish off the last of the oats, Tobirama crossed his arms. "Consider it a fair exchange, for your willingness to assist me in the kitchen the other day."
"Assisting you, huh?" Sakura chuckled. "I thought you were supposed to be my assistant."
"Think whatever you'd like." he hummed, settling into the peace of the moment. The young woman did the same, swirling her hand gently through the water as the fish followed it, hopeful for more food. The wind blew the fragrance of the wisteria tree, a few petals fluttering in the breeze to land on the pond's surface, while others caught in the softness of Sakura's hair.
Their pale blue color stood in contrast to the vibrant pink, and without thinking, Tobirama's hand had reached up to pluck one free. Warmth skittered up his arm when his hand landed on top of a smaller one that had also moved to take out the petal.
He and Sakura locked eyes, a shy smile briefly lifting her lips. "Oh."
"Hm." Retracting his hand, the Senju chose to occupy himself by staring at their reflections on the water. She wore her customary red, and he was in his standard blue.
Both of them looked comfortable, nothing like battle-tested shinobi. Sakura especially appeared deceptively civilian-like when she wasn't wielding an axe bigger than herself in the heat of battle. In the past, maybe Tobirama would have thought that critically. But now, there was a new sense of appreciation, and maybe a little admiration. Everyone needed a reprieve now and then.
"Th-thanks," she reassured, "I've got it." Cupping the petal in her palm, she held it over the water, and let the wind carry it away.
Although he tried to contain it, a quiet noise must have escaped him, because the kunoichi stared, brow quirked, "What? Something funny?"
Tobirama swiped two more petals from her hair and showed them to her.
"When I said I had it…I meant that specific petal." she insisted, trying to save face.
Gyo poked his head up to snap at some of the petals that had landed in the pond.
"Whatever you say, Sakura." If she caught the mirth bleeding into his voice, she didn't comment.
The amount of noise in the compound's main kitchen affirmed to Tobirama that he had made the right choice, spending the morning with Sakura away from whatever was happening. Unsurprisingly, his boisterous older brother was in the middle of the commotion, along with Toka, Reira, Mei-san, Tatsugi, and about ten others. Despite the communal kitchen being a large space meant to accommodate multiple people at once, it still seemed crowded.
So he remained at the edge of the room, not quite walking in. Hashirama glanced up and spotted him, flour on his face, fingers pinching dough. "Tobi!" Tobirama could tolerate that Hashirama was going to insist on calling him that childish nickname, but he hated it when he did it in front of the clan. "Finally decided to join all of us?"
"Doing what?" Judging by the activity going on, it looked like they were baking. He was sure Hashirama, and perhaps Mei-san knew that he had been occasionally meeting with Sakura to cook. Was his anija mocking him?
"Tobi-nii, how could you forget?" Reira replied from her spot between Toka and Souta, a boy her age. "It's for the Bakedown to Spring!"
Suddenly, it struck him. The proverbial apple to the head. Hashirama had done a great many things to promote clan unity since taking over as their leader.
One of those changes was insisting on events every season that would bring them all closer together as clansmen. Thus the first week in March every year was reserved for this silly competition of sorts, everyone baking dishes in different categories for five days.
Tobirama never participated, no matter how much his brother pleaded. It would only lead to everyone ungratefully picking apart whatever he cooked, saying it was a nutrient-loaded but otherwise indistinct dish. Instead he helped judge, a job he felt far better suited for.
"I still fail to see the fascination." he sighed, "But my lack of interest in this shouldn't stop the festivities, so carry on."
Tobirama thought that would be the end of it, somehow underestimating Hashirama's penchant for dragging him into antics. A rookie mistake he should have known better than to make. His older brother was in front of him so fast, he questioned if he had taught himself Hiraishin when Tobirama wasn't looking.
Gripping him tight by the shoulders, Hashirama leaned in, eyes predictably big. "You're leaving just like that? You do this every year."
Tobirama stared down at the sticky, dough-caked hands resting on him with disdain. "Yet it never deters you from trying to include me in this madness."
"This year's different! I was thinking of making it village-wide, and opening it up to everyone." Tobirama couldn't imagine the chaos if even more people joined in. Cooking together might have seemed like a fairly innocuous activity, suitable for all ages, but Konoha had its fair share of overly competitive personalities. Not to mention that he would be expected to taste test nearly everything as a judge. He wasn't that interested in sweets to begin with.
"If that's the case, anija, then you're correct." He almost felt bad about the way his elder brother perked up hopefully. "Things are different. I'm afraid I won't be able to help you as a judge in a competition with such a large turnout expected."
Snatching Hashirama's hand off his shoulder and glaring down at the smudge it left behind, Tobirama decided that the cup of tea he had been planning to fix himself didn't have to come from the kitchen. He would just visit a tea house.
"Cheer up Hashi-nii," he heard Reira consoling as he walked away. "We can find somebody else to judge. What if we invite Sakura?"
Tobirama froze with one foot out the door, already hearing his brother's brain at work. "No."
"Why not?" Hashirama countered, sounding ready to argue him down. "Sakura-chan's already well accustomed to the ways of the clan, and she loves sweets."
Mei-san expertly formed the shape of three pie crusts, each molded to perfection. "Yes, yes. If the boy's too busy for us, I say Sakura-san's a fine substitute. Perhaps even a better one." she smirked, a twinkle in her eyes.
Tobirama remained disapproving. Yes, she loved sweets. She also cared about his clan, and they in turn had come to care about her. Toka, Reira, Mei-san, every other Senju she came across, and…of course, Hashirama. They all loved her in their own ways. She'd be pulled in every direction, everyone vying for her attention. It would leave her significantly less time for their research herself.
In keeping her away from the rest of the clan (and their clinginess), Tobirama was only advocating in Sakura's best interests. "She wouldn't be interested. I'm sure she's preoccupied enough in some way or another."
"Boo!" Reira glared, flinging her hands up. Souta was forced to dive for the dough that she accidentally tossed into the air. "I didn't wanna say anything, Tobi-nii, but it's not fair that you get to spend so much time with her!"
Unsympathetic, the white-haired Senju rolled his eyes. "Do you not see her plenty when she visits the academy?"
"I'm not learning medical ninjutsu, so it's not as much as you'd think." The little girl huffed, and Souta nodded sadly in agreement. Tobirama had almost forgotten he too had looked up to Sakura ever since the pox incident. "I saw you with her this morning, and you kept her all to yourself." She stomped her foot.
"Tobirama," Hashirama placed a hand to his chest, scandalized. "Sakura-chan was here, at the compound, and you didn't say anything?"
Tobirama felt an eye twitch coming on. Even Toka was shaking her head slowly, eyes icy.
"She didn't stay long." He grunted, used to being the least dramatic person in his family.
"But where were you hiding her?" Hashirama prodded. "You know when you keep things like this from anija it breaks his heart!"
Hashirama slumped against him, acting for all the world like he had just received devastating news. Tobirama pinched his back. Hard.
"Then here's to hoping I've found something your regeneration won't fix. I've heard some animals die of broken hearts. It'd be an interesting experiment to see if people are the same." Shoving his 'distraught' brother away, he brushed the flour from his shirt. "This is precisely why I didn't inform any of you that Sakura would be here today."
"I resent that decision." Toka muttered under her breath.
Evidently Hashirama wasn't over the betrayal, taking chopped fruit meant for the baking and shoving an alarming amount into his mouth until his cheeks bulged grotesquely. When he reached for a banana, Tobirama looked away. "Disgusting. Apologize to my eyes and that fruit, right now." he seethed.
