- ナルト- 幻脅威宴
Chapter Twenty-two: Phantom Menace Party – Bhava-agra of Youkai and Humans (Part Six)
No matter the perspective, no matter from where it was looked at, the scene which unfolded was not something easily understood.
Fubuki and Kougon could not tell something had happened before the former's Invocation of the Void receded. The unsurpassable darkness that swallowed kilometers of land ceased to not-be, leaving behind a forest and village unscarred by its passing. The ocean of greenery that should have been reduced to dead, barren land stood untouched, its liveliness a mockery of the all-consuming Void Fubuki had unleashed. As for the village, it was not yet possible for anybody to confirm its survival, because it was not Fubuki's Void, but something else, which swallowed Konohagakure. The same something which had concealed Naruto and the Higashiyama clan from sight.
It shone, even if by no means should it be able to shine. It gleamed, even as the trees surrounding it slowly withered and twisted into aberrantly misshapen things; a no-longer-verdant freak show of trunks and branches that screamed in agony without making a single sound. It was wrong the way stillborn fetuses clawing their way out of their mother's wombs in laughter would be wrong; the way the buried skeletons of a million war dead rising from their graves to clash in battle again would be wrong. It was dead and unliving like the reanimated Hokage Yuri defeated earlier; it was alive and liminal in the same way as a man tortured and left to die. It was inanimate stone, yet it carried the abnormal heartbeat of something that does not understand time. It was grotesque architecture carved from a corpse older than the world; yet it lived, and lived-not, and it hungered for them who witnessed its supernal wrongness.
It was wrong, yet its blasphemous majesty drove Hiruzen and Jiraiya to tears.
The walls were the color of betrayal, their smooth flawlessness interrupted only by pulsating vessels in which not-chakra flowed and gleamed with the color of forgotten memories. A colossal dome of this deep wrongness had covered the entire Village Hidden among the Leaves. From its hemispherical splendor, smaller walls had surged and crashed against each other to create a labyrinth of countless rooms and winding passages stretching at least a kilometer in every direction. Everything trapped within the absurd grandeur of the fell labyrinth had been spared from Fubuki's indiscriminate obliteration. Mayuri stood alone in a passage barely wide enough for her to walk, suddenly and unexpectedly free from Fubuki's bindings. Yuriyo and Yurine were surrounding by walls just barely beyond the reach of their arms, but did not dare touch them in fear of becoming something other than themselves. Within Konoha, many shouted in outrage and terror as the entire village was denied the light of the sun.
Yet there were two amongst the people there who had no eyes for the greatness of the labyrinth. Kiyoura Setsuna restrained a boy that did not need to be restrained. Naruto resisted Kotonoha's approach with feeble strength, but his body cramped with unhealthy seizures as his central nervous system fired all sorts of wrong signals. The four-tailed swordswoman forced Naruto's mouth open with tear-stricken eyes, smiling with tender and painful compassion while the boy desperately shook his head.
"I'm sorry…" she whispered a plea full of love and need and desperation. "I'm truly sorry, Naruto-kun, but…"
Her right hand held the seed he had received from the Death God. The seed he had given Kotonoha for the same of saving Ayame, the ramen wench. Even when his organs failed as the vital chakra flow within his body ceased to be, the boy still resisted to be saved by the gift that could save another instead.
"Take the seed, child."
Nobody there would have been able to tell just when that person got there. But perhaps, just like it is to Mayuri, "movement" as a concept is of little relevance to this person.
Yuri fell to her knees, stunned in the silence by the relieving presence of the one person she trusted more than anybody else in the world.
"…yame…e…an…" Naruto's feeble and sibilant barely escaped his dry lips.
"Worry not, the girl will be saved," Kurosaki Sayoko calmly responded; the hint of a smile a lame attempt at comfort. "I will make it happen."
And because she said it, Naruto knew it was truth. His body relaxed long enough for Kotonoha to force the seed into his mouth, and his throat made a single deglutition.
The labyrinthine walls faded out of sight and existence like desert mirages, with the notable exception of the colossal dome engulfing Konoha in darkness. But those who had remained outside the village could see each other once more, and the lilies of Higashiyama were met with dark eyes bursting with smoldering rage tempered with the slightest caution. Kougon's expression remained as unreadable as ever, but one could see his pupils shifting between the newcomer and the gigantic black dome.
"Saaaaaayooooookoooooooooo!" Fubuki howled in the voice of a madwoman, her jaw painfully rigid even as the words poured out so full of hate.
"Fubuki," Sayoko returned the "greeting" while standing with the larger Higashiyama group. "I barely recognize you. It pains me to see what staring at the Mouth of the Void has done to you…"
Sayoko shook her head. No, it would be wrong to blame the Void for this, just like it would be wrong to blame the sun for dried and dead crops.
