Suzu: I've been waylaid by the fact that this story refuses to end in an arc's worth of chapters. Refuses. But fret not, this is built like an accordion, and should withstand an extra chapter or so. Also, we are squarely in AU land regarding Sarada not knowing squat about Zetsu. If you squint, this could still be canon-compliant.




Above, a champagne sky.

Beyond, a bristling sea.

And, as far as the eye can see, a tide of trees.

Wind sways the forest to and fro. I lean against the Sycamore branch and sway with the rest of the trees, blinking at the colors as the sun dips behind wisps of cloud.

The wind stills. For a moment, everything is quiet.

A curling sprig of wood snakes up my back, loops around my shoulder, and tickles the shell of my ear. My gaze moves back to the horizon. My Sharingan grants me almost normal vision as I scan the far crags of the island.

"The cliff is up ahead!" I shout. "To the southwest!"

My perch on the treetop rustles. Leafy tendrils dip and twist, bobbing gently like a mossy seat on a carousel ride. My arms grasp the thickest part of the branch as it lowers itself—down, down, past the leafy green waves, until the golden sunlight hues dull into shaded twilight under the thick foliage, and I can almost make out the two blobs down below: one cream-colored egg, and one sky-blue pillar.

As the shrine attendant Horio winces at the brambles in my hair, I almost forget that I'm not disguised as "Lady Mito," but as Senju Gouda.

"The cliff is close," I say. "Less than an hour more in that direction, toward the sea."

Hashirama turns to Horio. "And you're sure that's where the forest tribe's base is?"

"Historically," the attendant sniffs. "We Uzumaki have not ventured there in years. Not since Lady Mito's birth."

"Well, it looked uninhabited," I say.

"Your cousin has keen eyes," Horio simpers. "It's a wonder he's so clumsy when walking through these woods."

"He prefers the even roads of our town," Hashirama inserts easily. "I'm afraid our clan coddles him."

I scoff. "So I'm told."

As we continue on our way, Horio flashes a pointed smile in Hashirama's direction. "Even the clan that bred the god of shinobi must have some lesser members, I see."

Hashirama flushes. "There are no lesser members in the Senju clan."

"But surely, not everyone can be a god?" Horio needles. "That's what they're calling you on the Mainland now, isn't it? My, you Mainlanders really are a heretical bunch. To think, promoting a little boy to a deity."

Arms swinging stiffly, the newly-minted god looks ready to bolt, as he hastens in the direction of the cliff. Horio and I follow at a brisk pace, me adapting to taking tall, wide steps in order to clear any upturned roots and brambles. I'm glad Horio doesn't run like a shinobi. Otherwise, I'd be ashamed of slowing the group down.

As for who Elder Horio is, besides an Uzumaki attendant… that mystery remains.

After several minutes of trekking, I notice something's off. Maybe it's paranoia. My eyesight is compromised, and straining my other senses can betray. Especially because I'm wary of so many things. One, Horio. Two, any forest dwellers and their traps. I walk a few feet more, before I stop in my tracks.

"Wait," I call.

"Oh dear. You've coddled your cousin, indeed."

Hashirama backtracks toward us, shaking his head. "Gouda's right to stop. Something's following us."

Horio's hands flutter in agitation. "Forest dwellers?"

"From the sound, something bigger," I say. "Bigger than humans."

The woods around us seem to darken at my words. Belatedly, I realize the sun's almost fully set, as the sky has chilled to a dusty blue.

Horio clutches his belly nervously, his chin wobbling. "Stop joking, you two. There aren't any foul creatures in these woods. We Uzumaki have long eradicated the wild beasts."

"I don't doubt it," Hashirama says diplomatically. "We're close to the cliffs now. Should we ignore it and keep going?"

"We can't know what we'll find at our destination," I say. "Better deal with—"

The rest is lost.

Because the forest starts shrieking.

Sprouting from the trees in pulsing, scaly coils are five creatures with mouths open and fangs dripping, their serpentine bodies a cross between snake and dragon. The sheer size of these beasts is paralyzing. Thick as tree trunks. Forked tongues sweeping up the detritus on the forest floor like full-sized pitchforks. All the while, a terrible keening sound comes from their mouths, so high pitched and raw it feels like a child screaming, rather than the slithering sound of ordinary snakes.

Of course, ordinary snakes don't have heads that are the size of doorways.

More shadows start twisting in the dark.


The trees around us flex, their branches knotting around the giant serpents. Hashirama's hands are outstretched. Huddled at Hashirama's feet, Horio is open-mouthed and trembling, flattened out on the forest floor.

"What manner of creature…?" he croaks.

Serpent and wood twine furiously around each other in an endless, maddening dance to the screeching music. Two serpents look to be caught, but the rest slither from the grasp of the branches, too fast to be caught by growing wood.

One rears its head, jaws snapping dangerously close. A dizzying smell slams my sinuses. Eyes watering, I clamp my hands to my nose so hard my knuckles go white.

Briefly, I consider punching the ground, but the trees all around might fall on top of us. We also risk harm if I shoot fire. Well then—I gather chakra to my hand and let it pulse. Then I lace it with elemental chakra.

Static dances up and down my arm.

