Tale of the Setting Sun

Chapter 46: "Clear Black Sea"

Before an enraptured audience, figures dressed in rich robes and garish masks moved slowly across the raised platform. A hollow flute melody accompanied the sound of twanging strings, and two voices rang out in reverberating tones.

"The wind is cold beyond these slopes. Are you really leaving?"

"Though this life is all I have known, I must find my destiny."

In that evening's performance, as the story of a young man leaving his poor island village to become a great warrior unfolded on the stage, the audience was a particularly receptive one, laughing at every joke, clapping at every success, and weeping over every death.

One notably expressive individual sat in a gilded chair in his own private box, surrounded by a cohort of attendants and armed guards as he dabbed at his eyes with his handkerchief. An elderly man with greying hair and dark circles under his eyes, his features would not have stood out if not for the large headpiece denoting his rank. He was a daimyō, and not just any daimyō — he was the Fire Daimyō, ruler of one of the Five Great Shinobi Countries.

"Halt, stranger. I have not seen one of your likeness around here before. Name your purpose."

"I have but one purpose: To learn the way of the warrior."

"That, you shall find here."

Going to the theater was one of the daimyō's favorite ways of winding down after a hard day's work. But it had been a particularly trying week, and even as the daimyō found himself engaged in the story on the stage, a part of his mind continued to ponder over the current state of affairs.

The Leaf village had been attacked, resulting in a number of casualties including none other than the Hokage. In the following emergency, the replacement the daimyō had chosen — by recommendation from his advisors — had proven to be a surly brute of a man. Responding to the daimyō's goodwill with curt statements that could at best be described as graceless, and at worst insubordinate, the daimyō was beginning to wonder whether his decision to nominate the next Hokage had been brash.

"Have you no master, boy? You shall die within the fortnight to your enemy."

"I have no master anymore, this is true. But neither have I an enemy."

"You fool. Your enemies circle you as we speak."

Not to mention that, the last the daimyō had heard, the Wind Daimyō had gone into hiding out of fear of being assassinated by his own subjects.

The only remotely good news was that the Hidden Cloud had been razed to the ground, leaving Lightning country virtually defenseless. The leader of Lightning country had been getting far too cocky lately; personally speaking, the Fire Daimyō was glad to see his rival getting taken down a peg.

All in all, it was a real mess, the likes of which the daimyō hadn't seen since the last shinobi world war.

"Is it true? You can take me across this endless sea?"

"There is a price, of course. There is always a price."

"Name it, sir, and I shall pay it."

Amidst the tumultuous passage of time, it had been some years since the daimyō had reflected on the last war. Following on the heels of the first world war, the second war had erupted in the beginning of the daimyō's reign, when he was still fresh-faced and eager to prove himself as his predecessor's equal. Many had died in that war, and other daimyō had been toppled quicker than they could be officially coronated. Even the Whirlpool village had been overrun and their daimyō overthrown, which — given their reputation for fūinjutsu — had been greatly shocking at the time.

Though, with all things considered, that had probably been for the best — an opinion, of course, the Fire Daimyō had always taken care to conceal beneath a sympathetic, stoic demeanor.

Still, no matter the current conflict, the daimyō wasn't too concerned. He was no longer the overeager greenhorn of his early reign. He had survived countless crises over the years, and he would survive this, too. Once the dust had settled, everything would be returned to its rightful place, and the world would continue onwards.

As it always had.

"Take this weapon, for it is all I can give you. Farewell."

"Have you no other last words for me?"

"Everything you require, you already possess. You need only realize it. Now hurry; the sun is setting, and the night is nigh."

Shifting comfortably in his seat, the daimyō returned his full attention to the play. The coming scenes were his favorite, and he didn't want to miss a single moment.

Walking over to Tenten's prone body, Naruto tugged out his tantō. The lightning chakra had cauterized her wound, and it came out smoothly; wiping off the darkened blood, he sheathed it. Before he could turn away, Rai's words flashed in his head again — "This is Tenten, guys" — and Naruto looked hard at the kunoichi's pale, drawn face. When she woke up, she would have no recollection of his whereabouts, or of how close his blade had been to her heart.