"How…" Fubuki growled, vaguely gesturing towards the great black dome behind the Higashiyamas. "Just…how…"
"What do you mean 'how'?" Sayoko replied in a interrogative tone. "It is obvious that the Labyrinth would stop your jutsu, it takes much more than that to destroy it." She shot a brief glance at her own invocation, as if confirming its presence. "The corpse divine of the Dragon That Knows Not the Sky exists for this purpose."
"What…" Fubuki's confusion was mirrored by everyone else present, but the Void Kyuubi put that aside. "I mean, why is it here? It can't just…manifest in the world like this!"
"I summoned it."
"You don't just 'summon' the Labyrinth!"
Just like walking into Mordor.
"But I have a contract…" Sayoko pointed out in a mildly whiny tone.
Sayoko just gestured towards the black dome, so as to allow the facts to speak for themselves.
"But, speaking of unusual deeds, may I be allowed to speak my praises of your barrier jutsu?" She continued, this time facing a slightly frowning Kougon. "The balance between Celestial and Void was rather unstable, but there is no feasible way around that; you cannot just put Creation and Nothingness so close together and expect them to make a sturdy framework. But the sheer amount of distinct barriers was in every way impressive. I have to congratulate you for convincing that impatient former student of mine to go along with something like that, Kougon-kun."
The Celestial Kyuubi's eyebrow briefly reacted at the honorific.
"…who are you, Kurosaki Sayoko?"
"A very old and tired woman," she said, for that moment she did look as tired as she claimed to be. "A very old, tired, and rather disappointed woman." She glanced down at her feet, then at the trees all around them—although many had been destroyed in the preceding battles, even more remained—, before continuing. "I cannot stop myself from comparing you to your predecessors…but, that is not really fair; they never had to deal with a third Kyuubi. They might have reacted in the same manner."
Shaking her head, Sayoko put away memories nobody there could possibly fathom.
"What really bothers me is how, every single time, I see more of the same." Sayoko's words tried to sound harsh, but perhaps she was simply too lazy, too mild-mannered to sound like anything but a rambling old lady. "The same…contentedness, the same unjustified self-satisfaction, the same arrogance, the same simple-mindedness, the same conformism. The same ignorance." She shook her head in obvious disapproval. "Acting like royalty because you received a divine gift; what have you achieved with that? You spend your blessed lives pushing people around like you are entitled to something."
"Those are words of treason, Kurosaki Sayoko," Kougon declared.
"It is not possible for me to betray an institution I have never given allegiance to," Sayoko replied unhesitatingly. "I obey Yuri-sama because I cherish her, not because she has any right to rule over me. Loyalty is something that is earned, Kougon-kun."
"You had no qualms about obeying the demands from our predecessors before. You rid the world from the Sage of the Six Paths."
Something like a choked laugh burst out of Sayoko's mouth.
"I went along for the sake of Yuri-sama, child. And the sheer thought of me killing the Rikudou Sennin is rather ridiculous; that man wielded three Aeons with outstanding proficiency: his power over Creation was at the level of a Shintai, and he wielded Destruction as well as the current Sayuri-sama. Not counting Nue, I can only think of one person who could have killed that man, and that person is not me." She sighed mutely. "But talking about this with you is a moot point. You, who understand nothing, have not the right to speak of the truly great."
And perhaps it was for the best, because nobody could really make heads or tails of what Sayoko was talking about.
"Everything you have done here; every single word I have heard from your mouths…why must you break my heart so, Fubuki, Kougon-kun? What…what has made you like this?"
"Stop talking like I'm still a child, Kurosaki Sayoko!" Fubuki growled. "The time when you could patronize me ended long ago."
"But, Fubuki, to my eyes you have yet to grow up."
The Void Kyuubi roared in fury and frustration and spite, and her Void spears sank into Sayoko's Aegis of Oblivion.
And for the first time, everybody there felt something. Kurosaki Sayoko all this time lacked the humiliating majesty of Shinkirou Kougon's presence and the terrifying dread Fubuki inspired on those around her. Everybody acknowledged her as The Sleeping Terror, but she still lacked that "something" that makes those crowned as Kyuubi awesome and terrible. The colossal labyrinth summoning was a first sign, but it was the subtle shift in her tone and the sudden shift in her relaxed posture that suddenly triggered all sorts of instinctual alarms in the minds and hearts of everybody present. It expanded like a wave, making the air vibrate and hairs stand on end.
"Normally, I follow a strict no-intervention policy," she said. "My purpose is to ensure the continuation of history, not to write it myself. You will have to excuse my selfishness today."