Surging into millions of high frequency sparks.


The sparks grow denser, higher in voltage, forming the diffuse shape of a blade. My hand begins to tremble with the explosive mass of lightning, but I only draw more chakra from my core, willing the blade to grow. Longer. Long enough to slice the full diameter of the snake.

As Kakashi-sama once warned Papa, this lightning attack requires huge amounts of chakra. Papa's chakra reserves reached supernatural levels over the years, but for me, shaping and holding a lightning blade—and one of this size—will have a toll later.

But what choice do I have? I can barely see in daylight. It's grown dark, but the moon isn't out yet. Pinpointing the snakes' vitals will yield misses. And misses mean death.

Like an enormous spring coil, a hissing shadow launches straight at me.

Leaping up, I swing down at the dark shape, cleaving and missing.

I curse. Swing again, blindly.

Swept up in a circular vortex, the leaves around me sizzle where they brush the tip of my sword. I jump as the shadow springs back. This time, my aim is true. I lop the hissing head from the body, gagging at the smell of cooked flesh.

Just as I land, the ground beneath me explodes.

For an instant, I think I've stepped on a mine, or a trap laid by the forest people. But the wet, rancid smell reveals that I'm inches from a cavernous mouth, inches from being swallowed whole.


Lightning surges anew. As I fall, mucus and blood spray the night air, dousing me. One hand clutches my sleeve against my nose and mouth as the other carves through gaping jaws, fileting tissue and scales, until finally, I feel the snake's dark shadow shudder and go still.

My sleeve has become heavy and wet, and my exposed skin stings in the cool night air. Panting, I fall on my knees onto a dry-looking patch of forest debris. My outer layer of clothes is completely drenched, so I peel it off.

The forest is quiet.

I stand and examine the carnage: serpentine corpses, their shadowed forms twisted into figure-eights around gnarled trees, others sliced into pieces. The scene is terrifying by any standard, especially as the clouds slowly part to reveal the moon. My gaze travels, searching. But making sense of the serpent blood-splattered forest is pointless. I've walked into a red-painted nightmare.

I cup a hand to my mouth. "Everyone okay?"

Crunching sounds break the silence. I tense.

"It's me," comes a muffled voice.

A humanoid figure separates from a larger shadowy mass on the ground. As he approaches, his long hair trails and drips with what appears to be serpent saliva. Not good. Mitsuki had once told me about the properties of giant snakes around Konoha.

"Dry off," I advise. "Or it'll start burning soon."

"This is a good time to go back to a bowl cut," Hashirama mutters, and attempts to wring out his hair, only to pull back and examine his hands. "Ow. Now my hands hurt."

"Their saliva is highly acidic. Better to digest you with."

"Glad I'm appetizing," Hashirama says.

Scowling at the abysmal joke, I mop up serpent gook from my own arms and legs. Then I roll my destroyed outer garment into a ball and discard it on the forest floor.

"Where is Horio?" I ask. "Did he… you know?"

Even if he has some hidden motive to kidnap Mito or me, I wouldn't wish being eaten alive upon anyone.

Hashirama peels back his own outer garment. "I saw him run into the woods. Right when several more serpents came up from underground. I sent trees after it, but I don't think they caught every one."

Mild horror grips me. "There were more?"

Hashirama regards me curiously. "We can look for Horio, but it might make more sense to wait here, in case he comes back. Or we meet him at the destination."

"Let's wait," I say. "We should also dry off."

As an Elder Uzumaki attendant, I suspect that Horio has some survival tricks up his voluminous sleeves. Beyond that, there's the matter of our own survival. Experience living with Munch in these forests has shown me that, unless we get off the rest of the blood coating us, we'll get eaten alive by another beast. Mosquitoes.

The small campfire crackles merrily, as Hashirama and I smoke the trailing ends of our robes. The scene could look almost idyllic, if not for the pungent smell and hulking shadows of dead snake. Still, I'm reminded of the river where Hashirama and I first met. From the way he keeps shooting glances in my direction, I think I'm not the only one reminiscing.

"Do they hurt?" he asks suddenly.

I blink.

He motions to his arms and legs. Ah. My expanding collection of scrapes and bruises, from tripping around. A month's worth of living with visual impairment is on display now that I've rolled up the hems of my pants and sleeves. I don't bother to heal them now. But maybe I should. Hashirama's guilt is clear, from the crazy suggestions he's offered at earlier legs of our trip.

"Better than being carried," I say. "What grown man carries his adult cousin? You almost gave us away in front of Horio."

Hashirama starts. "About Horio…"

I expect him to suggest we go look for him, rather than wait. Or to ask for more details about what I heard in the forest that day, from hearing Nezu to the seal trap.

"What he said earlier…"

I twirl a sprig of fern between my fingers. "Which part?"

"People have started calling me… names." Hashirama's voice drops. "But they're not serious."

Oh. That.

The god of shinobi.

Resolutely, I stare into the fire. People see what they want.

From my peripheral vision, I see him feed some twigs into the fire. "Father always said, if I'm not careful, they'll brand me as a demon. Some people already do."

