I would strongly recommend re-reading chapters 8 and 11 before reading this chapter. There is not much else to say, aside from my many strong and heartfelt thank yous. The support is immensely appreciated.
In the morning, Kushina made Minato breakfast. This surprised him greatly as he stumbled into the kitchen with his hair tangled in every direction, especially considering the fact that she even knew where the food was kept.
"Ah, mornin'. You like peppers?" she said, turning around to face him. Her face had a rough, unpolished smile on it.
"I guess?" he said, rubbing his eye. "You slept through the entire night."
"Yep. And I hope you like omelets, then," she continued. She had a frying pan in one hand, a spatula in the other, and an eye-wateringly spicy smell was suddenly noticeable. Minato tried to rest his head on her shoulder, before backing away and rubbing his eyes again.
"What did you put in that?" he said, and coughed.
"I told you, peppers. Mighta overdone it…" Kushina raised the pan and looked at it experimentally. "I'm kinda cooking based on memory here."
He managed to laugh a little through his coughs. "Okay, okay, lemme get dressed."
"Sure, take your time," Kushina said, smiling and poking at the omelet with her spatula. As Minato rounded down the hall, he saw her add a worrying amount of some sort of spice to it, but decided not to say anything.
The smell had diminished considerably when he returned, dressed simply in a light shirt and pants. She had set out two plates of omelet for them, and she was already digging into her own.
"Ah, there you are." She wiped a fleck of egg off the corner of her mouth, and gave him another rough smile. "It's kinda spicy, but I hope you like."
"It's awfully nice of you. What's the occasion?" Minato asked, and sat down, picking up a fork and knife.
"For letting me sleep yesterday. And to apologize." She shoved another mouthful of omelet in her mouth.
"Apologize for what?"
Kushina chewed slowly, and swallowed. "For being so weird yesterday. I… wasn't having a very good day." She sighed.
"You wanna… tell me about it?" He poked experimentally at his omelet while he waited a few seconds for her to respond. Finally, she sighed, and shoved her plate aside, lacing her fingers together on the table.
"It's… complicated," she said, and looked to her left. "It's kind of hard to say."
"We've got all day to talk," Minato said, and finally sliced a piece of omelet for himself.
Kushina lowered her head for a while, looking at her hands. "I dunno where I would start," she said.
"Just tell it to me straight," said Minato.
"I suck at that."
"Then just take your time. Was it the, uh… the baby shower?"
She began to bite the nail on her thumb. "No, not… that. Exactly. But kind of? I just don't really know how to say this, it's really awkward."
"I'm listening," Minato said, with a helpful smile.
She wiped her eye with her palm, and rested her fist against her cheek. "Yesterday was… painful. And that baby shower was just too… weird for me to really… get it, I guess."
"What made it so painful, then?"
Kushina looked at the ceiling. She took a breath. Closed her eyes.
And with clumsy words, she began to talk.
It really had been a nice day, a hot August scorcher with cicadas screaming bloody murder and the waves crashing in the distance. Kushina woke up with a grin. Summer was her favorite time of year, the time of freedom and wild adventures.
She ran downstairs after barely getting dressed, giving her father and grandmother a gapped grin, before noticing something. "Where's Katsuya?"
"You're up late today, Kushina," her grandmother said, nodding at the hallway.
"Katsuya went down to the beach with his friends," her father said. He was reading a book, the table already spread with a partially-eaten breakfast. Kushina bolted. "Hold it! You can go out with him after you've eaten, young lady."
"But da-ad, I'm not hungry!" Kushina whined.
"Grandma's not making lunch 'til 1, Kushina," he replied. He turned the page, looking over the book at her. "I don't want you to come dragging yourself back on an empty stomach."
"But I don't ca-are, I wanna play with Katsuya-a!"
"Let the girl go play," her grandmother laughed. "I can just make more for her at lunch."
