- ナルト- 幻脅威宴
Extra Chapter: The Three's Conclusion – The Last Wondrous Story of a Broken Little Planet
It was a shattered world.
They were welcomed by a sky dyed in an unnatural red. It belonged to no sundown; it was not the color of twilight. The water content in the atmosphere was too low to produce clouds of anything but loose dust and sand. The sky was dyed in an aberrant color and the land was dead. What should have been the vast forests of Fire Country had been replaced with lifeless wasteland. To the west, where Konohagakure once stood, they only saw a bizarre, electric darkness; a murky black fog concealed the earth and the sky while purple lightning howled in its depths. The village of shinobi had long ceased to be, replaced instead by the Crawling Chaos' blasphemous hallow.
"I feel kinda light…"
Uzumaki Naruto, a man of nondescript age, looked down and to his right. Higashiyama Karen was jumping on the spot, frowning at the subtle yet perceivable lightness of her body. While nowadays he wore more white than orange, Sayuri's daughter had inherited his fashion sense. Or perhaps it was Yuria's. Karen's clothes reminded him of a set he bought for his at-the-time fiancée, so long ago. As her father, he should have been a little worried his daughter was showing a little too much through the open sleeveless orange jacket and the mesh shirt, but the tall and boyish Karen had yet to develop her mother's shapeliness.
"The planet's gravity's not working right anymore," Naruto explained. It was weird, to be the one who figured out these things. But well, he had learned a lot in his life, in one way or another. "Can you two tap into your chakra properly?"
"Um!" Karen nodded. "No problems here."
Then again, Karen had never been able to use chakra the way other people do, so perhaps she was not the best reference. For that, he turned to his second daughter.
"Worry about yourself, hmph."
Parents are not supposed to have favorites, and neither are teachers. However, both parents and teachers do have children and students they favor, sometimes only unconsciously. Uzumaki Naruto's favorite was Uzumaki Kizuna, the only one of his daughters to carry his family name. However, the one standing closest to him, and to whom he was devoting his affection by stroking her silvery hairs, was his first and oldest child (adopted and/or self-proclaimed children not counting), Higashiyama Suiren.
"…Reiki didn't come," Kizuna pointed out.
"Nah, he said he was not interested," Naruto said, sounding a little bit disappointed. He truly wished he could figure out the way to get closer to that child. They did not have a bad relationship, just…distant.
"Huh, would've thought he'd be into this," Kizuna commented while flicking the right one of her long, thin blonde twin-tails over her shoulder. "So? What's the plan?"
Naruto paused for a moment. A white mantle with flaming orange rim billowed behind his back, carrying the red and black entwined spirals that nowadays acted as the symbol of the Uzumaki family—the black was added to honor his wife. Turning his senses inwards and fading out the broken world around him, he tapped on the Silver Key, his perennial companion, as if waking up a lazy cat. He could feel the aberrant object's awareness responding to his call; a simple recognition that it was still in the right place, next to the person it wanted to be with.
The sole adult in the quartet looked down at Suiren, a second cat-like creature, always staying close to him and often rubbing her face against his side as if to mark him as hers.
"You can find them, right?" It was not really a question, but Suiren nodded nonetheless.
While Kizuna had chosen to wear awfully clichéd black kunoichi garb—on a shapelier woman it might have looked enticing; Kizuna did not make it work—Suiren was wearing her usual frilly attire, choosing this time a dark blue dress with white embroidery around the sleeves and hems, tight like a bodice on her torso and spreading at the waist, held by a frame underneath that created a shape that reminded Naruto of a big blue pear.
"Alright, then I'll leave Sayuri and Mayuri to you girls. I'll do my thing when I'm done with Yuria."
"Don't you…want to talk to those two as well?"
"Nah…" Naruto shook his head. "It's better like this."
"Should we look for you when you're done?" Kizuna finalized the briefing. "How would we even know you've done whatever it is you plan to do?"
Naruto chuckled and inevitably planted a big, rough hand on Kizuna's head to pet it a little.
"Wha-let, let—don't mess my hair, stupid father!" The blushing little girl quickly complained, but Naruto only chuckled a bit longer.
"Believe me, Kizuna: when I tap into Azatoth, you'll definitely know."
They were separated by about fifty meters of empty wasteland. The land was littered with craters of various sizes, scars left by all sorts of extraterrestrial objects impacting the planet, not of all them inert.
"What is it…that you seek?"
The question was like coals added to the fire that was Sayuri's hatred. Mayuri found herself justified in her madness; spending her life desperately hunting souls while her own was thoroughly broken. Sayuri sought battle, not salvation or redemption. She simply sought to put Mayuri out of her misery.
With a swipe of her left arm, Sayuri filled the air around her with bubbles—some red, some a deep blue; millions of them which quickly gathered into larger black spheres of super-compressed chakra. Mayuri impassively waited for the nine-tails to try whatever.
Destruction rained upon the wasteland. Upon touching solid matter, they exploded majestically, engulfing the world in white. Explosions overlapped with each other, until the sky was one single blank canvas of ruin, as far as the distant horizon. They were fighting in an agonizing world, so it was not like they had to fear getting somebody caught up in the collateral damage. Thus, Sayuri filled one-sixth of Fire Country with explosions.
But it was pointless.
Sayuri could actually see it: no matter how intense her Nine-Tails Sequential Pulse Cannon was, both the spheres and the subsequent explosions passed through Mayuri's body as if she were a mirage standing in the middle of the apocalypse. The bombardment then ceased, as easily as it came into being, and neither of the fox women was the slightest bit winded.
Mayuri tilted her head slightly to her left, and the ground under Sayuri's feet disappeared.
She had not fallen ten meters before her tails speared the walls surrounding her. Looking down she could not see an end to the hole Mayuri had created in an instant. Had she destroyed the world line of the specific section of ground under Sayuri? Or had she replaced the world lines of their current reality with those of one where there was a hole in that particular spot? And how far down did that hole go? It honestly would not surprise Sayuri if it reached all the way to the planet's core—not that she feared submerging herself in a sphere of molten metal at a few thousand degrees.
Then Sayuri looked up and saw Mayuri had not been idle after making that hole. Extending her godly power into the vastness of the cosmos, she had reached for the world line of a heavenly object to instantaneously transport it into the planet's atmosphere. It was an authentic civilization destroyer; a meteorite that would have erased humankind from the planet had there been humankind left in the first place. Its colossal shape cast its shadow over the wasteland, completely covering the sky to the eyes of the one in the hole.
Both fox women watched it with about equal amounts of boredom.
"Hnn," Sayuri uttered right before releasing her chakra a second time, carpeting the land with chakra bubbles that initiated a new firing sequence.
A celestial sphere that could erase humanity was merely an obstacle to be obliterated with sufficient firepower. Even before it turned into dust, the colossal object had been pushed up and away from the ground by the explosive power of Sayuri's consecutive shooting. A vast mantle of dust and smoke cloaked the land, forcing Mayuri to close her eyes. This would in no way hamper her in battle, but it was still bothersome. The Time kitsune waited for the other to emerge from the hole in the planet's crust, and when she did, she did so in a mighty leap and pushed her far up into the dust-tinted sky.
"Aegis," murmured Mayuri in her unchanging boredom.
Instead of explosions, this time it was fire which scourged the wasteland. It was a stream flowing out of Sayuri's mouth and spreading like a river's delta, growing on both sides and flooding acres of land. But Mayuri's Aegis of Eternity withstood the Extreme Fire Obliteration without apparent issue, and the two enemies stared at each other throughout the tsunami of flames; one with boredom, the other with hate.
The moment Sayuri's jutsu came to an end, Mayuri made her next move. Upon dismissing the defensive technique, having already sought deep into the past of the planet—into the several glacial periods in which the continent had been covered by ice—, she forced that long-past section of the planet's world line into the present. Almost instantaneously, an entire square kilometer of land found itself bearing the weight of an ice sheet almost two kilometers thick. Sayuri had not even had the time to look surprised, and Mayuri found herself a bit disappointed at the lack of expression on the imprisoned nine-tails' face.
So she waited. If something like a new ice age could stop that annoying Fire Kitsune, she would not have been wasting her time in that inane battle. She was vindicated when Sayuri's body began to glow inside her prison of ice. It was chakra, so thick it was visible to the naked eye, and it glowed a pristine gold like the midday sun of a time long past. Then her tails grew until they broke through the ice sheet, swaying like the heads of a hydra clad in the fire of the stars.
Sayuri's voice resounded through the ice and into the sky, filling the world with the ultimatum of incoming obliteration.
The nine tails bent in different directions, their tips almost meeting at a single point. Golden chakra of star-birthing power rapidly accumulated on that spot, vibrating as its sheer density began to exert a gravitational force on the world around it.
The bead of golden chakra shot up high in the sky, higher than the ice sheet and past where the first layers of clouds should have been in an unbroken world, disappearing from both women's sights very quickly. High in the ionosphere, however, the little bead roared like a legendary beast of ancient times. Sayuri's chakra behaved like a superheavy element, constantly unraveling into smaller clumps with less energy, the excess released as light and heat. The overall process looked to the naked eye as the tiny bead exploding into a humongous sphere of light and flame, sustaining itself by the bizarre fission reaction.
Nuclear Release – Artificial Sun.
It made for an almost nostalgic sight, the golden orb floating high in the sky and illuminating the dying world with its pure radiance. But it was also intensely hot, its released energy battering the ice sheet and causing it to groan as its molecular bonds were beginning to break.
The miniature sun—which by virtue of its closer distance looking about as big as the real one—glowed even more intensely. Clumps like warts began to erupt throughout its surface, marring its geometrical perfection.
Sayuri filled the sky with dragons.
Like hatchlings born in primordial flame, Sayuri's Thousand Starborn Dragons surged out of the artificial sun and became a calamitous rain upon Mayuri and the wasteland, littering the lifeless land with explosions. The Time kitsune relied on a combination of successive instances of stopping time and instantaneous adjustments of her own world line to either move out of the way or simply not being there to be swallowed by the colossal fireballs created every time one of the fire dragons struck solid ground. All other sounds had been drowned by the orchestra of explosions.
Inside the rapidly melting ice, Sayuri smirked. She needed to push Mayuri even further for her plan to have a chance of working.
With a roar and a raiment of intense flames enveloping her body, the sole surviving nine-tails of this broken world burst out of the ice sheet, already mostly sublimated into steam and forming the first clouds that part of the world had seen in many years. Her feet sizzled upon touching the scorched earth; the whole battlefield had become a hellish scene, looking as if the very ground could melt at any moment. Sayuri gouged the dry earth with claws clad with fiery power, and glowing cracks spread along the ground like the prelude to the birth of a volcano.
"Youton – Rebaiazan."
It burst out of the ground in a shower of debris, like a geyser of molten rock and ashes. Its serpentine form ascended hundreds of meters, coiling around itself and it loomed over Mayuri's form, diminutive in comparison, like a super predator whose main sustenance was the world itself. Sayuri's Lava Release – Dark Soot Ocean Disaster was a colossus; a titanic serpent of magma that would have been overkill even against the entire army of any single nation.
Mayuri clicked her tongue.
The magma leviathan pounced upon the wasteland with terrifying speed for its outrageous size. Its massive body created canyons in its passing, which were promptly blasted to smithereens by the raining dragons.
"Jinsenka no Jutsu!"
If the dragons numbered in the thousands, the arrows of flame that filled the sky like droplets numbered at least two orders of magnitude greater. Compared to the dragons of flame and the magma leviathan they were like children's toys, not much stronger than the classic Great Fireball Technique. But the advantage of Sayuri's Swift Hunt Fire Technique was its speed. As they preyed on Mayuri and her unfair ability to manipulate time and space, they did so at speed beyond perception. A single arrow was but a flash before it struck something and exploded, and the sky was thus filled with streaks of light adorning the artful advent of the huge blazing dragons and acting as the background for the beyond colossal serpent's rampage.
It was an apocalyptic scene; an inferno of fire, magma and explosions.
It was the ultimate, most over-the-top distraction ever conceived.
"It was…so much simpler…when you were an idiot!"
"I'll take that as a compliment."
Sayuri's flames would never reach her fearsome rival. But unlike Sayuri, who was for all purposes a construct of chakra which happened to take the form of a kitsune, Mayuri was still a warm-blooded mammal. There was only so much heat her body could take.
Sayuri had already tried overwhelming Mayuri with unbearable heat a number of times. The strategy she was using that day was the fruit of what she had learned from many earlier encounters: Mayuri protected herself from the heat of Sayuri's attacks by one of two ways: the first snapping the world line of Sayuri's attack before it could get even close. When this was not possible—namely, when the attack was so huge or so complex it could not be erased from existence quickly enough—, Mayuri reached for the world lines of every single particle in her immediate surroundings, dramatically diminishing their momentum and by definition their energy. Effectively, she created an "aura" of colder temperature like a second skin.
While she directed the performance of four simultaneous jutsu, Sayuri kept a sharp gaze on Mayuri's actions. By keeping her busy with a constant assault from every possible direction using multiple techniques, Sayuri stopped Mayuri from focusing her attention on any single one long enough to strike at its world line. Sayuri had further picked four particularly powerful, persistent and/or complex jutsu, to make it as difficult as possible for Mayuri to unravel them. In this way, she had forced Mayuri to rely on her second tactic while looking for the moment to neutralize Sayuri's barrage. This Sayuri had done because, for all her otherworldly power, Mayuri's manipulation of world lines was still bound by the Uncertainty Principle. In other words, Mayuri could not manipulate the momentum and the position of a particle at the same time. The particles making her "cold aura" changed incessantly as she moved in space, forcing the Time kitsune to basically remake her protection at all times. This made it even more difficult for Mayuri to actually deal with the heat sources.
"You can't beat me in a chakra capacity race, Mayuri!" Sayuri's snarling could not possibly be heard with ordinary audition over the madness she was unleashing.
Pushing herself a bit further, Mayuri expanded the safe zone of bearable temperature into a sphere large enough to contain two of her. And indeed, a second Mayuri appeared out of thin air, immediately clasping her hands together and fixing her attention on the Artificial Sun; the colossal sphere the major source of the unbearable heat ravaging the two fox women's battlefield.
"Shit," Sayuri spat. Mayuri called them "Shadow Clones", but that was just a sad callback to that beloved person. She was simply summoning herself from some other point in spacetime. It would not have been surprising if it were the Mayuri from mere seconds earlier; the Mayuri who was slipping in and out of universal time to evade Sayuri's barrage.
"Cut it," the present Mayuri said unnecessarily, while the other Mayuri invoked Worldline Slice – The Quest of Iranon.
The dragon shower ceased just before the gigantic ball of nuclear fire began its ominous descent. A new race began between the new Mayuri's Touzai Kokon and Sayuri's Nuclear Release – Fall of a Great Star, all the while the present Mayuri redirected and teleported arrows away while compensating for the artificial sun's diminishing distance. Air currents accelerated and powerful updrafts rose as twisters of sand and dust clad in lightning, their roars the trumpets unsealing the demon star falling to consume the world.
It disappeared, its world line severed. The wind still howled, lightning still raged, the land still boiled, but the nuclear cataclysm was no more.
The summoned Mayuri departed the present time. The two unflinching rivals stared at each other, their eyes glinting faster than their chakra spiked. Yet again, Mayuri was faster—or perhaps she had prepared it beforehand—, reaching for the world lines of the ancient past of a certain timeline; a time where that corner of Fire Country, and in fact most of the continent, remained hidden beneath the waves. She grabbed that ancient geography and superimposed it on top of the present reality.
Worldline Overlap – What the Moon Brings.
Sayuri's own jutsu ended in her throat, broken by the sight of a wall of thousands of meters of water popping out of effectively nowhere, casting a horizon-spanning shadow over the two kitsune. Truly, the sky had been replaced by ocean, and it was about to fall on them.
Sayuri's pupils quivered for a moment. Her lips trembled, and a prayer to the only being worth praying to in her mind—Naruto—almost escaped her throat. But the human he loved was also the reason she fought, so the unspoken prayer became the kindle for a new flame in her heart.
She disappeared, swallowed by a ball of nuclear fire. That day, that time, there was no other conclusion but death. Not even the weight of all the world's oceans would stop her from dragging Mayuri's ass with her through the pearly gates.
"Warm-up's over, Mayuri?" She whispered. "Alright, warm-up's over."
It was their last great battle in a planet on its deathbed. After protecting it for so long, it was only fair they turned off the life support themselves before the things from beyond shattered their world.
With a powerful, sorrowful, desperate and unflinching roar, Sayuri pumped her right fist to the heavens as she declared that the kid gloves were off.
All light, all sound, were overcome by the absolute purity of one of the greatest explosions that planet's millions of years of history had witnessed. For a moment of absolute achromatic perfection, there was only the blinding whiteness that engulfed all other visual stimuli, and it was followed by the roar that was heard in every corner of the planet, by what few life forms remained and clung to their existences in the last day of their world. Even the native gods, those that still remained in their distant Heavenly Plains out of phase with the rest of reality, were pulled out of their madness, if only for a moment, by the defiant last stance of one who had fought long after all of them gave up on the world they once nurtured with their wisdom and radiance.
There would be no history book to record Sayuri's last display of awe-inspiring greatness. A demonstration of unbridled destruction, yes, but magnificent in its bluntness.
Nuclear Release – Heaven and Earth Meltdown.