It's timeless, these things. Mixed emotions play tug of war inside me. But this isn't about the lingering feelings of mistrust from the war camp. Maybe this is about chasing a dream, but being scared to lose yourself. I bite my lip. As those who chase the title of hokage, we can all learn a thing or two from Naruto-sama.

"Then prove everyone wrong."

A pause. Then: "It doesn't really matter, what everyone thinks. Only some people."

Something clutches at my chest—

"I told you at Aida Castle, that I don't doubt you."

—an odd pressure.

"But what about you, Miss Mirror? Do you trust me?

"I think… that you should care more about what Uzumaki Ryuchiro thinks."


Automatically, my gaze flits up. Hashirama's over-polite grin has slipped into another expression altogether, one I can't discern from across the campfire. Wordlessly, he leans back on the heels of his palms, stretching against the pile of dried leaves as he looks up past the treetops to the inky sky.

"You're right," he agrees. "Gotta get on the good side of my in-laws."

"For the sake of your future village."

"The Uzumaki are kind of stuffy, but good for raising funds," Hashirama muses. "And they could be alright, with a few rounds of sake in them."

I roll my eyes. "What clans do you want, then?"

"All of them," he says, not missing a beat.

My snort is muffled into my sleeve. "Top five."

"Well, Sarutobi?"

"Given," I say. "Ikkyun will follow you to the grave and back. With his garden shears."

"Ha." Hashirama's eyes seem to crinkle. "I'd like the village to be near the forests, so the Nara clan would be good too. I'll need to make arrangements for them to protect the village with their shadow jutsu."

"Troublesome," I hum. "Who else?"

He ticks off his fingers. "If Sarutobi and Nara are there, then naturally, Yamanaka and Akimichi."

"One more."

"The fifth…" Hashirama's voice dies.

A whistling breeze flows through the trees.

I close my eyes. Our dying campfire flickers in the back of my eyelids, where it seems to grow into an inferno, licking at the forest around us.

"The Uchiha?" I breath.

"Yeah. Yes."

"Interesting choice."

A nervous laugh is the future Shodaime's only reply. Something rattles in my ribs.

"But a good choice," I whisper.

"The right choice?" Hashirama wonders.

My hands clutch tighter at my forearms, and I tuck my knees in. The fire crackles close, warming me. I think of Naki's question.

"I'm not sure," I admit. "But it's what I want, too."

A sudden crunching sound comes from nearby. Hashirama and I jump to our feet.

"Thought I smelled somethin' good!"

The familiar voice comes from an even more familiar drooling mouth. What's more, only one person can work up such an appetite in the middle of a pile of hulking snake carcasses.

"Yer havin' a barbeque without me!"

I smile in greeting. "Munch? Is that you?"

"Brought a sidekick too." The sandy-haired man flourishes his bandaged arms behind him.

A second figure steps into the glow of our campfire.


Hashirama and Tobirama greet each other heartily. Conflicted, I back away. It's difficult to meet Tobirama's eyes. The last time I saw him, he had Itama in his arms. Events that sometimes feel a world away hit me hard again. So I try to paste a polite smile on my face. It comes out weird, because Munch gets that knowing look in his eye and pronounces:

"Perfect night for a barbeque party, eh? These snakes look pretty fresh."

Tobirama and I both balk. But Hashirama's eyes light up.

"Oh good! I've been wondering if these are edible. I'm starving."

"Good man!" Munch claps Hashirama on the back. "Everythin' is edible if you've got the stomach. I can see the promise in ya!"

"You're called Munch?" Hashirama asks eagerly. "I'm Hashirama. Thank you for taking care of my little brother."

Munch's face seems to droop a bit, but he quickly recovers.

"Hash it is!" grins Munch. "So you're Tobes' big bro?" Munch nudges an elbow at Tobirama, whose shoulders are statuesque rigid. I don't need to see his face clearly to tell he's uncomfortable.

"So the big bro came looking for this troublemaker, didn't ya?" Munch sing-songs.

"We're actually here for another reason," I say. "Munch, where's Mito?"

Munch stops heckling Tobirama, looking surprised.

"Oh, y'mean Red Lady One? She came by 'n left two days ago. Guess she's back home with those snooty relatives she keeps complainin' about."

"Relatives are where we came from," I say. "An elder servant of their household reported that she was taken hostage by some heretic," I say, quoting Elder Horio's words.

"Oooh, a heretic?" Munch gasps dramatically. "Y'gotta be more specific. Our neighbors are heretics. Forest's teemin' with 'em."

"We also thought the forest tribes were the culprits," says Hashirama. "But there's something else you should know."

We explain the situation to Munch and Tobirama over grilled snake (which, absurdly, tastes quite nice). I make sure to recount everything I can remember about the ambush of my palanquin, the encounter with Nezu and Horio in the woods, and the seal trap. As Tobirama's face grows more and more grim, Munch's grows increasingly excited.

"So even more people are after the Red Lady!" Munch crows. "But is it One or Two? And why? How thrilling!"

"The Red Lady?" echoes Hashirama.

Tobirama points at me. "Sa—"

"Me and Mito," I interject quickly. "Munch just likes to nickname people." This era's custom has become second nature now. I like Munch well enough, but it's a different matter to trust him with my identity.