She took a step forward, and Fubuki—the part of her that remembered the stern teacher from eight centuries before—took a step back.
"You intend to fight us both, Kurosaki Sayoko?" Kougon inquired, for he wished to confirm that she would stand between Sayuri and himself.
"I intend to stop this ridiculousness," she said. Her voice remained the calm, even thing every person who knew her was accustomed to, but there was an edge there that people could not just call a product of their imaginations. "Like those before you, you have learned nothing. I have grown tired of your…staleness, and I find myself, as your elder, obligated to chastise you a little."
She was about to take a single step, but she found herself stopped by a hand feebly grasping her left wrist. Looking back, she found the supplicant gaze of one Higashiyama Yuri, who was looking up at her like the bride watching her newly married husband depart to war.
"Sayoko-san…" She said, and her voice was a plea, a prayer and a confession all together. Sayoko smiled, and she basked in the warmth only this hopeless kitsune could give her Void-touched soul.
Even if anybody had anything to say, they would not open their mouths, for it would be too cruel to interrupt the sad artistry of this moment.
"Ah…" Like a shy young maiden taken by surprise, Yuri moaned when a small, soft hand fell on the crown of her head. This…she had not been the recipient of this gesture since the time she was as young and undeveloped as her heiress. The touch of this gentle hand, it healed her; for a short while, Higashiyama Yuri rid herself of the hollowness of losing a daughter, of the fear of losing her youngest to two implacable judges, and of the hopelessness Fubuki's hatred had filled her with.
"You worry too much, Yuri-sama," Sayoko said, her smile infinitely more tender than her earlier attempt at making Naruto feel better. "One or two unruly children will not be much of a problem."
The words were like a hammer striking the lungs of all those present, for they carried the unfaltering calmness and conviction of one who knows she speaks the undeniable truth. Even Kougon's face looked slightly paler after being looked down so unabashedly.
"How…how…p-preposterous!" Fubuki hissed, her long fingers reaching for her even longer hair and pulling madly. "How insolent! Stupid woman, has your age driven you mad!?"
Something like a chuckle escaped Sayoko's barely parted lips. It was hard to tell, for Kurosaki Sayoko is quiet and looks unassuming.
"Fubuki, my pitiful student…" Letting go of her dearly cherished Yuri, the ancient Void finally separated herself from the large group and took several steps closer to Fubuki.
"…just because you have nine tails does not mean I cannot spank you anymore."
Kougon briefly glanced at the two humans behind him.
"Leave at once," he said. "I can no longer guarantee your lives."
Yes, everybody there, sensor or not, had felt the tremendous pulse of Fubuki's chakra.
She hated her.
Kuromiya Fubuki hated that woman. That woman who calls herself her teacher, that woman who abandoned her to the monster she called 'grandmother'…!
She hated her. She hated her, and the Whispers hated her as well, so what was there to hesitate about? That woman, who even now looked at her with those sad eyes…!
"Getting in my way…!" She mumbled, perhaps more to herself than to the people around her. Her fingers slid down her face, long nails roughly scratching and drawing blood from her cheeks. "Acting all wise and mighty…acting like a teacher…"
Her trembling pupils glared at the older Void with rage and disgust and very, very old fear.
"If you're so great…if you're so wise and so mighty and so caring, why did you…!?"
Upon realizing the meaning of Fubuki's words, Sayoko could only look pained and regretful. And that pain and regret pushed Fubuki even closer to the edge.
"Don't…don't you dare…don't you dare-don't you dare-don't you dare—!"
Her attention had been so narrowly focused on Sayoko that she noticed only when a strong hand grasped her left wrist and twisted it painfully.
"I'm fucking sick of your blabbering."
It was the one and only sound Kuromiya Fubuki made before Naruto's left fist smashed her face.
Naruto felt completely restored, as if none of the events of that day had taken place and he had just woken up to fight in the Chuunin Exam Finals, which he had to say felt like they happened an awful lot of time ago.
So, he was back to his absolute best. The same could not be said of his clothes, however. At the moment they were reduced to tattered orange pants and his boxers. Not like anybody there minded; in other circumstances, Setsuna and Yurimi would have been fairly pleased. Hell, in other circumstances, he might have felt like showing up to Setsuna a little—something he would have immediately denied, at the same time Setsuna denied showing the slightest bit of interest in Naruto's well-sculpted torso, thus leading to an endless recursion of tsundere.
But Naruto was in kind of a shitty mood.
On the other hand, Sayoko was smiling. It was almost boring, how everything developed exactly the way she believed it would.
"Di—buh!" Fubuki's word of death was interrupted by Naruto's left knee on her face, and the back of her head was smashed against the trunk of a sturdy tree.
