A/N: This was done for the Livejournal community '20 truths'. I hope you enjoy it.
1. A body floats downstream, currents eddying about the slender fingers, the waterlogged bandages, the long pale hair that spreads out like sunlight's reflection on water. Clear blue eyes, eyelids stripped by the considerate mouths of silver fish and turtles, lie open to the stars. Her name was Yugito Nii, and her dream has ended.
2. She wonders, sometimes, why the other children hide themselves from her, why her caretakers look at her with eyes veiled with sorrow, why she can never remember the touch of a human hand. She wonders why the thick black waves around her neck pain her, and why she does not have a mother, and why she cannot hold a paintbrush, but a kunai fits her tiny hand perfectly.
Until one day, the day she becomes a genin at six years old, she is given a reason, encapsulated in one small word, four syllables, and the word is 'jinchuuriki'.
3. When she sleeps, she runs with loping strides across the endless monochrome plains, with foreign stars whirling overhead, the white moon huge and low in the sky, black fire sighing through her veins and the souls of the dead children of the world following her, pale and glowing and ethereal.
'I am the Nekomata,' the words slide across the blank glass of her mind, written in flame, 'and I will kill you one day.' She slips up from the dreams every morning, but holds the knowledge that she will die one day close to her heart.
4. She has no genin team. She has no jounin-sensei. The first mission she is given is B-rank, and she knows that it has been given to her in the hopes that she will fail, will die, will crumble to bones outside Kumogakure's walls, the last relic of the ancient demons gone to dust. She does not fail, for as the missing-nin's hands close around her throat and his thumbs stroke her closed eyes, nails catching on the pale veins, she opens her mouth to draw in her last breath, but instead breathes flame, black and fearsome, and opens her eyes to see his skin boil and slough from his skull, the hands loosening, the body falling to kneel on the scorched earth in the shapes of men and animals. She breathes, and listens to the sound relentless of the gods grinding the world to dust.
5. A war with Kirigakure that has lasted a year so far. Another death. She is nine and on a low island in the northern sea, the black rocks of the island sharp and slick with rain, slicing her feet to bone as she trudges forward, racked with a terrible fatigue, speechless and tired, to kill another person. She has spent a month on this island, and dreams of running, climbing, fighting in the dark, and wakes to the reality of her dreams, real as war.
Lightning, elemental and white-blue, flies from her hands, and catches the woman across her belly, red lines spidering out across her skin as heat flickers, and the woman howls her pain.
Yugito closes, a kunai in her hand, and disembowels her, the steam of her body rising in the rainy air. She turns, and feels the pitiless cold surf against her face, and sees the vast stinking ocean awash with the bodies of the dead. The council mines their lives for another war.
6. The old blind man lives below her, and he does not know what she is. She calls him Grandfather, and he smiles his toothless smile and gives her tea and biscuits. She is ten years old when he says, "When you move, you sound like a dancer. I think that to see you fight would be seeing poetry." If combat is her poetry, then she is indeed a poet, the best poet Kumo has seen for years. She is feared by jounin and ANBU alike, and she is only a child.
Kiri attacks, a suicidal assault against the village that has taken everything from it, and she throws herself into the battle, writing a sonnet in blood and flames. By the end of it, the shinobi of Kiri have fallen, and lie on the burnt earth of the broken city, with the screams of the gulls thrown on their bodies by the wind.
She goes back to her apartment, and finds Grandfather dead, a shattered teacup in his hand. No one comes to bury him, and so she does, digging a place in the earth for him, piling stones above it, with each click of stone on stone a reminder that where it mattered most, she failed.
She bows her head, but does not weep, her tears exhausted long ago, and cries to the empty wind, "You who I could not save, listen to me! What is poetry which does not save nations or people?" She leaves his teacup there for he who once lived, so that he will visit her no more.
7. The Chuunin Exams. She is matched against a Hyuuga, an older girl, with eyes as blank as the Nekomata's, hair as black as flame. She is infuriating, and even Yugito's grace, her talent for taijutsu, cannot save her, as the Hyuuga slides around each movement and blocks her chakra points. She coughs blood. It is not unusual, the taste of blood, and she remembers the face of her brother, pale and wasting from tuberculosis, and shares his pain.
The Nekomata wakes, and trembles in the seal, and she feels her face distorting, watches her skin twist and flood with monochrome gray, the color of the earth of the drowned gods. It does not occur to her to be frightened; perhaps it is the Nekomata, coming to kill her as she had wished, the god of sorrows and fires. Her teeth lengthen, bones crack and break and reconfigure, and the world loses shape and form.
She hears the whispers of the dead. 'I died in childbirth, and my daughter with me,' says one, and another, 'I failed my mission, and was executed. I still remember my father's eyes as he saw my head fall to the tatami mat.' The whispers blend into a roaring as loud as the ocean surf on the black island in the sea, and she watches the Hyuuga girl's eyes grow wide, watches her scream, soundless.