"Tobi-nii, be more sensitive." Reira rushed over to rub Hashirama's back. "You're making him stress eat."
"I hope he chokes."
"I can't say I've got much sympathy for him if he does," Mei agreed. "That fruit was for my pies, boy!"
Choke he did, a chunk of melon flying from his mouth when he couldn't swallow it all at once. Hashirama was lucky it was the worst thing that happened.
"I think we're done here." And this time Tobirama meant it, fully prepared to find a tea house and sit in a quiet booth until his family got over themselves.
Only Tatsugi's quiet declaration made a slight chill run up his spine. "I believe…logically, if Lord Tobirama wanted to keep the lass away from everyone, there'd only be one place they could have been…"
A round of gasps sounded across the room, everyone whispering as one. "The koi pond."
'Tatsugi…and to think up until this moment I had no grievances against you.'
"Are you sure? The koi pond?" Souta whispered, wringing his hands together in shock. "But that's…that's Lord Tobirama's special place. No one else is allowed there!"
"Aye, until now it seems." Mei-san calmly cut up more fruit for her pie filling. The slice of the knife through the apples and peaches made a satisfying thunk. Turning to a gaping Hashirama, she shook her head. "I never thought I'd see the day when your brother entered into a serious courtship before you."
Silence coated the room like a thick frost on the ground. So many wide, incredulous eyes staring his way.
"Courtship?" Tobirama echoed, rasping the word and cracking the frost. "Mei-san, with all the respect due to you as my elder, I think you've overstepped."
Although no one else agreed, and the excited chatter only picked up.
"It makes sense. The only person Lord Tobirama would ever let set foot near the pond is someone he would have to care deeply for." Tatsugi rubbed his chin with a self-satisfied nod.
All familial attachment he felt towards Tatsugi had officially dissolved. Tobirama had always liked him for his level-headedness, sometimes wondering what it would be like if his oaf of an anija was more like that. Now he saw Tatsugi for the conniving, no good person he was. Revenge would be swift.
"So he took her there privately to propose marriage!" someone exclaimed with giddiness. "Congratulations Lord Tobirama, for finding happiness."
"Lord Tobirama's getting married? I hope it's before summer!"
"I like spring weddings better. …Is that too soon?"
"Sakura's gonna join the family? Really?! You better not let me down, Tobi-nii!"
"Well, I don't really mind this development. It at least makes up for you not bothering to bring her by earlier."
"Toka, enough." Tobirama snapped, wondering exactly what was in the water. Everyone had lost every shred of sense they had ever possessed.
Hashirama, naturally, was the worst. Namely because what sense he had in the first place was always subject to intense speculation. "When were you going to tell me?" he blubbered, his eyes misty. Tobirama was sorely tempted to give him something to cry about. "I care about you and Sakura-chan so much."
Anticipating he would move in for a hug next, Tobirama bared his teeth in a silent snarl. It was threatening enough for Hashirama to freeze in place with arms outstretched. "I—" The more overcome with emotions he became, the more his words became strange babbling sounds, indescribable in nature. After calming down a bit, Hashirama paused, sniffling. "I'm getting concerned about the animal noises I keep hearing."
Face wrinkled, Tobirama backed away. This had already spiraled so far out of control, more trouble than it was worth to deal with. So he had allowed Sakura into his quiet space, so what? She appreciated the invitation and its ambiance as he suspected she would. The general rowdiness of the clan at times like these, especially with Hashirama in the middle, was exactly why he had always imposed the rules he did. "Then stop making them. And wipe your nose, anija." Fed up, the younger sibling tossed a dish rag at his older brother's blotchy face. "Have some dignity."
Tobirama wanted to be able to say he left the room with his head held high, too over it to be bothered. But no, the truth was he flash-stepped away so quickly there was no way to brush it off as nonchalance. The world only stopped tumbling over itself when he found himself back at the pond, curious koi—no doubt surprised to see him back so soon—swimming over. He had nothing to present them with though, except his quickly reddening face.
Tatsugi was going to pay, and then Hashirama was next.
Every item was in exactly the same spot as he had left them. Hashirama walked into his quarters, rubbing his arms a little. Was he imagining the chill in the air? True spring had come at last, the season he loved best. He only wished he could observe the blooming of the cherry blossoms and sample the sweets his family was diligently preparing, as carefree inside as he tried to appear. But in truth, ever since he'd broken the seal on that letter, Hashirama felt like he'd released every plague, pestilence and dark emotion into the world.
Truly alone, far from the oblivious merriment of the other Senju, he walked the cold floor on bare-feet. Eyes coming to rest on the same parchment, discarded on the table. Lowering himself to his knees, he collected it in a tight fist, retreating to his bed with it. Settling atop the sheets, Hashirama crossed his legs and held the paper in both hands. It had been almost a week since this news was delivered, and he was still at a loss. Not even Tobirama knew about the predicament he was facing.
Tired, slightly hopeful eyes scanned the inked lines of text repeatedly, knowing that there was no way they would ever change.
Shodai-sama of the Hidden Leaf,
Good day to you. We've never spoken, or met for that matter, but I know a great deal about you. Your reputation is most impressive, of course, but I'm more interested about the rumblings from beyond the stars. I suppose before I go further, I should make your acquaintance. My name is Takara. I am Head Priestess at the temple of the goddess Iwanagahime, located on Sekai Island. I was helped immensely through the horrible events that transpired here, thanks to the shinobi of your village. Undoubtedly you know which.
Things have been mostly calm since their departure, although my gift tells me it won't remain that way for much longer. You see, it was my fortune to be born into this world blind. This does not make me sightless. I see visions, wisps of what will be, a gift granted to me by the merciful goddess I serve. Recently I have begun to see new ones, horrid battles, and much carnage. Troubles are coming not just from the heavens. I am aware of Sakura-san's gifts and her mission, but they alone will not be enough. She must attain even more power, and so must her allies. All will be lost, this whole world forfeit to ruin otherwise. I am not a fighter, Shodai-sama. I can offer little but this premonition, and some advice: collect cunning, courage, and power in kind, but be warned of sabotage from a fractured mind. I trust maybe these words mean something to you? Please, prepare for anything. Our hopes all rest with your actions as much as Sakura-san's.
Try as he might, Hashirama couldn't parse out every hidden meaning in the text. It's overall foreboding came through loud and clear nevertheless. The world would soon erupt into violence again. The village was in danger. Everything was in danger.
Sakura's face came to mind. He saw the determination in her eyes, the set line of her lips, and the gentle radiance of her spirit. Tobirama had made it clear he would stand and fight at her side, and Hashirama had declared the same. "You and Sakura-san can't expect me to let you put yourselves on the line while I keep myself tucked away safely."
Laying back, Hashirama took in the color of his ceiling, eyes narrowing on a spot that reminded him of a dog the longer he looked. Now, he was just letting his mind wander, procrastinating.
Never in his life had he seen his idealism as a bad thing. The world needed big dreamers, people who held tight to the impossible in one hand and a healthy dose of can-do attitude in the other. But no man was an island, and no shinobi was truly undefeatable.
For all the kekkei genkai, battle experience and strategizing in the world, a single ninja could never stand up to a clan that combined the strengths of its members. Nor could a clan stand up to the power of a nation that did the same. Such had been the reasoning he and Madara came up with when they plotted their dreams of Konoha. Who would dare oppose them, unified in peace, shoulder to shoulder in solidarity?