"Shut up!" Naruto howled just before an unexpected force pulled him backwards and away, a fraction of a second before he was impaled by Void spears surging out of Fubuki's shadow.
"Careful there, Naruto-sama," Sayoko pointed out, and Naruto noticed it was her shadow attached to his own which had saved his hide.
Naruto clicked his tongue.
The hateful roar of Kuromiya Fubuki filled the devastated road to Konoha, but otherwise it did absolutely nothing else.
Sayoko shook her head.
"His soul already belongs to something much greater than you. A single word will not annihilate it."
"Eh…?" Naruto was a bit confused. Did she mean his deal with the Death God?
"Ah! Awawawa…!" Naruto almost jumped backwards in embarrassment when Sayoko unabashedly sank her hand inside the pocket of his pants. However, his shadow was still bound to hers, and he could only move at her will. In the end, Naruto gasped when the elder kitsune retrieved a certain mysterious object.
"I…will hold to this a bit longer, Naruto-sama," Sayoko declared while storing the Silver Key somewhere within her flowing clothes. "Even if it has chosen you, you are not yet ready for it."
"Ah…huh…" Naruto did not know what she meant. In all honesty, he kind of did not want to know.
Feeling the binding of their shadows disappearing, Naruto quickly took a step back from the fox-woman, who made him nervous for whatever reason at the moment. Sayoko just smiled at him like it was a hassle to do so, and she spoke while knowing her words would only stoke the bonfire in his soul.
"Please step back, Naruto-sama," she said. "I can take care of everything; Naruto-sama has fought enough already…"
"I respectfully refuse," Naruto growled, sounding not really respectful at all. His eyes glared at everyone and everything in that battered battlefield. "I take it you people really like the sound of your voices, but I'm fucking sick and tired of you guys rambling and rambling like you're the only people who matter!"
"Well, they are kyuubi, so of course—"
"Oh, so they're the furriest of all!" Naruto retorted with no little sarcasm in his scathing words. "Big fucking deal."
His right index raised, he pointed it at Kougon, who frowned at the rude gesture. Naruto was still talking mostly to Sayoko, although his voice made it clear enough that he wanted everybody to listen.
"This asshole!" he said. "He comes here to kill my friend, and why?" Only then did he glare at Kougon, to make absolutely clear what he thought of his "judgement". "Because you cannot accept a third kyuubi! Because it'd mean you are not as much of a special snowflake anymore!"
Kougon did not even flinch at the accusation, which only annoyed Naruto further.
"Didn't I already tell you? I protect Sayuri because she's family. All these years, she has been closer to me than anybody else." He gritted his teeth in irritation. Just thinking about this made his eyes sting. "I…I might have had a bit of a…lonely, childhood, but! I was not alone! Even if I was…looked down upon, even if I was never acknowledged, and always rejected, at least I could talk to people!"
His right hand made a sweeping motion, presenting the sleeping nine-tails to the crowd.
"This girl, she's been completely alone! For almost thirteen years!" His furious eyes locked on his Hokage. "Old man, what do you think would happen if you locked Konohamaru for thirteen years in an isolation cell!?"
The old man winced, but he would not look away, even if he did not have an answer for that. At least, not an answer he would be willing to speak out loud.
"Yes, she's crazy, and reckless, and doesn't think twice of setting people and cities on fire! She's abso-fucking-lutely dangerous, and sealing her was the best Yondaime could do at that time, but blaming her for what she does with her powers is like blaming her for breathing!"
He turned again, this time to let Higashiyama Yuri receive his furious glare.
"It was you! You, in your retarded kyuubi-worship, did not bother teaching your daughter common fucking sense! People call me stupid, but even I know there's shit you just don't! Fucking! Do! But Sayuri doesn't! She not only can burn anything, she feels herself completely entitled to do it, 'cause she just doesn't get that sometimes burning shit is wrong!"
"So, when another retard!" Naruto continued, glaring at Yuria in a way that made her flinch. "Suggests how fun it would be to become fucking gigantic and rampage all over the country; well of course she'll do it! That's the kind of stupid shit children just love to do! I'm a child too; I'd do it in a blink if I could as well!"
"This child…this child!" He shouted more and more loudly. "She should be furious! She should be the death machine Konoha thought she was thirteen years ago! She…she should despise me! She should have destroyed me the moment she realized I was her jailer! But she smi—ugh…"
His head fell, hiding his eyes from view. His voice had broken, and his shoulders trembled. Seriously, this is why his hated all this mushy heartfelt stuff (not really). However, the pause was perhaps what he needed to ease himself and relax his voice.
"She…she smiled at me." He no longer looked angry. If anything, his lopsided smile made him look defeated. "When she saw me for the first time, do you know what the first thing she told me was?"
