Author's Note: This started out as a silly injoke. Then it
turned into this. Hopefully, I'll be able to carry the story through to
the end, but it's going to take some time.
five years before the present
Sonmei was seven when a band of rogue Sound-nin raided his village. He had grown up with war, had known it for as long as he had been alive, but this was the first time he'd been out in the streets and watching the attack when it happened. The closeness of the battle was a shock, but not exactly a deterrent to him.
Something splashed at his feet, and he stared at it for a puzzled moment. It was red, and darkening as it spread.
Blood, he realized. He jerked as something flew past him, then again as the window behind him fractured and fell to the ground in pieces.
And then he couldn't restrain himself any longer. He had his kunai with him, of course; all capable children over the age of six did, in these times. He'd been told to keep to himself in situations like this. He didn't care. He knew he was more capable than any ten of his so-called peers. What was the point of that if he couldn't use them?
He'd cut a visible swath into the charge of invaders before he caught sight of his mother's long hair at the edge of his vision. She'd been growing it out for as long as he could remember, and now it was a sweeping pink curtain wherever she went. He barely had the time to register her presence before she grabbed hold of him and pulled him out of the fray.
She was only bent over him for a moment, but it was enough. She'd missed just one Sound-nin when she came in after him, and that one was approaching her, too fast for her to stop him.
"Mom, over there!" But she wasn't moving fast enough, and the Sound-nin was coming at an unpredictable angle, lashing out with some kind of razor-sharp bow.
What happened next cut hard into Sonmei's memory and left its mark there perfectly. His vision changed. That had never happened before.
He saw without knowing how that the bow's edge itself, which his mother was already moving to dodge, wasn't the only point of attack, or even the main one. He could make out, somehow, that the bow was emitting dense waves of sound at strange angles. He wasn't sure what they could do--no, another split-second and he could tell that they were probably intended to scramble internal organs.
Every motion the Sound-nin made was laid bare to him, fed into his brain in almost dazzling detail. He didn't let it dazzle him. Instead, he leapt at the perfect angle to intercept his opponent--his opponent now, because he had to protect his mother, and he was fiercely proud to know this. When the older ninja paused in surprise, Sonmei grabbed the back of the bow, twisted it around, and pushed it forward just so.
His victim stared at him for a moment, but Sonmei could tell it was already over even before the Sound-nin folded over and collapsed, blood running from the sides of his mouth.
"Sonmei," his mother said. He turned to look at her, and he could see chakra spinning in controlled spirals inside her. He paused, mesmerized. But there was something strange behind her.
The window that had broken just before he leapt into battle. One large shard of glass reflected his image, and there was something very strange about his eyes.
"Sonmei," she said again, more sharply this time. "Close your eyes."
Too disturbed to do anything else, he obeyed.
"Now open them."
And then his vision was normal again, and in the broken glass, his eyes were as dark as ever.
The Hokage visited their house that night, in between cleaning up the aftermath of the battle. Sonmei came home midway through the ensuing conversation. He immediately proceeded to flatten himself against a wall, murmur a genjutsu, and fade into the woodwork.
His father was sprawled on the couch with his eyes closed and his arms folded behind his head, but Sonmei knew he wasn't asleep, even if at the moment, only his mother and Godaime were talking.
The Hokage looked very tired, but she always did, when he saw her. "So what now?"
"We find someone to train him," his mother said. "Someone who can do it discreetly."
Godaime made a face. "Not many people like that left, Sakura."
They were both silent for a long moment. In the end, it was his father who finally spoke. "We wait," he said without opening his eyes. "We make sure that his public teachers have no idea how to handle him and make him out to be an idiot, and we train him in private, and we wait."
"One problem," Sakura said. "I can't teach him unless you want me to blow my cover. And Ino's too busy with ANBU."
His father stared up at the ceiling and declined to comment.
"You know I can't do it," the Fifth said. "There's only so long I can hide that sort of thing, and then they'll start asking why the Hokage is wasting her time training her student's useless bastard."
"Pity?" his father suggested, without much hope in his voice.
"Please," she said.
He shrugged a little without bothering to put much effort into it.
"You know," Sakura said, "you're supposed to be his father." That was met with a snort of disbelief. "You could always teach him Kagemane..."
"Kagemane dies with me," Shikamaru said quietly.
"Fine," the Hokage said, a little sharply. "Just great. I really don't want to have to bring someone new into this. So again. What do we do now?"
"Well--" Sakura began. She paused, then said slowly, "There's one person who already has reason to suspect that I'm not just a resigned housewife."
Three pairs of eyes, two visible and one not, fixed on her.
"She forged my chakra sword," she said, "and she maintains it now. She knows enough to tell that it's more than decorative."