Hands, flesh clinging to their bones, skulls, black fire burning in the eye sockets, force themselves free of the earth, spines and hips wrenching upward, thin hands latching onto the girl's clothes. She struggles. The audience is on their feet. She flattens her ears, and sees the Raikage, his face twisted in hatred.
The floodgates open, and the dead of the Kiri War, who drowned and lie at the bottom of the lake, rise from the stadium floor, bloated and blue and eyeless. The girl screams, tries to run, and fails, as the drowned ones grab her and twist her neck, tendons straining, vessels tearing, before it snaps and she falls, limp as her brother's body when the disease finally won, to the hard-packed earth.
A voice, this one from the Kiri War:
'We are the drowned ones, dear lady.
We are the drowned.
Let the water come.'
8. She is told to stay away from the graveyards, to stay in her apartment when not on missions, to open her door only to accept the deliveries of food and water every week. So she sits on her ragged futon and fingers her new Chuunin vest, heavy and black.
She doesn't remember the number of battles she has fought in, or the number of people she has killed. But this she knows:
It is more than the drops of blood fallen on the battlefields of spring.
It is more than the number of the stars that burn out and die.
It is more than the number of particles that give the stars their fire.
It is somehow worse that she has ceased to find that worrying.
9. There is a potter's field outside the walls, where the homeless and the destitute are buried in unmarked graves. The Raikage says that she may use those bodies, as there is no one left who cares.
Their bodies, piled high, are now gone, covered by the grass doing its ceaseless work. Ten years from now, twenty, no one will remember this graveyard.
She never does use them, but kneels before their graves and plunges her fingers into the soil, cool and damp, and listens to them, to their low murmurs and the whispers of sorrow and the words of the forgotten people.
'I remember the snowfall that killed me, the way it settled light as a feather at first, and then grew heavier and colder, until I couldn't see the light. I was too weak to dig out.'
'I remember the way my mother would cry, when she couldn't afford to feed us. I didn't care, back then, I just wanted food. Why was I so selfish?'
She comes back to herself, blinking frost from her eyelashes, and digs her fingers deeper, searching for more, for the silken brushes of bones and cloth against her skin, the closest she will ever get to true affection. She feels the eyes of the guards on her back, cutting and cruel, laughing at the small girl with her hands elbow-deep in the dirt of the graveyard, and does not care, for here-
Here, with the Nekomata quelled by the force of the dead, and her head so full of the lives of others that she cannot remember who she is, or where she is, or why she is, she is at peace.
10. The bells are ringing out over the village, ringing a death knell for this new generation of shinobi, for war has come.
Yugito stands in the shadows of the Raikage's tower, watching the latest class of chuunin march out, kunai gleaming in the sunlight, black vests heavy on skinny shoulders. They are laughing, their faces glowing with cheer and their smiles genuine. Children run beside them, strewing flowers beneath their feet.
The fool rings his bells, and she- who is as close as the world will ever get to the living dead, a creature of living flesh with the mind of someone passed beyond Death's pale gate- bites her lip until blood springs, for she can see the way they will die, painted on their upturned faces.
They have ceased to live. They are bodies going to war, to fall and cough blood and finally sink under a burning sun and icy stars, to die and have songs of woe written that will mean nothing.
She hears a foot turning upon a stone, and turns to see the Raikage, frail form hidden inside billowing white robes with blue etching, the dark blue of the drowned ones. The Raikage steps further from the shadows, a white mask- an ANBU mask- hanging in one hand, etched with the black swirling face of a tiger in flames.
He smiles- how she hates it- and extends the mask to her, quoting some old poem, some old ballad,
"Come, Death, I'd have a word with thee." She takes the mask, its cold weight inevitable, and fits it on her face, and breathes in the scent of porcelain and steel.
The fool still rings his bell.
11. The road that runs to Amegakure, a village belonging to Kusa, is wide and closed, double-locked with gates of flame, and between where the shinobi of Kumo stand and the walls of Amegakure, bristling with wire, there is nothing but the flat gray plains of mud and steel, where Death rides on kunai and senbon.
No one ever goes up to Amegakure anymore.
It is her road, for only Death stalks the wire, only Death moves back and forth across the wasteland. It is her wasteland, created with the blood and the lives of the ones she has killed, has boiled to dust and ash, and as she stands on the little outcropping with the full moon overhead, a kunai flies by and cuts a scratch into her porcelain mask. Her shinobi are massed behind her, whispering, rustling with fear.
She will go up to Amegakure and take the village and put all its inhabitants to the sword, for she is jinchuuriki of the Nekomata, and the men behind her are her responsibility. She is twelve years old, and does not care that there are thousands in the village, that by sunrise they will all be dead, more soldiers for her silent army.