At Hashirama's puzzled face, Tobirama adds: "Mito is the first Red Lady. She's the one Munch here met first. But what Munch didn't know until recently is that this Mito is Uzumaki Mito." Tobirama draws a spiral with his makeshift skewer branch into the ground. "Your fiancée, Brother."

Hashirama chokes loudly on his food.

Munch cackles. "Drama!" Arms crossed, he nods with a sated look. "To think, all this time, I never guessed that Red Lady One was the Uzumaki clan heiress. Call me blind! She was too snooty to be an ordinary girl. Too secretive about her identity, too."

Then, Munch points his skewer forward.

Straight at me.

"Kinda like you, Red Lady Two."

I chew a bite of food. "M'not sec'tive," I grumble, glaring daggers at my makeshift house mate.

Hashirama's laughter booms over our circle. "You are, though. And a bit snooty," he exclaims, wiping at his eyes. "You get these moods, which I honestly think are hereditary."

My cheeks feel hot. It's not Hashirama's words, but the horrified way in which Tobirama stares between me and his brother. Before I can open my mouth to retort that this is the famous Haruno temper, Munch starts laughing too. "Yer okay, Red Lady." The sandy-haired man stands and wipes his greasy fingers on his pants. "No one's perfect. Perfect's borin'."

I take another ferocious bite.

Tobirama also stands. "Brother, I last saw Mito leaving through the woods two days ago. But Munch here left out the fact that earlier that same day, another guest left the house. Izuna."

My skewer drops.

I have to stop myself from blurting my clan name.

"That Izuna?" I say. "He's here on the island?"

"Oh, you guys all know Izumi?" Munch asks. "Real small world, with everyone gatherin' here. Next thing you know, I'll run into my brother or somethin'."

Tobirama turns to his brother. "My point is, I bet Izuna had something to do with Mito not having made it home."

"Tobi. Not another word."

Surprise colors everyone's faces.

A bit shaken, I turn back to Munch. "Wait, why are you and Tobirama here?"

Tobirama remains tight-lipped.

"Snake hunting," Munch explains. "Y'know I like my food fresh everyday."

Quite fresh.

The nauseous images of pungent dung beetles, crawling spiny critters, and slick salamanders make my palms sweat. "I don't remember you bringing back snake?"

"Yer right. These didn't turn up 'til yesterday. One o' these burrowed clean through my hunting traps, so Tobes and I followed it to get our food back."

"How'd you follow it?" Hashirama asks. "Maybe we can find Horio."

"Easy peasey," says Munch.

He points a finger downward.

"They leave tunnels."

I regard uneasily the gaping hole in the ground where I was almost snake food.

"They take their food down underground to eat. I saw it. My poor rabbits and quails," Munch sniffs. "Though this Horio guy may be snake food already. Fer how suspicious he is, serves him right."

"If we do follow the tunnels, be careful, Brother," says Tobirama. "Some go far underground."

"Less talkin', more action!" cries Munch, who, with a full belly is an entirely transformed man.

"What about Mito?" I say. "If she's really kidnapped, we don't have time."

"Think logically," says Tobirama, addressing me for the first time. "You don't have any proof she's at this so-called base." As if realizing who he's lecturing, he looks away awkwardly. "I think it's better to have more people in our party, in case the natives are hostile."

"I say we don't go in there at all." Munch shudders. "Y'can at least eat snakes, but we're just wastin' energy going into where y'think the forest guys are. Betcha the whole kidnapping thing is just a lie that Horio guy told ya."

"It could be a lie," says Hashirama. "But we gave our word to the Uzumaki clan head that we'd try to find her."

Tobirama steps forward. "I'll go scan the cliff first, Brother. I'm the best scout in our clan."

Hashirama frowns. "I made the promise."

"You also made a promise to Father, remember? To secure the alliance. There will be no alliance if our clan heir dies walking into an unknown enemy den."

Around our circle, the air shifts. Dense chakra vacuums the pocket of space around the campfire. Sitting beside me, Munch goes rigid, back taut. He hasn't felt Hashirama's chakra signature before. The strange man reminds me of a big kid in some ways. I reach out to pat the back of Munch's hand.

Finally, voice exhausted, Hashirama says:

"We'll follow you after we investigate the tunnel. Munch, will you please accompany my brother?"

"I should go find Mito too," I say, while stamping down my feelings toward working with Tobirama.

"Not as you are," Hashirama reasons. He motions at his eyes. Tobirama's jaw twitches. "Besides, Munch is a local."

"Nuh-uh. Noooo way. I haven't lived here long either, Hash!" Munch shakes his head vigorously, then pauses, and cocks his chin toward the Senju. "Though… if yer heir of yer clan… what'll y'give me in return?"

A trick question.

The time Munch asked me this, I was surrounded by expensive shells on the edge of the seaside. I thought I could bribe Munch with those. Turns out he only wanted the seafood.

Hashirama only smiles wanly.

"The best barbeque the Mainland has to offer. Deal?"

Although the tunnel's diameter easily fits a human, the slope of its walls requires moving briskly single-file. A few inches in front of my nose, Hashirama's clothes smell even more strongly of snake than the tunnel we're in.