"Gramma, you really mean it?!" Kushina said. Her grandmother laughed more. "Oh thank you, thank you! Can I go, dad? Can I?"
Her father sighed. "All right. But he had better bring you back in time for lunch. And no complaining!"
"I won't!" Kushina said, and ran out the door like a whirlwind, leaving her grandmother and father laughing in the kitchen.
Sure enough, she could see Katsuya's two teammates hanging out on the beach, all of them with shiny new hitai'ates tied somewhere on their person. They were the definition of cool, in Kushina's book, with their silver metal and etched spiral in the center. Practically made for someone of the Uzumaki family to wear, Kushina would think with pride. Her grandmother still had hers, even.
"Oy, Kushina! You caught us at a good time!" one of the boys, Fumio, said. He had a bucket with him, which he waved in the air as he saw her running towards them. "We were just 'bout to go down to the rocks."
"Awesome!" Kushina said. She looked around quickly, expectantly. "Where's my brother?"
"Where else? He's out in the waves," said Rai, the other boy. "Just messing around."
"OO-OY! UZUMAKI! Your kid sister's here, let's go!" Fumio called. Katsuya, knee-deep in water nearby, came sloshing to shore, his pants dark and soaked. He flicked water at Kushina as soon as he saw her, and she held her arms up to shield herself in a feeble gesture.
"So you decided to join us! I tried waking you up like a bazillion times," he said.
"I was sleepy! Shut up!" Kushina said, and began hopping in place in the sand. "C'mon! Let's go down to the rocks!"
"Okay, okay. Ready to go, guys?" Katsuya said, and shouts of approval from his friends and Kushina were the reply. And so, the merry band headed east, toward the rocks.
The rocks weren't for swimming. Even Kushina wouldn't have tried that, no matter how cool or risky it would have been—mostly because Katsuya told her not to do it, and the fact that he never tried it himself. No, the rocks were for the tide pools and the climbing, and the view.
No sooner had they arrived when Fumio began poking around for crabs and starfish with Rai. Katsuya and Kushina liked climbing more, so that is what they did.
"Hey, careful there," he said, pulling her up to the top of a mid-sized rock, no longer wet and slippery, but dry and rough from the winds and sands. "There you go."
She sat down beside him, and her stomach rumbled. Suddenly, she felt hungry. Katsuya laughed. "Did you skip breakfast just to be with us?"
"So what if I did?" Kushina said, pouting.
Katsuya just laughed. "Never mind. Woah, look at that!" he said. He stood, and pointed in the distance.
Even from the shore, it was easy to see the whirlpools that gave Whirlpool Country their name, white and enormous and dangerous. It took a brave ship with one heck of a water ninja on board to even get near, and that was precisely what was happening now. The whirlpools were shrinking as a mid-sized ship cut through them effortlessly, sprays of white water exploding off its sides.
"Looks like it's from Mist country," Katsuya said, squinting as he tried to see what flags it was displaying. "Maybe it's got goods?"
"Maybe it's a bunch of pirates," Kushina said.
"Sis, don't joke about that kind of stuff!"
"What, it would be cool!" Kushina replied, and crossed her arms, sitting cross-legged. "I think it would be cool…"
"While it would be cool," Katsuya said, sitting next to her again, "it wouldn't be that nice in real life. Pirates are mean."
"What if they're nice pirates?"
Katsuya laughed, and rubbed his wet sleeve against her face. She giggled and pulled away. "Okay, maybe they're nice pirates. But probably not."
"They still may be."
They kept laughing there on top of the rock, while Rai yelled at them about an eight-armed starfish or something. Katsuya ignored him, staying with his sister for far longer than usual.
It wasn't a pirate ship.
Katsuya lay on his back in Kushina's room later that night, sunburnt and anxious. The lights were off, and the darkness was cool. Kushina's mobile of shells twirled idly in the summer breeze in the window. He had been there for ten minutes, nearly. His rucksack lay by the door, waiting for him to just pick it up, but he was trying to find the words.