In some regards, things had worked out exactly as they always dreamed. In other regards, reality was far different from those childhood fantasies, wasn't it?
What could they do to support Sakura as she stared down the gods themselves? That was something he had been mulling over nonstop for days. Of course, if the High Priestess hadn't been exaggerating, deities weren't the only enemies that would soon reveal themselves.
Shifting his pillows, Hashirama picked up the untarnished scroll that had come that morning. The one he had been too cowardly to unfurl. Every time he tried, his finger edged at the seal but stopped short of applying the pressure to break it.
It wasn't too late to confide in Tobirama, maybe even Madara and Izuna. All three of them had considerably more encounters with deities than he did, having faced them in combat.
Tobirama was his blood brother, his confidant, his clansmen, his fellow Founder. Madara wasn't a Senju, but he was his brother-in-arms, and much the same as Tobirama in every other way. He trusted them implicitly with his life and if he fell, with the village. They would simply have to work out their differences one way or another.
Tobirama and Izuna were already trying, and he took that as a positive sign. Yes, all of them were capable. All of them could be rational if he confided in them. And it wasn't like him to leave his allies out of the loop. That wasn't his intention at all. Sooner rather than later, he would tell them.
Sighing deeply, air gushing past his lips, the Senju stared hard at the vibrant red of the Uzumaki clan's wax seal.
Gods, did he hate this scene. Of all the reoccurring locations he visited as of late, the dank bowels of this cave with its stale air and stuffy atmosphere was among the worst. Typically he was never there long, a small blessing. But each time he returned, Madara found himself trapped for longer periods.
The stony seat he always woke up perched on felt like he had been molded into it after sitting too long. The weighty pull of thick attachments against his back when he tried to wobble to his feet were vexing, alarming.
Then there were the strange white creatures that peered at him, tufts of short green hair on one's head, the other a humanoid shape with a tightly spiraled face and a singular black hole for an eye. Their presence only ever brought him unease, disturbing sights that they were. Sometimes, when he was here, he caught flashes of a boy, who lay weakly in bed, his body heavily damaged. Madara never spoke to him, because he was always in a state so still the shinobi just assumed he was comatose. None of it compared to that other presence that was lurking. The one in his head that seemed to be able to sense him in turn. "Hm…so you're back again today."
Madara struggled to detach himself from the gravelly voice in his ears, to launch back to his own body where he would wake up alone in his bedroom. But something was different; today the struggle was futile in the face of the invisible pressure squeezing tight down on his spirit, keeping him trapped. "In such a hurry to flee? Why not stay a while? There are some things I would love to discuss with you."
The Uchiha froze, the creaky body he was stuck in rising from the stone chair. It occurred to him then that every other time this voice had spoken to him, it was in his head, not aloud. What was happening? "A bit…confused perhaps? I was too, the first time I sensed your presence. Imagine coming to and having someone else nearly identical to me fumbling around in my head."
Although he could see everything this stranger could, and feel him grip the handle of a small scythe, Madara knew he was powerless. He pushed restlessly against whatever bound him as the croaky voice kept talking, the frail body ambling along in a sagging black robe. Had he been saddled with some reaper, or just a crazy coot? "Then you were gone nearly as quick as you'd come. I didn't understand at all, until you came again. I knew with certainty you were truly just like me…the me that I was a lifetime ago anyhow."
Madara's hands tensed against the invisible barrier of the mental prison he was in. Thoughts raced through his mind at light speed, along with the words that dragon goddess had once spoken to him. "I understand…you and I are the same, give or take some decades. My spirit keeps returning here involuntarily because you're like the others. Another me at a different point in time."
"Very good." His older self chuckled. "After a fortnight of mulling it all over, I came to the same conclusion. Tell me, how far into the future have you traveled, and what's brought you? The Stone Tablet never mentioned this happening when I called the Gedō Mazō to earth."
"The what?" he retorted. "What've you been up to in this dank cave all alone, old man? It certainly isn't keeping your skin supple." Maybe making jabs in his position was unwise, but it had to be spoken on. He and this man were one in the same after all.
While Madara could accept aging to be inevitable, he couldn't accept willfully choosing to live in squalor deep in some hole, away from any and everything that kept his hair luxuriant.
"Respect your elders. I've lived through experiences you have yet to conceive of if you're ignorant to the plan. I could impart my wisdom on you, send you back fully armed with knowledge of what's to come, you see?" Their body turned, the scythe lifting to point, and Madara found himself gazing upon a massive monstrosity, some withered husk that oozed latent malevolence and towered over everything else in the space. "It's a shell of its former self now, but this is the key to everything. All my goals are coming to fruition. Gaze upon its splendor."
It didn't matter how much gazing he did, all Madara saw was an eyesore. Nothing good could come from it, whatever it was.
"You've been trapped here too long with too little sunlight and fresh air. I have no choice but to assume it's done something to your mental faculties."
"Huh. I forgot what an idealistic fool I used to be." Oldara sounded bored. "You don't even have the Rinnegan, so you can't see the same future yet. Peace will finally blanket this ravaged world when my plan is complete. It may not seem so now, but everyone you trust will betray you. The world will forsake you, and you'll find the truth of everything written on the Uchiha Stone Tablet, just like I did."
"The Rinnegan is a myth," Madara muttered. "How could you have unlocked it?"
"Surely you must know. You have read the text of the tablet at least once, haven't you?"
Madara had indeed read the tablet, supposedly the doctrine meant to reveal the destiny of the Uchiha, passed down from one generation to another. Only a handful of people ever got to try reading it. His father and mother had brought him down to it shortly after he awakened his Sharingan.
The indecipherable text became legible for the first time, but only just. His mother explained that each new level to the Sharingan granted the ability to understand even more. But neither she nor his father had the Mangekyo, so they couldn't understand much more than he could.
Although each time an Uchiha's Sharingan gained a tomoe, it helped. By three tomoe they could decipher a whole paragraph. That paragraph had revealed how to obtain the Mangekyo, and its importance for the evolution of the clan.
The instructions left a bitter sensation behind in his gut. Izuna meant everything to him, the last of his immediate family, and his closest confidant in the world. Any power that required sacrificing him to obtain it was a power he neither wanted nor needed.
Then fate had blown in an unexpected direction, allowing Madara to get the Mangekyo and keep his brother. The trauma of a loved one's death—or near death in his experience—didn't need to be self-inflicted, as the clan had long since thought. Before Izuna's close call against Tobirama, Madara had watched his brother "die" in front of his eyes in another battle, skewered by multiple weapons to protect an inexperienced young Uchiha who hadn't been watching his blind spot.
For those tense seconds when Izuna lay lifeless and bleeding out on the ground, the world froze. The white hot anguish bubbling in his blood had unleashed an explosion of chakra and a thirst for revenge that led to the Mangekyo.
In the end, the wounds hadn't been as serious as they appeared, and his brother made a full recovery to fight at his side again.
"Yes." he said shortly. "And what of it?"
Oldara sighed, his hunched shoulders rising and dropping harshly. "How much do you know?" he growled. "Do you have the Mangekyo?"
"What business is it of yours?" Madara replied. "You and I might as well be from different worlds. Whatever future you envision has nothing to do with me. From the look of things, you're running out of time anyway."