He chuckled at a memory that felt five years rather than ten days old.
"It wasn't 'who are you' or 'why are you here'; it was 'I was lonely'."
Naruto bit the corner of his lip before continuing.
"I was never her jailer. She never saw me as an enemy, or a threat, or something to despise and burn to death. From day one, I was 'the friend who ended her loneliness'." Shaking his head as if incapable of believing such a thing, Naruto allowed a single tear to shake off the corner of his right eye. "How could I possibly not love her?"
It was silly, for many reasons. If we speak of Sayuri accepting Naruto instead of hating him, should we not think of Naruto's reciprocal acknowledgment of Sayuri as well?
But, of course, this is Uzumaki Naruto. To him, forgiving the main cause of his former social status (the other cause was his being an insufferable little shit) was not a big deal. After all, he loved Sayuri.
And it was that love which reignited his anger.
"And when some self-serving asshole comes here claiming she has to die because she just happens to be as special as he is, how could I possibly not want to smash his face!?"
It was a blazing thing, coursing like molten lava in his veins and inflaming his brain until his sight became tinted in white. He was angry, so angry…!
"And you…!" He was angry at Kougon, but he "only" wanted Sayuri dead. No, the one who truly deserved all that anger boiling within him was the other furriest one. "Listen to me, and listen to me well, you bitch."
Fubuki was glaring as well, but that had more to do with her bleeding nose than whatever Naruto could tell her.
"That guy…" he said, pointing at Kougon with a thumb. "He's an asshole, but he's at least a straightforward asshole. I can deal with that." He remembered that Kougon had in fact acted to protect Konoha. That was something Naruto could appreciate. "But you, you goddamn hopeless bitch…" He shook his head once more, as if incapable of believing a person like Kuromiya Fubuki could even exist. "You show up, after sending that goddamn monster that could've killed us all, and you act like we should be grateful you're here to do what that thing couldn't!"
"Konoha's my family! Sayuri's my family! That makes Higashiyama my family too! So when you come here to hurt them both, we've got ourselves a big problem, you hag! You hurt Mayuri!"
Honorifics were no longer necessary; no, he just did not want to use honorifics for Mayuri anymore.
"You bound Mayuri, and spoke of her like she's some petty bauble you can just take with you! She's not just a Time Kitsune, she's Mayuri! She's always in pain! She's seen so many horrible things, but she still feels pain with every vision she sees! She should be all jaded and uncaring of death like we ninjas are supposed to be, but she is not! Because she's just that kind! But you just don't give a fuck about that, do you!?"
It was a shame that Sayuri was no longer a part of him. His eyes and his face could no longer project fury the way they used to, even if his rage at the moment more than matched what he felt on that bridge when he thought Sasuke was dead.
"Your monster killed who knows how many ninja! You hurt Mayuri! You killed Kiba's mom, and took Kiba's voice! You killed Yurika-chan, before we could even get a chance to become friends! You took away the real Yurine-chan, away from her daughters! And you act like it was okay of you to do this, because you're your high and royal furriness!"
"Hmph," Fubuki dismissed the young human's accusations. "Why should I care—"
"You called. My friend. A breeding mare."
Those sensitive to chakra realized that Naruto had done more than just voicing his discontent. His right hand glowed to those who could detect the flow of energy within his body, for it was like he had directed the entirety of his replenished reserves to that limb.
Higashiyama Yuriyo saw the furious face of a person who truly cared for her as much as her own family, and thus realized she had found an irreplaceable friend.
"You can be as selfish as you want; you can say all the self-centered bullshit you want, I can't take that from you," Naruto admitted. "But did you really think I'm gonna stand back and let Sayoko-san take care of everything, like some…some…"
His head twitched strangely, as if there were a ticking time bomb of rage fighting against containment in his skull.
"…like some background character…?"
Yuria grinned. "Now there's the man I chose to marry."
"You didn't choose shit!"
Naruto is never gonna let her up on that.
"Naruto-sama," Sayoko finally intervened. "I understand your sentiments, but…if you are willing to make such a statement, should I presume you have some sort of plan?"
It was a question merely aiming to direct the flow of events towards the conclusion she already expected. Naturally, if Naruto intended to fight the Kyuubi one more time, after experiencing their power firsthand, then he obviously had a plan.
The former Jinchuuriki clenched his right first.
"Damn right I have a plan."
It was a gamble. If it failed, he would have just made himself the world's greatest fool.
"It will work," Sayoko said. "Because it's you."
This once, she did not mean "because you're the protagonist".
Naruto, however, frowned at the ancient fox-woman.
"Can you read minds, Sayoko-san? I have the feeling you already know…"
Sayoko defused that bomb with her tired-looking conciliatory smile.