Silence settled on the room. After what might as well have been a year, Shikamaru slid his gaze back down to focus on the exact spot where Sonmei stood hidden against the wall. "Hey, Sonmei, how would you like to learn how to use weapons?"
Sonmei knew better than to try to pretend he hadn't been spotted. His father knew these things. He dismissed the genjutsu and stood firmly and without shame to face the adults. "I already know how to use weapons," he said patiently. "Did you see what I did to the Sound-nin today?"
"Yeah, all nine of them," Shikamaru said. "Including the last, but the first eight you took out with your weapons and your bare hands." He rubbed at his face. "You have no idea how troublesome..." He trailed off, his eyes almost closing.
"That's gonna take a lot of work for us to explain, kiddo," Godaime said.
"Whatever," Sonmei said. He knew his parents and the Hokage wouldn't let him use his own talents, much less take credit for them when he did. He also knew he couldn't change that or even get a believable explanation for it out of them, and that only made him resent it more. "What it means is, I know my weapons, okay?"
"Not like your new sensei does, you don't," his mother said.
Sonmei blinked. "My--"
"You could have talked to her about it first," his father suggested wearily.
"Once she knows what's at stake," Sakura said calmly, "she has to agree."
"You're probably right," Shikamaru said, but he didn't sound any happier about it.
The Hokage rose from her seat. "Now that that's worked out," she said, "I have other things to do." Behind her back, Shikamaru made as if he were lifting something to his mouth repeatedly and gave his wife a questioning look. She nodded, her mouth twisted unhappily.
Sonmei held his breath as she passed him by. It was a silly habit, but he always had the vague feeling that she wrapped herself in illusions so fragile that the slightest puff of air could bring them tumbling down, with dreadful consequences. He knew this made no sense, that what illusions she had were surely quite durable, but that didn't stop him from feeling that way.
She stopped and turned to look at him. He was struck by the profound sadness in her eyes: the kind of patient, tempered grief that only built up over ages. It was the one clear flaw in her genjutsu. Otherwise, she looked younger than his parents, but though he'd never been able to confirm it directly with anyone else, her eyes told him all he needed to know about her true age. "...Hokage-sama," he said carefully.
She smiled at him, and he thought she probably meant it to be kind, but it was heartbreakingly sad. "I knew a kid who used a genjutsu like yours once," she said. "He wasn't as good as you, though, because I'd always catch him, and then he'd have bruises for days. I was just a kid then myself, of course."
"Where is he now?" Sonmei asked, although he thought he might already know the answer.
"Same place they all are, kiddo," she said. "Same place they all are. Underground or in ashes."
three years before the present
When Sonmei decided to go to training early one morning, he wasn't really thinking about the consequences. He mostly just wanted to get away from the snide murmurs that followed him. They thought he couldn't hear, but he knew exactly what they said: the mutters about why does the Nara put up with him; about how much his mother has given up for his sake; about how he was so useless to his ninja parents, they had to fob him off on the poor sad weaponsmith in the hopes of getting him to learn some trade.
He knew this was what his parents wanted (and sometimes he wondered if even his mother was his real parent; he knew his father wasn't), but that didn't make it any less frustrating. Sometimes it was hard to resist the urge to grab them and show them just how much better he was than they thought. He was better than they were, and he knew it.
Simmering in these thoughts, he nearly walked into the forge without taking note of its contents. His instincts only kicked in at the last second, and he paused in the doorway.
Tenten was sitting on the bench, just finishing tucking half of her hair into one bun. As he watched, she started on the other side. It seemed almost wrong for him to see this, as if he'd caught sight of a weapon he was meant to carry into battle while it was still sizzling on the forge--only more personal than that.
He watched anyway, because he liked to see things.
Even in this, she wasted no movement. It was done in less than a minute.
"Sensei," he said. She looked up, only a little surprise showing in the set of her jaw, and none reaching her sad eyes. "Wouldn't it be easier to just braid your hair, or keep it in a ponytail, or even just cut it short?"
She paused for a moment before saying, "Utility isn't everything. Only most of everything. Sonmei, why are you here so early?"
She gave him a hard stare. "I was going to visit the Hyuuga estate this morning. I still am. You can stay here and clean up until I get back."
He stared back. "What if I want to come along?"
She stood up, her mouth set into a thin line. "We don't always get what we want." But her expression softened. "Tell me. Have you ever been on the Hyuuga grounds before?"
"Of course not," he said. "I'm just the useless 'Nara' kid, too bad my parents have to put up with me, but at least after all they've been through they've finally found happiness with each other." He paused. "Why do people believe that, sensei? I know they're not in love."