She was the strongest. For many years, she was revered as the Unrivaled under Heaven and Autocrat of All Youkai-kind—or just"the Empress of Youkai" for short. The few close and daring enough to address her as something other than "Your Invincible Majesty" called her a simple "Yuria" or in the case of Sayuri, "onee-sama". Her life, her everything, could be easily described by those widely different denominators. Having renounced to her family name, she was simply "Yuria". She belonged to no clan, for there was no other like her in the world. Hers was not a rule of wisdom or charisma, for she had never considered herself a leader of men or sheep. Hers was the simple and blunt rule of absolute, unmatched power. She ruled as the ultimate deterrent; the universal bogeywoman: engage in excessive mischief and Yuria will come and break you.
That was so long ago. Her last followers were killing each other at that very moment.
On that day, the last day of her world, she did not feel particularly mighty. She stood alone on a beach at the far southwest of Fire Country, gazing at the horizon separating the reddish sky and the murky gray ocean. Her mask, the supernatural tool that concealed her true appearance, lay long discarded on the sand, so it was a fox woman of short stature whose tired carnelian eyes gazed upon the strange shapes in the distance.
She sighed. How long had she been doing this? It was hard to believe it would actually end. But it was truly enough; she had fought her hardest, and held back the otherworlders almost single-handedly for the longest time, but there was no longer a point in defending that empty, broken world. So, she would die, spending her chakra in a hopeless battle until her body could no longer function. That was the only end one such as she could aspire to.
"…too sad," she whispered. What should have been an artful scene of a lovely woman gazing at the sea was marred by the bizarre colors of the sky and the distant howls of battle and things of alien origin. "This end…it's just too sad."
"Yes, it's sad."
Yuria's body jumped for a moment, but it relaxed just as quickly, and the ancient tyrant let a sigh escape her lips. It was good, at least, that her lips could remember how to smile on that day; so she thought.
"I'd be a bit happier if you looked more surprised," Naruto mused in a hint of a pouty tone. With hands in his pockets and careful not to get sand in his sandals, the blond man walk over to Yuria's side.
"I was in another timeline just a while ago." She shrugged. "It's hard to be surprised by anything by this point."
"…mah, I guess you're right."
A simple greeting, but it brought a smile to Naruto's face. Apparently, no matter the timeline, it was always like that between them.
"So, what brings you here? Nothing grows in these parts anymore, so I can't offer you tea."
Naruto chuckled at the lame attempt at a joke.
"Well, what with you girls prancing around in my timeline, I thought I could return the gesture."
That actually got a bit of a surprised expression out the Empress. She looked up at the way taller Naruto, staring at his profile for all of three seconds before turning her gaze back to the ocean, this time carrying a slightly wider smile.
"So things turned out okay at your end."
"Yeah, I can't complain," Naruto said reservedly. "By the way, sorry about my daughter kicking you out all of a sudden like that. Those two were running some serious interference; gotta deal with that."
Yuria raised an eyebrow. "Your daughter…?" It was not hard to derive the implications. "You mean, Mayuri…?"
Strangely enough, Naruto kept silent. If anything, his face showed his mind was immersed in thoughts not very uplifting.
"No, no, that's not…" Yuria continued rambling. "Mayuri's body is frozen in time since she became aware of her powers. Her true form is still that of a hundred-and-one, hundred-and-two-years-old kitsune." Shaking her head, Yuria continued her argumentative denial. "Even if she uses her jutsu to age, she still doesn't have a menstrual cycle. She doesn't go into heat; Mayuri cannot have children. She's said it a bunch of times."
"Mah…" Naruto uttered, and he could not sound more ambiguous.
"…you're not gonna tell me, are you?"
Indeed, to a person from another history it was meaningless to know. To Naruto, it was a precious, one-of-a-kind memory. The loving sacrifice that brought Higashiyama Suiren into existence would remain embedded in his heart like a sweetly painful thorn.
"Hnn. Whatever," Yuria finally said, putting an end to that tangent. "But, yeah, sorry to get in your timeline like that. Those two…"
"Nah, nah, it had to happen," Naruto corrected her. "I remember the Sayuri from another future, after all. It just got bad when your Mayuri tried to kill mine. That was not cool," he said with an impish smile. "And it would've been a real problem if Fubuki and Kougon had caught a whiff of you people."
Yuria made a weird face, as if she had put a strangely-flavored candy in her mouth.
"Fubu…ki and…oh…oh, wow. Been ages since last I even thought of those two. Huh, so they were around…ah. To kill Sayuri, huh."
Naruto nodded and then shrugged.
"Mah, I managed to work out Sesshouseki—ah, that's Sayuri's Weapon of the Soul—back then, and Sayoko-san—bless her soul—took care of the rest."
"Weapon of the Soul, huh…didn't see many of those in my life…meh, not like there was much contact between humans and youkai over here." Planting her right hand on her waist, Yuria looked up at the abnormal sky. "But one with Sayuri? That's gotta be a tough one."
"Ahaha, that was painful to use for a while—eh…" Naruto clicked his tongue. "Looks like they're moving."
The Empress made a sound of annoyance. She, too, glanced at the distant horizon, where the misshapen silhouettes of a horde of numbers that could not be counted in a human lifetime were shifting and swelling like a pustule infecting the world.
"Haa…seriously, just when I was thinking to sit down and drink the last of my sake…" Shaking her head, she even looked a bit sad when looking up at Naruto. "Well, it was nice and all, but I guess I gotta go."
Naruto looked unusually solemn. Although, Yuria realized, she did not know this Naruto nearly enough to make that assumption. It certainly meant something: that calm, if a bit sad expression.
"You don't really have to," he said.
Yuria chuckled. A dark, heavy chuckle carrying the weight of age and a thankless duty.
"Nah, I do. I do have to," she concluded. "It can only end like this."
Like that, her chakra spiked so vibrantly and powerfully a sensor-type would not be needed to feel it on one's skin. It was thick and heavy; its sheer presence sufficient to alter the space around it. Naruto smiled at the much-too familiar distortion of light and the vibration that filled the entire place while grains of sand and drops of sea water were pulled towards her. Even if it was a dying world, it managed to bow in worship to its sovereign.
"Chiton," she invoked while clasping her hands as if in prayer. "Chibaku Tensei."
A ball of chakra the size of a Ping-Pong ball was shot up towards the sea and high into the sky, disappearing far above the clouds. Naruto, familiar enough with the technique, went for safety and rooted himself to the ground with chakra. Yuria grinned at that.
"Don't worry, don't worry; I'm not that careless."
"Nah, I just know you're that powerful," Naruto light-heartedly replied, which made Yuria's expression lighten as well.
"Ahaha, you're such a charmer~"
Yuria pressed her clenched fist on Naruto's chest.
"So…in that timeline of yours, did we ever…you know?"
There was no shyness or impishness in the question—she was way too old for such maidenly feelings. It was the simple curiosity of one whose life knew no other thing but battles and sorrow.
"Ahaha, you put me in a hard place, Yuria…" Naruto chuckled nervously, scratching the back of his head. In the distant horizon, nondescript shapes were pulled along with the ocean water into the vast, strangely colored sky, like an ascending tower of otherworldly things.
"Well, you know our relationship's not really like that, right?"
They gazed at each other's eyes for a moment, just enough. Yuria understood, indeed. She was never really like that whole bunch of other girls fawning over him, was she?
"We do have a son, though," Naruto then said, making Yuria's face go awkwardly flat.
"Yup," Naruto confirmed. "You…I mean, the other Yuria felt like trying out motherhood—something like 'it would be a shame to have a womb and never use it'. I turned out to be the only lucky guy she trusted with being the father of her child."
"Sounds like me alright. So?"
"Reiki's a great kid," he continued, and then laughed guiltily. "He's smarter than both of us, that's for sure. He's so smart and collected sometimes I wonder if he's really our child. Yuri adores the kid, though."
Yuria's eyebrow went way up.
"…was that supposed to sound as creepy as it did?"
Naruto made a face.
"…perhaps. But like I said, the boy's not stupid, so don't worry about him."
Yuria snorted, but she was still smiling. They paid no heed to the strange howling of the alien things being pulled into the sky.
"Must have been a hassle to raise him," she said teasingly. "I can't imagine myself raising that kind of child…or any child, for that matter."
There it was: that unusual, somewhat melancholic look in his eyes. Those were not eyes she could not recognize, for she, too, had experienced loss.
"Mah, you weren't that involved, yes. Things just turned out that way."
"…Naruto. The other me, don't tell me she's—"
"Ah, no, no, no!" Naruto waved his hands hurriedly, but his chuckling carried a strange undercurrent that could not be hidden. "I'm not sure that person can even die by this point." He let his hands rest on the back of his head. "But everybody else makes up for what Yuria can't do. Even if Reiki doesn't carry the Higashiyama name, he can still rely on his aunties and his siblings."
Naruto let his smile grow confident and display a relieving feeling.
"Everything's fine over there. We were able to protect our happiness."
"…I see," Yuria replied, perhaps a bit lamely, as if pretending to have understood what did not make the slightest sense to her. "That's good."
And with that, she was gone, to fight in the open seas. Perhaps she was afraid of letting her heart soak any further in Naruto's words. Naruto sighed. He really pitied her, for she had even forgotten what happiness was.
"Aaah, and off she goes, the little toy soldier," a sickly sweet, almost too feminine voice whispered on Naruto's right ear. "Ah, well, I guess her chest's not that little, and she's got the waist to go with it. I were human, I'd be a little jealous~"
Naruto sighed, placing more weight on his left side.
"You're trying too hard," he said, in a voice like one messing with an old friend. "More like, what'cha doing here?"
The woman rested long, soft hands on Naruto's backside, leaning over him gently and intimately. What Naruto noted was that she had no scent.
"Where else could I be but here?" She said. "Aren't I the chaos that crawls up to you with a smile?"
Naruto held back on chuckling, letting a choked breath leap out of his lips.
"Ahaha, I guess better to me than to some innocent people."
"Muu, you make me sound like some deviant, Naruto-kun." The woman rested her head on Naruto's left shoulder, allowing him to see light blonde hair and yellow, almost cat-like eyes. Her skin was a fair white, maybe even too white, which further added to the unsettling symmetry of her features.
"Naia, you are a deviant."
"And so proud of it, apparently…" Naruto uttered with a measure of disgust. Far away in the distant horizon, both the ocean and the sky exploded when the vastness of the Empress' Chiton tore through Reality.
"Uwaah, scary, scary~" The Crawling Chaos jeered before the distant display of overwhelming power tearing through the otherworldly swarm. Naruto doubted the one behind him was even capable of being scared, though.
"What can I do for you, Naia?" He asked.
"Nuh, nuh, I'm in the mood for '-tan' today. Come on: 'Naia-tan'~—owie!" The "woman" complained when Naruto delivered a mild chop to her forehead.
"Can you please let go? You're too cold," Naruto complained, to which Naia replied with a pout.
"I'm at room temperature."
"That's too cold!"
Her dazzling smile should be perfect, but it was geometrical perfection that crossed the uncanny valley. Naruto had to look away. The Outer God turned her feline eyes to the ocean battle.
"She's the Empress of All Youkai, but the youkai she ruled over died or went mad ages ago," she mused. "Do you think she knows why she kept fighting all this time, so much longer past the point when it still made sense to fight?"
Naruto remained silent, watching the orchestra of explosive power. Even if her enemies came from another world, they still had mass and occupied a volume in space, and were thus susceptible to Yuria's Chiton. It was not their maddening presence or their alien powers that would defeat her, only sheer numbers.
"Do you think she knows, that she only fights because she has nothing else left but the fight?"
Naia giggled. It was an awkward sound, beyond the fact that it was a giggle.
"Aaah, truly a tragedy. But tragedies like hers make for the finest tales."
"Glad to see you're having fun," Naruto said with no little sarcasm. Naia purred and rubbed her soft hands across Naruto's chest.
"Hey, Naruto," she said, her voice sweet like honey. "When are you going to show me another lovely tale like that? It's been so long since you last showed me that lovely, lovely, lovely anguished face of yours."
Moving to his left side, the woman lifted her left hand, pushing Naruto's jaw in her direction with a single finger. Her right hand dropped to his taut stomach, where his Eight Trigrams Seal once rested, and clenched his belly as if claiming it as her belonging.
"That Great War, it was truly dazzling watching you struggle back then," she mused. "So many lives fell apart back then; it was a delight to see."
"Aren't you omnitemporal?" Naruto retorted. "You can have fun watching whatever you want all the goddamned time."
"See? Utterly boring," Naia then replied. "I think it's been like that since you got your family. Maybe I should do something about that wife and daughter of you—"
The world broke.
She who was called "The Crawling Chaos" shook in unbridled laughter.
"Ahaha, scary, scary~" She exclaimed, delighted. "So deliciously scary~"
They stood alone in a place without coordinates. The massive double doors that separated Reality from the realm of the Blind Idiot God loomed over Naruto's unflinching form, their ever-changing engravings showing indecipherable yet somehow obscene markings.
Naruto sighed, annoyed with himself for his childishness. It was pointless to get angry at something that could not be intimidated. It was pointless to rampage at something that could not be destroyed. Even worse, he knew that annoying woman-thing would not lay a hand on his wife and children. She was many things, but stupid was not one of them.
What had he accomplished? Breaking apart some of the southern coast and continental platform. There was not even anybody left in that world that would care about the diminished area of a no-longer existing political body (Fire Country).
The one Naruto called "Naia" tiptoed and leaned from side to side some twenty steps away, further from the Gate of the Silver Key. While she smiled, Naruto knew the reason she was not all over him like earlier was the object in his right hand. Naruto guessed he was a little too flashy, but in the end he would have had to do something about that hand of hers crawling towards his pocket.
"I don't get why you even bother trying," Naruto pondered while glancing at the already familiar weight of the Silver Key in his hand. "It won't leave me any time soon."
"It amuses me," Naia said unabashedly, making Naruto shake his head like he was giving up on something. Then, Naia was just three steps away and they had returned to that broken world. Naturally, they were not standing on stormy water where once a beach had been. The coast of Fire Country was now missing a roughly circular chunk of land several kilometers in radius.
"You're not taking this timeline from me, Naruto."
Looked like playtime was over. Her eyes were no longer cat-like, but a window into horrors beyond comprehension. Something swirled within those colorless orbs, as if her eyeballs were filled with some slimy, unpleasant liquid.
Naruto waved his free hand dismissively.
"Sure, sure, it's all yours. This timeline's as good as done; have fun playing in a dead sandpit…"
He smirked and the "woman" narrowed her unsettling gaze.
"…but you're not touching those three."
"What!?" Naia promptly exploded. "But I waited so long to watch them break and destroy themselves! The glorious, pitiful last stand of the remaining guardians of a hopeless planet; it's supposed to be a show for the ages!"
"Not happening, Naia."
"You are NOT taking this from me!"
Suddenly, the woman was there but also everywhere. While there remained a single "person" standing three steps away, the whole place was also filled with her existence. Her omnitemporal, omnidimensional presence permeated the walls and the air itself, engulfing Naruto in maddening, immeasurable darkness. It was like being watched from every direction by millions of diminutive eyes.
"They were never yours to begin with. Haven't you had enough fun at the expense of this timeline, Naia?"
The world—the sky, the water beneath their feet—was by this point changing colors, as if responding to the mood of that god-like being from beyond Reality. Despite not being her Dream, such was the magnitude of her power. Everything became grayer, gloomier and somehow less real, like the world seen through a heat haze.
"Naia…" Naruto spoke, eloquently dropping his voice. "…are you really sure you want to do this?"
He knew she was looking at his Silver Key and he knew she knew he knew she was looking at it. He also knew she knew the pointlessness of them fighting for any length of time. Just like he had told Yuria earlier, his relationship with The Crawling Chaos was not of that kind.
And then, the Outer God sighed. And then she was deep in Naruto's personal space. Her eyes had returned their former feline appearance, making her smile as charming as it was unsettling and as beautiful as it was awkward. Naruto did not react or made to open his mouth, but she still planted a chaste finger on his lips.
"You owe me, Naruto-kun," she whispered.
And then she was gone.
Naruto scratched his right cheek, feeling more tired than anything.
"…she's gonna be a pain in the ass for a while, huh."
"Looks like you two get along swimmingly," Yuria's sarcastic voice reached him as she emerged from the ocean to stand next to him.
"If you really believe that then I'll have to say you're fucking mental," Naruto replied before frowning. "Wait, weren't you fighting?"
Certainly, the sounds of battle still raged in the horizon.
"Ah, that one's just a clone," Yuria said offhandedly. "I never left, ya know. By the way, that was kinda awesome, what you pulled off just now. Normally I'd have to kick your ass for blowing shit up in my world but I guess I can make an exception today."
Naruto felt a drop of sweat sliding down the side of his face.
"The scariest thing's that I didn't even dirty your clothes," Naruto mused while shaking his head. "If I didn't know my Yuria I'd be fucking terrified of you."
The Empress chuckled. "Yeah, I have that effect on people. So," she said, quickly changing the topic. "When were you planning to tell me you added The Crawling Chaos to your harem?"
Naruto almost did a spit take.
"Wha—don't be ridiculous," he said, sounding more annoyed by the thought than anything. He quickly eased down, though, to the point he became willing to speak light-heartedly of it. "Sometimes I call it a love-hate relationship, but come on; nobody knows what goes through that thing's head."
Yuria did not renounce to the chance to tease him, though.
"I notice you did not deny having a harem."
Naruto pouted and turned his gaze away.
"Leave me alone, Yuria."
Her job done, the amused Empress let her smirk linger for a moment before her face hardened and turned serious once more.
"…so? Now you're gonna tell me what you're really here for?"
Naruto's shoulders sagged for a moment.
"…so you really heard everything."
"You can't save everyone, Naruto."
"You know, it's not like I go around traveling back in time to save the people I could not save in my earlier days. The dead should be left to rest and the Void eats as is its due," he clarified. "I understand at least that much. For a while I wondered if accepting this made me a bad person."