"You shall not die," she says to her men, and watches as the corpses of drowned men rise from the mud and the road, gray and shining in the starlight, their eyes fixed on her. A few of the shinobi behind her vomit, seeing their friends' bodies risen from the earth.
She will go through the fire-defended gate, through all else that stands in her way, and take the village, for she is Death, and the road is hers.
12. It is the day before the last battle, the last assault on Kusa. Yugito knows they will lose. The others know, and the camp is dark and still, lit only by the red flashes of bombs flying out from Kusa's walls and rolling into the trenches around the camp.
The sunset that night is beautiful, and lies golden on the hills, on the scant trees that have been splintered and twisted by battle and fire into parodies of their former selves. When night falls, she flits through the camp, a silent shadow ignored by everyone, for she is only a living weapon, nothing of any true consequence.
She hears some shinobi lying together, hears their quiet grunts and soft moans, sees their shadows flickering on the tent walls and finally melding together into one, a desperate affirmation of life in the face of oncoming terror.
A few of them are massed around the tiny fires, talking of all the mad catastrophes that they have seen, of lovers and children and husbands, of the food and drink they miss. A few of them see her, and gaze at her with hateful eyes, knowing- this everyone in the camp knows- that when they die, she will use them, will force their drained bodies to scale the walls one last time, to dash themselves to pieces against the unmoving steel of Kusa's blades.
She finds a female jounin kneeling at the edge of the trench, praying to angels who will not come. The words are familiar, the text of an old song the shinobi of Kumo used to sing before battle in the old times, a hundred years ago. It is odd to her, to hear a historical relic spoken so fervently. Her words are soft, slow, and sad as she whispers in a voice heavy with tears,
"By beauty lavishly outpoured,
And blessings carelessly received,
By all the days that I have lived,
Make me a soldier, Lord.
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword,
Must say goodbye to all of this-
By all delights that I shall miss,
Help me to die, O Lord."
Yugito feels shame, heavy and foreign, rising in her at having intruded upon this small, solemn ritual, and so she turns, leaving this woman to pray to a god who has abandoned them.
She sees the woman die the next day, caught through the throat on a sword, and- in some futile gesture, an attempt to preserve the last bit of dignity the dying woman has- does not use her, but leaves her body there, lying prone and open-eyed on the plain.
13. She is sixteen, and quiet, and still. This is a memorial service for the dead of the latest war, for the genin who died throwing themselves against Kusa's war in the Massacre of the Innocents, and they have lost. They have lost the war, and she does not care.
Because these men who are honored were born to drill and die. Because- and here she smiles, a fatalistic, cynical twist of the mouth- because war is kind.
She remembers watching them run in the yellow trenches, watching them tumble, clawing at their throats as poison gas drifted like greenish mist across the battlefield, watching them gulp, and die.
There are children crying.
She remembers watching them astride horses, charging the gates of Kusa, and the way they flung wild hands at the sky and fell, the frightened horses running on alone to be killed by the pikes of the militia.
There are wives crying.
She remembers them, remembers their pale faces and their arrogant laughter and the way they thirsted for battle, for the glory that did not exist, that would not come. And now they lie underneath shrouds, faceless, shapeless, lifeless, and their voices still whisper in her ears, whispering of lies and betrayal and regrets.
There are mothers crying.
She forces down laughter.
'Do not weep. War is kind.'
14. She was injured on the last mission- her intestines slipping through her fingers in hot ropes as the katana blade swings past her- and lives only due to the Nekomata and the grudging care of the medic-nin. But they will not give her a room, does not think she deserves one, and instead they have shoved her into the ward for the insane shinobi who came back from the war, behind the thrice-locked steel door and the trip-wires at every step.
She watches them, these shinobi who came back from the war, dead in a different fashion, watches them rock, watches their tongues droop from slobbering jaws, watches the misery in the wrinkles round their eyes and the sweat darkening their hair. There are men and women together, from sixteen to sixty, and they bare their teeth and scream and exist.
Surely, she has died in a dream, and wanders hell.
They have seen so much, killed so much, that their eyes are rid of the hurt of the color of blood forever. Everything is blood, from the sunset that bleeds across the sky like the foam of a pierced lung, to the night that comes blood-black like the bile of an opened belly, to the dawn that breaks like a wound bleeding afresh.
In war, there are no unwounded soldiers, and these soldiers have died long before their time, have left their minds and their souls on the verdant plains of Kusa, to rot and die beneath the blazing sun.
After a week, she leaves, but can still remember the feeling of their thin hands plucking at her clothes, pawing at her, she who dealt them war and madness.