Why was he still thinking about this? He'd been thinking this over since he had passed the genin exams, since fewer and fewer of his classmates came back from their missions intact, or even alive. Since fear began to fill his stomach, and uncertainty about the future. Why was he even staying?
He couldn't take her with him. She was why he stayed. But he couldn't just take her with him.
But he just couldn't stay.
He was still wearing his hitai'ate. It was heavy on his forehead, and hot. He unknotted it and held it in his hand, letting the moonlight reflect off the still-shiny surface, off the engraved spiral.
He knelt at Kushina's side. She slept on her stomach, eyes closed, hand resting on her pillow.
He leaned in close, and began to put the headband beneath her hand. She stirred slightly, and he stopped.
"S'going on?" she said, turning and rubbing her eye.
He still hadn't found the words. He just shushed her, and stroked her forehead.
"You goin' somewhere, Katsuya?" she asked, her eyes half-closed.
"…yeah, yeah, I'm going somewhere," he replied, his voice the softest whisper.
"Where you goin'?" Her tone was almost playful in its sleepiness, and tears slid down his cheeks as he uncontrollably smiled.
"I'm going somewhere far away."
"Can I come with you?"
He bit his lip, tears hot in his eyes, his hand clenching that wretched piece of metal and cloth. "No, Kushina, you can't… come with me."
"I don't think I'm coming home."
Kushina was no longer facing him, curled up into herself underneath the blanket. She didn't answer him.
He stroked her hair, so red, even in the darkness, behind her ear, and kissed her on the cheek. He could see his tears fall on her skin. "I am so, so sorry, Kushina…"
She reached up to wipe her tears off her face. "It's okay, Katsuya…" she said. "We can just go do something else…"
Katsuya stayed there for a few moments longer, wanting so badly to hug her, but afraid that she might fully wake up. But he stood, and put the hitai'ate in his pocket, and grabbed his rucksack.
The kitchen was quiet in the morning, and even Kushina noticed. Her grandmother was nowhere to be found, and the only breakfast on the table was a pot of rice and leftover curry from last night's dinner. Her father sat at the table with his forehead in his hands.
As soon as he heard her approaching, he sat up and brushed his bangs out of his face. "Oh, you're up. We, uh, have leftovers for breakfast," he said, managing a painfully false smile.
Kushina already knew something was wrong. "Where's gramma?" she asked.
"With some friends. She'll be back for lunch," her father said. He gestured to the table. "Come on, have some breakfast."
"Where's Katsuya?" she asked.
Her father stared at her with his brown eyes hollow and answerless. "He… isn't here. But he'll be home soon. They're going to find him soon." His words were quick, and he gestured to the table again. "Come on, Kushina, have some breakfast…"
"I don't think I'm coming home."
"Who's 'they?'" Kushina asked.
"Kushina, just eat some breakfast, please," her father said, his voice cracking a little.
"Dad, what's going on?"
"Honey, everything's fine. There's nothing to worry about, Katsuya will be back," he said.
"I am so, so sorry…"
Kushina stood there for a moment, in the empty room, before running up to her bedroom and slamming the door behind her, and shoving herself under her sheets, her father crying out to her from the floor below.
She sat there, alone with her thoughts, for hours.
Her father arrived with lunch at noon, but Kushina refused to eat.
But at dinner, her grandmother came up, and her father left a sandwich and a glass of milk on the floor beside her.
Kushina hugged her intensely hard, smelling that spicy smell that seemed to permeate every inch of her being. A smudge of tears stained her lap. She ate her dinner with quavering lips, and went to bed very, very early.
All she could hear was Katsuya's voice, speaking to her that one, last time.
She cried out to him, begging for him to come back from wherever he went.
But he never did.
In the morning, her father poked his head into her room. Though she wasn't looking at him, she could hear his tired and worried expression through his voice.