Yuria rolled her eyes, more amused than anything else. Still, Naruto's declaration that he was not acting on a whim was insufficient to find his intentions laudable.
"You cannot save us, Naruto," she then declared, and it became Naruto's turn to smirk.
"Challenge accepted, Your Majesty. But first…" He turned to the distant ocean battlefield one more time. Whatever type of clone Yuria had sent would not last long while engaging that endless swarm of abominations by itself.
"May I invite you to a last dance?" He said, extending a single hand towards the short kitsune. The amused-looking Yuria raised an eyebrow.
"…you wanna dance? Can you even keep up?"
Naruto bit the taunt hook, line and sinker.
"Hey, I'll let you know I'm a very experienced dancer."
"Hmm…" Yuria made a show of measuring him up with her scrutinizing gaze. "I'll be the judge of that, young man."
"What, you saying moving the coastline a buncha kilometers was not enough to convince you?"
"Meh, I can do that with a single punch."
"Don't make your ridiculousness the standard!"
And thus began Empress Yuria's last wild dance. For once, she would be more than pleased to have a suitable partner watching her back.
The world was broken, that was true a long time ago. Now it was also charred, broiled, dried up to its utmost extent. The atmosphere itself had been ignited by the last jutsu, leaving a vacuum that the world had hurriedly filled with a horrific influx of surrounding air. Pressure differentials and immeasurable amounts of friction had created a cacophony of shockwaves and lightning bolts which added further scars to the land now painted black. The black earth and the darkened skies created the apocalyptic stage for that world's decisive and most terrifying battle.
"…you are a fool."
Mayuri's voice remained the only constant, echoing in Sayuri's head with unchanging and unceasing condescension.
"…do you sincerely believe I will waste my energy spilling your blood with my own two hands?"
Not even bothering to draw blood, Mayuri calmly let her hand rest on the ashen ground.
"Kuchiyose – Gedo Mazou."
"Oh, you have got to be kidding me," Sayuri growled when a total of ten humongous clouds of white smokes announced a most profane of invocations.
Mayuri had not only recalled the Demonic Statue of the Outer Path from God-knows-where; she had tapped into the infinite timelines to forcefully pull nine mighty youkai exemplars to feed it. Sayuri had barely noticed an unknown Kyuubi among them when the gigantic chains captured the creatures and pulled them for the statue to gobble them up. A plot that could have taken hundreds of manga chapters, Mayuri completed in a moment. The bizarre colossus shrieked in a disturbing manner, making Sayuri wince, even as she felt chakra building up in its depths.
"When an otherworldly will descends upon this statue, the creature that will end you life will be born."
"Wait, if you want me to fight a Great Old One can't you just, dunno, summon Cthul—hey, now what?"
Still standing atop the Demonic Statue, Mayuri planted her small hands on its surface, pulling two more creatures from the web of infinite timelines. She unhesitatingly seized their world lines with Grandmother Spider's Web—no matter who they were, their very existences became Mayuri's to control. What Sayuri saw from her considerable distance were two human figures with long hair and wearing quite dated battle armor. She did not know that, before becoming Mayuri's pawns in this battle, they had been engaged in a decisive fight against each other as well.
"Hmm, I guess I should be wary of this, but you know I'm just no good at remembering people's faces." Or rather, she does not care much. "Or youkai's."
An instant later, the two figures were on the ground in front of the howling statue, and Sayuri knew Mayuri had displaced them. The calmness that filled Sayuri after unleashing her powerful Heaven and Earth Meltdown, not unlike the feeling of afterglow, was promptly dispelled when one of the men clasped his hands together in the Ram seal and two dragons made out of wood emerged from the blackened soil.
"Aah," Sayuri uttered in recognition, then bombarded the summoned warriors with Pretty Beams. Amazingly, the dragons intercepted the chakra spheres with their mouths, swallowing them and thus preventing them from exploding—as usual that person's Mokuton had curious effects on youkai chakra. The other man simply tanked the explosive attacks with what Sayuri recognized was an incomplete Susano'o. Sayuri sighed somewhat dejectedly while a glowing chakra arm wielding a massive sword emerged next to the skeletal torso.
"Mayuri, I was hoping to fight you today," Sayuri complained while one of her tails, clad in electricity, knocked the thrown giant blade aside.
"Mokuton – Mokuwana Tamashibari!" Hashirama shouted, carrying himself with enthusiasm despite acting under Mayuri's control. Grandmother's Spider Webdid not turn people into zombies; it simply modified their identities towards patterns of behavior suitable for Mayuri's desires. To these two former enemies, their current situation had become completely normal, and working together to defeat Sayuri was what they were supposed to do.
A wooden construct like a large bear trap would have closed itself around Sayuri's waist if the ground around her feet had not collapsed and burst unevenly as if suffering an extremely localized earthquake. The wood construct fell apart, but Sayuri was already paying attention instead to the Shadow Clones of Uchiha Madara leaping at her, each one clad in an identical four-armed Susano'o. She caught a chakra sword with a tail, dodged a second and bombarded the chakra giants with lightning bolts which proved insufficient to break the Uchiha's mightiest defense.
"Gah!" A deep gash on her back elicited a cry of pain from the nine-tails, and the slash was mighty enough to launch her like a missile towards the unmoving and groaning statue. Mayuri touched Hashirama's world line to change its spatial position, moving the First Hokage into Sayuri's flight path.
"Hokage-Shiki Jijun Jutsu – Kakuan Nitten Suishu!" A hand clad with the mark of a potent sealing technique sunk into Sayuri's torso like a knife in a marshmallow. Hashirama immediately realized that was not supposed to happen, especially when he felt the hands of the real Sayuri on his shoulders. The youko, holding herself upside down and making a forward flip over the First Hokage, willed her Konoha Bunshin to explode into razor-like leaves, at the same time her tails aimed crackling spheres of hyper-dense Lightning-Nature chakra towards the Madaras and their Susano'o.
"Raiton – Ingyokusenhou."
Each Madara met Sayuri's Electron Beam Cannon—the Lightning variation of her favored Pretty Beam—with a fearless smirk and an iai stance.
The huge chakra constructs struck with their massive blades along with each Madara's identical motions, and the resulting Uchiha Mirror Slash struck Sayuri's jutsu and reflected it in the exact same direction they came from, striking the Kyuubi dead center. The explosion of Lightning chakra attracted even more lightning from the super-charged sky, triggering a colossal explosion that sent Sayuri flying towards the distant horizon. Mayuri paid little heed to Sayuri's screams of pain and did not hesitate to follow along via spatial displacement, taking along both the Demonic Statue and her loyal warriors.
While her anatomy sped through the sky like a missile, Sayuri hissed through the pain of seared skin reviewed her strategy in her mind. Despite the apparent urgency of her situation and the fact that she had never beaten Mayuri before, the golden-haired youko smirked confidently while her body released more Lightning-nature chakra.
The moment Mayuri popped into existence right next to Sayuri's expected impact spot the latter, who was not nearly as stupid as to not see that coming, spun in midair and nearly decapitated the Time kitsune with her Chidori claws. Sayuri landed safely, but in that precise instant she found herself captured yet again, this time in a crisscrossing mesh of wooden poles that restricted even the slightest motion. Sayuri harrumphed in annoyance.
The strongest Aegis in the Fuuton System, a concentrated hurricane that did not blow away or cut so much as disintegrate whatever stood in its cyclonic path, obliterated both Hashirama's trap and the Susano'o blade Madara had swung in Sayuri's direction. The moment the Aegis dispersed Hashirama pounced upon her, hands clad in youkai-binding seals. A short exchange of physical blows then ensued; a battle between Sayuri's reflexes versus Mayuri's skillful manipulation of Hashirama's world line to relocate him to Sayuri's blind spots. Sayuri's sense of urgency intensified upon catching sight of the dark tint surrounding the First Hokage's eyes—it was impossible even for her to outmatch Senju Hashirama in Sage Mode in a straight Taijutsu battle. Then again, neither of them particularly favored that style of combat.
Sayuri jumped back to make some space between the two, and just as quickly she was pierced through by tree branches like spears surging from the ground a step ahead of her. Hashirama frowned when Sayuri's body fell apart into clumps of packed soil but quickly found her in the middle of a powerful jump further backwards. The Kyuubi's attempt at aiming a Pretty Beam at Hashirama was interrupted by another incoming attack; the nine-tailed beauty had to perform impromptu contortionism to fit through the ring connecting the dozen magatama of chakra Madara's Susano'o had thrown at her. The Yasaka no Magatama continued their spinning flight to explode somewhere in the far distance, filling the otherwise darkened sky with the purest white light.
"Hachimon Shinfuujin!" Hashirama invoked an instant before Sayuri's feet touched solid ground. Almost simultaneously, Sayuri's tails acquired an eerie red glow and the fox-woman slammed her open right palm on the shattered earth.
Hashirama's Eight Gates God-Sealing Formation conjured that number of red torii gates, which fell from the sky drawing a circle surrounding Sayuri and thus defining the border of a powerful barrier that would have succeeded at containing even the likes of her, had she not responded with her Nine-Tails Reverse Yin Formation. Her glowing tails speared through the ground and reemerged outside the barrier's perimeter, where they became the corners of a counter-barrier that cancelled Hashirama's work.
Sayuri smirked confidently, only to catch sight of Mayuri smirking even more smugly, and of a beyond-colossal pair of feet right behind her. The nine-tails almost hesitatingly turned her head upwards to meet the merciless gaze of Uchiha Madara's Perfect Susano'o.
A mountain-splitting blade fell upon her, and the impact was felt even dozens of kilometers away. The blade of chakra gouged the earth and pushed it in opposite directions, raising it and created a jagged canyon. Jumping to the side did not help Sayuri much; the glancing blow displaced the air faster than even her own Heaven and Earth Meltdown. Even before the land was raised a millimeter, Sayuri had already disappeared somewhere in the vast sky.
While Sayuri grunted upon experiencing cumulative pain like she had not in a very long time, Mayuri tracked her flight through her thick world line and quickly sent Hashirama along. This Sayuri expected as well. Ignoring the pain, Sayuri corrected her posture as she approached the ground again and landed hard on her feet. Wincing at the sharp pain running like an electrical current from knees upwards, the Nine-Tails stumbled a few steps backwards, lost her balance and finished the rest of her landing rolling a good hundred or so meters. Regardless, from that rolling she quickly leapt back up on her feet and put her hands together in a seal; there was no time to catch a break; Hashirama was already charging.
The First Hokage easily dashed around the obstacle of raised earth. Sayuri, of course, did not expect otherwise. Gritting her teeth and putting aside the limitations of her chosen therianthropic body, she pushed forward.
Hashirama dodged the tail spear with another change of direction. Sayuri took a step forward. The Hokage's straight charge was interrupted as he was forced to dart between the assault of nine tails striking from multiple directions. With each dodge, Sayuri took a step forward. With each dodge, Hashirama's escape routes were further diminished—it was the simple advantage of having nine extra limbs to attack.
"A reminder that I'm a half-Spirit, Mayuri! Reiton Fuuin! Konpaku Shibari no Jutsu!"
A jutsu of the Reiton System to forcefully bind the soul, thus suspending all bodily function. It should have been a flawless, decisive strike, but Hashirama disappeared the instant before Sayuri could plant her open hand on his face.
"Gods damn it, Mayuri," Sayuri hissed.
Some kilometers away, Mayuri smiled condescendingly. Shooting a glance at the glowing blue colossus behind her, she nodded.
Shifting its posture, Susano'o unleashed a full horizontal swing of its blade, the air itself groaning in its path—God Sword Mountain-Splitting Cut. The chakra sword split the air, and for a moment, the world experienced wonderful, perfect stillness. Only the thinnest line of chakra along the path of the blade could be seen.
And then everything was cut.
Distant mountains had their peaks blown apart. Dust was scattered into nothing. The very oxygen, nitrogen, water vapor and other atoms and molecules that made the atmosphere found their nuclei split apart. Creation was sliced; the resulting vacuum expanded and further ravaged the blackened world. The air ignited, creating a tidal wave of flames spreading outwards from Madara's colossus.
Sayuri gritted her teeth.
"Aegis of the Aurora!"
An original Ranton Aegis, combining the Lightning and Water Systems; it created a mesh of lasers so dense it looked like a single sphere. It clashed against a gigantic and amazingly thin wave of expanding chakra, followed by a swarm of lightning bolts like giant crawling snakes, themselves followed by a tsunami of flames and an unending barrage of supersonic pressure waves.
"Thi-This is actually…pretty tough…!" Sayuri murmured while holding the Aegis in check. It was somewhat comforting to know it would be impossible for Hashirama to do anything in that maddening situation.
Like all things, it ended, and just at quickly things resumed once more. As soon as she dismissed her Aegis, Sayuri felt the ground beneath her feet move.
"Hah!" Sayuri barked while smashing the space between her feet with a fist clad in lightning. Hashirama's attempt at an ambush was promptly aborted and the man retreated by swimming through the ground like a fish in water. Sayuri's eyes remained on the far-away titan, however.
"Gotta deal with that thing first, after all. In that case…!"
Suddenly, the distance between Sayuri and Susano'o was halved thanks to Mayuri's technique. The Kyuubi nonetheless slammed both hands on the ground.
"Doton! Kyuukyoku Chidoukaku!"
The Ultimate Moving Earth Core sunk the entire space between Sayuri and Susano'o—a rectangular area kilometers long and wide. Before Madara could react to the outrageous landscape reconstruction, Sayuri made an additional hand seal closing the tetrahedral pit over their heads and wrapping both Kyuubi and Uchiha in the deepest darkness. Then again, Susano'o itself made for a potent light source. On the surface, Mayuri glanced at the Outer Path Statue checking on its progress while wondering what Sayuri was thinking. In any case, Hashirama was already on his way down.
Sayuri began making hand seals while Susano'o raised its gigantic sword for another world-shattering attack. However, Madara watched the walls of their earthen cage acquire a diffuse glow from thousands—if not millions—of points of blue-white light.
"Ranjin – Mugensenkai."
Storm God – World of Infinite Streams.
The Ranton System was defined as creating "electrical currents that flow like water".
Sayuri's jutsu created an ocean.
Just like the Aegis earlier, Sayuri had conjured so many beams of plasma that the blackness of the subterranean cage had been replaced with blinding white. Susano'o managed to unleash its mighty slash, but a number of beams such that counting was meaningless struck back at both colossus and chakra wave; an unstoppable rapid fire of intangible power. Susano'o was swallowed by the tsunami of plasma and disappeared in the whiteness that struck unrelentingly for the good part of a minute. This entire time, Sayuri held the same hand seal, her face the picture of stoicism, her mind fixed in arrow-like focus. Sweat dripped down her shapely body, but it was quickly electrolyzed by the mighty jutsu.
When the plasma beam attacks came to an end, Sayuri closed her eyes and released a deep breath, letting her shoulders drop a little in a brief lull amidst the terrible battle.
Madara kicked her in the gut.
Sayuri cried when her back struck the rock gouged by her own attack and then grunted when her body was restrained by flora that surged out of the stone.
"Damn it!" The nine-tails complained, but her struggles slowly ceased when she found herself staring at the unique shapes in Madara's eyes. "Damn it…Sharingan…Genjutsu…"
"You should know very well a jutsu of that magnitude is still within my capability to defend against," Mayuricheerlessly said, watching Sayuri's defeated figure in its plant restraints. Sayuri had dropped her head as if unconscious and her tails, too, dangled lifelessly and pulled by no force other than gravity. "That was a complete waste of effort and chakra."
"Not really," Sayuri unexpectedly replied. "It made you come here."
And then she disappeared with a "poof" of white smoke.
High in the sky and looming over the Demonic Statue of the Outer Path with a deadly glare, the real Sayuri created a glowing cube of white chakra between her open hands. Her eyes were now adorned with a black outline, itself outlined with orange tinges.
"Jinton! Genkai Hakuri no Jutsu!"
The cube with its blindingly white spherical nucleus expanding to become as large as the pit she had created before, swallowing the Demonic Statue and ceasing its howls and its chakra building. Just as mercilessly, the Dust Release jutsu disintegrated the ceiling above Mayuri and the others' heads and preyed upon them.
Sayuri stopped the technique as soon as she felt Mayuri's chakra outside its volume. The Time kitsune was performing her Timeless Summoning once again, and Sayuri smiled smugly in response to the other youko's hateful glare.
"Yurin-nee's Dancing methods never really suited me." She smirked. "And now you can't touch my World Line."
Mayuri clicked her tongue. Indeed, the world lines of Sages were so deeply entwined with the rest of the world's that trying to manipulate them was far more trouble than it was worth. It would be easier to snap the world lines of an entire shinobi army than a single Sage's. It was the reason she could not summon Hashirama already in Sage Mode. With her plans of using the Gedo Mazou unraveled, Mayuri chose to improve her numbers a little.
Sayuri winced at the sight of the person Mayuri chose to join the First Hokage and the mightiest of the Uchihas. Now that one she remembered very well.
"Senpou!" Hashirama quickly triggered his own Sage Mode and attacked. "Ama no Iwato!"
A mountain-sized dome of earth rose around Sayuri to contain her. Its walls glowed with intricate sealing inscriptions. Like Hashirama, Sayuri made the Ram seal.
"Senpou: Mokuton! Juukai Koutan!"
Using Hashirama's signature technique against him, Sayuri's Advent of a World of Trees ripped through the First's cage like desperate arms struggling for freedom. Mayuri could only frown at Sayuri's newly revealed jutsu repertoire.