The effects were courtesy of the Taboo Seal, the same seal that had once entrapped Naruto as a child, and the irony of the reversed situation was not lost upon him. If the truth ever came out, they would doubtless call him a monster for this as well. Though, given the situation, Naruto hadn't had any other choice, aside from outright killing them.

A distant, clarifying thought surfaced: Was that why the Hokage had used the Taboo Seal on him all those years ago?

"I thought for sure you were Leaf-nin," said the red-haired man, his eyes roving from body to body. "But it seems I was wrong."

Both his tone and expression seemed neutral in the true sense of the word, rather than the carefully schooled facade that Naruto was used to seeing, and out in the daylight, the man's features were more apparent than they had been in the shadows of the pub: With freckles scattered across his face, he was younger than Naruto had first thought, and his frame was stockier than it had appeared before.

"We're looking for the way to the Hidden Whirlpool," said Naruto. "You know how to get there, don't you?"

The man's gaze drifted to Naruto's face, and after a moment's search, he nodded. "I do."

"Well, that wasn't so hard," said Karin, her eyebrows shooting up.

Sitting down hard by the splintered remains of the stairwell, the man reached into his pocket — and produced a carton of cigarettes. "You're not the first travelers to have searched for the Hidden Whirlpool, far from it. Nor will you be the last. While the way has been blocked off to all those who wish any harm to the village, it has been my duty for the past several years to guide those with a legitimate claim." The monotonous and rapid delivery of his lines reminded Naruto of one of the seasoned tour guides who'd used to take envoys from other villages around the Hidden Leaf's scenic route. It was clear the man had spoken those very same words many times before.

"Your duty?" Naruto echoed. "Is the village active?"

"I suppose it must be."

"How has the Whirlpool existed all these years without catching the eye of the Leaf? Their scouts wouldn't have missed any patterns of traffic over time near Fire Country borders."

The man let out an exhale of smoke that could have also been a sigh. "Very few enter the Hidden Whirlpool. And even fewer leave."

"What's that supposed to mean?" demanded Karin. "Are you saying that they don't let people leave?"

"Everyone is free to leave the village. But there is no need to leave the village."

Naruto couldn't detect a lie in his cryptic words; however, as was often the case, it was not what was actually spoken that he paid attention to, but rather the intent behind it. This man, long-suffering attitude aside, wanted them to go to the Hidden Whirlpool. Perhaps, somehow, he had even been waiting for them. The real question was, was the risk of walking into what was most likely a trap worth the unclear benefits?

Unfortunately, their time was limited. In the not-so-far distance, Naruto could sense something stirring: The sleepy village had finally caught on to the destruction of the pub. The man must have sensed it as well, because he rose to his feet.

"The rest of your questions will have to wait. Come meet me by the shore on the night of the full moon. Though, now that my cover here has been blown, I imagine I'll have to move on from this post soon..." The man exhaled another thin plume of smoke. "Not that I mind. This place was kind of a dump, anyways."

Seizing Tenten and Neji's bodies from the ground, Naruto took one last look back at the red-haired man.

Who is your enemy?

As the sounds of shouts drew closer, he said — "My name is Naruto. What's your name?"

At that, the man's lips reared back to reveal a row of surprisingly sharp incisors. "Yashima. Uzumaki Yashima."

They'd said the village was full of traitors.

They were traitors because they had evaded their dues owed to the Lightning Daimyō, and refused to send the year's quota of children for mandatory induction at the Hidden Cloud. They'd said that in order to maintain their village's reputation, the traitors needed to be taught a lesson. That it would be a good exercise in trying out Yugito's tailed beast transformation.

It was a foggy day, and that helped. It didn't quite hide the smell of fire or mute the clamor, but by the time the heavy fog rolled back over the village, all was still, as though nothing had ever been there to begin with.

When Yugito finally felt her claws retract into her skin, she fell back on the ground. She was panting hard, even though, truthfully speaking, it hadn't been a difficult task at all. Blood pulsed in her ears, and she wondered at the exhaustion numbing her limbs. She'd never felt so tired before. Not even when her training was so grueling that every inch of her skin was black and blue, and she couldn't tell where bruised flesh ended and tailed beast fire began.

Suddenly, she sensed something — movement, concealed in the roiling fog. In a flash, Yugito leaped to her feet, her fingers sharpening into claws. "Reveal yourself!"