"Kushina, I'm going out to get some groceries. I'll be back soon."
Kushina held her knees tighter beneath her sheets. She heard the door close, and was left alone.
There were screams outside the window when she went to go use the bathroom.
Screams, and the smell of blood.
Kushina stayed in the bathroom, listening, curious and scared. The screams began to grow louder, and she could hear things being thrown, hitting walls. Strange crackling noises, like ice being stepped on. The air grew cold.
There was a crash on the floor below, and Kushina's heart jumped into her stomach. Her breath quickened. She could see it in the air in front of her. She shivered. There were voices.
"Maeha! Search upstairs, I'll get anyone on the ground floor!" The voice was rough and crude, and though there was no reply, footsteps began coming up the stairs.
Kushina dove behind the folding curtain in front of the bath and sat there, clutching her knees, being very still and very quiet and very scared. Her grandma was still downstairs. The air was so cold.
The footsteps went past the bathroom and disappeared for a while, in the rooms. Kushina considered running, but remembering the voice from the floor below, she decided that staying in the bathroom was probably a better idea.
Oh god, her grandma was still downstairs.
It was August and it felt like December. Everything was falling apart.
The bathroom door slid open, and the soft patter of straw sandals began to draw closer.
Kushina held her breath. An eternity seemed to pass. The footsteps felt like earthquakes as they came nearer and nearer.
They stopped in front of the screen.
And then, there was a face looking at her. It was beautiful, neither male nor female, with shiny black eyes and hair, and it wore a look of concern, its eyes wide and almost fearful.
"Maeha! You done searching that top floor?" the voice from below said. "All I found was an old lady. Didn't put up much of a fight." A pause. "Maeha!"
The person stood, looking at the bathroom door, then back at Kushina.
A million years came and went.
"There's nothing here!" The voice was young, and female. She couldn't have been much older than Katsuya.
"Well good, get down here!" the downstairs voice said. "We're almost done!"
The shouting outside the window got louder, and there were explosions in the distance. There were shouts of "Konoha!" and "Leaf ninjas!"
The voice downstairs was screeching. "SHIT! Maeha, get DOWN here!"
Maeha stood, standing stock-still, like a deer confronted by an archer. She kept looking back at Kushina, at the door.
"...SHIT!!" the voice downstairs said again. "Maeha, get your ass down here, or you'll get us both killed!"
The door downstairs slammed open, and there was a struggle, and a wet, gurgling, struggling sound.
More footsteps, but they quickly left.
There was the sound of wind, and of fighting outside. The shouts grew scarce.
And then, not quite knowing the reason why, Kushina took the girl Maeha's hand, and ran.
She ran through the kitchen, past the bodies and the blood, out the back door, into the alley, across the fence, through the grasses, into the woods of ferns and rocks and trees. And when she could no longer hear the sounds of the violence, or smell the blood, when the air finally grew warm again, she let go, and pointed into the forest.
"You… saved me…" Maeha said, struggling to catch her breath. "Why would you…?"
Kushina pointed again, her face stern, angry.
"I don't understand…" Maeha said. She wore a silver hitai'ate around her waist. A mist nin.
"Just go. Get out of here," Kushina said. She wrestled the words out of her stomach. "Get away from here."
There was silence.
The girl unknotted the hitai'ate from her waist, and offered it to Kushina. Kushina shook her head, and pointed into the forest for the third time.
There were tears in the mist nin's eyes as she dropped the hitai'ate. "I promise you I'll repay you someday. I promise."
Kushina said nothing.
The girl began to run, and soon disappeared.
Kushina made her way back to what was left of her village. The streets were littered with blood and ice and the dead. Walls of red-stained ice stood melting in the August sun.
They said it had been a massacre, and used words like "kekkei genkai" and "corruption in the mist government" to explain it.
They said she was the only survivor, that it was a miracle.
She didn't say anything.