"Your mother is a very good actress," Tenten said. "She always has been. Are you coming with me"
If rumor was to be believed (and Sonmei knew it wasn't always), the teenage ANBU member who let them in at the gate had once been in line for head of the Hyuuga clan, before her father died and her older sister took over. If rumor was to be believed, the current clan leader wasn't quite right in the head, hadn't been since her cousin died, and Hanabi was the one who did most of the actual work.
Sonmei doubted it, personally. He was pretty sure Hanabi would have refused her appointment to ANBU if she had most of the work of managing the clan to deal with as well. But there was something wrong with Hyuuga Hinata. Supposedly she hadn't left the Hyuuga grounds since returning from the mission where Tenten-sensei's teammates lost their lives. Since even his parents and the Hokage subscribed to this belief, Sonmei was pretty sure it was more than just a rumor.
He was prepared for the quiet purpose throughout most of the grounds, for the cool determination of what was left of the clan after the wars. But the head family's mansion was another story.
Sonmei wasn't prepared at all for the extent of the silence there, for the emptiness. It was nearly desolate. He wondered if, since the Hyuuga could not escape one sense, they attempted to rid themselves of all distractions in the others. He doubted he'd be able to ask.
"Stay here," Tenten instructed him. "You don't want to poke into places you're not meant to be, not in this house." But there was a certain resignation to her tone. She knew exactly how likely he was to follow that order.
He opened his mouth to ask why she wasn't taking him with her, but she was already striding away. That wasn't much of a loss, as far as he was concerned. He'd much rather be exploring on his own than following her.
Sonmei edged his way down a side hallway, gently rattling doors and opening them when he could. But there wasn't much to see. Maybe that was a Hyuuga thing--but he didn't know. He did know that there that there had to be secrets here for him to find.
All the same, he had to go through three different corridors until he found one.
The room was unremarkable save for the distinctive split-blade shape of a chakra sword hanging on the back wall, but that was special enough. There were only five chakra swords in the village: three used by ANBU members, one used by his sensei, and one that hung on his mother's wall. Sonmei would have figured this one to be Hanabi's, but Tenten had mentioned to him once that the Hyuuga didn't use the tamashii no ken technique. None of them had chakra swords.
Besides, this was clearly an early design. By all rights it should have been reforged into a more efficient shape years ago.
"Excuse me," said a soft voice behind him.
Sonmei spun around. He hadn't bothered concealing himself with genjutsu during his exploration; he doubted his tricks would have much effect on the Byakuugan. But it was still embarrassing to be spotted so easily. The woman watching him curiously didn't even look like much of a ninja.
"A-are you Sakura-san's son?" she asked. She looked the same age as his mother, but her voice trembled and shivered like a young girl's.
"My name is Sonmei," he said. He never bothered with the family name when he wanted to be taken seriously.
"I thought so," she said. Then, very hesitantly, she said, "You know, I--I know what it's like, to be...less than what everyone expects of you. I just thought..." She trailed off, her hands clasped before her, fingers twitching against each other. "If there's anything I can do to help..."
This was what Sonmei hated the most about the lies around him. Pity was much worse than derision. "I don't think there is."
Her face went slightly pink. "I--I'm sorry," she said. "I just--your sensei is here too, isn't she?"
He paused and stared at her for a moment. Then he said, "Hinata-san?" He could tell by her expression that he was right. "I thought she'd be with you. Isn't that what she comes here for?"
"Not always," Hinata said. "Sometimes she spends time in the room where Neji-niisan stayed after he moved in here. I don't disturb her then."
Sonmei just shook his head, uninterested (although he filed the information away for later), and pointed at the chakra sword on the wall. "Whose is that?"
She went from pale pink to very red in seconds. "It was a friend's," she stammered. "H-he's gone now. I keep it safe."
"A friend? Who?"
Hinata stared down at her fingers as she twiddled them. "I--I think you should ask your parents about that," she mumbled. "I shouldn't say anything, really..."
Maybe if she had looked less sad, maybe if there had been more strength in her voice, he would have pressed her for more information. But he couldn't quite find it in him to make her suffer more.
But when he questioned his parents on the subject, the information they gave him was maddeningly useless.
one year before the present
It is dark where he is these days.
The man in the darkness paces in widening circles, and he imagines that his footsteps leave deeper shadow where they go.
He thinks (hopes) that perhaps there is still another man somewhere, one whose footsteps leave echoes of light when he walks in spirals.
He immolated that boy (man) thirteen years ago, but there was no body, and he's sure the flames weren't hot enough to burn it to ash.
There must still be light somewhere.
Until it returns, he will keep the darkness going, because it is all he knows.
But sometimes, part of him still wants to see the light.