A dark shadow appeared in the fog. It grew darker and larger as it approached, and then, a boy staggered into view.

The first thing Yugito noticed was that he was a civilian. The second thing she took in was the emaciated appearance of his frame; an orphan out on the streets, perhaps? Finally, she looked at his face. Heavy-set eyes, and a crop of white hair that stood out starkly against his dark skin.

"Who are you?" Yugito demanded. "What are you doing here?"

Why hadn't he tried to run away, like all the others?

"They...They called me Darui," said the boy, with a gulp. "You're real strong, lady. Can you teach me to be like that, too?"

It was a memory she had been desperately trying to suppress, but it surged with a vengeance now at the sight of the young man lying at Yugito's feet.

Physically, he was as different as one could get from the Darui of her memories, but she still couldn't help but draw parallels as she cautiously drew closer. Just as quickly, however, the details that were cropping up with every sweep of his appearance sent Yugito's thoughts racing in all-new directions.

A large chakra signature. The Sand hitai-ate. The blood red tattoo on his forehead.

This man was the infamous jinchūriki of the Hidden Sand. There were no ifs, ands or buts about it; a genin from her village could have pieced it together. It all but confirmed her suspicions that Akatsuki's attack on the Hidden Cloud had not been isolated. Given the circumstances surrounding their attack and the flurry of covert movement Yugito had noticed in every country she'd traveled to so far, she had grimly prepared herself for the worst. But if the Hidden Sand's jinchūriki was wandering alone, half-dead, in the wilderness, the sheer scale of the possible implications was chilling.

The Raikage had always told their village that the Fourth World War was coming. It was the reason why even through the armistice, the Hidden Cloud had continually worked to extend their military reach. Yet, here they were at the cusp of war, and their village had been burned to the ground without even being graced with a chance at retaliation...

Yugito reached out with a hand, before immediately pulling it back as a whip of sand lashed out at her. Instead of chasing her, the sand retreated into the gourd slung across the jinchūriki's back.

The jinchūriki was in no condition to be defending himself, so it had to be an automatic defense mechanism. Perhaps it was the One-tail's influence?

Suddenly, the jinchūriki spasmed, his arms growing stiff by his side as his back arched. His eyes rolled back and he let out a monstrous scream that didn't quite match up to the ragged movement of his mouth. The haze around him was starting to turn red, almost like volcanic steam, and Yugito felt her stomach knotting at the sight.

At first glance, it was just an untrained jinchūriki form — but something was different. The chakra shroud didn't so much look like it was corroding the jinchūriki as it was assimilating him.

As for the source of this distortion...

Blue flames exploding in her hands, Yugito lunged forward for the site where the haze was densest — above the costal margin, just left of the midline of his sternum.

His heart.

For the past several years, the medic had worked hard to grow her residence into a proper clinic.

What had started out as a cot in a shed had expanded into proper hospital beds, each set up with their own IV unit, alongside a well-stocked cabinet of a wide spectrum of antibiotics and pain medications. Not a single day passed without incident — whether it was a patient initially coming in for stitches and a round of antibiotics before spasming from acute sepsis due to a poisoned kunai blade; or a patient coming in to restock on meds, before abruptly going into sudden cardiac arrest due to chronic chakra pill abuse...the medic had seen just about everything there was to see.

So when an unidentifiable shinobi turned up at the medic's door with a squad of half-dead Leaf-nin in tow, she didn't bat an eye.

"You're the medic?" The young ninja who spoke was of nondescript appearance, which tended to be the norm for her usual clientele. Her 'no questions asked' policy had made her clinic a popular destination amongst those with no allegiance to any of the major hidden villages.

The medic gave a curt nod. "Yes, I am. Assuming they're all still alive, I'm afraid I don't have enough beds for three..."

"Money is of no concern." The ninja threw over a pouch, which the medic snatched out of the air. Drawing it open, she counted the coins, and then nodded to her assistant, who hurried forward to check the bodies.

Two males, one female, all looking thoroughly beaten up — the female especially looked in need of immediate attention. A three-man cell… Even if they hadn't been bearing the hitai-ate, their uniforms were a dead giveaway as to their identities: Leaf-nin, of middling rank, at least. What were they doing here? And who was the man bringing them in? The medic couldn't spot a hitai-ate on his person.