"You should have realized the moment I proved capable of healing Naruto!" Sayuri yelled at her in mockery. She had been able to teach the other Sayuri because she possessed the knowledge, but she had turned her back to that little one's path a long time ago.
"You should have realized I never wished to become an avatar of Destruction!"
While Madara built his chakra for a new Susano'o, Shinkirou Kougon raised his arms to the broken sky.
"Tendou – Tengoku Kaibyaku."
The darkness of that ravaged world was replaced by millions of twinkling golden stars: Deva Realm – Creation of the Kingdom of Heaven.
"Senpou: Kouton! Joudo Shinkan!"
Mayuri made a face she had never made before in Sayuri's presence. It was part surprise, part rage and part trepidation.
"Ko-Kouton as well…!?"
A ball of glowing golden energy surged from beneath Sayuri's feet like the sun rising from beyond the horizon – Sunrise of the Pure World. The ball of pristine radiance acted as a barrier against the onslaught of millions of light beams raining upon Sayuri.
"Kakuton and Kouton are not that far from each other, Mayuri!" The Nine-Tails shouted while withstanding the celestial barrage. "Are not the stars in the sky fueled by nuclear reactions!? Senpou: Reiton! Seiryoukaku!"
From within the golden sphere, thousands of kudagitsune emerged to steal the souls of Sayuri's enemies—Thousand Souls Harvest. Kougon stood still and majestic in the sky, spearing the pipe fox spirits with his light beams. Hashirama's Wood Release easily exorcised the spirits which approached him, while Madara kept them at bay with mighty swipes of his incomplete Susano'o.
"Inverting everything I knew, from Nuclear Fission to Nuclear Fusion; rejecting Destruction to walk towards Creation! For centuries, I have struggled on this path!"
"…you are a fool," Mayuri repeated. "Fighting against your nature…and for what reason?"
"For what reason? For what reason, you ask!?"
Kougon's barrage and Sayuri's barrier ceased almost simultaneously, and the Nine-Tails rushed towards Hashirama with explosive speed. The trees he conjured were either left behind or simply ripped through with colossal strength. Eventually, the two Sages clashed, the meeting of their bodies unbroken as Sayuri's charge pushed the other Sage backwards even as they traded blows.
"First tail!" Sayuri shouted, and one of her nine beautiful appendages scattered into dust. Everybody present faltered for an instant at the unexpected happening, only to be startled when chakra flared even more mightily out of the now eight-tails' body, exuding radiance in the visual spectrum—a menacing crimson like freshly-spilled blood.
A sudden burst of extreme speed from the roaring Sayuri took Hashirama by surprise and spelt his end when Sayuri punched his heart out of his body. Immediately, she turned to deliver her wrath to the Celestial Kyuubi, ignoring the Wood Clone behind her falling apart from the gaping hole in its torso.
"Second tail!" Sayuri's tails became seven, and the radiance surrounding her body became a conflagration twice as tall as she was. Faster than thought, she dashed past the crisscrossing beams of golden light and rammed Kougon's body with the force of a falling meteor. The Nine-Tails' body, however, dispersed into motes of light at the same time a titanic pillar of Celestial-nature chakra fell from the sky and pinned Sayuri on the ground. Sayuri gritted her teeth and bore through the impact with her body while her right hand gathered Wind-nature chakra.
"Senpou: Fuuton – Chou Oodama Rasengan!"
The gigantic spiraling sphere struck the colossal Susano'o with its sword held high, blowing him backwards before it could deliver its mighty slash and making it stumble and fall in the great pit Sayuri had earlier created. Clasping her hands together, Sayuri flipped backwards to dodge a horizontal light beam at the same time tree life emerged to create a new ceiling for the earthen pit. That would keep Susano'o away, if only for a moment.
Yet another tail disappeared, and so did the whole of Sayuri, moving faster than the eye could perceive to dodge a rising wood spike that would have impaled her in midair. Kougon, however, moved at the ultimate speed and effortlessly intercepted her with a barrage of lasers. Sayuri's arms crackled with lightning and the resulting electric and magnetic fields pushed the beams away from their target. She then fired Lightning Pretty Beams at the Celestial Kyuubi, who used his ability to impose the properties of light on all things to reflect the attacks back at their source. Sayuri had already moved away from their trajectory, though, striking Kougon from his right side, to which he responded by dispersing into countless motes of light.
The Sage, Hashirama, struck from Sayuri's blind spot with a powerful kick to the first vertebra. Sayuri was thrown forwards and intercepted by a Wood Clone that kicked her again. She bounced from clone to clone and from kick to kick for a second or two until the real Hashirama loomed over her to punch her back to the ground—or so it would have been had Sayuri not caught his wrist with her left hand and pushed it aside, pushing him to switch their positions in midair and striking point-blank with five tiny Pretty Beams fired from her remaining five tails.
Suddenly, Sayuri was looking at herself in a mirror. In fact, make that five mirrors—four around her and one above, making an incomplete cube or a box without a bottom. The five Sayuris inside the mirrors were aiming five tiny Pretty Beams—an exact reproduction of a "recorded" image.
Kougon made a half-seal, the mirrors cracked and the twenty-five mini-Pretty Beams manifested in Reality. Sayuri's scream was deafened by over two dozen explosions, just like the growing tree that caught Sayuri's body inside the vast cloud of white smoke. The five-tails struggled feebly in her bindings, still a little dazed from the pain, until an immense blue sword emerged from the ground, travelling towards her like a land shark's dorsal fin.
Mayuri frowned. She saw a conflagration of reds, oranges, and yellows clashing with the bluish chakra blade of Susano'o. She could see Sayuri was literally snuffing her body out tail by tail, not unlike the Eight Gates of humans' and some youkai's chakra systems. However, doing such a thing should result in far more power than Sayuri was manifesting at the moment; hell, those three were beating the tar out of her with minimal input from Mayuri herself.
"What…are you planning…?"
The now four-tails leapt out of the shattered trees in a blaze of flame-like might. She dashed fearlessly towards the immense figure of Madara's Perfect Susano'o, which raised its just as immense sword to intercept her.
"Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!"
One Sayuri became five. The four clones disappeared with a high-speed jutsu just before the sword made its sky-splitting descent.
It was Sayuri's first original and most potent defense: the Nuclear Release barrier, Aegis of Sunfire. Sword met miniature sun while the four Shadow Clones became the corners of a square surrounding Susano'o.
"Senpou!" They cried out at the same time. "Yonyou Zanshiki!"
The Sage Art – Four Elements Slashing Method conjured blades of wind, lightning, water and earth, each as large as the blue blade clashing against the real Sayuri. The massive elemental blades struck Susasno'o from equiangular directions, making the construct sway and fall almost comically on its rear end. At that time, Sayuri noticed a huge shadow looming over her; it was Kougon, having assumed its true vulpine form—a magnificent gold and white beast, before which even the most comely females among foxkind would prostrate in recognition of his unparalleled beauty. He was truly a vision of Heaven in the shape of a nine-tailed fox.
Sayuri jumped to the side before a golden paw could crush her, building distance between herself and the colossal fox at dizzying speed. That was she could clearly witness the absurdity of what then ensued. She saw Kougon's fox form glow and mutate, as if made of liquid instead of chakra. It rose like a pillar, quickly growing as tall as the Perfect Susano'o, and Sayuri understood it was Kougon's preferred human-like form, or at least a gigantic, glowing golden version of it. While the sight of that giant of golden light merging with Madara's signature jutsu was worrisome on its own, Sayuri was a little more wary of the even bigger disc of wood emerging from the ground behind it. Watching more carefully, Sayuri realized it was not a disc; thousands of wooden arms arranged in something like a semicircle attached themselves to the back of the armored titan of light, at the same time the space between the blue chakra armor of Susano'o and the heavenly body was covered with a garment of flowing wood like cloth; an organic toga suitable for the Bodhisattva of Shinkirou.
Sayuri reacted to this in the only possible—acceptable, even—way.
"What the hell, Mayuri!? Kougonzord!? Seriously!?" She exploded, as a fundamental part of her psyche broke into tiny pieces. "I want to tsukkomi in so many ways, but that's really not my shtick! Also, my head hurts! Also, that thing's scary! Seriously scary! Goddammit, this is not how I wanted my glorious last battle to be! Pretty Beam!"
Kougon waved one of his gauntleted hands and the orbs of hyper-dense chakra were swallowed by the largest Aegis to ever exist—a ball of golden light that forced Sayuri to close her eyes or be rendered permanently blind.
"Like throwing pebbles at the sun…" she mused. "Sixth tail!"
Mayuri, standing on the shoulder of the three-fold titan, narrowed her deep carmine eyes, identical to Sayuri's in color but not in emotion. She had expected Sayuri to surrender by this point. Had she not realized the utter pointlessness of that battle? Did she not understand that she, Mayuri, could tap into the chakra of infinite timelines to fuel her jutsu?
"You truly wish to die, I see." She sighed. "Well then, I shall—"
A spear. The Golden Spear of the Triumvirate, to be precise. A masterwork created by the effort of many youkai as a gift to the Vizier of the Empress of All Youkai, together with Chachamaru's Silver Scepter and the Diamond Circlet Mayuri never wore. The Golden Spear was a triumph among weapons: the ultimate hardness, the ultimate sharpness, the ultimate chakra conduction and the ultimate aerodynamics. It was the finest weapon ever made in that world.
It had shattered.
In Sayuri's grip, surrounding by the flares of her chakra transitioning from red to yellow to white, it had shattered. But the fragments of weapon dust, of gold and adamant and hihiirokane, did not simply disperse in the air but became sparkling coronae around Sayuri's arms. With only three tails, she looked even mightier, and there was not a hint of fear in her challenging glare. The titan of golden light clad in the powers of two of the mightiest humans to have ever lived was truly an untouchable Goliath, but Sayuri was not feeble David.
Mayuri snarled impatiently.
Kougon's hands gracefully came together in a mudra.
"Kouton – Shin Amaterasu."
The ultimate Celestial Fire; True Amaterasu was the flame of purification that erased all traces of sin and imperfection. Released in a world of imperfect things, it could do nothing but exterminate everything in its path. A tidal wave of gold and white flame loomed over Sayuri.
The golden tsunami swallowed her, but the barrier withstood it without faltering—even if she had turned her back on the White Flame, Sayuri's Fire affinity was still the greatest and unsurpassed in that world. Her flame was perfect, and her Aegis of Sunfire was pristine like the sun.
Thousands of wooden hands began to bend and join their fingers in specific ways, each of them shaping a single hand seal, the titan of light separated its hands, thus dismissing the True Amaterasu, and then rejoined them once again, wrapping the middle and index fingers of his left hand with the fingers of his right hand.
"Bodai – Harado Mandara."
The very world around was replaced by the Cleansed World Mandala: an artful depiction of a world without violence in the form of geometric metaphors. The polygons with hard angles encircled by harmonious circles represented the cessation of all warfare within the all-accepting, all-encompassing mercy and wisdom of the Bodhisattva. Surrounded by patterns and images of the Enlightened One, Sayuri gasped as she felt a precious, significant part of her self, one that she carried from the moment she was born and took for granted, departed her unexpectedly. It was a heart-wrenching emptiness; the painful awareness that one of the things that made her Sayuri at a fundamental level, was completely gone. So was her Aegis, of course.
"Where…did my flame go?"
"Kougon's Cleansed World Mandala neutralizes all 'base' chakra affinities," Mayuri explained while wearing a triumphant smirk. "Not only your signature flame; wind, water, lightning and earth are now denied to you as well." Only "complex" Systems such as Wood, Spirit or Celestial Release would work in that exclusive world.
Sayuri felt her knees tremble, so she closed her eyes and remembered. Had Mayuri not asked earlier, why she had gone so far as to deny the White Flame to walk towards the Aeon of Creation?
"What's the point…?" She muttered a personal reminder. "What's the point of having the strongest flame…if I cannot even save the one person…!"
As usual, thinking about it brought tears to her eyes. Her tears quickly evaporated upon exposure to the chakra cloak surrounding her.
"…the one person who mattered to me in this world! Seventh tail!"
Even if she was minuscule compared to her opponent, the corona of chakra surrounding her almost matched its height by this point. Her blood painted her skin red and her eyes had become blazing white stars, just like her two remaining tails.
Kougou made a new mudra with his huge hands of light.
"Bodai – Choujou Kebutsu."
The thousands of hands arranged behind him glowed with the golden radiance of Celestial-nature chakra before pointing towards Sayuri and bombarding her with same-colored energy bullets. It was like machine-gun barrage fired by an entire army simultaneously, like a star shower of the end times; its beauty second only to its destructive might.
But Sayuri never faltered. She had nothing left to lose.
The metal fragments floating around her arms began to spin and glow mightily as she began her own rapid fire of punches, meeting Kougon's and Hashirama's combined might with her bare fists. Where her Imperial Wrath Fist without Equal met the Celestial attack, a terrible explosion ensued. Thousands of golden bullets converged on Sayuri's small form, but the fox-woman did not move a single step back. Screaming her soul out in utter defiance of powers both chthonic and otherworldly, the last Fire kitsune clashed against some of the best both youkai- and humankind ever had to offer.
Then Madara joined the fray. The many wooden hands found themselves clad in the chakra armor of Susano'o as well, and many of them held gargantuan blades. In addition to the golden barrage, the hands as well lashed at Sayuri with armored fists and earth-splitting blades, unleashing an incomparable calamity upon an incomparably small form. Sayuri screamed over the pain ravaging her body and struck back as fast and as hard as she could, her chakra flaring and whipping at the incoming hands, blowing them away before they could strike her faltering body.
"I should have been there!" She yelled. "I should have been there, fighting the Avatar by his side!"
But she was not. She was on the run, preparing herself for her decisive battle against Kuromiya Fubuki.
"I could have helped him! I could have stopped him from breaking himself!"
But she was not. When she arrived much later, smiling proudly after defeating the Void Kyuubi, the Naruto she met was already on his deathbed. A broken man, his body and soul exhausted after facing the manifestation of Mayuri's father and banishing it from their world. A flickering candle, holding against all hope to its fading existence for the sake of welcoming that precious girl home with a smile.
"That White Flame, it can go to hell for all I care!" Sayuri cried, releasing the misery that branded her entire existence after that day. "Nuclear Release, Fire Release, all my nine tails, I'd have given it all away! Eighth tail!"
A shockwave of chakra knocked the titan of light a single step backwards. Broken arms of wood and shattered blades of chakra began to fly in every direction, blasted away by furious and desperate fists. Sayuri's attacks were mostly chakra by this point; her burnt out hands had already lost all sensation. Her single remaining tail fired balls of explosive chakra into the maelstrom while Hashirama and Madara restored the lost appendages and chakra weaponry as quickly as it was destroyed. Explosions covered the entire space between Sayuri and Kougon, hiding them both under a blanket of smoke, dust and flying debris. From the titan's shoulder, Mayuri watched in boredom. Sighing to herself as if bothered by the sheer amount of pointless effort, she made a single half-seal. Reaching into the past of local world lines, copying and pasting onto the present and adjusting variables so as to fit her intentions; unlike her blunter world line manipulations, her decisive jutsu was closer to delicate space-time surgery.
Worldline Reapplication – Ibid.
Kougon, Hashirama and Madara halted their assault.
Sayuri found herself standing on a mirror and surrounded by mirrors on all sides except in front of her. The mirrors reflected not her form, but that of Kougon's colossal armored self. Surrounded by colossi, Sayuri let her hands fall to her sides, and Mayuri smirked triumphantly.
This was it. Faced with overwhelming power, Sayuri had finally accepted the impossibility of victory. Thousands of hands held blades of chakra, ready to pounce on the lone challenger to end its feeble, pointless defiance. This Mayuri thought, but there remained one thing that bothered her.
Was that really it?
After consuming all but one of her tails for power beyond her limits, was this truly everything Sayuri could do? Was not her Heaven and Earth Meltdown far more impressive than any of the jutsu she had used recently? And speaking of that jutsu…
"Even before the Cleansed World Mandala. Why…did you stop using Fire techniques?"
Sayuri sighed, somewhat regretting her inability to shed tears in her current state.
"I just wanted to save him, Mayuri," she said, reaching the foundation of the sadness that permeated her soul. "Last tail."
The beyond gigantic Kougon was knocked backwards three whole steps this time, as Sayuri sacrificed her ninth tail for all-consuming power. Without the superb chakra pathways of her furry appendages, immense amounts of chakra flowed haphazardly throughout her body, explosively bursting out of her skin at some points. Sayuri shuddered as the pain reached a threshold that made it difficult to move even slightly. Still, she made hand seals.
"Senpou: Reiton," she said very softly; a raspy voice that made dark blood pour out of dry, broken lips. "Muga Kondoicchi."
The jutsu manifested as a single, invisible tremor expanding in the air. It was Mayuri's turn to lose something she had always taken for granted. When was the last time she experienced a power capable to completely nullifying her own?
She could still feel them, the countless world lines detailing the existence of all things around her. However, she could not reach them, she could not touch them; they were there but completely beyond her grasp. Mayuri knew that jutsu well enough: Void-Self Unity of Soul and World was the technique Sayuri often used to minimize collateral damage by projecting her immunity to fire to the world around her. How could it possibly render her own powers…?
"…Sage Mode…" she realized. "You expanded your world line's sturdiness."
Sayuri chuckled. "Got it in one, Princess."
The world line of a Sage was too thick, too stable, too complex, too sturdy; too bound to the countless world lines of creation to be manipulated. Muga Kondoicchi projected qualities of the soul onto Reality; Sayuri had packed all world lines around her into an impenetrable ball made out of countless threads, impossible to unravel.