"How'd you read Munch like that?" I say offhand.

"I know a thing or two about bargaining," comes the reply.

From placing wagers on dice and cards, surely.

Still, I grin in spite of myself. "So you're pretty smart after all."

Next thing I know, my face is smooshed up against some stinky robes. Coughing, I unpeel myself. After an awkward pause, Hashirama's back keeps moving, faster than before.

In my haste, a large pebble catches my foot.

I hit the tunnel floor nose first.

Never mind. This wins over Hashirama's clothes.

As I right myself, a glimmer catches my eye.

"Move the light here! I found something strange."

Our makeshift torch made of a tree branch wrapped with a cloth soaked with snake oil is brought closer. Illuminated up close, the glossy-looking smudge on the dark ground is even more apparent.

"That shiny stuff?" murmurs Hashirama.

"Paint, maybe. It's metallic."

My finger hovers over the curling streak. It looks like the remnant of a bad paint job over an old road. I'm reminded of festival decorations growing up where we painted Konoha's streets orange and gold. Besides glaring bad taste, the persistence of the metallic residue stressed out the service workers who washed the streets.

"Let's keep going. Maybe there's more of it."

It's not five minutes before we stop again.

"What's wrong?" I gasp, in between spitting out the taste of Hashirama's clothes.

"Sorry," Hashirama says. "I could have sworn this wasn't a dead end…"

"The tunnel must have collapsed," I grumble. "Guess we go back."

No reply. I peer past his shoulder at the wall of dirt.

Then I see it, too.

Familiar, glimmering curlicues.

"It's the same," I marvel.

"More of the stuff from before," agrees Hashirama.

Nudging close to the wall, my finger traces the pattern along the rough soil. The shiny trails cover the entire wall, revealing the full pattern.

"Not just that," I say. "I've been taught to draw these by the Uzumaki instructors at the manor. These are the same patterns as the seals inside Mito's sedan."

Wordlessly, I look to Hashirama. He looks quizzically back.

"Sorry about this," I say. "But I don't know what happens next."

Hashirama offers a small smile. "This island's secrets run deep."

"Nothing wrong with a few secrets." I grin wryly.

"Well said, Miss Mirror."

My smile falls away as I bite my thumb to draw blood, then form the hand seals. Just as Mito's instructor taught me.






"Those are summons seals," Hashirama comments, as he copies. "But backwards."

"Not quite," I say. "One more."

I twist my fingers together, pinky to thumb. Then twist my palms upside down to create horns.

"Rabbit seal," Hashirama comments. "Inverted."

"The sign of six paths," I amend. "The Uzumaki believe it draws on a divine power, to warp dimensions."

"Amazing," says Hashirama.

"Says the god of shinobi," I quip.

And with that, we both put our hands to the wall.

We emerge tumbling to a hard floor, covered in a familiar slime.

Lightheaded, I peel back my hair from my face. Beside me, Hashirama is coughing out mucus. The familiar burning against my skin makes me think we were just spat out from the mouth of a very familiar creature. But the snake is nowhere to be seen.

We're greeted by the sight of a dimly lit cavern, no bigger than my old living room. There's only one exit, a narrow pathway opposite us. Torches are placed around the circular space, flickering unevenly against subterranean air currents. There's also several large earthen basins with what appears to be water, as well as a mass of folded linens.

"Karma," Hashirama says mournfully. "I eat it, it eats me. Though this is not what I imagined the inside of the snake to be."

I feel the air shift around us. "Wherever this is, we should lay low."

"Is this still Whirlpool Island? The forest tribes' base?" Hashirama whispers. "We'll transform to blend in."

"I don't know what forest people look like," I admit.

"A tree, then," declares Hashirama. "I'm quite good at it."

Oh, that talking tree from when we met? Eyebrow up, I wave an arm at the distinctly tree-less cavern. "Really?"

We settle for swapping our snake-ruined clothes with the folded linens. They turn out to be thick white tunics that just skirt above my ankles, and to Hashirama's knees. I scoop water from the basin onto my burning face and hands, as I resolutely ignore Hashirama changing in the corner. Then, after both of us are relatively acid-free, we pad out of the cavern, following the direction of the breeze as good spelunkers do.

Hashirama walks in front, an arrangement that still stings. While the ground here is even and smooth, my poor eyesight makes it a handicap for me to lead. Stubbornly, I try the Sharingan, but all it does is make me notice tiny roaches skittering along the rocky narrow hallways. I blink rapidly, disoriented.

And come face to face with a demon.

I stamp down my punch reflex, hand instead shooting out to grab Hashirama's. He winces as I squeeze, then peers in the direction I'm facing.

"Creepy statue," he whispers.

My Sharingan fades. But the ghoulish horns, skeletal ribs, and pointed teeth with a knife clutched in its jaws are still strangely haunting, even as they become indistinct. "Pretty realistic, too," adds Hashirama. I can tell he's trying to make me feel better. "Let's keep moving."

We duck into another empty corridor that seems to stretch on forever.

This time, I hear sounds at the other end.

It's a familiar shrieking sound. But amplified. A cacophony of sound ricochets off rocky walls. We break out into a run. I slam into Hashirama's back again. I'm grateful his clothes smell fairly clean.