Well...it wasn't her problem. Not anymore, at least.

"Very well," she said.

"I trust I can count on your discretion?" said the ninja, a hint of steel in his tone.

"You wouldn't be here if you knew you couldn't," the medic replied just as pleasantly, fingering the poisoned senbon hidden up her sleeve. "Will you be back for them?"

"What do you mean?" said the ninja. "I was never here." Then, in a whirlwind of dust, he disappeared.

"You there, my dear!"

Amidst the hubbub of the lively market, Karin had to look around and then point at herself before the elderly woman gesturing from her stall nodded her head.

"Yes, you! Come here, I have something for you."

The little chakra that the woman had harbored no malice, and when Karin drew near, she realized that the old woman was draped in sparkling jewelry.

"I'm not interested — " Karin began, but before she could finish her sentence, the woman swooped in with a speed that could have put a genin to shame.

"Now, now! I can tell with just a single glance — you're suffering from love problems, aren't you?"

"L-Love problems?" Karin stammered, her face flushing.

"Tsk, tsk, it's written all over your little face. Let me guess...your feelings are one-sided? And you haven't been able to pluck up the courage to tell him?" Karin flushed harder, and the woman's eyes gleamed with opportunity. "Well, I have just the thing here!" Something shone in the daylight — and a moment later, Karin felt hands on her shoulders, turning her around, and her hair being drawn back. The woman rustled up a mirror for Karin to check her appearance: Pulling her hair back was a blue cord made up of oddly-shaped stones.

Karin blinked, and her reflection in the mirror did the same. She reached up to touch the stones, and the cool, serrated texture gave her a moment's pause.

"What kind of stone is this?"

"Why, is this your first time to the coast? It's no stone at all. It's called a — "

"Seashell," Karin faintly filled in, surprising herself. She hadn't realized that she still remembered the word. "How much is it?"

"Fifteen ryō, and that's a bargain," came the eager reply. "I've got the cheapest prices you'll find on this side of the coast!"

It was rather cheap, in fact, but being who she was, Karin would have bartered the price down to at least half the initial offer. This time, however, she simply handed the bills over.

"He won't be able to take his eyes off you, now!" chirped the woman.

One of the reasons Karin had come out to the town at all had been to check on the traps she'd set along the shore. A quick check revealed three fish swimming restlessly in endless circles, which she filleted on the spot before stacking them in her basket, and then — with another long look at her reflection — she began to trek back to their hideout.

Currently, they were camped out at an abandoned hut along the fringes of a neighboring forest. As always, Karin checked the vicinity using her Mind's Eye, a habit in vigilance that she was quickly improving with every passing day.

"I'm back!" she called out.

A moment passed, and then, "Did you see anything today?"

A red-headed young man stepped out from the shadow of the forest — he appeared to be Naruto upon first glance, but Karin knew that it was his clone. The real Naruto had been gone for extensive swaths of time over the past week. Presumably, he was gathering intel on the movements of the Akatsuki, the Leaf village, and...whoever else was trying to track them down and kill them. Which could, at this point, be pretty much anyone.

"No, I couldn't detect anyone suspicious. The same people who were there yesterday were there today."

The clone looked up at the darkening sky. "And tonight is the full moon…"

"Maybe that man was lying to us about being an Uzumaki. He didn't look much like you."

This was met with an oddly contemplative look. "I've been told I look more like my father than my mother." Leaving it at that, he stepped back into the forest. "I should be coming back soon."

Sure enough, Karin was almost done roasting her catches over the firepit when she noticed in her Mind's Eye that the clone had disappeared. Shortly afterwards, an identical chakra signature rapidly approached their hideout. Brightening, just as she rose to her feet, Naruto's figure swooped in from the open window.

"Dinner's ready," Karin said, suddenly feeling shy. For some reason, even though she felt comfortable enough around Naruto's clones, whenever Naruto himself was there, something about him felt just a little more distant. "Did you learn anything today?"

When Naruto didn't respond straight away, Karin recognized the unfocused look in his eyes — he was processing the memories of all the clones he'd just called back. While anyone else in Naruto's position would likely have long since passed out from both chakra and mental exhaustion due to the sheer number of clones he was controlling, the only physical hint of it that Karin could see was the darkened shadows under his eyes.