"I was wondering…" Sayuri continued between harsh breaths. "…when I'd get a chance…to set up a barrier. Gotta thank you…for taking care of that."
Mayuri clicked her tongue, glancing at the humongous mirrors which defined the volume of effect of Sayuri's latest technique. In her mind she hurriedly evaluated her possibilities: teleporting outside the range was not possible—both the mirrors and Kougon's Cleansed World Mandala effectively sealed their battlefield. Dispelling the mirrors and the jutsu? She could not touch their world lines, thus not possible either. Then she had to dismiss Kougon, but his world line was even more unreachable.
It was the beginning of something, a feeling Yuria from time to time made her experience, but one Mayuri never expected in the presence of that insufferable Fire kitsune. Perhaps it was the enhanced perception provided by Sage Mode, but Sayuri could tell as well: Mayuri was breathing faster, moving her head from side to side as if desperately looking for an impossible hole in Kougon's enclosing barriers. She also looked at Kougon, Hashirama and Madara with slightly crazed eyes, wordlessly asking why they were not punching, stabbing and blasting Sayuri most heinously. Perhaps, in their wisdom as mighty warriors, they could tell.
There was already no escape.
"I had…to make sure…you could not get away from this."
Sayuri, Vizier of the Triumvirate, Ruler of Citadel Gehenna, Last of the Nine-Tailed Kitsune, made her final hand seal.
At that moment, Sayuri returned to her original form: a being of pure chakra, immune to mighty fists and explosive shockwaves. Even as Mayuri willed the colossi inside the mirrors to tear that energy body apart, the chakra it had gathered throughout the entire battle, the flame of her soul fed by the sacrifice of nine tails, was already coalescing into a diminutive ball of impossible density. The mandala world around them began to crack and shudder as the sphere pushed and twisted space-time around it. The Susano'o chakra blades bounced off its surface; it was simply that dense. The bombardment of golden bullets struck it without effect. That beautiful youko, Sayuri, was no more. Her body had fully unraveled; of her only remained that spherical core spelling damnation, and a strong, unfaltering will driving it.
For the first and last time, it was Sayuri who spoke directly to the Time kitsune's desperate mind.
"I came here to die, Mayuri. So, let's die together, okay?"
It was fruitless. Not even that that ultimate defense could possibly withstand the final explosion of that magnificent soul.
Sayuri's last battle concluded the only way it could possibly done so: with the largest explosion that world had ever seen. There was a certain irony to the fact that Sayuri's strongest explosion came from a Spirit jutsu, not a Fire or a Nuclear Release.
Supreme Fire Truth of the Cessation of All Suffering.
The shockwave made three whole revolutions around the globe. The explosion was seen on the opposite side of the continent. Yuria and Naruto, too, stopped their engagement against an endless swarm—calling it an army would be an overstatement—to gaze in the direction of the immense release of power. How they could face the blinding light without losing their retinas was yet another, quieter, demonstration of the powers they wielded.
"So, that's how you chose to end your life, Sayuri," Yuria said forlornly. Whether she was disappointed or just plain sad could not be seen clearly. She looked at Naruto, who was not nearly as good as the Empress at keeping his emotions away from his face. In his eyes she could see a quiet lamentation, and in his slightly parted lips the pain of a significant loss. Noticing Yuria's attention on him, the man offered her a slightly pained smile.
"I love her dearly, you know," he said. "We only had a few exchanges, but she did so much for me. That's why, even if it's selfish of me, I want to do something for her as well."
Yuria grimaced. "Isn't a bit too late for that, already?"
Naruto slowly shook his head.
"Nah…they have not yet noticed, but those two are already inside Suiren's territory."
But Naruto quietly gazed at the distant explosion, while guessing he should give the girls a bit more time. Allowing himself to smile cheekily—an smile Yuria did not know an adult male could make—, Naruto banged his fists together.
"Rather, what do you say I try a stronger Synthesis this time?"
The sky was filed with clouds. Strangely colored clouds—purples, coppers and browns on a just as bizarrely-colored canvas. But they were clouds, forced into existence by moving air currents and heat gradients. Sayuri's final jutsu had broken through Kougon's mandala and released itself upon the wasteland, vaporizing air molecules and smoothing down the ravaged earth to glass-like flatness. It was the final explosion of a powerful soul, releasing the entirety of her existence and mercilessly ending her world line.
"Why…", said a raspy, feeble voice. A voice that by all means should not exist. "…am I, still…?"
"I am asking myself the exact same question."
Sayuri's eyes found the energy to widen. Her body trembled—was it muscular contractions due to exhaustion, or outright fear?
Only then, at that point, her brain registered the sound of approaching footsteps.
"I shall give credit where it is due," Mayuri's slowly-approaching voice reached the ears of a defeated woman. "It was a good plan, Sayuri. Fundamentally limited by your own capabilities, but a good plan, nonetheless."
It was very long time since Sayuri heard Mayuri's real, actual voice instead of telepathy. Betraying her expectations, it was clear, perhaps too pristine. It was calm and uncaring. She was supposedly speaking praise but she might as well be describing the weather.
"Kougon's mandala isolated a region of local space-time, preventing me from reaching outside its volume and making teleportation impossible," Mayuri said. "Your jutsu was also very good: it prevented my tampering of all world lines in the vicinity except my own."
Sayuri grunted. She was alive, but only barely. She was exhausted, and she had never had so little chakra. But far more painful than that was the fact that her soul was damaged beyond repair. Her existence, her very self, was falling apart.
"The moment you used Muga Kondoicchi I surveyed the world lines and understood I could still reach those of other timelines, even if I could not transport myself to those timelines. It was to be expected—Kougon's technique could only achieve so much." Sayuri did not see the other woman's shrug. "Not that it would have been much of a problem otherwise; it simply increased the amount of options."
Mayuri finally appeared in Sayuri's visual field, looking down at her prone form with her unchanging, unfeeling, utterly bored carmine eyes.
"But I still did not know what you intended to do, Sayuri," she continued. "So I needed a defense capable of withstanding anything you threw at me and capable of triggering the moment you unleashed your decisive attack. A contingent perfect defense, if you will."
She walked around Sayuri until she was presenting the Fire kitsune her unblemished back.
"As soon as you unleashed you last jutsu; as soon as I recognized it as an explosion, my world line was modified so that it would never cross with your jutsu's," Mayuri thus concluded. "Even if I was completely engulfed, as long as our world lines did not cross not a single one of my hairs would be harmed. I set it to trigger together with my Aegis."
The Goddess of Space-Time released a brief sigh and turned her face to the side, glancing down at the former nine-tails from the corner of her left eye.
"…so? Was my acting convincing?"
And it was at that point that Sayuri's brain, even as it felt its grasp on her body breaking apart, realized it had been hopeless from the start. She then understood that it took a truly monstrous power to challenge the mightiest of Time kitsune. That her only chance at overcoming that person was accepting the White Flame and becoming something she could not tolerate ever being. She was not that little one, unknowing of good and evil; her love of flames became ashes itself when the one who fed the blaze in her heart died an early death.
"No. It was not enough," Mayuri agreed. "Yuria can kill me. That woman, Kurosaki Sayoko, could have killed me. Not you."
Then, surprising Sayuri, the Time kitsune let herself fall backwards, resting on her back by Sayuri's side.
"You were lacking until the very end."
The surprises did not cease there. To Sayuri's disbelieving eyes, the other youko's lips curved into an image of beauty Sayuri thought that hopeless world would never see again. It was the faintest of smiles, but it was the sharpest reminder that, like her powers, her loveliness was otherworldly.
"Really, a fool to the very end." Mayuri chuckled. "Just like me."
"My apologies," Mayuri replied. "I'm too tired, even to help you. Headache."
Dabbling in the infinite loom of world lines was not easy on the mind.
"Even if you are a hassle, at least you made for a way to pass the time," Mayuri confessed. "Eternity is going to be hard from now on…mah, I guess my mind will shut down in the end. I'm no longer needed as an Anchor."
Sayuri's eyes quivered in their sockets—Mayuri's offhanded suicidal declaration was both infuriating and pathetic.
"Good gods, will you ever stop saying stupid things, you bunch of fools?" A new voice, sharp and somewhat flatter than expected, reached then from a few steps away. While Mayuri went tense at the arrival of unexpected visitors, Sayuri was too tired to do even that.
"Wah-wah-wah—onee-sama! Should you really say that? They're crazy strong!" A second voice, considerably livelier but not very feminine, despite clearly belonging to one of that gender.
"A strong idiot is still an idiot, Karen. As your father's daughter, you should already know that."
"Ahaha, onee-sama's so harsh on Papa as usual."
"Well somebody has to call him on his idiocy when the rest of the world all but worships him."
"Rather than his daughter, you're more like his secretary," the lighter voice said mirthfully. "Mah, that's also part of onee-sama's Daddycon."
"Da-da—da-dada, daddyc—wha-what are you saying!?"
Boisterous laughter; it reminded the two fallen fox-women of Yuria somehow.
"Ahaha, onee-sama's so cute."
"Q-Q—Quiet! Refrigerators don't get an opinion!"
"Uwah! So horrible, onee-sama!"
"What…are you doing here, Uzumaki Kizuna?" Mayuri inquired the moment the two young girls appeared in her field of view. Far more confused, Sayuri tried to make out the shapes of the newcomers with her blurred sight.
"Hey, you guys pop up in my timeline's past, I pop up in the distant future of yours. I say it's fair enough," the small quarter-kitsune shrugged, blonde twin-tails jumping along. "Huh. You look exactly the same. Well, except for the eyes; those black rings are hideous."
Mayuri turned her gaze away with a huff.
Kizuna then looked at Sayuri and her hard expression softened somewhat.
"You…" the short girl turned to her half-sister. "Look at her, Karen."
Sayuri noticed the second figure walking around her prone form, looking down at her face. She tried narrowing her gaze to focus it, but it was hopeless. Her brain simply refused to build an accurate image. She was so tired…
Karen did not answer right away, and Kizuna could see the inner conflict in her half-sister's eyes. Lanky, tall for her age and a proud tomboy; Higashiyama Karen was truly an awkward combination of her parents' genes—did Higashiyama Sayuri have anything like genes anyway? But even more importantly, the person before their eyes was so different from the one Karen called "Mother" it was almost painful. To Uzumaki Kizuna, Higashiyama Sayuri was an alien existence; somebody she would rather keep her interactions with to an absolute minimum. Like that awkward person in your group of friends who just cannot read the mood, only a trillion times worse.
Karen's lips trembled for a second before she managed an answer.
"I…name's Karen," she said awkwardly, a little too stiffly. She never knew what tone to use in front of her own mother, so how could she be expected to know how to speak to this stranger that looked so much like Mother yet remained so different?
"Karen," she repeated. "Higashiyama Karen. In that other timeline, um…you—" She winced to herself. This person was not that person. Nobody could ever equal that person. "I am Higashiyama Sayuri's daughter."
"How did you stop her jutsu?" Mayuri inquired, for it was a fact that Sayuri's Haka Mettei was a sacrificial technique; the final explosion of her soul. There should not be any trace of Sayuri left.
"Ah, that," Kizuna said while shrugging. "I wish I could say I did that, but that was Suiren's job."
"Right!" Karen suddenly raised her voice. "What the hell was it with that fight!? That was ridiculous! We couldn't even get close to that madness!"
"What the talking AC said."
"So offhandedly mean, onee-sama!" Karen pouted. "But really! At least you could have stuck to one place; it took Suiren forever to setup her territory." Her right foot tapping the ground, Karen crossed her arms before her chest. "Actually, where is Suiren any—uwah!"
Mayuri's head shot to her right side just as quickly as Karen's reaction. Where nobody bad been just a moment earlier, suddenly a small person stood. A very lovely girl, her hair a glimmering cascade of silver, white and faint traces of thistle-like violet. Her exaggeratedly elegant clothes made a stark contrast against the lifeless wasteland of ashen colors. A small body in the flower of womanhood, blessed with shapeliness that ignited the blood of men. Rather than a product of genetics, a petite figure sculpted to become an object of worship. Her tiny hands held a sketchpad against her body.
The lovely apparition was looking at Kizuna, her face an unworded question.
"You can only pull off that 'cannot be perceived' trick so many times, Suiren. Don't expect me to act surprised anymore." Also, she had an electromagnetic field surrounding her which warned her of her presence faster than her own instincts, but Suiren could figure that out by herself. "…what's with that face?"
"I think Suiren's impressed by onee-sama's coolness," Karen suggested, to which Suiren replied with a small nodded while looking at Kizuna with something like stars in her eyes.
"Wha—don't be stupid," the Uzumaki heiress hissed despondently, snapping that trail of conversation at the base.
"That jutsu…" Under normal circumstances it would not have worked; Mayuri was simply low on chakra. The real worrisome thing was the complete absence of visions of her near future—Rain Droplets on the Spider's Web was not working. The girl, Suiren, brought out her sketchpad and began to write on it.
"Worldline Rescind – The Unnamable. You should rest, Mayuri-san."
Mayuri frowned, and the other youkai went stiff when they felt a spike of ill intent, which was however immediately subdued while Suiren wrote a new note.
"In Mayuri-san's current state you cannot disrupt my Territory. Please rest for a while."
"So yeah," Kizuna continued. "Suiren seized control of that jutsu and limited the output."
"I did only as Kizuna commanded."
Despite being the oldest, Suiren too acknowledged the Uzumaki heiress as their de facto leader.
Karen almost stumbled when a hand feeble held to her ankle. Looking down she realized Sayuri had never taken her eyes off her; she might not have even noticed Suiren's appearance or the latest exchange at all. But Karen was not the sharpest fox in the barrow, so she did not really know how to interact with this beautiful, broken person.
"Look at her, Karen," Kizuna then said. "Look at those eyes."
Karen nodded feebly. She could see them, so intense, lustrous and piercing, even when their owner lay on the brink of death.
"Mother…has never looked at me like this." Like she was the only thing in the world.
"Let me…look at you…closer…" Sayuri pleaded; her voice even raspier, as if her vocal chords crumbled into sand with every word.
"Uh…um…" Karen acceded and kneeled over the fallen youko, allowing Sayuri to get a better, closer look of the child. Kizuna looked at the other pair. Of course, Time kitsune needed no words: Suiren had taken Mayuri's hand between her own, and thus presented herself. Mayuri's usual visions were replaced with the existence of Higashiyama Suiren. She was flooded with Suiren's memories, Suiren's knowledge and Suiren's feelings. While their faces revealed little emotion, their minds swirled as their world line entwined around each other. Suiren revealed the workings of her unique ability, Saintly Girl's Absolute Territory, and the tale of her miraculous conception and birth, as revealed to her by her timeline's Mayuri.
"Shionzaki Aika, huh…" Mayuri murmured a name she had long forgotten. "What an amazing fool."
The Goddess of Time and Space snorted in mild amusement, looking at Suiren with warmth and compassion.
"No wonder your father liked her so much."
There was a bit of a strained smile on Suiren's face, like she really did not know how to respond to that. The adult and the girl were both ladies of few words, but Mayuri was the one with the actual capability to speak.
"You know…there's only so long I can pretend to be happy, girl."
Suiren nodded. She, too, had seen that woman's world line. She had seen her loss; she had seen her father in this timeline throwing his life away for the sake of that woman, and thus that woman losing the one person willing to endure all the horrors from beyond for her sake. Mayuri's first and final love, broken by the curse that was her existence. She had seen the exact moment in time Mayuri had given up on everything else. The person whose hand she held was practically an automaton, existing for the sake of existing. Living because, as her Anchor, she had to maintain a modicum of functionality in society. Living because she did not have any other alternative. Because, for all her power beyond rationality, Mayuri was incapable of snapping her own world line.
Mayuri said nothing after that. Kizuna guessed they could communicate well enough through the meeting of their world lines, however that worked. Mayuri and Suiren stared at each other, barely blinking, and Kizuna knew they were connecting in a way nobody else could fathom. If anything, the utter calm in the elder's tired expression was heartening.
Meanwhile Karen had helped Sayuri lift her upper body to a seated position. Karen had to hold her back so Sayuri would not just fall backwards, while the former nine-tails stared at the younger half-kitsune with an almost pathetic fixation.
"Wha-what is it?" Karen spat with feigned impatience, perhaps a little too bothered by the attention.
"You're beautiful…" Sayuri said, or perhaps rather whispered, and Karen blushed a deep red.
Something like a chuckle wheezed out of Sayuri's tired lips.
"You're embarrassing yourself, Karen," Kizuna mercilessly said.
"B-But, onee-sama…mother…mother has…" The girl's heated speech was rapidly subdued as she dropped her gaze, thus she failed to notice Kizuna's calm, supportive smile. Sayuri, sharp youko that she was, quickly got an idea of what it was that bothered the young girl. She sighed.
"Your mother…has never said that to you."
Karen's shoulders trembled, but she shook her head. Sayuri closed her eyes, squeezing them a little too hard.
"That girl…she followed the White Flame in the end…did she not…?"
"Mother…mother's so amazingly strong, and beautiful!" Karen said, perhaps a little too emotively. "She's really the perfect kitsune, but…"
Looking back at the one who was not her mother, Karen flinched before her calm, encouraging smile. It was too painful.
"…she doesn't care about me," she decided, letting herself fall on her butt and looking utterly defeated as the words left her mouth. "She never talks to me. She has never smiled at me. She only cares about Papa, and about…about…"
Sayuri did not need to hear more.
"Uwah!" Karen squeaked when a hand fell hard on her head. The open palm did not hurt. Regardless, Karen did not expect the dainty hand to weakly rub her same-colored hair. Unlike her mother's unreal mane, Karen's hair was just like this person's.
