A story is told in three parts—the beginning, the middle, and the end.
At the end of the story—of history—Papa's Rinnegan sent me back to the beginning.
Maybe it's because I'm Papa's daughter. Maybe it's because he thinks I can survive.
I used to think I could survive. (Even become Hokage.)
I shouldn't start doubting myself now.
of the beginning
My hands go numb in the icy river as I scrub at my vest. But the stains are persistent. Perhaps because certain things could never be washed away. Then again, I lack modern detergent, or any sort of soap, for that matter. I don't dwell. Instead, my palms scrub harder, fingers pruned and pink from exertion and cold.
The trees at the edge of the riverbank erupt. A flock of black birds make their exit—magpies. The catalyst for their flight is soon apparent: a white-winged hawk, sleek, fast, and trailing like a tempest. I watch as it banks straight toward the rear of the flock and gathers the quarry in a tight swathe.
Two shuriken land on the shallow banks of the river, each several feet away in opposite directions. Only one is attached to a bird. The magpie has been slit neatly at its neck. Blood is already washing out in trickling eddies of red.
I reach for the bird.
That's when the glinting kunai comes hurtling from the opposite bank. A dull thunk indicates the hit, and a whooping sound emerges from the trees. Like a young deer, a lanky figure with dual-colored hair bounds from his shelter of thick, green foliage. He splashes through the river to first scoop up the fallen bird, then the half-scrubbed vest.
As he holds the maroon vest up to his eyes to confirm the fan-shaped insignia, his gaze ghosts over the other red-brown smudges. Then, with something like conflicted pity in his eyes, he inspects the body that's fallen on the river bank. The young man's dark eyes widen at the metal contraption that dangles from the pale face.
"The Uchiha even have this…"
He kneels to remove the glasses, careful to not step on the body. Maybe he does not want to rouse the ire of a dead girl. His fingers no sooner brush up against an ear when my kunai—it was his kunai, seconds ago—kisses the base of his throat.
My bunshin, laid out at his feet, disappears in a puff of smoke.
Very slowly, the boy looks up, his face sheet-white.
Why wouldn't it be?
He's staring at the girl he thought he'd just killed.
Now it's my turn to feel guilty. He looks no more than twelve, a few years younger than me. I watch him fidget with my vest in his hands, before dropping it to the mud when I nudge the kunai closer. I suppose I shouldn't threaten a mere boy, but I've been waiting for a chance to encounter another shinobi. Especially if he's who I think he is.
"Who're you?" I prod more gently with the kunai, just enough to emphasize my, well, point. "Why'd you try to kill me?"
He continues to gape, a bad sign. Did I break him? With average height and lanky limbs, I'm not considered intimidating, but then again, ninja in my era dealt with mutated clones and chakra-sucking aliens. But ninja in the Sengoku Jidai were supposed to be made of sterner stuff.
"Spit it out. Your name."
"Village?" His face looks like I've just said something incomprehensible. And I have. Old habits die hard.
He sputters. "I can't just—I mean, Onishi."
History lessons only do so much. But I've still got basic interrogation training under my belt. "You're lying," I say. In response, the so-identified Onishi Itama twiddles his thumbs, a daring but pointless display of nonchalance. It's also such a modern gesture that I fumble my next words.
"You called me an Uchiha. What's your beef with the Uchiha?"
"I mean, why do you want the Uchiha dead?"
"I don't want anyone dead. I was trying to hit a bird."
"Your aim's not bad." I gesture to the shuriken by the bank, and then the other one that has been removed from the bird. Noting the trajectory of their fall, the two shuriken had collided mid-air. "Also, I doubt I'm worth killing over one measly magpie."
He remains silent, his face pinched. An errant thought flits to my brain: Inojin's face, when he's upset and trying to hide something. I catch myself before a familiar cascade of faces begins playing like some bad movie inside my head.
"So, why do you think I'm an Uchiha?" I hum. "Because I'm not."
As planned, this draws a response out of him. "Dark hair and eyes! Classic Uchiha features!" There's almost steam erupting from his ears. "And your Sharingan!"
I don't show the Sharingan unless I have to. The first village I encountered, a farmer tried to kill himself when he saw my red eyes. Apparently, it means something synonymous with demon here, to ordinary folk.
"I've heard of it," I continue. "But there's no way I have the Sharingan. Terrible eyesight." For emphasis, I tap my glasses, which Itama seems to acknowledge as an aid for poor vision.
"The fan!" He grabs my maroon vest from the ground and shoves it close to my face as if it offends him. "This is a symbol of the Uchiha clan!"
Ah. So that legacy lasted for several hundred years. I feel a wave of guilt again.