15. She is twenty years old, and she has yet to go through puberty. She is flat-chested and skinny and short, and the word 'malnutrition' hangs over her head like the blade of a katana. There is no one she can ask, for there is no one who cares.
The one medic-nin who is willing to work on her for an entire month's pay does his work, sucking on his teeth all the while, and finally raises his head. The answer is written in his eyes, but he says it anyway, in a voice that creaks like an un-oiled hinge.
"You are too malnourished." He goes on, about growth plates and how she will never have a child, but she does not hear him, instead watching the way her skin begins to char gray, the way black fire burns in her veins from her fury.
She kills him and does not regret the act, for it is the entire village that must be blamed, every man and woman and child all implicated, all guilty, all part of the turning cogs of the institutionalized neglect that has taken everything from her.
Even her future, at last.
16. The Raikage assigns her a mission to kill a child. She accepts- how can she not?- and changes to the Nekomata, loping across the evergreen forest on the lower slopes of the mountain for days, until she reaches the rival lord's castle. Changes again, resettles her mask, climbs the walls and slices the throats of the guards. Enters the heir's small room, strangles the nurses to death and lets them fall, stands before the sleeping boy.
He turns over. It is the twenty-third year of her trespass on earth, and she stares down at his pale, smooth face, and kills him softly, placing a blade on his neck and slicing the spinal cord so he dies instantly, having slipped from one life to the next without waking.
She returns, reports success, and goes to her apartment. She cries for the first time in seven years, regret seeping like tears through closed eyelids, and wishes she could sink into earth and become like the dead she knows so intimately, the rotted thigh, the belly opening like a poison night flower, the flies hatching themselves as the last nightmare.
She is thankful for killing him, for the fact that she cries, that she has not yet become so desensitized to human emotion (do not remove this last poison cup from our lips).
His pale, serene face sails past her every night right after the sleeping pill.
17. She is twenty-four, and spends her days asleep in her apartment, biding time until night comes on soft feet, when she can slip out the window and stalk the rooftops alone, bathed in the pale, uncaring light of the moon, can slide into cemeteries and bury her fingers in the dirt, communing with the dead of two wars, one won, another lost, all fought for different reasons, for 'honor' or 'glory' or 'fame'.
It does not truly matter. The dead are the dead, just the same.
They whisper to her of such things, and she smiles sadly and whispers back that they are not famous, are not remembered, are nothing more but bone and stone and cloth forgotten by everyone but her.
She flits over the walls, transforms, and runs, listening to the wind blow through her hair and the wind rustle through the trees, the owls hooting softly and the far-off wolf's howl, the last vestige of the old time before civilization.
She knows the Akatsuki will come, knows she may die, and glories in the fact, that someday soon, she too may come to know the lands beyond Death's gates, may finally find true communion with the dead, her family.
18. Akatsuki comes. She fights, and loses. When she rises from unconsciousness, waking to find herself slung across Hidan's back, she does not attempt to escape.
She has spent twenty-five years as Death incarnate; why should she fear what lies beyond?
19. She has come to the last, and lies bound on the platform, with Akatsuki standing around her, chanting. The Nekomata hurls itself against the seal, battering ceaselessly. She does not care, does not feel the pain that licks at her bones like fire, does not see the high stone ceiling, does not hear the words of the leader, taking vengeance for all those who died at Amegakure by her hand.
'I am sorry,' she says to the Nekomata, as the world blurs and blackens around her, 'that you did not get to kill me.' She feels the pain increase, and watches the starlight perish in pale flame, and sees-
Twenty-five years of pain, of life that was never hers, of solitude and death and war, always war-
Kumogakure's walls rise before her, white and still and empty, the walls of a corrupt, dying village that she killed for, that she slaughtered in the name of, in the vain hope that one more death would give her love.
It never happened, and so she dies with a curse on her lips.
20. Her body flows out to sea, hair gleaming in starlight and sunlight, blue eyes washed by rain, and finally sinks to the bottom, undisturbed, unmoved, a refuge for fragile sea anemones and frail starfish from the storm.
Yugito Nii, who spent twenty-five years searching for existence, finally harbors it, as life blooms on the barren plain of the deep.
Most of the bits are based on different poems.
4. The Last Hours of Laodike, Sister of Hektor by Nicholas Christopher
5. Remembering That Island by Thomas Grath
6. Dedication by Czeslaw Milosz
7. America, America by Saadi Youssef
8. Hyperbole For A Large Number by Stephen Brockwell
9. Grass by Carl Sandburg
10. The Fool Rings His Bells by Walter da la Mare
11. The Messines Road by J.E. Stewart
12. Before Action by W.N. Hodgson
13. War Is Kind by Stephen Crane
14. Mental Cases by Wilfred Owen
16. The Dead Shall Be Raised Incorruptible by Galway Kinnell