"You're thinking too much…" the former Kyuubi said. "Your mother cherishes you." She nodded to herself. "I know."
Karen shook her head. Of course, it was too unbelievable.
"I can tell because you're here," Sayuri insisted, forcing herself to sit on her own power and placing more strength on her words. "If you mother cared only about the path of the White Flame, she would have let it consume you in her womb."
It was a chilling statement, and it showed in Karen's wordless reaction. Still, she had a response to that.
"She only let me be born to please Papa, I'm sure!" She resisted, shaking her head for reasons not even she understood with clarity. Sayuri responded with the same gesture, never ceasing to stroke the aching young girl's hair with a weak but caring hand.
"Girl, if your mother were the kind of youkai you believe she is, Naruto would have never found out she was pregnant."
Sayuri was aware of how jealous a woman she could have been. But, at the same time…
"I guess you won't believe me that easily," she said, sounding just a little sad. "Well, that's easy to solve."
Karen became a little stiff when the hand stroking her hair slid down her right cheek and, seizing her chin, gently forced her to face Sayuri eye-to-eye. She felt her eyes water; looking at that woman, at that honest, if weak, smile that carried no trace of pity; it was simply too painful. It was the perfect smile full of love and pride and perhaps just a little bit of envy, but it was on the wrong person.
"Want me to tell you the simple, infallible way to find out if your mother loves you?"
Karen nodded, if only because she had nothing to lose. Sayuri's smile became all the brighter, and the young half-youkai skipped a beat. Unsettling as it was, there was no way around it: this person who was not her mother was simply too beautiful, even destroyed as she was.
"Just find people who were around when you were a baby, and ask them a simple question."
Faced by the perfect smile on the wrong person's face; struck by the presence of that which she longed for the most coming from the incorrect source, Higashiyama Karen cried in silence. It was stupid and pointless, she thought. She was stronger than this, she thought. Onee-sama will say something mean again, she thought. But she was so happy to see that smile, and being happy made her heart ache too much, so she cried.
"Ask them, my girl: when you were a small baby, who fed you?"
Three steps behind, Kizuna said not a word. She looked at the broken sky and waited for her stupid, invincible father.
Yuria waited with arms crossed and a slightly upset look on her face. Naruto had asked her to pull back again and thus she was back on the shore while he tore at the otherworldly swarm with a maelstrom that probably could be seen from outer space. It was nice to know this Naruto had worked further on his Wind Release techniques. But Naruto's skill at Fuuton was, of course, not the reason for Yuria's uneasy feeling. That was visible the moment it appeared, some meters above the wrecked beach: the ball of squirming amorphous things that made her queasy just by looking at it. But then the monstrous flesh unwrapped and unraveled itself, revealing Naruto's easygoing smile.
"Is it me, or you do particularly enjoy punching Cthulhu?" He said as he dropped to ground level.
"I can't help it; it's so spongy!" Yuria replied excitedly. "What the hell is that thing made of, anyway?"
"Good question. I'll ask Mayuri when I see her." He'd probably forget, though. Yuria smirked.
"Didn't think I'd get to meet somebody stronger than me, though."
"Hey, I'm not the one who has to hold back to not destroy the planet with a frigging punch," Naruto retorted with a cheeky tone. "I'm the same old idiot who kept calling himself the future Hokage."
"Oh, go fuck yourself," Yuria spat back. "Do you think I can't tell how much power it takes to use that thing?"
Naruto said nothing, leaving Yuria to stare at his left hand fiddling with the ever-changing Silver Key.
"Now, I can see it's a damn good jutsu and everything but, seriously, Naruto. Tentacles? Seriously?"
"Hey, don't diss the tentacles!" Naruto quickly went on the defensive. "They're awesome."
Like a child whose favorite toy has been mocked by his classmates, Naruto pouted and looked to the side.
"Rina and Riyo love them, ya know…"
"I'm sure they do," Yuria said matter-of-factly before sighing. "Oh well, who am I to talk about another person's crazy hax powers?"
"Even if they're depraved."
Naruto did not stay dejected for too long, though. After poking the sand for a few moments and telling himself that his powers were awesome and he certainly did not have perverted thoughts in mind when he conceived them, Naruto moved to the big point in his day's agenda.
"Your Majesty," he called while looking instead at the unsightly horizon obscured by countless aberrations from a far realm. "Those annoying things will keep coming forever, you know?"
Yuria's shoulders slumped a bit. She had known she was facing a virtually infinite army, but it was somehow disheartening to hear it from somebody else. This was truly the doom of her world, and there was nothing she could do about it, except perhaps shattering it before those things could turn it into their blasphemous haven.
"I think you've had enough of this," Naruto said.
"Enough of what?"
Yuria half-glared at the tall male. The fight was everything she had had, for the longest time.
"Come on," Naruto then exhorted her. "Before I put an end to this whole pointlessness, you get to throw them your last jutsu."
He gave no further explanation, instead gripping the shapeless stone and closing his eyes in profound concentration. Yuria could not tell what he was doing, nor could she feel any unusual movement of chakra, but perhaps it was good that she did not know. Those terrible powers from beyond were really not a thing she wanted to dabble into.
It was not poor chakra control which made the space around her distort and quiver by the heavy and flaring chakra her body expelled. It wasn't that she lacked the skill to keep her chakra in her body while preparing a jutsu. She simply had that much chakra. Everything that has mass also occupies a volume in space, often proportional to its mass. Yuria's chakra simply could not maintain stability without occupying a space larger than Yuria herself. But none of that chakra was wasted—if her chakra would leave her body whether she liked it or not, then she would work with it both within and outside. If her chakra would not limit itself to her anatomy, neither would Yuria herself. While her body did not change, she would expand her existence. Plucking air molecules and dust particles and fixing them into a micro- and nanoparticle mesh held firm by gravitational fields, Yuria created a supplementary circulatory system for the chakra outside her body. To the observer, it appeared like crisscrossing tube-like outgrowths expanding from her body and filling the air around her. Yuria then stretched her right arm in front of her and clenched her fist firmly. Her chakra then flowed inwards; the outrageous meshwork redirecting the immense outflow back towards Yuria and leading it through spiraling channels towards that single fist.
Naruto, who had opened his eyes by this point, admired the Empress' Shape Manipulation with honest awe, for it was something he had never seen before. The Yuria he knew had reached a different solution to the issue of "molding and channeling Chiton chakra". There was elegance to the Empress' technique that his Yuria could only wish she could match, and it emphasized the stark differences between his youkai friends and their equivalents in this broken timeline. Naruto guessed that the Empress' need to hold back under all circumstances had a hand in her approach to Chiton jutsu.
He smiled and looked down at the godlike stone in his left hand.
"Alright, you ready? We can't afford to mess this up, okay?"
When Yuria pulled back her fist, space-time was pulled along, and a lot other things followed with the deformation. Forces were disrupted and also pulled towards the fist: the planet's gravitational pull, the tidal forces acting on the nearby sea and the electromagnetic radiation from celestial bodies joined the spiral and coalesced inside her fist. Mass-energy equivalence resulted in a super-heavy body in the small space inside Yuria's clenched fist, which itself exerted a force on all surrounding matter, thus creating a positive feedback loop. It fed on the planet's rotation—the last day of that world thus became a little bit longer.
All for a single one-inch punch.
Gravitational force pushed the fist forward like the hammer of a pistol, and the resulting motion transmitted kinetic energy to the swirling air in front. The pressure wave that followed pushed the ocean away, but the ensuing tsunami struck the otherworldly forces long after the pressure wave itself; a hammer of simple yet unparalleled physical might. Neither the tsunami, nor the inferno that swallowed them when the sky ignited from sheer friction, nor the lightning storm that raged inside that inferno, hurt more than the initial impact; a simple blow from air displaced faster than it should even be possible.
Naruto whistled. While the technique was different, the results were painfully familiar. He had once been on the receiving end of that. He had kind of hoped for a different jutsu, but he guessed this was pretty much Yuria's signature, so it fitted in a slightly sad way.
And in the midst of the madness she had unleashed, Yuria barely caught a single word from the side, uttered by her last partner in battle as he decreed the end of that world.
And then it was over.
Sayuri awoke with a gasp. That did not do; she was supposed to keep her ears sharp, hopefully catching whatever rumor or tidbit that gave her a glimpse of Kuromiya's latest moves—
Shuddering from a strange sense of discomfort, like she had woken up from a sleep of ages, the little Kyuubi ascertained her current situation. With dazed, confused eyes, she pulled the filthy hood covering her head a little bit and examined her surroundings.
A lively street in a large village. She was seated on a rag like the one she was wearing, by the mouth of an unusually clean alley. To the untrained eye she probably looked a mendicant child, too tired and hungry to even outstretch a hand in the hopes of a coin. Then she realized she was in a Henge, concealing her lively blonde hair and carmine eyes. She was no beggar, but the filth covering her body and the hunger sending stinging pangs to the mouth of her stomach were very real. Fubuki had gotten dangerously close lately, forcing her to lay low and stay out of sight and trouble. She did not really need food to survive, but keeping an anthropomorphic body came with its share of burdens.
Noticing her thoughts wandering again, Sayuri shook her head and collected herself. It was not an Illusion, nor was her current form a forced transformation. Had Mayuri thrown her into another timeline? The last she remembered was…
"…Karen-chan, huh…" she murmured with some fondness. Wherever she was now, Sayuri hoped that young girl found her peace of mind.
The sound of a heavy steel door opening made Sayuri hurriedly cover herself in layers of illusion. She was Kyuubi, so she had little doubts about being detected…
Sayuri frowned deeply. She had sacrificed her nine tails to invoke Haka Mettei. Even if she had somehow survived her own sacrificial jutsu, her very existence should have been a flickering candle in the verge of fading out. Meeting Karen had filled her with a light feeling that gave her the strength to at least converse with her and give her what little help she could, but it had not changed her inevitable end.
"So, caught any juicy gossip from the envoy from the main house?" A lively, maybe even perky, female voice spoke somewhere deeper in the alley. Sayuri caught two pairs of footsteps.
"Hmm…no, not really," said a softer, melodious voice. "Unless you're interested in strange cults attacking Konoha."
A gripping, terrifyingly cold feeling caught hold of her heart. "Onii-chan," it sung, and the song was an elegy.
"Wha? A cult? What's a cult doing, messing with the likes of Konoha?"
"Well, apparently they were after Higashiyama's Time kitsune. Mayuri-san, was it? Anyway, they took her Inari knows where."
"Huh. Man, Higashiyama just can't catch a break. So? What did they do?"
"Well, from what I heard, that boy Uzumaki Naruto is missing too. Looks like he left on his own to find Mayuri-san. The clan seems torn about going after him; they know Kuromiya will hunt down them down the moment they leave the village…"
The two women had already walked past Sayuri and entered the street, probably on their way to enjoy lunch outside the walls of their workplace for a change. From their distinctive clothes, above-average looks and subtle scent, Sayuri had already figured out they were trained prostitutes from the Jasmine Court. Meaningless facts in comparison to what she had just heard.
It could not be.
It could not be.
It had to be Mayuri's ultimate insult; the sickest, most twisted bad joke that witch had come up with to destroy her heart together with her body. Mayuri, that utterly unfair hag, must have created this purgatory. Like Itachi-nii-san's technique, she would make her fail and witness Naruto's death a hundred thousand times a hundred thousand; as many times it took to make her beg for peace in death. It had to be. It had to be; it was the only thing that made sense.
"And just why the fuck does that make any difference!?"
She paid no heed to the frightened screams of the populace as she jumped to her feet and took to the rooftops like a blazing comet of gold. Dismissing the transformation, she manifested her tails and pumped chakra to her body until it turned red like Maito Gai going all out—even if she carried many centuries of memories; her body's appearance was that of a 124-years-old foxgirl. No, her body was definitely just 124 years old.
Her last jump made the air explode and created a sonic boom that rendered families homeless and caused catastrophic economic losses to that innocent town, but Sayuri at the moment could not have cared less.
Even if it was a cruel purgatory, she would try to save him.
Even if she had been thrown into a wicked loop of failure and misery, she would try again.
Even if she lost him one thousand times, she would try the thousandth and first time.
Because even dying together was better than not trying. Because even succumbing to the madness a million times was better than not being there for him when she had the chance. Even if there was no salvation for her most precious person, even if his inescapable fate was to break himself to overcome the Avatar of the Outer God, it would be fine as long as she could be there to pay the price together.
The only thing she had ever desired was the chance to save him.
She noticed shadows following her blazing path through the forests of the Land of Fire. Minions of Kuromiya, hurrying to inform their dark mistress.
"Ha!" She laughed. Fubuki? Did they think she feared the likes of Kuromiya Fubuki?
"Out of mah way!" She roared as she switched gears with a second land-ravaging sonic boom.
This time, nothing would stand in her way.
She would stand by his side. She would be his bulwark against the madness. She would be his armor and his sword, whether he liked it or not. If he was crazy enough to challenge Mayuri's father, then she was just as insane, if not more. She was a maiden in love, after all.
"You betteh get weady for some serious pampewing, stupid onii-chan!"
Two blazing suns shone in the sky on that warm summer day.
"…wait, I still can't pwonounce wohds pwopehly!?"
Higashiyama Mayuri had a terrible secret.
Yes, this is that kind of clichéd story.
Hers was a secret she did not share with her single mother, the hard-working nurse at the village's hospital, or with her teachers at the Shinobi Academy. Of course, she did not tell her friends either, mostly because she did not have any of those. While Hinata-san was the "shy girl, but in a somewhat cute way", she was plainly the "quiet weirdo". Perhaps it was her hair, white as an old woman's, or perhaps it was that she looked tiny even among her classmates, to the point that she often heard their parents whispering and wondering "what her mother was thinking, sending such a girl to the Ninja Academy". But it was she, Mayuri, who chose to attempt to become a kunoichi. Her plan was to work hard despite her poor constitution, make it through the Academy, become a Genin in two or so years and then hopefully die a swift and painless death in her first mission. It was the best she could aspire to, and her death would spare the world from a dark fate.
Because she was the Anchor, whose mind held Reality in place against the madness from beyond.
The last bell of the day rang. She packed her notebooks and pencils and left the classroom the usual way: quietly, without a word. If somebody watched her departing back with worry or curiosity she did not notice and did not care. Next thing she knew she was seated at the end of a small pier, her feet dangling over a minuscule body of water, too small to deserve the name of "lake". Her mother always worked long shifts, so it wasn't like she had a reason to go back home. Homework…she guessed it could wait.
"You're on my spot."
Mayuri looked behind her, returning the boy's unfriendly glare with utmost boredom. She was most certain that pier was not the property of Uchiha Sasuke, but she was not really a confrontational person. She sighed, and apparently the kid took it the wrong way.
"I'm telling you to get up!" Sasuke demanded, looking as if by looking disinterested she had insulted his family's memory and looked down on his inner grief. A part of her; a rebellious, feral dark side of her mind urged her to yell at him, to tell him he should stop being so conceited, that he was not the only person who suffered, and that he was not the only person who witnessed the end of the Uchiha clan. Then her reason kicked back into gear and told her it was not worth it.
"Move!" Sasuke insisted, and Mayuri was about to do exactly that until the other kid interrupted.
"Stop bullying Mayuri, bastard!"
Mayuri's bored eyes watched the lively figure of Uzumaki Naruto run along the length of the pier, stumble on the last step and pretty much tackle Sasuke over the edge. She twitched when the mighty splash blew droplets of clear water on her face.
"What the hell!?" Sasuke showed the obvious reaction the moment his head emerged from the stirred waters. "What's wrong with you!?"
"Shut up!" Naruto spat back. "It's what you get for being a jerk!"
"How can this be my fault!?"
"Shut up, jerk!"
"Is that the only thing you can say!?"
Mayuri did not put any thoughts on why Naruto had bothered acting to "help her" against the "bully", nor did she have the patience to wait for the two to stop bickering and sort-of-fighting in the water. She did not just walk away, either; that would have been rude. Instead, she spread her consciousness into the countless world lines tauntingly surrounding her, reaching for the water molecules beneath her and tweaking them to move slower and slower. When she was done, she set her eyes on the two children, stuck in the midst of pulling each other's hair and cheeks by the prison of frozen water enclosing them. She was almost grateful for Sasuke's naturally shocked reaction compared to the other kid's almost masochistic glee at his current situation. Apparently he was sufficiently impressed by her feat that he did not care about being its target.
"…are you done?" she said.
What she did not expect, however, was being followed afterwards.
"Awesome!" Indeed. "That was awesome, Mayuri!" Naruto repeated, all the while expressing his amazement with haphazard arm gestures that she hoped would not end with the kid smacking a passerby by accident.
"Hey, how did you do that? Ice jutsu! That was an ice jutsu, right?"
Mayuri let her shoulders drop a bit further, but expecting the likes of Uzumaki Naruto to catch such subtle body language would be asking for too much.
"It was like, 'whoosh', and then the water went ´krrrkshksh´! So cooooold!" Naruto continued his solo "narration" of the events. "Too cold, actually! Damn it, I dun' wanna catch a cold!"
"Idiots don't catch colds, idiot," Sasuke retorted, and Mayuri found herself suppressing the slightest grin.
"Oh, really? Alrigh—wait, hey!"
Sasuke rolled his eyes while Mayuri hoped they did not catch the unladylike snort which escaped her lips. She left the boys to their bickering while wondering just how long they intended to follow her around.
"But really, where did you learn that, Mayuri? Did your parents teach you?"
Mayuri then wondered just when was it she told Naruto he was allowed to address her by name.
"Can you teach me?"
The very idea was ridiculous, she thought.