The floor drops off entirely. Our hallway is actually a tiny opening high up on the side of an enormous, amphitheater-like room the size of a concert stadium.

I look down, and instantly regret it.

The sight below churns my stomach. Sure enough, the giant snakes are here, wrecking havoc around the cavern floor. Flesh-colored pinpricks are herded along the ground, scooped up into mouths like beans.

"We have to do something!" I say, instincts kicking in.

"Wait a sec," Hashirama grabs my arm. "See those gold markings again? On snakeskin?"

I squint. Something's glinting off of torchlight.

"I think so."

"I can see clearly," Hashirama says. "I don't think those snakes are eating these people. Everyone's so calm, it's creepy."


I nearly fall off the ledge in shock.

Whirling, I see a hooded, white-robed figure several feet away. The figure is backlit, so I can't make out physical features. Something silvery gleams from his neck.

My palms curl to fists.

"I'm not a foe," says the figure. "Merely a priest."

The voice makes my skin crawl. It feels not quite human. But then again, given what we've seen so far in this place, nothing feels right.

"You have been sent here by the Shikigami, yes?" the figure asks.


I cut Hashirama off. "Sure."

The person's hooded head bobs. "Not you. You have been sent by something else entirely."

My pulse quickens. "Who are you?"

"Again, a priest."

"Your name?"

"I have many. I guess the same is true of you two."

Hashirama steps between us. "Are you related to those people down there?" he demands. "What's happening?"

"They are being sent by Shikigami-sama to do a great deed."

"What deed?" Hashirama presses.

"So full of questions," the priest gurgles, as if laughing. "As I said, they are being sent. But perhaps you understand better with different words. They are going to battle."

"You just said you're not a foe," I grit out.

"That is because you are not an Uzumaki," says the priest. "Or are you?"

So cold.

Where once the dry robes felt warm, they now feel thin and damp. "I'm not."

"Strange. I feel that you have an affinity to that clan."

The priest takes a step towrd us. Hashirama spreads his arms across the narrow hall.

"Don't come closer," he warns. "If you want a fight with the Uzumaki, then try me."

"I know you are not an Uzumaki," says the priest. "Your chakra tastes familiar, Senju."

History books acknowledge that the Senju and Uzumaki have intricate, longstanding ties. But how does this creepy priest know these things about us?

"Don't look so put out, Senju. You will be useful one day," the priest says. "But I'm intrigued…"

In a second, the priest seems to blur into the shadows, gliding along the wall, to reappear on the opposite side of me. I manage to stop the first fist, then catch the second hand. What I'm not expecting is the fisted hand to twist and bend, as if liquefying. The appendage circles my wrist and twines up my arm to catch a hold of my shoulder. Almost a chokehold, from the back.

I can't see the priest's face, but the eerie voice is so close to my ear.

"Let's take a look, shall we?"

So cold.

"Let her go!" I register in the background.

"In due time," the priest grins. "Don't get so agitated, or I might kill her by accident."

I can't tell if I hear the voice outside or inside my head.

"You hear me, don't you?"

I will myself to breathe evenly.

"Don't feel too bad. Telepathy is hard to resist, especially for the intelligent and powerful. Tell me… who is this Uzumaki Boruto? His name is so clear, in your head."

No, I mouth. No one.

"Oh, he's a someone. A very powerful someone. Rather like you. You've got so. Much. Potential. I like that."

A tremor runs up my spine.

The flood of memories is about to escape. But if they do, I want it to be on my terms. I force chakra to my arm, dislocating the joint, twisting my body to face the priest's. Before he can slither away, before he can squeeze shut his strangely glowing pupils—

—our eyes lock.

The cavern falls away.

Sounds fall way. Touch, sensation. I no longer feel the pain of my arm.

The sky is tar black.

"Now you listen," I say.

The priest's hood is tugged away. The head appears but an inky shadow. I can't fathom the reason for this nightmarish appearance. This reality is imperfect and subjective, a reflection of my own fears and biases.

"Impressive." The priest whistles. "Everything here seems out of time, out of space."

"An illusion," I say. Not a lie, technically.

"Yet so realistic," continues the effusive praise. "But it can't be real. You have quite the imagination, young lady." The priest stills, taking in the ruined landscape of Konoha. "… Or do you?"

"You first. Tell me where we really are."

"Whirlpool Island," says the shadowy mouth. "I thought that was obvious."

"You said those people are being sent to battle. With who? Where?"

"What easy questions!" the priest yawns. "You didn't have to do all this to make me tell you." As thorns rise from the ground and begin to twine around his ankles, he sobers. "Just a small, localized war."

"Stop it with the secrets."

"Hypocrite, are we?" the priest sighs. "Let me tell you a story. A long time ago, the people on this island were pious folk. They discovered the secrets to sealing through daily devotions, and their technique grew as their chakra grew. It was perfect. But time passed, and the bloodline became diluted. Fewer and fewer had the right chakra. Some started to forget the old ways. Married outsiders. Gave themselves new names."

There's no history book that covers this far back. "What names?" I ask.

"You know one. Uzumaki."