"It has…everything to do with you, you arrogant little fledgling!" His enraged voice echoed over the expansive cave, but the white creatures who had been playing in the dirt didn't flinch. The old man was worked up into a froth now, pacing back and forth, scythe striking the ground each time he slammed it down. "Continue on, believing in the foolishness that shinobi whispered in your ears," he spat, "That version of peace is insufficient. Mankind in its current state could never uphold it. Their greed and thirst for power won't allow it. But I can make a world without war and suffering, everyone happy eternally."
Madara would've flinched away from the manic ranting, but there was nowhere to go. He wasn't more than a spirit, currently held captive in the head of a deranged geezer who just so happened to be an ancient version of himself long past his expiration date. "What world would that be?"
Oldara's pacing stopped abruptly, clearing his throat, "One that I build and control, naturally." Some semblance of calm had returned to his tone, but the young Uchiha knew better than to relax. "But you are right about one thing. I am running out of time." Madara felt the tug of the odd attachments as Oldara dragged himself through the cave, further from the mummified husk.
They traversed down a series of long, lonely rock halls, each as desolate as the last. He was beginning to lose hope the walk would ever end, until Oldara stopped in a doorway of sorts, a lone bed containing the same battered boy he remembered from before.
"Zetsu found this runt all but dead and abandoned. It seems the gods still favor me. He's an Uchiha, which is better than I could have hoped for. After he's nursed back to health, I can start preparing him to continue my will for me. And now," Madara felt the old man's mouth stretch into a smirk as he turned his back on the child. "You're here also, another unexpected tool from the heavens I graciously accept."
Temper ignited, Madara's soul beat against the mental cage harder than ever, fueled by rebellion. "I'll tear your mind to shreds before I let myself get used..." he declared. He imagined his physical body, and the fiery sensation that burned deep inside right before he unleashed a katon attack. "Even if the one trying to control me is you!"
Heat burst out, licking at the walls of his prison, and Madara could feel the grip keeping him tethered loosen. "Somehow I've underestimated myself…" Oldara mused. "I suppose it's your win today."
The Uchiha came to fighting, kicking out of the futon with more ferocity than waking up usually required. He was already on his feet before he'd really opened his eyes. Madara surveyed his room, feeling for anything that could be amiss. The quiet tranquility in the air didn't start to calm his agitation until he was certain he was back where he belonged.
This had to end. He couldn't have some shady version of himself trying to drag him into what sounded like a maniacal plan to establish a new world order. Whatever had turned Oldara into that, Madara hoped he could handle it with more grace. "But the old man kept ranting about the Stone Tablet." Truthfully it had been some time since he'd laid eyes on it. Not since before activating the Mangekyo, as a matter of fact. It might be worth seeing what new information was available with these more advanced eyes he now had.
Grabbing blindly at the first shirt he saw, Madara stuffed his head through the hole, dressing with haste. Perhaps it was time to let someone in on the nature of his 'dreams' and just how far from the-here-and-now they were taking him. Oldara had sensed him, and held a conversation with him. Managed to trap him like a beetle in a jar for whatever nefarious purpose he had in mind.
Stumbling down the hall, the Uchiha decided it was alright to invoke his older sibling privileges and barge into Izuna's room. Predictably, he wasn't there, futon neatly made up. Clearly he had overslept, but for how long?
Madara got his answer when he made his way into the kitchen, looking out a window and seeing it was well-past noon going off the position of the sun. Snatching up an apple, he rubbed the skin against his shirt and took a large bite. Izuna was bound to be out and about, but where? It would save them some time if they looked over the tablet together.
Wiping the juice from the side of his mouth, Madara spied a note that was bound to explain where his brother had run off to.
You'll probably wake up, stumble into the kitchen and find this. There was no point in trying to wake you up. You were sleeping like the dead. A message from Sakura came early this morning by bird. I'll be out for a while.
Viciously biting another chunk from the fruit, Madara glared at the note. Of course his brother was a lost man when Haruno came calling. Naoko would say he was being bitter, and maybe he was. The last time he saw Haruno face to face she bonked him over the head and sent him away like a spurned suitor. Yet she sought out Izuna.
Well, no use dwelling on that for now. It wasn't like he had any intentions of giving up his goal to make Haruno his. For the time being, though, a trip down to Naka Shrine was in order.
Something was off. The kunoichi's face scrunched as she stared at the pebbled skin of her bare arms. Sudden trepidation had swept in and wrapped itself around her like an unwanted embrace.
Sakura slowly kept cutting up the apples she was preparing, wondering what was coming for her this time. 'I guess there's no chance at having a peaceful spring, is there?' She frowned, an ache hitting her square in the chest. 'Then again, should I even be concerned about that? After all this time, I'm still not sure how close I am to returning home.' Another change in seasons meant that soon, the cherry blossoms would be in bloom as nature renewed itself. When they started to fall, would anyone back home be thinking of her? What if…she was working so hard to be reunited with them, and they had already given up?
The knife sank through the apple too hard, splitting the cutting board underneath. Sakura stared blankly at the ruined wood, carefully moving one piece aside and using the other half to continue halving the fruit.
Naruto wouldn't do that. If there was one thing that never changed about him over the years, it was how driven he was. He would find a way. 'Then again,' Sakura arranged the apples in the bento box, along with the orange slices and strawberries. 'How would he know where to start looking in order to find me?' And she was back to square one, sinking into melancholy all over again.
Contrary to her inner angst, the pretty way she had decorated the bento boxes was cheerful and vernal.
Standing back and wiping the counter down, Sakura took in her work, humming thoughtfully. She might have made…too much. All sliced up, the fruit wouldn't keep long, so they would just have to eat that first. Stacking the bentos, Sakura secured them in a blue cloth patterned with daisies and carefully picked them up. "Alright, Usamaro, watch the house while I'm gone."
Her cat looked up from washing his paw with an inquisitive stare. "Mrar?"
Sakura giggled. It almost sounded as if he was asking for her whereabouts. "Are you worried? I promise I won't wander into trouble. It's just a little outing in the forest with Izuna." The feline's ears flickered, but he seemed satisfied with that answer. Normally he would be chasing her in an attempt to follow.
Tobirama was the only one she had spent any time with since returning from her small break. But Izuna crossed her mind when she woke up, and between the Uchiha brothers, he seemed the safer option given her last meeting with Madara. Maybe there was a discreet way to fish for information about his brother's actions. If anyone would know Madara's courting habits it would be his younger sibling, right? Then again, it might not be such a good idea to pry into that. Who knew how she'd take the answer she received. Izuna's easygoing presence was enough reason to send him an invitation for a picnic. It was just lucky he was available on such short notice.
"Be back soon!" she waved, shutting the door. There was an aromatic taste in the air, fresh grass and plant life in bloom. Sakura sucked in a deep lungful of it, her heart starting to calm as she peered up at the cloudless blue sky. It wasn't too sunny, the air pleasant and comfortable. The family next door to her was out tending to their garden. Well, it was more accurate to say that while the mother and her young daughter dug around in the soil, her two sons chased each other in dizzying patterns while their father watched from the doorway of the house, holding a tray of several cups.
One of the boys tackled the other, and they went down in a heap as she passed. Sakura didn't even have time to ask if they were alright when they popped up, laughing and shoving like siblings did. The pinkette caught eyes with the younger one, and he grinned, showing the gap left by his missing front teeth. "Hi, Miss Ninja," he chirped, bouncing up and down.
A smile that reached her eyes lit up Sakura's face as she responded with a greeting of her own.
Being that she was away so often, unfortunately, the kunoichi hadn't had the time to really acquaint herself well with everyone in the neighborhood. But she knew their faces, and they knew hers. They were also aware of her occupation, it seemed.