Once his gaze refocused, Karin knew he was all caught up for the day.

"Danzō has sent out quite a few hunter-nins in pursuit of us, but not as many as I'd expected. He seems to be prioritizing the continued safety of the village instead." Naruto sounded perplexed at his own words — even, Karin dared to think, disappointed. "Anyways...I doubt Yashima would have gone too far from the coast, which can only mean that, as we thought, he has a way of hiding from your Mind's Eye."

Karin frowned. Somehow, the thought that her ability may not be totally unique to her stung a little. "I guess there's even more to the Hidden Whirlpool than we thought."

The roasted fish was scorching hot to the touch, and as Karin blew on her portion to cool it down, it reminded her, somewhat, of her home back in Grass country. She glanced over at Naruto, who remained seated on the floor, staring into the flickering flames of the firepit.

"We'll get there," said Karin. "No matter what." Even if, privately, she was starting to have second thoughts about going there.

Naruto looked up at her. "Yes. I have no doubt." He paused, his brow furrowing as he seemed to finally take in her appearance. "You look different."

Both Karin's heart and her hand jumped up. "I tied up my hair. So it doesn't get in the way." Something about the look on his face made her stomach flip flop. "You don't like it? The blue doesn't look good in my hair, huh?"

"It looks nice," said Naruto. "It just reminded me of someone."

Something about the expression on his face caused a pang in Karin's chest. "It reminded me of someone, too. My mom. She used to have a necklace with a similar-looking stone. A seashell..."

"What happened to it?"

"Someone stole it," she said ruefully. "I hadn't thought about it in a long time, but there was someone selling this in the market for fifteen ryō. Good price, huh?" She paused. "Or maybe it was wasteful. I don't really know."

"Not bad," Naruto said simply, before returning to his meal.

He didn't press further, and Karin could tell it was not out of courtesy, but rather out of a lack of interest. It was strange, she thought, because he seemed to thirst for knowledge about many things. And yet when it came to certain topics, his indifference was like a blank wall.

"What about you?" Karin asked. "You...or your clone, said you look more like your dad than your mom. Where are they?"

"They died when I was born."

Karin winced. "Oh." It shouldn't have surprised her; orphans were hardly a rare statistic in their part of the world. "I'm sorry."

"What for? I never knew them."

"Well, yes," she said, blinking. "But isn't it normal to miss your family?"

"I wouldn't know," said Naruto. "I've never had one."

He sounded bemused, more than anything, and somehow, that gave Karin more pause than his actual response. She opened her mouth, searching for the words to say — when something dark in the periphery of her mind flashed, and she froze. All other thoughts leaving her head, Karin squeezed her eyes shut, and confirmed it in her Mind's Eye, before saying out loud, "Naruto, it's him. Yashima — he's nearby."

Everything was hazy and red.

He couldn't differentiate what was what, and it had been that way for as long as he could remember. It was all jumbled up. The skies, his hands. A voice, screaming in his splitting head:

"Gaara! Stop!"

He was no stranger to screaming voices, but this voice — it was not the one he was used to hearing. And while once upon a time, he would have killed anyone who dared try and stop him, now, now that he was well and truly alone —

He just wanted it all to end.

"As you wish," said a voice.

His eyes opened, and for a long moment, he lay prone, wondering what had changed.

It was dark, though he could hear the crackling and feel the warmth of a nearby fire. He must've been in a cave of some sort; he could sense the whistling of wind through cracks in the rock, and the drip of water seeping into the hard ground.

As for himself, his lips were parched and his entire body hurt, but he could feel his heart thumping in his chest, and he suddenly realized how quiet it all was. That was what had changed.

"You're awake," said a woman's voice.

Gaara turned his head — even the slight motion of it sent a sharp spasm through his back — and saw an unfamiliar woman with long blond hair tied back. From where she sat behind the fire, he couldn't spot any obvious identifiers such as a hitai-ate, but her presence and physique made it clear she was a ninja, and a powerful one at that.