"You hate them?"

"Oh, it doesn't matter if I like the Uzumaki. But unless the forest tribes can reclaim this island, their chakra bloodline will never recover."

"I don't follow."

The priest raises his hands in an exaggerated shrug. "It's a given that stronger chakra is better, yes? These tribes have long had the strongest, most unique chakra signatures. Oh… I suppose that once in a blue moon, an Uzumaki child is born with unique chakra, but then the child grows and is used to hunt down the very ancestry it should thank for its gift. Still, the forest tribes are pious. They believe that those pure of chakra should be spared from death, and have removed them from the village before the war."

"A civil war," I murmur. "Then those snakes…"

"Sending the pious to do great deeds. In your secular language, they are moving the fighters into Uzumaki village." The priest gurgles. "I'm bored. Do I get to ask a question now? Who is this Madara I see in your brain? He intrigues me."

"None of your business," I grit out—

—and kick the intruder out.

With a sharp yank, I extricate myself from the priest's hold, and push. As hard as I can. The hooded figure falls from the ledge, down into the mess of bodies below.

A lingering echo sounds in my ears.

'You'll kill again. Kill the ones you love.'

As the priest's parting words recede, the sharp pain in my arm grows very real. But it's a welcome pain. I'm here, in the present. And there's no future I'm forced to think of, except the one I'll be making anew. I snap my joint back in place, and taste blood from where I bite my own cheek.

Warm hands settle over my shaking shoulders. Hashirama's face is haunted, reflecting how I feel. "What happened? I saw you caught that priest with your Sharingan."

"That's no priest," I gasp. "I'm not sure if that's even human. Let's get out of here."

"Where? Did you figure out what's happening down there?"

"Sort of." If this is a civil war, and my hypotheses are correct, then we're in a race against time. "I don't like it either, but we need to leave Mito to Munch and Tobirama. Something a lot bigger is happening."

I move to the ledge, squinting at the blurry scene down below.

Then I turn to look back at Hashirama.

For Naruto-sama's clan. For Konoha.

"Hey," I say with a shaky grin. "You said you trusted me."

He nods.

"How do you feel about getting swallowed whole?"

Understanding dawns on Hashirama's face.

"As long as we bring some extra clothes."

Getting eaten is not the hard part. Neither is being spit back out in a dripping mess, now that we have the foresight to swab down with extra fabric. In fact, the furthest thing from my mind is how abused my epidermis is, as I watch three hundred odd people stream onto the sloped mountainside. They're tiny pinpricks, crawling in the dim light of pre-dawn. The serpents that brought them seem strangely entranced, ducking back into holes in the ground. Maybe they're bringing more.

I squint at the hordes of figures who begin to clamber down the the mountain toward the main village. The ones several yards away, I can tell, are red-haired. They're bandaged from head to toe in what appears to be gauze of various colors. They carry few weapons I can see, only plentiful scroll holsters.

Several of those nearby seem to wave their arms at a few other figures along the mountain, who crumple.

Darts! Poisoned ones, like those used on Mito's attendants!

I duck and roll close to the ground. Not for the first time, I curse my poor eyesight. Hashirama is nowhere to be seen, so I pat off my clothes and break out into a dead run.

Here's the hard part:

Our plan is to find Uzumaki Ryuchiro, and keep him safe. Then, if we can, do the same to the leader of the tribes, that Zetsu that Horio described.

But first, avoid dying.

"Commander!" a nearby fighter shouts. "Nezu's here with news!"

I run in their direction, transforming myself to have red hair and bandages across my face and limbs. Then I duck behind a tree several feet away.

"… Ryuchiro is … shrine," I catch.

The rest is too hard to hear.

I move closer to the trio, pretending to be fixing my hair.

"Get him into a palanquin," says a man who is too tall and large to be Nezu. He's more like a small house than a mouse, at nearly three times the size of me, with a braided trail what look to be tassels coming down from the crown of his head. I can't see any trace of skin, just bandages swathed all around.

"Think about what reward you want, Nezu. The Continent can be yours. The entire world, should you serve faithfully."

"The honor is mine, Commander Zetsu."

My breath catches. This is my chance. But how does one remove a commander from the middle of his troops? If I fight him up close, I risk my own head. If I move farther, I can't see.

There's another option.


'You'll kill again. Kill the ones you love.'

That's right. Without my eyesight, Susanoo could mean indiscriminate destruction. A throbbing headache starts. My fingers knead at my temples. I bear no grudge against the forest tribes, nor do I want the added cost of alerting the whole world of my true identity. Besides, I should cleave only unpopulated mountains, without shrines sacred to the clan I'm trying to impress.

My thoughts focus.

Find Uzumaki Ryuchiro first. If the Clan Head's the one the forest tribes want in the palanquin, then I need to keep him far away from the carriage.

But where is he? There was talk of a shrine. Which shrine?

I think of what Mito's instructor said about shrine rituals. Think, Sarada! Depending on the lunar season, the male clan head's scheduled visits are two or four hours before Mito's shrine visit schedule. I can't recall what lunar season this is. Regardless, the options are finite.

What time is it, though?

A periwinkle sky is overhead.