"Yes," I reply evenly. "This vest's a pretty color, and functional, even if it's dirty. I picked that up near an abandoned camp upstream."
As Exhibit One, I point down to my ragged white chemise, which showcases hints of my ribcage and sports a stylistically torn midriff. I hadn't exactly come from a party, when I arrived in this era—with no money, next to no equipment, and just the clothes off my back. Itama stares for several seconds, then seems to realize at what he was staring, and flushes an even deeper hue than before.
"You're the one that's lying," I sigh. "Giving me a false name."
Itama's face gets all scrunched, like he expects me to kill him off on the spot. I remind myself that this era has different rules. But I can't bring myself to stick a kunai into the boy. Even if he was willing to do that with me.
"Anyway, I'm Sarada. Haruno Sarada."
"Ha-ru-no?" Itama says. His brain is spinning, I can tell—going through who that could be. He's never going to find it. That family doesn't enter the shinobi records until over a hundred years pass. I don't wait for him to finish processing before springing the next thing.
"And you're Senju Itama, aren't you?"
"W-What?" the boy yelps, and it's all the confirmation I'll ever need.
"Don't worry. I'll keep it a secret if you want."
Despite my assurance, Itama looks ready to bolt. Or fight me. But he knows by now that I'm older, and have better aim with pointy projectiles, even if he can't be sure that I am or am not an Uchiha. But overpowering him would accomplish nothing. He needs to take the bait.
"One more thing, Itama. That bird is my kill."
"Just wait a minute!" Itama growls angrily. His frustration at his own slip ups is mounting. Perhaps there's an inferiority complex in there somewhere. That, I can work with. I look into his eyes and with all the composure I possess from years of wrangling my teammates, I say:
"Let's share it."
The boy stares like a guppy, very still—the calm before a storm. But when he finally erupts, he's like a fizzing soda can that Chouchou has shaken one too many times. More noise than force.
"I don't share meals with strange kunoichi!" he hisses. "Especially not Uchiha!"
"Haruno," I amend, saintly and patient.
Itama's not gone and run away, not tried to stick another sharp object into me. This is looking up. So I decide to push my luck.
"Hey, why don't you take me to your clan? I came here to find work, so it'd be great to ally with the Senju clan."
"Ally?" he scoffs.
"Think about it. If I really were an Uchiha, do you think I'd willingly wander into your camp?"
"No," Itama says dubiously.
"Right. I would be going back to the Uchiha in that case." I smile. "If you're not sure, you can tie me up when we're there."
"What use would a nobody hostage be?"
He's internalizing the Haruno bit. Good. "You do kinda owe me," I cajole.
"How so?" Itama glowers. But he picks up his feet and starts walking at a manageable, scuffling pace. I follow.
"Since you tried to kill me a moment ago," I point out.
"I failed, though."
My smile is genuine this time. It's as genuine as it'll ever be, after everything that's happened.
"You know, Itama," I say carefully. "You remind me of a friend."
Perhaps he's trying to catch an Uchiha name. Still, I appreciate the question. There's no one here who knows the people from the future, obviously. But it's less lonely, if I acknowledge those names. To show that it's happened. That I'm real. That this is not all some bad dream. I pause before I answer, giving one final glance at the river bank as we walk further into the trees. My vest lays face up, its insignia muddied by the drifting silt. I can't see the stains from here.
After a heartbeat, I turn to face forward again. The world of the Sengoku Jidai sprawls across the horizon.
"His name's Boruto. And he always had terrible excuses too."
The history books were clear about one thing:
The Senju and Uchiha had a complicated relationship.
In the Academy, this wasn't further elaborated. There were a lot of things that weren't elaborated. Our parents' generation wanted to expose us to the past, but gradually. As a bookish kid whose dad was away, and whose mom was always working at the hospital, I spent enough time in the library to do free reading on my own.
The Uchiha clan was preeminent, said one book.
At seven, I hadn't the foggiest clue what that meant. Then, in the parade of other history tomes, there appeared more negative (but still subtle) descriptors. Iron-hearted, astringent, pernicious, and adamantine. It was a fascinating vocabulary lesson for any kid, but especially for me. Imagine the last of your clan, at seven years old, searching up the definitions for words describing how your ancestors were dangerous and dreary.
As for the Senju clan, it was the catalyst for Konohagakure's founding. I knew of the unique properties of the Hashirama trees. I'd seen the Shodaime's wood-style jutsu which led to Captain Yamoto's arthritis. The Nanadaime slipped on the Godaime's "fortieth thirtieth" birthday (after one too many shots of sake) that he'd personally spoken to the Shodaime. It was mysterious. When I'd asked, Naruto-sama told me my Papa had spoken to Lady Tsunade's grandfather more. I never learned if that was true, a metaphor, or just a lie. Too bad I can't ask, now.