"I could, a long time ago. Not anymore. This is just the wisdom of an old woman."
Naruto chuckled briefly and mutely. He was not sure whether he wanted to know more about this person, for he feared the things residing in that truly powerful and ancient mind. Regardless, there was something he had to do; the time for speeches was over.
His wounds had been healed by Kotonoha and later the Seed of Life, so he had to bite his thumb. This was it, the only thing he could do…!
"Kuchiyose no Jutsu!"
His chakra poured into the ground, drawing the largest summoning array any of the humans and kitsune present had ever seen. In contrast, the cloud of white smoke that popped off on the spot right in front of Naruto was disproportionately small.
This narrator kind of missed that.
Yes, it was not any of the sounds of battle and debate which roused Higashiyama Sayuri from her sleep, but the mental alarm inviting her to respond to her onii-chan's summons.
Yes, Naruto had summoned Sayuri from all of five feet away.
"Waaaaaaai, it's onii-chan!"
"Hey there, little one," he greeted, already looking a little haggard from the exertion involved in calling upon a nine-tailed kitsune. He fell on his knees at the same time the little foxgirl jumped to his inviting arms.
"Onii-chan!" Sayuri chirped happily, nuzzling against Naruto's bare chest. The boy, who after all could not reject the foxgirl's smile, tenderly stroke her fair golden hair, her long vulpine ears and her many tails, incomparably soft and fluffy. And Sayuri knew no greater happiness, except perhaps the warmth of the flame living inside her.
"Sayuri, how are you feeling?"
"Um, Sayuri's happy! Because onii-chan, onii-chan summoned Sayuri, wight?"
Sayoko shot a cautionary glance at Kougon, perhaps even daring him to interrupt this. But he would not, for he had understood Naruto's plan to oppose him, and he wished to see it happen.
"Onii-chan," Sayuri continued, dropping her voice to what she guessed worked as a conspiratory tone and cuddling closer to her summoner as if to prevent others from listening. "You summoned Sayuri."
"Yes," Naruto confirmed once more.
"Sayuri's the boss summon, you know?"
"I'm da boss."
"Um, um," a grinning Naruto agreed, seemingly amused by Sayuri's newfound awareness of her notorious position.
"That's like, um, weaaaaaally impohtant."
"I guess, yeah."
"So!" Taking a step back, the little nine-tails crossed her arms against her bare chest, looking unreasonably smug while she did it. "What did onii-chan summon 'Da Boss' foh?"
Naruto sighed; the question weighted heavily in his heart.
"I summoned you because I'm weak, Sayuri."
"Muuu…" Sayuri lowered her head, her brow showing she was deeply in thought. "Onii-chan can't set things on fire, Sayuri knows."
Naruto wanted to laugh, but the sound was choked by his throat.
"No, no, that's not it, Sayuri," he said before seizing the girl's shoulders and pulling her into his embrace once more.
"Munyaa~" Sayuri mouthed blissfully as she found herself pampered one more time, this time by Naruto's own initiative.
"I swore to protect you, Sayuri," Naruto confessed. "I swore to take care of you and Mayuri. I want the two of you to be happy."
"Sayuri's happy when Sayuri's with onii-chan~" the little foxgirl shamelessly declared while rubbing her cheeks against Naruto's exposed chest. His male scent made her a bit dizzy, but in a good way.
"I know, I…" He held back on kissing Sayuri's forehead; it was just not his style. "…I'm happy I met you, Sayuri."
Ignoring Sayuri's happy sounds, Naruto made his point.
"If I could have my way, you and Mayuri would never have to fight. You are young; you should be, I dunno, playing or studying or whatever, not dealing with assholes who want to kill you for their own convenience." He gritted his teeth as the depth of his uselessness struck his heart without mercy. "But I'm too weak, Sayuri! I'm too weak…to give you the lives you deserve! I don't, I don't have the power to protect you on my own!"
"Onii…chan…" In the strength of his sudden embrace, and in the broken speech, Sayuri felt rather than understood the magnitude of Naruto's sadness. His sadness was her own, but her lack of proper empathy could only draw her towards returning the hug with her little arms, stubbornly holding to her beloved as if keeping him from the sadness that would take him away from her.
"That's why, even if it's humiliating, even if it's embarrassing and it makes me hate myself…!" His right hand tenderly slid along the curve of Sayuri's fine cheek and the underside of her jaw, pushing her to look up at his misery-stricken face.
Naruto remembered a number of people flattering his eyes; mostly Ayame from Ichiraku's and the lady he bought his clothes from. But how could his eyes compare to the red jewels that were Sayuri's, so impossibly brimming in their innocence and expressiveness. In those eyes, he saw something that deserved to be protected. A monster that does not know the concept of evil; can Higashiyama Sayuri be blamed for being obscenely powerful?