One hour to dawn? Less?

I start sprinting up the mountain, toward the lower third shrine, carved into the barren rock face on the eastern end away from the village. It's slower going than I would like, especially as the rest of the fighters dressed in bandages are heading down the mountain. In an overabundance of caution, I actually slow my ascent a few times.

Until I spot a dim figure heading up the mountain as well.

"Did you see it?" I call as a test. "The shrine dedicated to Miss Mirror."

The man starts running up, accelerating. I hold up my fists, prepared to fight in case I've been found out.

But he stops just short, and heaves a long, winded sigh.

"The scribbles on your bandages aren't quite right," he says. "Miss Mirror."

I nearly collapse with relief. "Glad you made it."

"Me and most of my hair," says Hashirama. "By the way, where are you going?"

"To find the clan head."

I recount everything I saw and heard with the Commander Zetsu, Nezu, and the palanquin plan.

"So why are you heading up the mountain?" I ask.

Hashirama appears grim. "I heard something among the fighters. The forest tribes have hidden a secret weapon at the top of the mountain."

"Secret weapon?" I echo. Sounds like cheesy television. "Well, let's get Uzumaki Ryuchiro out of here."

Hashirama catches my sleeve.

"What now? There's no time," I stress, trying to shake his hand away. "If you don't want to come, go catch their Commander Zetsu with a tree or something."

"Not a bad thought," Hashirama scratches the back of his head. "But it should be ready by now. Our secret weapon."

We stare at each other in silence.

"You don't say," I deadpan.

"Actually, I'm not sure what it is, either." Hashirama explains in earnest. "And there's a chance it's not done, but I need you to check, Sarada. This mountain is covered in woods, so I'll take of things up here. You go down to the village, to a store called 'Gion Yunyuhin.' There, you'll find my cousin Gouda. He'll have what we need. Please trust me."


"Trust. What friends do."

Hashirama watches my anger rise.

"It includes all sorts of activities," he adds softly. "Like getting eaten by snakes and running down mountains."

Something's tearing. Maybe the fabric of this era.

Maybe my sleeve.

"What if I don't want to?" I sniff.

Unexpectedly, Hashirama cracks a smile. A real one, which warms his tired face.

"But maybe it's the right thing to do."

Glistening trails the size of train tracks mar the streets of Uzumaki village. Flecked with bits of gold paint, they are both horrifying and beautiful to behold, as I run down the cobbled streets, trying to make out the ruined sign posts. Every few minutes, the ground begins to shake, like a small earthquake. I tell myself to keep running. It's likely some of the serpents that retreated from the mountain are here, and have begun tunneling under the town.

Gion Yunyuhin - an imports shop.

Third building down Gakusha Lane, crossing with Main Street.

Main street has been gouged out. The once plentiful trees have been splintered, its paper lanterns blown away onto the shuttered porches. I try to piece together the remaining road signage as I search for Gakusha Lane. I have to activate my Sharingan on and off to try to read the street names.

G—sha, one sign reads.

I run down, only to realize it's an entertainment district.

—kusha, reads another.

An alley of repair shops for carriages and carriage parts.

G—a, reads another.

Close enough.

I kick down the bolted door of the shop front, squinting with Sharingan on as I try to distinguish between the small number of shocked, frightened faces in the room. Everyone I see has varying shades of red hair. None of them look like the Cousin Gouda I had transformed into previously.

Ah. There. Under the table.

A shockwave from below hits the building, and some of the roofing comes undone. A few young children start crying, hugging their pale-faced parents.

"Are you Gouda?" I gasp, crawling down to join the shuddering man.

"I wish I wasn't," Gouda says despondently. "Though I guess it won't matter, soon."

"Your cousin told me to find you," I say, clutching at the tilting ground. "He says you have a secret weapon."

"Tobirama?" Gouda frowns.

"Hashirama," I say, exasperated. The man who has a talent for describing his cousin, apparently.

"Oh." Gouda smacks his lips. "Then you're that girl he was talking about. Well, I have it with me. But it comes at a price."

"Just hurry it up!" I snarl. "It won't be long before the forest tribe fighters arrive."

A few whimpers sound around the room.

"It's a promise, then," whines Gouda. "You have to set me up with a friend."

I have to physically stop myself from shaking Gouda in my frustration. He reaches into his haori, takes out a small wrapped cloth bundle, and then proceeds to painstakingly remove layer after layer of fabric.

What the hell secret weapon is this? A pocket knife? My teeth clench. Maybe it's a powerful scroll.

By the time the last layer is unwrapped, my throat has gone bone dry.

The shape is unmistakable.

"Secret weapoooon—" Gouda says in perfect monotone. "—Unveiled."


It's a pair of glasses.








Notes: This arc is steeped in cultural (and Naruto) lore, the multitude of which I won't bore you with, but feel free to PM. However, what you may find interesting for foreshadowing the future plot is the translation of Gion Yunyuhin as Gion's Imports. As a side note for fun, Gakusha Lane is Scholar's Lane, which fits since we're talking about glasses. The ruined signage are all meant to match the stuff in the street too. Perhaps you can guess the missing letters.

As always, huge thanks for your patience and insightful words.