Anyhow, this is kind of a big deal for me. Meeting the Senju—the to-be Shodaime—fills my stomach with snake-butterfly hybrids. Neither a dreadful nor elated feeling. Once, I wanted to be Hokage. I still do. To meet the very first is an honor. But for now, I imagine it is best to keep my goals and my identity a secret. Once the Senju know that I mean no harm, perhaps the tenuous alliance between clans, between Senju and Uchiha, will develop naturally, as in my timeline.
After an hour's travel, we meet the edge of the forest.
A wide dirt road comes into view. It's evening, but there are no travelers in sight. No merchant caravans or ronin flashing their dojo-conquests in large white banners, like I've seen a few times previously since I came here. Itama points at the path and explains, for my benefit: "That road up ahead leads to a small trading village under a daimyo's protection."
"That's where your clan is?"
Itama pauses to look at me, seeming to acknowledge that I don't use his clan's name. I get it. Even on a deserted forest road, you don't know who's watching. The stigma of the Senju name is as potent as the Uchiha name.
The boy nods. "Yeah, but not everyone. My immediate family lives there. Some cousins, too."
That's fine. I want to meet the clan head, but even if he's not in this particular village, the Senju meet up regularly to plan their battles. I'm sure I'll be able to track down the current clan head, and the future Shodaime. Sooner or later.
"I'm still new to these parts." We leave the grass to step onto the dirt road. "Are all shinobi organized by clans?"
According to books, local daimyo hire shinobi to take and protect territory from other warring factions. The shinobi hired frequently are known by a familial clan name. Over time, affiliations between daimyo and clans arise. Konoha library only covered the big clans, where someone bothered to record the history.
Certainly, no book had information on the semi-legendary clan I'm looking for.
"Not all are organized by clan," says Itama. "I think the main ones are, at least under Fire territory's strongest daimyo. The ninja that aren't are usually splintered branch families or even small groups, which decided to leave the main branch. It's not very… orthodox."
Itama says the word like someone else taught it to him.
Like the Hyuga's main and branch family? Much changed after our parents' war ended. Boruto's mom married an outsider. The war hero and soon-to-be Hokage, yes, but an outsider. Stodgier but no less orthodox Hyuga clan traditions needed to die, for Boruto and Himawari to exist. I can see why they would be around in this era, where clan affiliations are paramount.
The topic of conversation makes me think of my own clan. My curiosity gets the better of me.
"Where do the Uchiha live?"
Itama's face darkens. "Dunno. Not far enough."
He mutters 'scum' under his breath too, so I don't ask further. He's already doing me a huge favor in leading me to where his family is—which seems to indicate that Itama is either a fool, or has huge confidence in his family's ability to protect itself. I'm not intimidating, but Itama can tell I'm still a ninja, even if I've led him to believe I'm a foreign kunoichi who's just trying to find work and allies in Fire territory.
We walk in silence. Him, distracted by the idea of not making it home in time for dinner. Me, still musing about how I would introduce myself to Itama's family. I'm not the most personable. I'm Papa's daughter, in that way.
"What's your home like?" Itama asks.
I ironed out my story best I could. But it's impossible to fact check the region I picked when I picked it precisely because it's remote and unknow-able. "It's in the north," I say vaguely. "Snows a lot there. There's a whole lot of different hair colors, more than here." Nearly everyone I've met here has black or dark brown hair.
Itama cringes. "Well, my hair's different enough."
"It looks cool." I eye his dichromatic mop. "My mom has naturally pink hair."
"No way!" Itama goggles. "That's super lame."
"No, it's not. She's one of the best kunoichi around!" I smile at the memory of Mama, who was always easy to spot in a crowd, or among the hospital staff when I went looking for her as a toddler.
"Pink is a difficult color to camouflage. Bet she has to perform henge all the time."
"Not all ninja have to go about it the same way." This is something I learned the hard way. "Your hair has nothing to do with how great of a shinobi you can be."
The boy flushes with pleasure. He must have had a strict upbringing. Itama mentioned he has brothers; I'll bet my last pair (only pair) of socks that they're older and very accomplished. Mama told me about Uncle Itachi, and the stress it put on Papa when he was younger.
The sky darkens to a point where we can barely see our noses in front of us. It's early spring, but still cold and dark enough that it could be mistaken for winter. "I can light a fire, if you want," I say, although I'm wary that anyone traveling here could see it and attack. Paranoia is a ninja's greatest asset.