"Muu…" Naruto was obviously not satisfied with her lack of answers or even a modicum of awareness. "You could at least say something."
Mayuri stopped and looked straight in his eyes, which suddenly sparkled with triumph and hope. Did he honestly think things worked so easily? That she would just say "sure, I'll teach you my jutsu" and set him on the path of what he called "awesomeness"?
"…goodbye, Uzumaki. Have a nice evening."
Naruto's exultant face dropped—albeit not as much as she had expected—as she stepped past him and resumed her walk home…only to be intercepted by the second boy.
"Where did you learn that jutsu?" Perhaps Sasuke had noticed she had not used hand seals. Perhaps he was trying to look intimidating despite the new realization the silent weirdo in his class could use techniques only he could match in his class.
"…it's my jutsu," she said. "You don't get to learn it."
Nobody did. She tried to walk around Sasuke but the kid stood in her way one more time.
"Then fight me."
Mayuri shrugged, deciding then and there that she was the only person with common sense in that scene.
"I don't want to," she calmly explained while walking past the gobsmacked last Uchiha, who seemingly did not even consider the possibility of the girl denying him the chance to test himself against her. And it seemed Naruto found Sasuke's current facial expression absolutely hilarious.
Mayuri did not need the gift of vision to figure out this would be the reason for many headaches in the near future. Indeed, this little event with the Uchiha and Uzumaki kids would become the seed of several misunderstandings and a rather annoying turn of events with the other girls in their class, led by one Yamanaka Ino. It did not help that her mother—her own mother!—betrayed her wish for being left alone and encouraged Naruto to keep talking to her.
Such was the simple and subtle beginning of Higashiyama Mayuri's grand love story.
"What…the hell was that?"
Yuria turned to look at the approaching Naruto. Surrounded by the blossoming cherry trees aligned along the path, it made for quite the impressive and charming scene. Yuria did not remember the last time she saw a cherry petal. When the taller man caught up to her, she turned her gaze to the painfully familiar stone staircase ascending along the slope of the mountain she had, a long time ago, called home.
"I wanted to give them the chance to live different lives for a while," he explained. "I don't have Mayuri's patience to look for the right timeline, so I just used a jutsu to create new ones."
"Creating…new timelines…?" Yuria uttered in sheer disbelief. Naruto was speaking of powers beyond godlike, after all.
"Well, it's not like I do the hard work," Naruto admitted shyly while fiddling with the Silver Key in his right hand. "Call them 'a dream inside a dream', or the like."
Yuria realized she still lacked the slightest insight on the true nature of Naruto's powers when wielding the Silver Key. What could he do, or rather, what could he not do?
"I originally wanted to call it Gensoukyou, but then Riyo punched me in the face. I never really got why she was so much against it, but I've gotten pretty far listening to Riyo's advice."
"Smart woman, that Yuriyo."
"The other you also said that!"
Naruto allowed Yuria a small bout of silence, in which the (former?) Empress filled herself with nostalgic scents. She was in a livelier, purer world; one in which the otherworldly taint was but a distant, unseen threat, no more menacing than tales of a boogeyman in the closet. A world rich in the colors of life, unlike the dead browns and grays of the realm she had, apparently, left behind.
"So, were those their 'ideal' worlds or what? I mean, that Mayuri was human, right?"
Naruto shook his head.
"It doesn't work like that. I just created a…what's the word Riyo used? A setting. Sayuri wanted the chance to stand beside her Naruto when he challenged the Avatar of Yog-Sothoth, and that's what I gave her. What happens from now on is up to them. Things might turn out even worse, for all I know."
Both of them doubted it would come to that. They knew that Sayuri well enough; while she was incapable of challenging Mayuri's father by herself, having Naruto with her opened a whole new realm of possibilities.
"As for Mayuri, what she wanted was 'a story of their own'. The Kyuubi that Naruto has sealed within himself is not Sayuri, and there is no connection between them and Higashiyama. Theirs is a setting in which they don't have to share the protagonists' roles with anybody else."
Naruto pocketed the Silver Key and let his hands disappear inside the pockets of his orange hakama.
"They will not live hundreds of years; they are already exhausted, in many ways. This is just a resting place for their souls, so that hopefully they can end their lives at peace with themselves."
The whole time, Yuria's eyes followed the ascending steps until they disappeared beyond a curve. The bright and immaculate torii framing the beginning of the staircase added to the artistry of the painfully familiar landscape before her.
"So?" She then said. "What did you make for me?"
Her words were a challenge Naruto saw little point in.
"Do you regret anything, Your Majesty?"
They looked at each other, and in her fiery eyes Naruto found the most certain answer.
"Right," he said while grinning. "So you're here to just lie down and rest." Yuria felt a stern and gentle hand fall on her right shoulder. "A woman like you should not die fighting a hopeless, pointless battle, against enemies who don't even acknowledge you."
Yuria knew better than to suggest Naruto to kill her himself. Naruto stretched his arms towards the sky, enjoying the feeling of muscles being put to work.
"Alright," he said as he relaxed his body. "I guess I should get going. You can just go ahead, but I think someone's coming soon to meet you."
"Huh," Yuria uttered lamely. What was there left for her, she wondered. "Ne, Naruto."
"Yeah?" The human replied while reaching for the Silver Key one more time.
"The other…the Yuria in your timeline…how far did she get?"
"You know…" Naruto began, taking the first steps away from the dethroned Empress. "Just because that was my past it doesn't mean their future is set in stone. Timelines don't work like that. Their story can still split away from mine; they can create a new timeline." He shrugged. "For all we know the Dream could shift in his sleep and change that little part of his Dream."
Yuria sought his face with her eyes and realized Naruto simply did not want to answer her question. He did not want to, but he did it nonetheless.
"Far enough. She got far enough."
And Yuria then wondered if her eyes were like his; whether they so nakedly showed the burden of loss she bore.
"Perhaps…" she then said, glancing back at the ascending stone staircase. "It wouldn't be a bad idea to gain a few things before kicking the bucket."
At least enough to make up for the entirety of her world.
"You never had children, did ya?" Naruto pointed out, to which Yuria replied with a teasing grin.
"Are you coming on to me, boy?"
"Uhh…if you excuse me, I'll leave that up to this timeline's Naruto."
The Empress laughed merrily.
"Ahaha, we'll see, we'll see."
Another pause, and they knew it would be the last. They would never see each other again.
"Are you happy, boy? Despite everything?"
Naruto shook his head, even while he smiled.
"Ask me that question when I'm at least half Sayoko-san's age. Now I gotta go, my family awaits."
Yuria smiled back, grateful for having her last question answered.
Naruto spun the unusually regularly-shaped Silver Key in his right hand and nodded.
He was gone, and the strongest person to have ever lived (in her timeline) found herself alone and with nothing to do, in a painfully beautiful and nostalgic new world. She guessed she could use Chiton to detect any nearby life forms, but she would rather be surprised a little. With a childlike giggle, she realized she was actually looking forward to meeting someone, anyone. After the longest time dealing with just the SayuMayu combo, it would be a breath of fresh air.
"So!" She exclaimed to herself. "Let's check out the…"
The word "shrine" was choked out of existence. There was, as Naruto suggested, a person walking down the stairs. A person she had not seen in literally centuries. And thus the memory of the day she lost her came back unbidden to the mind she thought had long dulled beyond such afflictions. She, who had seen and lost so much, was shocked to realize she could still feel that oppressive, chilling feeling in her chest. She forgot herself; she forgot she was called Empress and venerated by an entire planet. Before this person's unparalleled poise and immaculate beauty, before her regal bearing and noble eyes, she was once again that pitiful three-tails grinding her teeth in envy. The youko goddess descended with chaste, elegant steps, and every single one of them was like a miracle upon the undeserving stonework. The wind rustled the blossoming cherries and the colorful trees swayed as if in worship of this silver Venus.
The Silver Lily stood before Yuria, who suddenly felt the burden of her short height a little too heavily.
"I apologize," the three-tailed heiress of Higashiyama spoke, her voice carrying the same unchanging inflection Yuria had not known she had missed. "You were taking your time, so I thought of looking for you. Did I interrupt anything?"
"Ah…" Unsure of what to say, Yuria turned to the empty spot where Naruto had last stood. Realizing they were alone, the former Empress shook her head and accepted this was her future, from this point onwards until her soul was satisfied and left to the Sanzu River's shores.
She sighed. It was a very long sigh, and with her exhaled breath she relinquished a very many things: her crown, her history, her battles, her power and her hopelessness. All those things made her who she was, but neither was relevant in that place. In her mind, she wished those two idiots, Sayuri and Mayuri, the best of luck before discarding them as well. She was done, with them and with her doomed world. It was, like Naruto said, time for this warrior to put down her sword and rest.
"Mah, mah, don't worry, don't worry!" Yuria then replied, feeling so much younger all of a sudden. "More importantly, I'm kinda hungry. Can you help me with that, Yurimi?"
Yurimi froze for a moment when Yuria unabashedly slapped her lower back before hurrying to the staircase. Wincing a bit, the taller three-tails followed her tailless older sister.
"Yurine is almost done with breakfast. I am sure you will be able to enjoy yourself soon."
Yuria trembled with emotion, stopping before taking the second step up. Her brain recalled a painful image of her Yurine's dead body after—
Shaking her head, Yuria discarded yet another piece of her past, all the while she realized that Naruto created for her not a Heaven, but a Purgatory. But, she also understood, that was both exactly what she wanted and what she deserved.
"Yurin-nee, huh. Well, that is something to look forward to, alright."
They walked in silence for a while, Yuria spending way too much energy in every single step while Yurimi climbed calmly and elegantly as was her way.
"Hmm?" The smiling youko looked back at the pensive younger sister.
"…is everything okay?"
Yuria grinned, masking her surprise behind humor. How old was she supposed to be in this timeline, anyway? Both she and her awfully perceptive little sister had three-tails, so…
"Ahaha, nah…just wondering when Yurimi-chan became so pretty, ya know? You're almost your mother's living image."
Satisfied with the slightest blush coloring Yurimi's cheeks, Yuria snickered and resumed her way up.
"Si-Sister, that is not really appropriate…" Yurimi weakly complained. "I would rather receive such compliments from Master…"
"Mah, mah, I'm sure Naruto digs a little lesbian play every now and then."
Nobody saw the faintest pout on Yurimi's face while staring at the laughing Yuria's back.
"You know, I missed ya, Yurimi."
The younger kitsune frowned.
"I…do not understand. We last saw each other last night, before I retired for the evening."
Yuria sighed before refilling her lungs with the all-too clean air of Higashi Mountain's slope.
"Let's just say…I woke up from a really bad dream."
Yuria turned to smile at Yurimi once again, sure that her face showed far more than she'd rather reveal to her precious little sister.
"I'll be fine now, Yurimi. Everything will be fine."
It was time to rest.
Suiren found her in the usual place. The Higashiyama clan grounds rested near the top of the homonymous mountain, which resulted in some of their buildings being placed at higher heights than others. The Shrine Realm of the once Great Spirit Clan rested on an ascending slope, and Higashiyama Mayuri made it a habit of sitting on the rooftop of the highest building, that belonging to Yurimi.
The mightiest of Time Kitsune was seemingly looking at the sky, but Suiren knew better. While her eyes were on the grey clouds above, Mayuri's mind was swimming in the murky sea of infinite timelines, looking for snags in the web of world lines; anomalies in the interaction of world lines, bugs in the system which prevented a linear flow of time from past to present to future. There was this weird time loop involving another timeline's Uzumaki Naruto and Uchiha Sasuke, some time ago—Suiren had heard that story from Karen. Mayuri had allowed them a few more loops after the mess at Sorachi Village before restoring their natural flow of time.
That was Mayuri's self-appointed job: fixing errors in space-time. When there was an active—and often otherworldly—agent causing the error, she sent Naruto to handle it. It made Suiren wonder, but she guessed she could ask later.
Suiren bowed the moment Mayuri dropped her gaze; the subtlest indicator she had noticed the small girl's approach.
"Good afternoon, Mayuri-san."
The white-haired goddess paused a moment after reading the greeting, but said nothing and showed nothing. She had always been good at hiding things, after all.
Suiren had pre-written the things she wanted to ask, so she just revealed the right page in her sketchpad. She did not really need to do this when conversing with Mayuri, but this was an occasion in which she did not want to partake of the intimacy of presenting her thoughts through her world line.
"May I sit next to you?"
Mayuri looked at the small twin-tailed doll for a moment, perhaps wondering why she was using the sketchpad. Soon enough, though, she offered a dainty hand to the young half-kitsune, who nodded with gratitude before sitting down by Mayuri's left side.
"Shionzaki Aika…was too good…for this world," Mayuri suddenly said, surprising absolutely nobody. Of course she already knew what Suiren had been up to lately. "For any world. I wish…you could have met her."
Suiren said nothing. She only looked at the elder Time kitsune's elegant profile, her porcelain features like nobility itself frozen for eternity.
"I'm sorry…you met such an…unsightly me," Mayuri continued. "There was a time…I was terrified…of that possibility."
Mayuri looked down at the girl, who was slightly taken aback by the somber smile she was being offered.
"Love…is a rather fearsome thing. Wouldn't you agree?"
Yes, Suiren knew her parents had never had that kind of intimate relationship; at least not the degree of physical intimacy her father had with Kizuna's or Suzuran's mothers. Then again, Mayuri was simply not into the whole "physicality of affection" thing; perhaps ruling over time and space rendered things like sex uninteresting to her. Suiren was probably similar in that respect. But there was still a question Suiren needed to ask; the conclusion she reached after encountering that other, broken Mayuri in the equally broken world.
"May I ask you a question?" She revealed in the next page.
Once again, Mayuri wondered about the use of the sketchbook. She would not intrude in Suiren's world line for answers; that was just plain manners. Regardless, the mightiest Time kitsune understood this was important for the girl. That much she saw in her carmine eyes.
Suiren stopped herself from turning the page. Just like it had cost her to put her feeling into words, it proved difficult to reveal them to this person. It was her utmost wish, which she was utterly afraid of revealing. The Mayuri she had met was a possibility; a result of different events, choices and experiences. A Mayuri she wished had never existed; having never truly hated anything but herself, she was torn apart by her own love. The Mayuri in front of her, instead, was one who had found meaning, freedom and purpose in…could it really be called love? Yes, perhaps not her own.
Love. It kept coming back to that. That's why, to find her own meaning, freedom and purpose, Suiren wished…more than anything, right now she wished…
"Can I call you 'Mother'?"
Mayuri showed no reaction at first. Slowly, she looked down, at her trembling left hand. Then back at the hopeful girl, almost painfully so. Some part of her face trembled, perhaps her lips. Mayuri's or Suiren's? Perhaps both. Shrinking her body as if intimidated by the small girl's pure wish, Mayuri squeezed her eyes shut and slowly, very slowly, shook her head.
Suiren's eyes did most definitely tremble in sockets moistened by tears unshed. Paper crumpled under clenched fists squeezing too hard. One of those fists tried to reach for the pen, to hastily write a half-hearted apology for her insolence; for expecting too much too quickly, too suddenly; for even hoping they could possibly have that kind of bond—
Suiren was pushed back by an invisible force. That which had once being the image of nobility crumpled and became a manifestation of humiliation and self-loathing. When Mayuri dropped her head and lowered herself to bow before the Miracle Lily, all traces of an almighty ruler of time and space broke apart, leaving behind a simple woman struck by the weight of her failures.
"I don't deserve that…"
Yet, motherhood is not a badge you earn, or an honor you deserve. Yet, giving birth to a child does not really make you a mother. Being a mother, these two knew, means something a lot more complicated, a lot more important and a lot more precious and beautiful.
"I don't deserve that, but…if you can still…if you can…" Mayuri sobbed. "…a hopeless person like me…"
Suiren turned the sketchpad a few pages and wrote something before putting it aside to cradle her hopeless mother's head in her tiny hands. Mayuri would read it only later, long after the two exorcized their distant pasts through tears.
A woman who had no idea how to be a mother and the daughter who had lived too long with a hole in her heart that neither all the fatherly love nor an army of aunties and half-sisters could fill.
Their story began, like most stories, with another's end.
Karen liked Higashiyama Suzuran a lot. She was the usual, run-of-the-mill amazingly beautiful kitsune (an oxymoron if there's ever been one), whose very existence seemed to be an understated insult to about 95% of the world's other women. However, unlike the truly untouchable "cool beauties" Karen was acquainted with, like the Silver Lily herself, Suzuran was more like the Fairy of Oblivion; the so-called Youko Komachi, Kuromiya Chachamaru-sama. The False Lily carried herself with a welcoming openness which made it hard for Karen to believe she had once been one of those "cool beauties".
Parents' positive influence, Karen guessed.
The lack of an answer after a third knock of the door triggered a nasty twitch of both eyes and grey-tipped black tails. The tall beauty looked down at her younger half-sister with a half-apologetic, half annoyed look.
"I'm really sorry about this," the older youko said with a tired voice. "My mother's an idiot."
Karen laughed weakly. She would never speak of her own mother in such a way, but she could only defer to the adult kitsune in her own residence.
"Heeeeeey, idiot mother, we're comin' in. You've got a visitor."
Opening the door, Suzuran invited Karen inside while adjusting her homely yukata over her shoulder and flicking a lock of her long black hair to the side. The Incandescent Lily stepped into perhaps the most fire-inviting room she would ever see in her life. There was, probably, more paper than room in there. The walls were completely covered with drawers and shelves, themselves stuffed to the brim with books and scrolls. Stacks of both also stood like columns of lore all over the eight-tatami floor, some of them having crumbled down instead like fallen ruins of history. There was no trace of a place to sleep or a place to store articles of clothing in that room, except for books and the unbelievably messy desk standing on the very center. And there, surrounded by paper and parchment and ink and her own drool, slept a very beautiful and slovenly woman.