Miss Ninja, cute, she thought.
Whenever she happened upon children at play, Sakura couldn't help but internally sigh a little. It was nice that even in a time period like this one, children could still enjoy themselves with carefree hearts. That's how it should always be. If her adventures through the past only changed one thing in history, she hoped that it became harder for kids like Naruto and Sasuke to be exploited or fall through the cracks of society. Or was she over-estimating herself?
"Lost in thought. That seems to have become your natural state as of late." Sakura started, gaping openly at the very calm goddess who was strolling beside her.
"Mizuchi!" She sputtered, frantically gazing around. The inhabitants of Konoha appeared none the wiser that a goddess was in their midst, though some did stare her way in wonder. The kunoichi couldn't say she blamed them. Mizuchi was tall, beautiful and elegant with a regal bearing reminiscent of nobility. They probably thought she was some visiting dignitary.
Smiling, the deity reached over and pushed her mouth closed as she had done several times before. "Calm yourself, Sakura. I'm cloaking my musubi and I've taken measures to hide my horns, you see?"
Staring up at Mizuchi's head, the young woman noticed the impressive rack of horns was indeed notably absent. "Okay," she slowly relaxed, but the lingering bemusement remained. "But uh, is something wrong?" Sakura chewed the inside of her cheek. "Are you about to whisk me off on another crazy mission?"
"Nothing like that. I simply wanted to walk among humans again." A curious little girl peered out from behind her mother's legs as they passed, waving at Mizuchi, who beamed. "It was fun to do so while we searched for Hitotsu's forge, wouldn't you agree?"
Sakura supposed it was only natural they had different definitions of fun. Excitable as Mizuchi had been back then, it was like keeping up with a hyper child in a candy shop.
"I guess…" the girl replied. "As long as you keep a low profile. You do have a lot of deities out for your head, and mine too, for that matter."
Sakura took Mizuchi's hum for agreement, and kept on her way, intent on meeting up with Izuna on time. Although now it was awkward to have the dragon goddess tailing her, presumably with the intent of hanging around a while.
"Oh my, what a downcast expression." The goddess eyed the bentos she was carrying. "You didn't have any sort of prior engagement, did you?"
Sakura suspected she knew the answer. "As a matter of fact…yes." The forest was within her sight, the treeline looking like a safe haven. No one paid much attention to the pink-haired girl and the unnaturally poised woman wandering off away from the shopping district Sakura had cut through. "Are you sure there's not something specific you wanted from me?"
The goddess pulled slim fingers through her thick hair, absently pushing it out of her face and over her shoulder. "Well since you seem particularly anxious, tell me, how was your morning?"
"Seriously?" huffed Sakura, suspicious.
"Can you not take it as an innocent inquiry?"
The pinkette stopped in her tracks, turning to face the deity, brow arched and mouth pulling down. "Is that all it is? Just tell me what you're fishing for."
Mizuchi took her in, a strange, melancholy light entering her eyes before she turned her nose up, breaking eye contact. "I initially thought to see how you were today, and leave it at that. In spite of what you might believe Sakura, I do care about how you're doing from day to day, but I'm a busy goddess. I hardly have the time to check in to make sure you're eating well."
Blinking, Sakura looked down at the top of her bento boxes. Mizuchi's unexpected confession made her feel a bit guilty. Although she could hardly be blamed for assuming the worst. "That's thoughtful. I'm fine…I was just going to spend some time with Izuna."
"Oh?" The she-dragon was entirely too interested now. "I suppose I understand your impatience now. You're quite…attached to that one."
Sakura braced herself for the inevitable teasing and prodding. At times Mizuchi really was no better than Naoko and Yurine on that front. "You brought me here, didn't you?" she replied dryly. "Attachments were bound to happen."
"Yes, yes, of course." Her red mouth twisting into a pleased smile, the goddess closed her eyes. "I never said I found it a bad thing. All in accordance to my plans."
Oh no, now she was taking credit.
"Right, because you still think I should be less worried about getting home and trying to settle for a life here." Sakura scoffed. "But I already told you that's not an option."
"It would simplify things…" Mizuchi muttered under her breath. "Your stubbornness aside, have you seen that…scoundrel today?"
Sakura couldn't help but laugh over the goddess' sour expression, childish and inelegant as it was. "I know a lot of scoundrels. Care to be more specific?" she joked.
"I mean the worst one of them all." Mizuchi retorted, annoyance written all over her inhumanly beautiful features.
Sakura only had to give it a moment's thought to know exactly who could make the deity so blustery. "Oh, Madara. No, I haven't seen him today. Why?" The dragoness drew in a deep breath, and held it, sweeping by with purpose to her steps. Baffled, Sakura scrambled to keep up. "Um, are you alright?"
That there was no love lost between Uchiha and goddess was not a secret. Neither had a high opinion of the other, the last she checked, but Sakura couldn't read the meaning behind the pinched expression on the dark-haired woman's face.
"If you had to, could you strike him down?" The abrupt question had the kunoichi almost losing her grip on the bento lunches. Ice seeped into her blood.
"Where's this…coming from so suddenly?" Sakura managed a tiny laugh, strained even to her own ears. "I mean there's no denying Madara's typically a pain in the ass, but…"
"Answer me!" Mizuchi snapped, whirling on her with sudden fury that sent the mortal stumbling back. "If it was necessary, could you destroy Madara Uchiha? Could you reach into his ribcage and pluck out his still beating heart if it was ever required of you?"
Sakura stood slack-jawed, the bentos dangerously close to falling to the ground. She knew her skin was pallid, and her heart had someone's icy fingers gouged into it.
Though she tried for words, nothing came, forcing her to give up. Mizuchi's rage melted, her deep gaze glossed with weary acceptance. "Do not force yourself. That is all the answer I need." Swooping in on her with the speed of a jungle predator, the pinkette found herself seized in a brutal hug. One Sakura could tell from the start was more for the deity's benefit than her own. So she stood still, absorbing the sadness that went unspoken. "I feel now I have done you a greater disservice than I ever intended to."
"What's this all about?" Sakura pulled away.
"You know of my sister's lasting malevolence for her descendants. The being called Zetsu was born from it."
Sakura remembered it extremely well. Zetsu had spilled everything on the battlefield, happy to gloat about the way he had manipulated events to orchestrate Kaguya's return, diligently spending decades upon decades masterminding everything.
The strange sensation of disquiet that had seemingly arisen from nowhere came back to her as well. "You can't be saying what I think you are," she swallowed, prepared to sprint back to the village and turn it upside down until she located Madara if necessary. "After everything we did to stop the gods from wiping out everyone…"
"Calm yourself." Mizuchi's pretty nails bit painfully into her shoulders, but the discomfort was grounding. It was probably also just what she needed, so close to spiraling into a panic. "I'm not saying for certain it has begun again, but I felt a wave of enmity that very much reminded me of my sister before her sealing. I rushed here immediately, but the signature of animosity was gone."
Sakura practiced her deep breathing, forcing down every emotion trying to charge its way out of her heart. This was the time for rational thought, not heart-driven action. "So Madara's still okay."
Mizuchi's flat stare disagreed. "How would you define such a thing, when the thread tethering him to sanity was already so feeble?"
"So Madara's still relatively okay." Sakura corrected, a wisp of a smile coming to her lips. It was crazy, the amount of relief settling in her breast. When she landed in the past, Sakura was confused about many things. But not about Madara Uchiha.