Itama shakes his head. "Nah, I know this road by heart. It's an hour more, tops. Half an hour if we hurry."
Makes sense. Kids may be a lot more independent in the past, but Itama's still barely pubescent. More importantly, he's traveling by himself without any visible gear except a small pouch secured at his waist. He can't have been traveling too far away from home base.
"Why were you by that river today?"
"Probably visited the same place as you did, upstream," he says. He's probably talking about the spot where I told him I picked up my vest. The vest thing was a lie, but I did pass through town.
"The one with the inn?"
"Yeah." Then he clams up.
I have an idea of what Itama wanted from the inn. The same thing I wanted. Information. It's likely the Senju have contacts all over the area. Contacts they have to bribe once in a while. Contacts that will let them know should there be any unusual stirrings.
No sooner does the thought finish than a whistling projectile shoot past my face.
A stinging sensation ignites my cheek, then a razor edge presses, into the cut.
"Stop moving and get down!" I hiss, and Itama obeys.
My thoughts are racing. Who's attacking? Can they see us, in the dark?
The night is cloudy and the air feels damp with fog. I can make out the visible outline of trees, hear the crackling of the underbrush, feel Itama's quickened breathing by my ear. But I can't see our attackers.
A few more shooting projectiles shoot past overhead, and I can tell which ones hit their targeted trees on the other side. I've always practiced my shuriken throws late into the night, or early before the sun rises. The angles that they're being thrown at show that it's likely our assailant's were in the tree branches to start, but that a few have now moved down to ground level. My breath held, I count the number of shnks I hear. One. Two. Three. Four… I estimate twenty-two projectiles. That's twenty-two invisible blades that could cut us up should Itama and I try to move.
"Trip wires," I murmur to Itama. His slight frame quakes at my side, as he huddles face down into the dirt. I reach out to make sure he's breathing. At contact, my hands become sure, like a medic recognizing a patient. He's drenched in cold sweat.
Besides needing him for my Senju introduction, I feel strangely protective of the boy. Sure, this isn't the most ideal of situations, but why is he so scared? Shouldn't he know defense strategies, if he's already being sent on errands almost a day's travel away?
"Itama," I mouth to him, pressing my face very close so that our attackers don't hear us. I hope we look like two bumps along the road, but it's any minute now, before we're discovered. Any second, if these guys can see in the dark. The moon overhead is clouded, thank goodness, but that too would pass.
"Snap out of it, Itama," I breathe. "What's wrong?"
I don't know who Kawarama is, but if it's not these guys who want us dead, then it's the least of my concerns right now. Footsteps approach the road, the sound changing as they venture from grass to dirt road. "Who're these guys? What are their techniques?" I whisper fiercely. Itama's eyes are glazed, but he gasps out:
The name strikes fear into my own heart. I know that name. From where do I know that name?
"They ally with the Uchiha. A-And recently killed my brother Kawarama, with these wires," Itama confides shakily. Sweat is beginning to shine on his face. I realize the moon's back out.
The reason I'm here.
Hagoromo. Otsutsuki. Otsutsuki Hagoromo?
The phrase tickles my brain for some reason, like some half-formed clue. Like an icy slush that meanders through every capillary and fails to jolt all the neurons. Itama has given me something important. The Uchiha alliance is a new piece of information. Do my own ancestors have a hand in bringing the downfall of all shinobi-kind? I don't have time to think further on it now. The footsteps are alarmingly close, yet, neither of us can stand without being cut into meat cubes or slices.
Whatever the deli arrangement, I prefer myself in one piece.
"Itama," I whisper. "Close your eyes."
He looks at me, confused.
"Trust me," I say.
He's helpless right now, psychologically, trapped in the memories of his brother's death. I know how that feels. To be trapped in memory. Maybe that's why I'm doing this in front of Itama. Should he see me in a real battle, then my meeting with the Senju heads will likely never happen. But if this Hagoromo clan is a lead to the Otsutsuki, then I'm already halfway to my main goal. Eliminating every last one. I couldn't do it in the future. But I can try, now.
At the beginning, rather than the end.
"And keep them closed," I grit out. Finally, Itama shuts his eyes.
Then my own start to bleed red.
Disclaimer: Kishimoto owns, and the rest of us graze.
Notes: this is planned to be easy T-reading, with action, character-growth, perhaps romance, and some historical and political themes. The tweaks to canon at the outset are little bros outliving canon ages of death. There is a backstory for Sarada, which is hinted, and will be revealed more plainly later. Still debating pairings, though this isn't a romance-centric fic. Thoughts?
With that said, I hope to do Sarada, and the rest of the fun crew of the Sengoku Jidai, justice.
Onward, and thanks for joining!