He did not know. He was not fighting to uphold justice, or to prove the righteousness of humanity. He just had somebody he wished to protect, a big number of somebodies, really. Also, he was really, really, really pissed off.
"…Sayuri, lend me your power."
Sayuri quietly nuzzled the hand holding her jaw, and her own right hand rose to reach for Naruto's face…and flick his forehead.
"Muu…stupid onii-chan." She was pouting. "Doeshn't onii-chan know?"
Her tails shot upwards, and they refracted sunlight to create a dazzling illusion like they were on fire. It was beautiful, and also frightening, because since when was Sayuri capable of such elegance?
"Onii-chan only has to point, and Sayuri will burn it."
Nonsensical loyalty founded on nonsensical love. Perhaps Higashiyama Sayuri was the greatest expression of the folk tales that warn of the dangerous, tragic thing that is to love and being loved by a kitsune.
Higashiyama Mayuri's thoughts drifted to one of the many visions starring Naruto she had seen in the time in Konoha. She remembered the sight of a broken, ruthless monster in the guise of a boy, directing his nine-tailed weapon with just-as-broken affection to raze his enemies to ashes. Just another possibility; what Naruto could have become were he a lesser being.
It made her shudder, now that she witnessed the unbridled reverence Sayuri professed for that boy.
The next words Naruto whispered into Sayuri's right ear. The girl giggled delighted by the tickling of his breath on the side of her head.
"Can you do that for me, Sayuri?"
"Um!" The girl nodded eagerly. "If it's with onii-chan, Sayuri doesn't mind!"
With that, Naruto got back on his feet, his sadness at his own feebleness put aside for a while. His eyes now gleamed with the prospect of battle. But, he guessed, there were a number of people he needed to apologize to.
"My bad, Yuri-san," he said, not bothering to turn his head to face the former Matriarch. "Using your daughter like this; it doesn't feel right."
The tall kitsune shook her head. Really, was there anything she could do against this development? Even now, she could not challenge her youngest daughter's wishes, because she was Kyuubi.
The (former) fiancée stood at attention. From the position, she caught the hint of a smirk on the corner of his mouth.
"Next time make sure you're the one fighting by my side, alright?"
The three-tails felt her body lighter and her heart bristling with excitement.
After nodding, Naruto addressed one last person. He still did not turn his head, this time because he was too ashamed to face her, and he did not want her to see the redness on his cheeks.
Setsuna skipped a beat, and then mentally kicked herself for being so responsive.
"Wha…wha-what is it?" Inevitably, she shaped her voice in a pitiful attempt at sounding tough.
"I'm really sorry; your student is still worthless and needs to rely on a youkai's powers. But one day…one day I'll definitely catch up to you, Mistress! Believe it!"
Setsuna forcefully swallowed the insane urge to curse the world with all her power, for making her meet a person willing to say things like that to her.
"Damn it, why does he have to be so…" Setsuna muted self-whispering was interrupted by the sight of a smiling and ufufu-ing Kotonoha. "Wha-wha—what'cha looking at, zeppelin tits!? Go bomb the British or something!"
Before taking the first step forward to battle, Naruto caught sight of the unusual smile on Kurosaki Sayoko's face.
"…what is it?"
"Nothing; just curious as to what will come out."
"…it's like you already know what the result will be."
"No," Sayoko denied, shaking her head very slowly. "I only know the result I wish to see."
Her answer scared him. Naruto realized then, that Kurosaki Sayoko was a frightening ally to have.
"…let's just do this, Sayuri!"
With merriness that did not match the scene of clashing wills around her and the electric atmosphere crackling with latent battle auras, Sayuri skipped ahead of Naruto and placed her arms in the Tiger seal.
The darkness of the nightmare was swallowed by the brightest, purest and most dangerous flame.
And Kurosaki Sayoko's eyes gleamed with delight, for in that flame she saw the end of her days.
He understood, because the communion brought into being by Weapon of the Soul was something so intimate, so transcendental, that it was simply impossible not to get it. When the presence of Sayuri, the existence that is Higashiyama Sayuri, invaded his body, extending tendrils of something into his ribcage and wrapping them around his heart, Naruto immediately understood.
Inside Sayuri, there was a flame. But the flame was Sayuri herself, and this was not some sort of weird existential riddle because both things were undeniably true. And the thing within her that was also her was not only her, but what she could and should not be, what she had been and what was offered for her to become. It was part of her, but also her totality and something much greater than her. It was her infinite past, her bound present and her potentially infinite future.