Somehow, Gaara had the feeling that even his sand armor wouldn't mount much of a defense against this foreign woman. He felt completely exposed, as though he'd lain back in the mouth of his enemy, and bared his neck. And yet, as vulnerable as he was, he felt calm.

"What...did you do to me?" he croaked.

The dark sea basked in the glow of the full moon. Its surface was so startlingly still, if it wasn't for the sound of the waves in his ears and the feel of the high tide brushing the undersides of their sandals, Naruto would have thought they were looking out at a lake.

The man who'd called himself Yashima had discarded his fisherman garb for a black robe that blended into their surroundings, making it appear as though his face was floating in midair. He was waiting for them in a wooden boat with a large sculling oar in one hand and a smoldering cigarette in the other. The boat bobbed haphazardly in the water as Naruto and Karin stepped aboard.

"We're going out there in this?" Karin voiced skeptically.

Yashima shrugged. "It's the only boat I've still got left in one piece." Leaving it to them to infer his meaning, he pushed off, and the boat began to glide through the water.

As the creaking of the boat filled Naruto's ears and the shore at their backs grew smaller, for a moment, he looked up at the night sky.

The full moon was so large, and so bright, it almost looked like the sun.

"In my village, the moon has always been considered an object of worship," said Yashima, with another exhale of smoke. "She controls the tides, which in turn create the whirlpools that have always protected our nation."

As though in response, the lapping of waves against the side of the boat grew stronger, and the boat began to lurch.

"Is this going to get much worse?" Karin asked, nervously.

"I'm afraid this is just the beginning," said Yashima, looking amused.

"You said that your name is Uzumaki," said Naruto. "Are there others with that name in your village?"

"Oh, yes. The Uzumaki clan was one of the founding clans at the time of the village's establishment."

"How has your village kept its continued survival a secret for this long?"

"Hmm… We tried very hard," Yashima replied.

"He's lying, Naruto," said Karin, leveling a dirty look at the man.

Yashima let out a laugh, a startling sound that broke in the air like waves on a rocky shore. "I am many things, but I am no liar. I assure you that. Now, we are approaching Whirlpool territory. From now on, whatever you do, try not to leave the boat."

The roar of the water was growing increasingly louder; Naruto looked back out at the sea to see that it was churning. The boat rocked wildly, to the point that Naruto had to channel chakra to his feet to stop himself from losing his balance, and cold seawater sprayed his face.

A drifting cluster of clouds must have passed by, because suddenly, the moon disappeared. The sky darkened, and the sea turned black. Whatever was still below his feet began to spin in circles, and seawater sloshed around his legs.

"Naruto!" shouted Karin's voice.

"Karin!" he replied. "Use your chains!"

But there was no reply. Or, if there was, he couldn't hear it over the sound of the roar of the water that circled around them. Had Yashima been lying about guiding them? No — he may not have been entirely forthcoming, but he had been telling the truth about that. Gritting his teeth against the salt of the seawater, Naruto reached out with a hand to position himself —

And suddenly, the clouds passed. The full moon hung in the sky once more, stark in its brightness, and everything stopped.

The boat no longer rocked. The water that had threatened to submerge them had disappeared, and the sea around them was still. It was quiet, unnaturally so, and when Naruto looked around, he was the only one on the boat. Both Yashima and Karin were gone.

But somehow, even though he couldn't see or hear anything, even though he wasn't using his lightning chakra, he could sense it — a presence.

Naruto's hand leapt to the tantō on his back, and he straightened up.

"Who's there?" he called out.

While there was no response, he knew he wasn't alone. There could only be one explanation for this; it was a genjutsu of some sort, which meant somebody had to be behind it.

He brought his hands together in a seal to disrupt his chakra and dissipate the illusion — but nothing changed.

Something sounded in his ears, like the distant sound of waves and the rustling of leaves. Stepping towards the rim of the boat, Naruto looked down at the water's surface. His reflection glared back up at him, the whisker marks on his face glowing in the moonlight. He reached out with a hand to break the reflection — when, suddenly, another face appeared next to his. A girl's face.

"Mayu," said Naruto.

She didn't respond. But she didn't run away, either, and when he looked up, she was still there, standing next to him.