He was her enemy, and if he had gotten in her way during those early days, the pinkette had no doubt she would have relished putting him down. Seeing so many sides to him…Konoha shinobi, loving brother, loyal friend, steady clan leader…she understood the Uchiha was not the lost cause from the Fourth Shinobi World War. Still, trusting him did not come easy, and she couldn't really be blamed for that.
Sakura knew the destructive, selfish megalomaniac of the future. She wasn't sure when she had started to see him as anything else. Naruto was the headstrong idealist who could even win the hearts of his enemies, not her. It wasn't like she asked to see the humanity in Madara…she just had.
"Sakura," Mizuchi rested a hand atop her pink tresses. "I won't ask you why you care for him. Part of the reason I selected you was for your character, so I can hardly be wrathful at this soft-heartedness of yours. I only ask you to be cautious."
The young woman could feel the warm of the hand on her crown as much as she could feel the warmth in the affection the goddess held for her. Mizuchi's often twisted machinations were undeniable, but through the months she had known the deity, a bond had taken root. "Don't worry about me. If Zetsu even thinks of rearing his ugly head, I'll bash it in before he gets the chance to latch on to anyone." Bringing a tightly clenched fist up in promise, Sakura smirked. "I'm even more powerful than before. Sentient spite doesn't scare me." What was one more enemy in an already long roster of them? Besides, in comparison to a pantheon of real, breathing gods, Zetsu was decidedly less of a threat—that wasn't to say Sakura would let her guard down or underestimate his cunning by any means.
Mizuchi cupped her cheeks then, lips pursed in a coo. "My lovely godslayer, ready to tear into the next enemy without mercy."
Sakura flushed, turning her face away. "A-Alright, this was a good talk and everything, but I'm running late. Can I go…?"
"Ah yes, your heart must be thumping with anticipation." She giggled uncontrollably, fanning herself. "Springtime is the season humans often associate with lovers, hm? Go on then, bask in this time of bliss and—"
Unable to take anymore, Sakura bolted, leaving the babbling goddess in her dust. "Yeah, okay, let's talk about all this some other time!"
She was never going to get used to the whiplash of their conversations.
Spring was such an invigorating season. There were so many visual wonders to admire. The serene blue sky hung above; flowers bloomed and animals emerged from hibernation. In the past, if he had been asked, Izuna would have named winter as his favorite season. There was something about the way every puffed breath visibly curled through the air that gave him pause, a fascinating reminder that one day each being born would breathe its last. The way the moon hung above the barren trees and snowy, hard-packed ground on cold winter nights always reminded the Uchiha of a solemn sentry. It was a lonely existence, but there was a stirring sense of poetry to it all.
So while spring offered renewal and brighter days, it never held him as spellbound as its hibernal sibling. But something had changed between this spring and the last, a seedling of sentimentality pushing up through the casing of his heart. To put it plainly, spring had more meaning to him now, because it reminded him of her.
Those intelligent green eyes were the epitome of vernal, and the glossy pink of her hair put every cherry blossom petal that had ever drifted to the ground to shame. More than Sakura's appearance, her very nature marked her as a child of springtime. She exuded an aura that was at once bright and tender, while being firmly resilient. True, his feelings shaped a clear bias, but everyone waxed poetic about the person they were smitten with.
Izuna heard a familiar sound, looking up in time to see a small yellow-olive bird land on a branch above his head. Having spent years hunting in the woods, he recognized the warbling white-eye instantly, smiling at the passerine. Cocking its head, the bird fluffed its feathers and let loose its signature warble, taking to the air as it continued its chirping. Another answered its call, and soon two of the birds flitted around each other through the air before flying off as a pair.
The pairing off of various species…just another aspect of springtime he had never given much thought to. That was, until hasty footsteps crashing into the forest caught his attention. He hadn't gone far in, the note asking him to wait close to the entrance. Call him a fool, but Izuna had arrived slightly early, content to just enjoy the surroundings while he waited. What he didn't expect was for a certain pink-haired kunoichi to come running up to him, hair a little windswept and face carrying a hint of red.
Izuna didn't even get the chance to say hello before she was speaking quickly. "S-Sorry, I got a little caught up unexpectedly."
"It's okay," he moved closer, plucking a twig from her hair. "I wasn't waiting long." Sakura blew out a breath, worry allayed.
"Good. Mizuchi's downright chatty when she wants to be."
"What's it about this time? She's not sending you off on another quest so soon, right?"
Sakura began walking ahead of him, and Izuna followed, unable to pinpoint the slight change in mood from her. "No, not exactly." There was some hesitation in her voice, something she was having difficulty expressing. "It's just…hard sometimes. The battles are one thing, but I don't want any of this moving closer to home than it already has."
The Uchiha couldn't imagine the immense weight Sakura constantly had on her shoulders. Even participating in a battle against celestial beings with her, it wasn't the same as being either their plaything or their target. "I know how you feel. But don't forget you're not the village's only defender. Rely on us, Sakura." He moved a low hanging branch for her. "Rely on me."
She turned, the breeze playing with her long hair in just the right way to make her ethereal, an enchanting forest spirit. "It's not that I want to do it alone."
When her gaze fell to the ground, Izuna reached out and tugged the end of her hair softly. "You may not want to, but you still think you have to." Sakura's round eyes flickered to his face before looking away, unable to deny his assertion. "There are people that want to protect you as much as you want to protect them. So try to give us a little more consideration, alright?"
Something inaudible slipped from her lips, so Izuna leaned forward, cupping a hand to his ear. "I said…alright." She sucked in a deep breath. "At least I'll try. I promise."
For the moment, Izuna supposed that was the best he could ask for. No one else in the village was a godslayer. Of course Sakura thought it was her sworn duty to stand between everyone and the malicious forces that didn't mind if Konoha became collateral damage. Still, he wasn't about to let her do it all alone when they were as intent on killing her as they were on killing anyone.
An Uchiha didn't do well when someone they treasured was ripped away. He had seen the descent into madness it could send them spiraling into, many choosing to die on the battlefield rather than live on incomplete. That wasn't what he wanted for himself, but more than that, death wasn't what he wanted for Sakura. "I take promises like that very seriously." he informed her.
"So do I," she returned quietly, a light smile briefly pulling her mouth up on one side. It wasn't nearly as radiant as the ones worn at the height of her joy, but he would gladly take it over an expression crumpled in defeat. Moving the bentos she carried under one hand, she held the other out, pinkie finger extended. "Let's both do our best not to be reckless when it comes to handling these deities."
The gesture was so endearing it made his heart swell. "Is this how you make solemn vows?" Izuna chuckled, his larger finger locking in place around hers.
"What other way is there?" she grinned, nudging him. "Anyway, I packed a lot of fruit in these bentos, so we should eat it soon before it starts browning."
He could have smacked himself in the forehead. In his haste to get ready, bringing more than a cloth for them to sit on didn't cross his mind. "Sorry, I should've brought snacks too."
Sakura hopped over a rotted log, unconcerned. "This is already too much. We'd only have that much more to give to the forest animals when we were done."
Izuna carefully stepped over the same log. "You're that confident we can't eat it all ourselves?"
"It depends on how hungry you are. I let my mind wander and ended up going overboard." Sakura stopped at a distance so close to the stream they could hear it babbling through the trees. Izuna dutifully set out the blanket, smoothing it down. Sakura settled in its checkered center, unwrapping the bento as he sat across from her.