It was a flame, but it was not fire. It was not the harmless and meaningless comedy fire, nor the deep orange fire born of chemical combustion reactions, nor the nuclear fire that makes the stars. It was Destruction itself, in the guise of flame because it suited it the most. It was the concept, having taken a shape, yet infinite in its scope and significance. That flame, Naruto knew, could destroy everything, for that was what it defined and its only purpose. If left alone and unrestrained, it would consume everything in heaven and earth, and even after that, it would not be satisfied before devouring the ashes as well.
Ashes of ashes. That was the Void. Or, at least, what the Void should have been. And Naruto understood this, from looking at that flame. For it was The Flame Kindled By the First Motion, older than the world.
"Hmm…" He sighed, and it should not be possible because he was everywhere and nowhere, alone with that flame. "Yondaime really got it right. With sealin' ya."
He had just lashed out at Yuri, but could he really expect that woman to even understand what her daughter truly was? What she could become? He barely got it, and he was staring at the center of Higashiyama Sayuri's existence.
"I might have to apologize…ugh." Not something to look forward to. "Whatever."
He looked at the flame, and its perfectly white body of light danced as if reveling in the attention.
"Look," he said. "I'll figure it out somehow. I'll teach her to keep a hold of herself. I won't let her burn things recklessly anymore. And if she…" He gulped, as the very idea scared him more than he wanted to admit. "…if she wants to become you in the end…well, that's her choice to make, but…well, I think that's a choice she's gotta make when she's all grown-up and smarter—wait, will she even grow up? I mean, she's a Kyuubi already…"
Realizing he was speaking in circles, Naruto released a pathetic groan of resignation.
"Aaaaah, whatever! I'll figure it out! Somehow!" A pause. "I know, not very reliable! But still! I…" He finally allowed himself to ease down and soften his voice. "…I love her, and I want her to be happy. I'll take care of her…I'll take care of you. So…just, just listen to me…if only this time."
And the flame listened, because the flame was Sayuri, and thus loved him dearly. And it was also part of Sayuri, so it accepted becoming part of him. And when the flame filled him, Naruto found that he was no longer looking at Sayuri, but at himself.
He was not sure he liked what he was seeing.
Those who witnessed the transformation saw Naruto being engulfed by flames. Those flames, orange and red and yellow, became brighter and whiter as they coalesced and swirled around Naruto's unseen form. The color was different, and the heat, the heat was oppressive, completely unlike Sayuri's natural ability to defy thermodynamics and prevent her flames from radiating such a sweltering haze. But the reason all of the present jumped away from the flames was not to escape from the heat. It was because of a feeling familiar to Sayuri's relatives, and perhaps even to Hiruzen and Jiraiya.
The humans, they saw thirteen years ago being repeated. The invisible miasma that flooded their minds was exactly what they felt in the presence of the colossal beast that evening. It was perhaps even worse, for it now seemed to have a center and a purpose. If the evil presence from that night was like buckets of water flooding Konohagakure and its people, this time Sayuri's chakra was a katana, sharpened and focused by the will of her summoner. But they, and the youkai close by, felt even more than "an indescribably dangerous presence".
This flame, it could not be called "evil". It was about as evil as an earthquake or a drought. It was simply a threat; an inescapable question that should never be answered and a depraved lullaby that should have never been sung. This flame, they knew, could burn through absolutely anything: though light and darkness, through mortals and gods, through heaven and earth and even through time itself.
This was Sayuri, in all the magnitude of her no-longer misguided and childish belief. And the people there who knew her realized that, when she said she could burn anything, she really fucking meant it.
And the flames dispersed, revealing more flames. Nine tails, crafted painstakingly and awesome in their blazing radiance. The flames adorned his back like that, but they also danced along the skin of his arms like red and orange and white fur. But Naruto's newest and most powerful Weapon of the Soul could not be flames. Even the Pyroninja could immolate himself.
There was a reason "Weapon of the Soul" had that name. In the many centuries of humans dabbling with youkai and making contracts with them, the result of this transformation technique had been a tool to inflict harm on others, without exception.
However, this Weapon of the Soul was a stone. The largest magatama in existence; a comma-shaped jewel the size of an adult man's fist, embedded into the flesh of Naruto's chest, right on top of the sternum. Strange things like vessels bulged underneath the skin around the red stone, as if it had grown roots inside Naruto's body, or like a spider's legs attached to its magatama-body.
"Chakra reactor-type Weapon of the Soul."
Inside the red stone, a tiny white flame merrily danced, and its joyful rhythm spelled the end of all things.
Naruto released a long exhalation, as if he had been holding his breath for a long time.
"Man…" he then said. "I'd make, like, the shittiest Hokage ever."
CHAPTER 22 – To be continued...