Suzuran gritted her teeth at the audacity.
"…mom," she insisted, obviously struggling to keep an even voice. "Wake up, Karen-chan's here to see you."
Karen took a step back. Suzuran was, in fact, vibrating on her spot. That was, most definitely, not a good sign.
"…mm-hmm…silly 'ruto, we need at least five clones for that position…munya-munya…" the sleeping beauty whispered blissfully to a most annoyed audience.
"Karen-chan, would you be a dear and wait outside for a minute?"
"Yes ma'am," the half-kitsune immediately replied, already closing the door behind her, which did not muffle any of the violence that ensued inside that room.
"You worthless excuse of a woman, sleeping while everybody else's hard at work!"
"And for Inari's sake, can't you fix your own obi properly!? You look like a tramp! The really cheap kind!"
"Wah-wah—he-hey, it was a well-deserved rest! Look, I finished a scroll—"
"And you drooled all over it!"
"Damn it, she says—I'm gonna kick your ass!"
"Wa-wait—uwaaaah! Why did I have to raise an overly competent daughter!?"
"It's the duty of all children to surpass their parents! You ass is mine!"
"No, wait; your dad will kill me if we go down the incest route!"
"I'M GONNA FUCKING KILL YOU MYSEEEEEEEEEEEEEELLLFFF!"
It was a picture-perfect, smiling Suzuran who invited Karen to go back in some minutes later, leaving her with the matron of the house and a promise of tea and snacks in a while. Unsure of what expression to wear on her face, Karen faced the stunning yet irresponsible celebrity, owner of one of the continents' largest libraries and overall eccentric person. She was now seated most elegantly behind her desk, welcoming Karen with her alluring smile and a dangerously loose kimono while enjoying a smoke with a fancy-looking long pipe.
"Well met, Karen-hime. How may this humble writer be of service to you today?"
"Uhh…it's really waaaay too late for that, Auntie Yuriyo."
With that, the Night Lily abandoned all pretense of formality and laughed merrily, throwing away the pipe—and scaring the daylights out of young Karen—to scratch the skin near her eyepatch.
"Man, Suzuran's a real bitch about work. I'd fire her to get her off my case, but this place would kinda fall apart without her."
"Uhh, I really don't think you should say that where other people could hear," Karen replied while hopelessly looking around for anything like a second seat. This office-slash-bedroom was clearly not meant for a place to welcome visitors.
"Yeah, I never got what those other kids expected to learn, coming here; I'm no erudite. I'm a bard, not a wizard."
"Anyway!" Yuriyo continued, stretching like a lazy cat and further threatening to let her ripe breasts slip out her garment. "You're not the bookworm-type, so I take it you're not here for ancient lore of the ages."
"If you're looking for ultra-epic Void jutsu of ultimate awesomity, I'll tell you what I've told all the others: Sayoko-san didn't teach me anything like that, try Suzuran or Chachamaru."
Karen was losing a bit of patience.
"…I can't use Void jutsu, auntie."
"You really have to stop calling me that; we're cousins, you know?"
Karen grinned. "You're Suzu-nee-san's mother. That makes you Auntie Yuriyo."
The half-Void made a comically dejected face.
"Way to make me feel old, girl. I shouldn't even be close to feeling old!"
"It was probably the war. It left you broken and jaded," opinionated the half-youko with a joking tone.
"Right, right…" Pretending to look old and weary, the "war veteran" let her eye lose itself in the sea of memories. "Those were harsh times, little lass."
After laughing at their own lame jokes, Karen explained the reason she was there and the question she wished to ask. Yuriyo chuckled.
"You didn't come up with that question yourself," Yuriyo correctly guessed, making Karen laugh nervously. "More like, why come to me of all people for something like that?"
"Umm…" Karen was nervous again. "I didn't…feel comfortable asking somebody else…"
"Rather," Yuriyo teased. "You didn't want to bother Her Invincible Majesty, Hegemon Yuria-sama with such a trifle thing, so you came to pitiful, penniless Yuriyo instead?"
"Wha-no! No! I'd never think such a—wait, you're penniless?"
"Nah, nah, just messing with ya. We're doing just fine. But, really, you're made me recall an interesting thing."
Teasing Karen with an insufferable "I know something you don't" smirk, Yuriyo brought out a bottle of some liquor the ignorant half-youkai could not recognize and filled herself a tiny shot.
"It was really the most curious thing, watching your mother breastfeed you."
Karen felt her weight abandon her body. She was jelly, unstable and unfeeling. Neither cold nor warm, neither full nor void. She just was.
"When Yuria told Sayuri you were hungry, she would take you and sit down on some quiet spot. And she would stare at you the whole time. Just, stare; watch you drink, like she couldn't make sense of the scene." She chuckled. "Like she couldn't believe what she was doing."
It was a somewhat sad chuckle.
"Yeah, she looked pretty lost. Like she couldn't believe that little thing was actually born of her. Sometimes she would even shake her head, like, 'what's this little thing's deal?', it was kinda funny."
The caramel-colored liquor disappeared down Yuriyo's throat in a flash. The half-Void made a noise Karen could not identify. She went with "masochistic bliss".
"And woe to the fool who dared interrupt her observation, I tell you! Even your father was blown away a few times."
Yuriyo let her heart reach warmly to that girl, hopeful and anguished and angry and dejected. A part of her pondered an old idea; the same that often filled her mind when watching the blossoming "Spiral Children".
"She wouldn't take her eyes off you, not for a single moment. She would stare at you, even for hours on end, like you were the most beautiful, most amazing thing in the world."
Yuriyo watched Karen's tall yet feeble form, nearly on the verge of falling on its knees, and understood her unvoiced longing and her questions unasked; the wishes she had never shared and which nobody had perceived behind her cheerful veneer. In the girl, Yuriyo saw a little bit of the girl's father, or at least the troubled child he had once been, and it made her love both the father and the girl even more.
"She's always close, you know," she said. "Even if she keeps her distance, she has always kept you within her reach. What comes next is merely speculation."
Yuriyo poured herself a second shot. She wished she could offer some to the girl, but her father would not approve, and the Night Lily had to agree it was a little too early.
"You are her daughter. You are also Naruto's daughter. Like Suiren, you were born with a unique, highly specific ability; something that would take decades, if not centuries, for another youkai to develop."
Karen held her left arm in a defensive posture, somewhat unnerved by the tone Yuriyo was using to speak of the ability she was so proud of.
"I think she just wants you to stay as you are," Yuriyo then concluded. "She doesn't want to be an influence on you, so you don't end up going down the same road."
The half-Void kitsune stood off her seat, her shapely body a river of sensuality flowing smooth and perfect. The woman capable of turning the simple act of standing up into a sexual fantasy; that was Higashiyama Yuriyo.
"Of course, her mistake lies in assuming that keeping her distance will somehow keep her out of your thoughts," she then said while approaching the young hybrid. "But children will always look up to their parents."
Karen dropped her gaze. Certainly, even if her mother had never been much of one, even if they had never had a real conversation and she could count the number of times her mother had directed her words at her with a single hand, Karen had been dazzled by her awesome beauty and majestic power. Karen would think of herself as Higashiyama Sayuri's daughter, and the thought would fill her with bittersweet pride. Having been born from such an incredible creature, their lack of contact obviously meant she was somehow lacking as a daughter, for how could such a beautiful youko be in the wrong?
"So, now it's my turn to ask you: what do you want to do?" Yuriyo inquired with an encouraging smile. "Do you want to get closer to that Sayuri?"
Karen shuddered. Such a thing, it was too…
"I'm…I'm scared," she said, her voice barely a whisper. Yuriyo nodded.
"I know. She can be terrifying," Yuriyo said with the tone one would use to say "one plus one equals two" or "Yurimi has huge tits". Reaching around Karen's neck with her single arm, the Night Lily pushed the tomboyish young girl into an inviting, comforting embrace.
"But you can count on your Auntie Riyo, on Suzuran, on your father and on your invincible shishou. We can all help you, if that's what you want."
Karen chuckled and nodded in Yuriyo's chest.
"In exchange you can tell that father of yours that he's been a terrible friend lately and that his beloved Riyo-chan is mighty pissed at him."
"Uhh…doesn't he spend a night every week over here?"
"That's right! Just one night! I'm not that easily satisfied, let me tell you!"
"You don't even…"
A part of Karen thought she should be angry at her father for some reason, but she really could not find it in herself to care. Her thoughts were, as they often were, on the radiant goddess of white flame she called her mother. Untouchable and unreachable, clad in flames and more beautiful than Amaterasu herself; Higashiyama Sayuri was little Karen's Platonic ideal of power, beauty and femininity. She was not what she wanted to become—because she was still awfully scary!—, but an unachievable goal worth striving for. And for such an amazing youkai to one day look at her with the eyes of a proud mother, Karen would…
"Do you think I can do it?"
"…stand by her side?"
Breaking the embrace, Yuriyo drew the other girl's attention. In the half-Void's single eye Karen saw unbridled mirth, pride, joy and the overwhelming affection that so deeply unnerved her dearest onee-sama.
"Your father taught me we live in a world where anything is possible."
On the easternmost reaches of Lightning Country, at the top of a cliff with jagged edges violently struck by the waves, Uzumaki Naruto watched the distant horizon, letting the sun kiss his back. It was the rare private time he could devote to his thoughts. But he was not really alone.
"I thought I told you to go ahead without me," he said to his daughter without looking. Thus he did not see the small twin-tailed lovely's stubborn pout.
"You don't tell me what to do."
"Uhh…I'm kind of your father…?"
Instead of responding to Naruto's very good point, Kizuna sat down as well, resting her thin back on Naruto's.
"There. Now you don't have to see me if you don't want to."
His liquid eyes glimmered in a transfixing way. Kizuna could not decipher those eyes; she was too much like her mother, with none of the life experience.
"Kizuna, let me ask you: why did you come along today?"
Naruto felt his daughter stiffen on his back just before she hastily got back on her feet.
"You could have just told me you didn't want me around," she said, the fire in her eyes doused by unshed tears. However, she was not allowed to run away, for she was pulled by the wrist and sized by a strong arm wrapped around her waif waist. Kizuna then realized she had been dropped on her father's lap, and it was her father's face which filled most of her field of view, the expansive blue of his eyes embracing her and enrapturing her.
"Please answer me. It's important," he said, and there was pain in his voice Kizuna realized she was to blame for, and it hurt.
"Y-Yes!" The girl quickly replied in a slightly higher-pitched voice. Her eyes went wide at her own actions. It made her hate him and try to pull away, until her eyes caught his and the weight of guilt made her stop.
"K-Kizuna?" Naruto wondered. He tried to look comforting and encouraging, but his eyes carried that liquid glimmer Kizuna could not understand, yet bothered her so much.
"We-well!" The girl quickly initiated her standard personality protocols. "Of course I had to! Somebody had to be there to make sure those two didn't get killed!" Her cheeks inflated as she insistently made her case. "What with Karen's power being so unreliable and all. And Suiren can't do anything unless she's set up a territory…Karen would stupidly jump into the fray if I'm not there to stop her, you know!? And Suiren's just too nice and she can't say no to anybody, so she would follow along! I have to be there to keep those two idiots out of danger! Hmph!"
She would say no more. Half of the answer was enough. The other half was forbidden content; a thought she was not allowed to linger in. Only disappointment lay on that path. She already got enough deprecation from her mother.
"Iiiiit's not like I care if something happens to those fools," she said half-heartedly, her cheeks somewhat inflated. "I just can't tolerate incompetence. That's it."
She was answered with silence. Kizuna fiddled with her baggy ninja clothing all the while keeping her eyes downwards. Eventually the silence got to her and she looked up, hoping to find an explanation for her father's lack of response on his face. Instead, the visage of his loving smile elicited a thrilling jolt that straightened her spine and made her legs shudder and her toes twitch uncontrollably. Her father was far from the most handsome of men, but it was nonetheless the tidal wave that was his affection which rendered her ecstatic with bliss. To look at his eyes bursting with love and warmth and know that such a deluge of emotion was directed at her and only her filled her with an embarrassing amount of joy.
"Really, it hasn't changed at all," he said, softly, and his manly voice made Kizuna's lips tremble. He then shook his head.
"Nuh-uh," he corrected himself. "If anything, it has gotten stronger."
Kizuna's brain was brought back from cloud nine upon realizing that her father was crying.
"This feeling!" Naruto gasped out, and it was clear that, in his tears, he was joyous. "This amazing feeling that fills me when I look at you…!"
Kizuna squeaked some meaningless monosyllables when Naruto grabbed her shoulders and pushed her back, as if to get a better look at her. His eyes remained full of unshed tears, but his smile was the dazzling sun that rendered many women weak in the knees, her mother among them.
"Despite all the things I've done, all the fights I've won, all the jutsu I've learned and all the victories I've achieved, nothing compares! Nothing compares to the joy I feel every single time I look at you, Kizuna!"
It was admittedly unfair to Suiren, his first child. However, both the circumstances of her conception and birth and the events taking place in parallel impeded Naruto from fully delighting at his fatherhood. Kizuna's birth was planned—the willing realization of his and his beloved's love for each other—, and he was there every step of the way, supporting her mother throughout her pregnancy and bearing with the hormonal havoc a child in the making wreaked on her system. He was the second person who held the newborn Kizuna, and the second to shed tears at the sight of that diminutive baby, the culmination of his life and his love.
"You're my utmost achievement. My highest triumph. My greatest pride."
Kizuna could not take this many blows at point-blank. It was too much stimulation, too quickly, too amazing. Her cheeks were about as red as her Sharingan. She knew this would all go straight to her head; she could already feel her nose stretching with unreasonable conceitedness. But she didn't care. She was in bliss. And when Naruto's gentle hand stroke one of her luscious twin-tails, sun-colored like his own hair, she purred in delight.
Naruto's radiant smile was sweet like caramel, soft like silk and ambrosia to one such as Kizuna, starving for attention and affection.
"You give my life meaning."
A sweet whine echoed in Kizuna's throat.
"You're the greatest gift life has given me. You're a privilege I never deserved. I still can't believe something so amazing like you came from an idiot like me." He was laughing, at himself, at the world, at everything and nothing. He laughed because without release he would explode. "But I look at you every day, and I see that my beautiful baby has become a beautiful girl, so smart and talented and so kind and caring…"
He chuckled and shrugged.
"Your mother and I must have done something right, I guess!"
Kizuna squeaked when Naruto seized one more time, hugging her tightly, almost desperately, as if he needed the physical contact even more than she did. Perhaps he acknowledged that his daughter was still at an age in which her parents remained the foundation of her existence. Perhaps he feared the time she would grow past that stage and become a rebellious girl, convinced she could make her own decisions while blind to the fact she was still an ignorant child. Perhaps he simply wished to pour out his feelings to her, boundless and precious that they were. To hide nothing from her, to be the person, the father, Naruto believed his daughter deserved.
"I love you, Kizuna," he said, softly, because his constricted throat was incapable of greater strength. "If you can only believe one thing your stupid father says, let it be that I love you. I loved you before I even met you. I'll love you long after you're here no more."
"Um," the beloved daughter uttered in his chest, relishing the impossibly tender hand stroking her head and the arm holding her close like an unrivaled treasure.
"Today, tomorrow, forever. For as long as I live," Naruto insisted, almost like a mantra. His children were his religion, and Kizuna his goddess. "More than anyone. More than anything. I love you."
They had needed this. Naruto was the invincible super-dad, but he was not immune to his own emotions. What they saw in that broken world, and the people they met there, rendered this exchange necessary. An affirmation of who they were and what drove them in the peaceful world they lived in.
The wished for the moment to last forever, but alas, it was not to be. They lived in a world full of cherished people beyond each other.
"We gotta go," Naruto finally said, reluctantly pushing his dearest daughter away and breaking the embrace. "Your mother's waiting."
A handkerchief Kizuna never knew her father carried with him—something he started doing the day he became her father—gently wiped tears off her round face. His delicate touch was ticklish on her skin and inside her chest. Everything he did and said was meant to make her feel precious.
"Let's go," he said, and Kizuna followed after his back with smaller, hesitant steps. Somehow, she still had to…
Naruto stopped—of course he stopped—and presented her profile to the girl, silently awaiting her next words. Kizuna hated herself. Her siblings saw her as this amazing, ever-confident leader-like figure, yet in the presence of her parents she became a wallflower. Her mother subdued her with her very presence, her stern poise and her demanding instruction. Her father dazed her with his infinite affection. His smiling face made her shrink herself and stand defensively, unable to meet his eyes with her own.
But she was, after all, Uzumaki Naruto's daughter. Her heart demanded to sing, so she would not stop it.
"I love you too, Father."
The father blushed. His daughter's smile was the smile of the woman he had fallen in love with. So the father blushed and scratched his cheek in embarrassment. He was always weak against words of affection.
"I know," he said, somewhat lamely. Yet Kizuna never really expected anything more, so she eagerly caught up and let her father drop his large, callused hand on her fair blonde hair. For as long as her father's love meant the world to her, she would revel in it. It was her privilege as a daughter.
But Uzumaki Naruto was Uzumaki Naruto, and thus he would not be satisfied with such a lame punchline.
Holding her daughter's chin and pulling it to make her look up at him, Naruto showered his favored offspring with his most natural smile, brimming with the joy of a no-longer-lonely child who never really grew up.
"But I love you more," he declared, and Kizuna was elated to know it was truth.
Extra Chapter – END