The pinkette hadn't exaggerated. The boxes were packed with riceballs, strawberry cream sandwiches, and fruits chopped up and neatly arranged. Izuna picked up an orange slice that was serving as the petal for a fruit flower. The tangy sweetness flowed over his tastebuds as soon as his teeth sank into the thin skin. "Today's nice. I'm glad to be able to spend it outdoors." he ate another orange slice. "It only dawned on me now, but we haven't seen each other since the party, have we?"
Sakura picked up and distractedly bit into the corner of a strawberry with cream sandwich. Izuna could tell from her eyes that her thoughts were elsewhere. "Hm?" She swallowed, licking her bottom lip. "Oh, you're right. I guess that's why I woke up and wanted to spend time with you. When we're together, heavy things seem lighter." Pink dappled her cheeks as soon as the words were out of her mouth, eyes wide in mortification as a hand covered loose lips.
Pride burst in his heart like a firework, and he was sure there was a dopey smile on his face. "I'm glad I can put you at ease." A sweet smelling breeze blew around them, furthering the atmosphere of content. "It's the same way for me." Reaching over, he took the hand hiding her mouth, lips impulsively touching the smooth skin of her inner wrist. There was no hiding the way her pulse jumped at his action. "Around you, for the first time, spring has meaning."
It felt good to be open, vulnerable. It felt better to know he was making her flustered, green eyes piercing him, the sandwich pinched between her fingers. "I…" Sakura stared at him through her lashes, bashful. "How do you do that?" she asked.
Izuna paused to release her wrist. "How do I—"
"When you say w-what you say, I always feel…overvalued. I'm not the person you think I am. I have issues with being too stubborn or too emotional at the wrong time. Then there's the nasty temper. Do you understand what I'm saying? I get it wrong more than I get it right." The pinkette briefly closed her eyes, head shaking as she searched for the right words. "I took a trip to Tanzaku-gai to clear my head, and it's already all fogged up again."
"I'm sorry." So that's where she had wandered off to for a day and a half. Well, Izuna couldn't hold it against her for wanting time. The party had made it abundantly clear he wasn't the only one interested in pursuing her, and deities wanting her head was additional stress.
"You should be." she said without heat.
They sat in silence, plucking up fruit and sandwiches from the same bento as if there wasn't a second one also packed to the brim. When their fingers occasionally touched, neither mentioned it or flinched away. It was only when all that was left were the riceballs that Izuna thought he had put together what he really wanted to say. "Valuing someone isn't about how much they get it right versus when they're wrong. I can't say reincarnation isn't real, but if we take it out of the equation, all of us are living for the first time. That means there's plenty we don't and may never know." Those green eyes were transfixed to him, so he kept talking, "I want to be around you because of all the reasons you mentioned. I know exactly who you are to me, Sakura."
The wet shine of her eyes didn't catch him off guard like it once would've. Sakura was by her own admission, a creature of emotion. But so were most Uchiha, some to more extreme degrees than others. Sniffling, she wiped at her eyes with her hand, managing a cute smile. Izuna smiled back, reaching for the sheath resting against his back. "If you could close your eyes and give this moment a sound, do you know what it would be?"
"A sound?" Her voice peaked in curiosity. Tilting her head back to listen, Sakura pursed her lips in thought. "You mean…the stream or the birds?"
Showing her his freshly polished flute, the Uchiha placed his fingers into proper position.
The first note to flow from the instrument was so crisp in the spring air, it felt like the whole forest quieted down to listen. Sakura sat hugging her knees, lips parting in marvel as he played. The music wasn't mournful or lonely, as it often was when he was feeling blue. Izuna took everything in his heart and poured it out of the shakuhachi, wanting her to understand the depth of his appreciation.
It wasn't like he had experience in any of this, and his parents weren't around to ask either. So if even a fraction of his feelings came across through his flute playing, then maybe Sakura could understand the way his heart soared around her.
The song ended with the kunoichi's enthusiastic clapping, green eyes sparkling. "You play the flute!" she exclaimed.
"Here and there," he rubbed at his nape. "It's a hobby I've had since I was young." The object of his affection enjoying his playing meant the world to him. For a long time he'd been self-conscious that everything he played had a melancholic undertone. So it wasn't often he played in front of others. Most of the time spent at the shakuhachi was for him, when he couldn't clear his mind or when he was feeling nostalgic.
"It shows." The pinkette said. "Do you think…you could play something else?"
Izuna set to work picking another song, a spirited work song that had been one of his mother's favorites. She whistled it often while working with her raptors. Sakura swayed to the tune, and it wasn't long before he was swaying with her. One song flowed into the next, and she remained a willingly captive audience the entire time. Time lost meaning, the music encasing them in a moment Izuna recognized as eternal.
He didn't notice the shifting position of the sun until he felt a weight resting against his shoulder, heat that he would know anywhere. Sakura stared up at him with drooping eyelids, too tired for propriety as Izuna let his fingers dance over the wooden instrument.
The aroma of cinnamon tickled his nose, twisting his stomach with hunger. The young boy sprang awake, bleary vision settling on his surroundings as his attention focused on locating that enticing smell. Breakfast, his stomach gurgled. Kagami climbed from his futon, making sure it was properly made, no matter how hungry he was.
Tiptoeing down the hall, he arrived at the kitchen to see his grandmother making breakfast with the usual amount of merriness in her demeanor. He had asked her about it once, wondering how she always managed to wake up so jovial. "Oh, at my age you find wonder in everything as if it's new again. I get to see my grandson's face every day, and I'm living in a time I never thought I'd see. Waking up is its own adventure!"
The young Uchiha had done his best to internalize that attitude himself, greeting each day with readiness and a willingness to learn more. That was why he could hardly contain his excitement to sleep the night before, knowing that a big class exercise was fast approaching.
"Good morning, good morning!" His grandmother hummed, twirling to set a bowl of cinnamon apple rice porridge on the table.
"Morning!" Kagami eagerly sat down, taking the opportunity to get a large inhale of the mouth-watering food. "Thanks for the meal, obaasan." Shoveling a hearty spoonful of the porridge into his mouth proved to be a mistake, steam rising from his ears as the mixture scalded his tongue.
"You're still not used to having hot foods before they've cooled, are you?" She joined him with her own bowl, stirring the porridge around then eating a large mouthful without so much as wincing.
Kagami sipped his water, the sight of her downing the hot porridge hurting his tongue all over again. "I don't understand. Doesn't that hurt?"
"No," Obaasan smiled, holding up a finger. "It's been some years, but I was quite the katon-user back in my heyday. Once you get used to those flames, swallowing hot food down whole is no trouble at all. It's a trick I'll have to teach you some time." She winked.
"Definitely." he agreed, eating more carefully. The rich taste of cinnamon combined with the sweet flavor of the braised apples was delicious when he took the time to savor it. "Um, will you be okay by yourself?"
The elderly woman threw her head back and laughed. Kagami blushed, wondering why he had even asked. His grandmother was the most self-sufficient person he knew. "Not to worry, sweet boy. I'll miss you, but I should get by. Take care out there in the forest."
Suddenly anxious, he stirred his breakfast around, slowly putting the next bite to his lips. Although the class technically wasn't leaving the village, an overnight wilderness exercise was the closest to a low stakes mission as they had done at the academy.
While he was sure some of his classmates like Danzo or Hiruzen had actually seen real battlefields before coming to the village, that wasn't what his obaasan wanted for him. Kids slightly older than him like Manabu hurried to strap on armor and join any campaign they could. Kagami, on the other hand, had been instructed on how to breathe fire, how to properly handle a sword, how to track out in the wild, but never had he seen actual battle.