Appearance-wise, Mayu looked the same as she always did when she appeared to him: Pale-faced, with long brown hair pinned back with a blue clip, and in standard Leaf chūnin attire. She looked the same as she had on the day she'd died, and Naruto suddenly realized that he was older than her now.

Wordlessly, Mayu reached out to his face. Her fingers were warm when they had no right to be, and then suddenly, an even warmer pair of lips pressed against his.

Naruto's eyes widened, and his mind went blank — but before he could react, the sensation was already falling away, and then Mayu was stepping over the boat's edge. Walking across the still water, she turned around and held her hand out to Naruto in a clear invitation.

Naruto considered the phantom staring at him, his lips burning.

If Mayu had survived that day, how would she look now? Would she have been hunting Naruto down at the orders of the new Hokage with the rest of them? Or would she have quit active duty by now, and begun working with orphans, as she'd once wanted?

He would never know.

"I can't go with you," said Naruto.

Frowning, Mayu gestured more insistently, to which he stood his ground. A dark look passed over her face — and then, in an instant, Mayu's features contorting in a way that he'd never seen before, she lunged towards him. Her slender fingers, now impossibly cold, wrapped around Naruto's neck, choking him with an alien strength he knew that she didn't possess, as she tried to drag him off the boat and into the ocean.

For a moment, Naruto didn't retaliate. Instead, through the pain of his windpipe being crushed, he thought of the girl who had haunted his memories for the past three years, and he thought about everything he had decided to do.

That hole inside of you — nothing in this world will ever fill it.

At the memory of the masked man's words, Naruto's mouth drew back in a rough grin. He croaked out, "Isn't — this...enough?"

There was no response from the phantom, who continued to strangle him with single-minded determination. The black of the ocean was beginning to bleed into his vision, and staggering, Naruto reached out —

It was over in an instant.

Mayu's eyes looked into his, then down at the tantō jutting out of her chest. He'd plunged it in so deep, he could only see the tip of the hilt. Her hands fell lifelessly from his neck, and as Naruto gasped for air, her lips mouthed a single word, before she fell back into the water with a crash.

At the sight of her shadow plummeting into the depths of the ocean, somehow, Naruto felt simultaneously lighter and colder.

Who is your enemy?

The floor of the boat rocked, and Naruto lurched again — when an iron grip steadied him by the arm.

He turned to see Yashima, who regarded him with surprised scrutiny, before pulling away to take another drag of his cigarette. Karin lay next to him, seemingly unconscious. With a sharp exhale, Naruto checked for her pulse, before sitting heavily back down.

After a moment, he checked his own neck, but there was no sign that he'd ever been strangled. He reached for his back next —

His tantō was gone.

Naruto's hand dropped to his side. "...What was that?"

"Proof of the blood running through your veins. Proof of the conviction needed to enter the Hidden Whirlpool." Yashima pointed eagerly. "Look, we're almost home."

What had first appeared to be an extension of the night sky turned into an array of glimmering lights in the distance. And then dark silhouettes appeared on the horizon — growing bigger and bigger, until finally, they became a harbor. Buildings. Lights. Other boats, bobbing in the water.

And smaller figures that dotted the docks — people.

The people of the Hidden Whirlpool.

A distance away, back on the coastline that marked the end of Fire country territory, a solitary figure in a black cloak with red clouds stood on the sandy shore. He looked out at the clear, black sea, lit up in the glow of the full moon, thinking about the past.

Kakashi, you promised me. Protect Rin, whatever it takes!

Back then, he had been a different person. He had thought such things, and felt such things, because he had known absolutely nothing about anything. Because he had still held expectations from this nonsensical world.

"The Sharingan's full power is unleashed when left and right are brought together…" Removing the orange mask that both concealed and defined his identity, he fixed both of his red eyes on the distant horizon. "...Isn't that right?"

A hiss and a distorted flickering in his consciousness alerted him.

"There's been a sighting of the remaining jinchūriki," a voice spoke in his head. "We believe they may be somewhere in River country."

At that, he roused himself. With one last look at the sea, he turned to leave.

Every piece was playing out their role as he'd predicted. And he would make sure that they continued to do so, until the world was finally as it should be, for that was the role he had been assigned.

But for now...he would keep watching. He was always watching.

A/N: Thanks to blueandgold I guess for virtually holding me at gunpoint to write this chapter.