He didn't feel so bad though, knowing he wasn't the only one. Quite a few of those in class were still green. Testing their luck out in the woods would be nothing as serious as surviving a battlefield, but it was still a good opportunity to apply all the knowledge the senseis had gone over with them so far.
"Relax." Obaasan said, "It's no good to show up with your head in the clouds. That's how you make careless mistakes."
"You're right," Kagami slapped himself on both cheeks, starting to feel more focused. "What am I getting nervous for when I've been doing so well in the smaller survival trainings up until now?"
Standing, he cleared his spot at the table, pecking his grandmother's cheek "I'd better get ready. I'm meeting my friends halfway to the academy."
"Go on then," she encouraged, "I'm going to go out and talk to the plants."
Kagami waited until she had left, not wanting to be scolded, before sprinting down the hall to wash up. They were instructed to come to the academy as usual, where they would be assigned their training groups and told what sensei would be supervising them, among other instructions. Washing his face and bathing was a blur, and the next thing he knew he was putting on the shorts and high-collared shirt already laid out and waiting. Even wrapping the bandages around his arms and legs was a swift process once he started.
The last thing Kagami needed was his pack, and he'd be out the door. "Uh…didn't I leave it right here, though?" He muttered, searching the closet in his room. By the time he had torn his room apart, the pack still hadn't surfaced and the Uchiha was growing more frantic. He should've been out and on his way by now.
"Obaasan!" he yelled, racing down the hall. She'd just have to be upset with him for running in the house. "Obaasan, have you seen my—"
Leaning on her cane, his grandmother stood by the door with a knowing smirk on her face, holding out his stuffed backpack. "Something wrong, Kagami?"
Flushing, he accepted the pack with both hands and slid it on. "N-nothing, I just…forgot where I put it."
Her dark eyes softened as she ruffled his fluffy hair. "Oh, how time flies. You look more like your father and grandfather every day."
"Obaasan," he giggled, pulling his collar up to hide his red face. "Okay, time to head out!"
Fresh air greeted him the minute Kagami stepped outside. The compound was beginning to show signs of activity, but not nearly the same volume as usual. Early in the morning at the end of the week, plenty of clan members were taking it easy, choosing to open their shops later in the day. Almost all the others who attended the academy had already left. The boy bit his lip; he was bound to be one of the stragglers. Deciding it was best to see if he could make up for lost time, Kagami took off at a run, pumping chakra through his calves.
The world tilted forward, rushing by him as the compound's gates came into view. All too suddenly his nose thrummed painfully, and he was careening backward, bouncing on his butt.
"Ow," he whispered, "Ow, ow, ow!" Once his nose started stinging his whole face began to hurt in solidarity with it. How had a wall materialized from nowhere?
"A true case of unstoppable force meets an immovable object, eh?" Horrified, Kagami peeked up at the figure towering over him, recognizing the baritone instantly.
"M-Madara-sama, I'm sorry! I'm really sorry!" He hopped up, not bothering to dust himself off as he bowed to the clan leader.
"There's no need to bow and scrape. I'm far from fragile." the man sighed. Snapping out of his bent position, Kagami noticed that Madara-sama was speaking truthfully. While he was pretty sure there was going to be a nasty bruise on his forehead, or well, even his whole face, the clan head didn't have a scratch on him. Maybe it was conceited to think bumping into an elite shinobi was enough to cause him serious injury. This was the same ninja that regularly clashed with Shodaime-sama! "Although keep in mind had you crashed into an elder, the outcome could have been more serious."
"You're right." The younger Uchiha lowered his head. "That was pretty reckless. Being in a hurry is no excuse not to be more considerate."
"If you understand, that's enough for me. Although..." His leader's voice trailed off, "Why were you in such a hurry? Surely not to get to the academy." Kagami had to hold in a laugh, seeing Madara-sama's brow furrowed as if he couldn't fathom it.
"Actually, that's exactly where I'm going. We're going to be doing overnight survival training in the forest! I guess I'm kind of looking forward to seeing just how much I've improved."
Arms crossed, Madara-sama's stare was unreadable. "A bit of foraging and making camp has you this excited?"
"W-Well...I've never been on a real mission so I thought…this could be a stand-in."
"Is that so?" Pausing to consider Kagami, a slow, strange lift of his lips lightened the clan head's severe face.
'Is he amused?' Kagami wondered. 'That's probably the most naive thing he's ever heard.'
"That may be one of the most naive things I've heard in a while." Madara-sama chuckled.
'I knew it…' Kagami sulked. When Madara was a boy his age, he had no doubt killed adults and mastered an arsenal of advanced jutsu. He might've even had his Sharingan. Whereas Kagami's had yet to appear.
A gloved hand touched the crown of his head, making him startle. "I suppose that means the village is serving its purpose. Children like you should have heads full of naivety."
Relief filtered through him, but so did a timid question on the tip of his tongue. "You don't think I'm under-experienced for my age…?"
A mysterious light filtered into Madara's eyes. "You have a lifetime to gain experience. The unique innocence only possible in childhood is fleeting. You'd do well to remember that." With those parting words, he began walking away, throwing a hand up in farewell.
Shaking himself from his daze, Kagami checked that his pack was still in place, groaning. "I'm even later than I was before. Reira's not going to be happy." She'd fuss, but knowing her, ultimately it would come from a place of worry. In their group, Kagami held a reputation for being the most punctual. "But I really hope I don't hold things up for the sensei and Sakura-san."
"Haruno's going to be there?"
Kagami would have loved to say that the scream he let out was dignified, or that he hadn't screamed at all, but it simply wasn't the case. "Ma-Madara-sama?!" he yelped. "Didn't you just leave?"
Waving him off, Madara closed his visible eye, hand on his hip. "It's been under a minute. I didn't walk far. Though that's not what's important. You muttered something about Haruno."
"Er," The boy couldn't make sense of the interested gleam in the adult's eyes, and it was honestly unnerving him a little. "Y-Yes. Sakura-san assists in teaching some students medical ninjutsu, so she's also going to be monitoring how we do with the other sensei."
That frightening gleam only got deeper, prompting Kagami to take a half step back. Madara didn't seem to notice.
"You hit your head fairly hard." he stated.
"I guess I did." The comment caused him to rub at his head, which was indeed still throbbing.
"That requires looking over." he continued, "Since I bear responsibility for knocking you over, I'll take it upon myself to escort you this time."
Jaw dropping, Kagami shook his head without thinking. "Madara-sama, that's not necessary. I'll let someone know as soon as I reach the academy, but I think I'll be just fine."
"Kagami." The sharp sound of his name and that intimidating stare shut him right up. "I've dealt with a head injury or two myself. Take it seriously."
Unable to do much more than back down, he replied meekly, "Al-Alright."
Snatching him by the arm, Madara-sama almost dragged him down the street. "Now off to Haruno,"
His long strides covered so much ground, it was difficult to keep up. Kagami had the sense that if was being dragged down the street, Madara might not notice. 'I know it's rude of me, but I get the feeling that Madara-sama may have ulterior motives.'
Quite a lot of major events that are likely going to define the rest of the story have been set into motion this chapter. The journey to domestic bliss for everyone was never going to be easy, but yes there's approaching obstacles that aren't just from the gods.
Happy holiday season if you are celebrating anything! Hopefully everyone is able to enjoy the season in good spirits and good health.
Feel free to let me know your predictions or what you liked!