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C O L L A T E R A L - N A S C E N C E
Chapter Thirteen: Memories in Flame
"And you have kept this a secret, all this time, when Konoha lies in a crucial need of information?"
Sakura bowed her head in heartfelt contrition, biting her lip and wondering at how the Hokage could keep his calm. The thought led to a next, one that almost made her let go of a nervous giggle. If Tsunade was in this situation, the famous desk would be out of the window already. Instead, out came her apology.
"I really don't know what to say, Hokage-sama. I am sorry for my reckless actions. However…why do you believe…" she trailed off, hating herself for double-thinking this whole ordeal, and at the same time not trusting the obviously mature and far-more-intelligent Hokage with the incredibility of Yuugao, time-travel – the whole burden of chaos! Daring, almost too hopeful to believe in his patience, Sakura looked up and was relieved to see no sign of anger. Just a meditative and slightly melancholic expression rested on that – she was sad to realize – startlingly tired and old face.
After taking a few coaxing breathes from his faithful pipe, the Hokage looked down at the adolescent girl sitting on the old couch a little ways from him.
This is…it almost seems like history is repeating itself all over again. But what could this mean? Hashirama, you've fought so hard against the spawn of demons created in your time…but we may need all the jinchuuriki's help to protect the village you liberated from Madara!
"There was actually once a time," he said slowly, "when a demon, of her own free will, attempted to aid Konoha in its darkest hours. Do you know who that may be?"
She shook her head, but a creeping thought entered her mind anyways. Wait…
"She was the very first Nekomata, and the first of ten other demons to be forcefully created," he continued. He wondered...if it was her, how much could he reveal - about the Sage of Six Paths, and the Ten-Tailed Beast that was his bijuu at the beginning of the shinobi world.
"And if I am right, she is lingering in another time, on the sacred mountain Konoha protected for her."
It can't be! Yuugao-san…was it…
Hush, kit. Let me reveal myself.
Wait – wha – !
Before Sakura could gather what had happened in that short exchange, a faint glow emanated from all of her showing skin, in a misty, evanescent way. Rapidly, the flow of light focused above her heart and shot into the middle of the room. As the glow left her, Sakura felt utterly drained – physically and mentally. An aura of overpowering, mind-throbbing chakra filled the room – and vanished with the light suddenly, as a figure materialized where the light and focal-point of chakra was.
The two shinobi, now joined by an apparent third, cautiously lowered their raised arms from their faces. Hiruzen Sarutobi gave a startled cry, followed by an echo from Sakura.
"It's you!" Sakura cried – then did a doubletake. Who was this person? Why was she so familiar? Her image was like a faded photograph that Sakura tried to recall, but couldn't. She looked to the Hokage for answers, but Sarutobi merely looked to the newcomer in silence with a sort of mourning solemnity. To her shock, she saw a quick tear streak down and disappear into the folds of his aged face.
The newcomer was a young girl, barely the age of an average genin. Her hair, which was obsidian in hue like her eyes, was cut in a style almost exactly like Sakura's. There was a regal air around her, partly attributed to the ornate silver and white kimono she donned. But what Sakura struck most, was the almost frightening look of maturity and coldness her face showed beyond her age. But all that melted away when she looked at Konoha's Hokage and smiled, positively beamed.
Sakura still looked on in amazement as the girl threw herself into the arms of a man that could be very well her grandfather – and yet she addressed him on a first name basis!
Sarutobi let go of the girl gently and kneeled so that they were eye-to-eye.
"After all this time…? To take on that body…"
A shadow passed over the girl's eyes. "Yes. I...I still remember my debt to her."
"What do you call yourself?"
"Yuugao. I have long since forgotten my own name."
The girl once more looked older as a mournful expression captured her eyes. "You've grown so much, Hiruzen."
The Hokage sighed. "I know…I know. When I first met you, you were indeed in this body, at this same age."
The child called Yuugao laughed delightedly. "You still remember! I fished you out of the river after you fell in chasing your ball."
Sakura timidly raised a hand. "Can someone explain all this to me?"
To her surmounting confusion, both of them laughed, and things seemed to return to a more comfortable level of normalcy.
The dark eyes gazed up at Sakura and the jinchuuriki immediately realized what she saw in them.
The radiant smile joined the mirth in the feline eyes as the girl's mouth opened – but instead of the high, clear girl's voice came the purr of the Nekomata's, except oddly compact and focused, instead of echoing and distant.
It's me, kit.
Sakura fell back onto the couch and shook her head once or twice. "Oh, man. How is this happening? Is this physical manifestation why I feel so," she lifted her arms weakly, "floppy?"
The amused Nekomata's smile grew wider. I can imagine how you must feel. This is a body constructed from chakra and memories, much like a shadow clone.
"Really now," was all the jinchuuriki could muster.
Yuugao's ageless human body turned back to the Hokage, speaking once more in her silvery girl's voice. "But…in the end, why did you abandon me, Hiruzen?"
The Hokage deferred his head apologetically. "To all of Sakura's accounts, I die by Orochimaru's hands. Currently, this threat has been removed, but in the alternate time, I did die – and without passing on the confidential knowledge of your existence to the next Hokage. With the Sound invasions following my death, the territory of Tenmaru Yama (Sacred Ring; Mountain) and surrounding was captured. It is good that the mountain has enough natural chakras to mist your presence."
"And yet, six years later, someone had found me." Sakura watched worriedly as the demon-child's hands shook, a quick and barely noticeable movement.
"It was a total disaster," Sakura explained quietly. "We heard that the Akatsuki were on dead territory, land that no one owned, taking shelter and recruiting rogue shinobi into their corps. We were on a campaign then – Danzo's orders, as he was acting Hokage – to eliminate them. The ANBU generation of that time – almost everyone in my Academy class who graduated together – we departed for that mountain. Danzo, who was eager to search for an elusive man named "Tobi," was killed by his very prey."
"Tobi?" The Hokage frowned and lifted his pipe to his mouth. "Describe him for me."
"Along with the Akatsuki cloak, he wore an orange mask with a single opening over the right eye. It was the radial point from which chakra lines began, from hole to the edge of the mask. He had dark hair, but other than that, his appearance was very ambiguous. No one could exactly tell what the color of his eyes were."
"A masked man?" Sarutobi recalled the night of Uzumaki Naruto's birth...the chaos and confusion surround the Kyuubi's forced extraction from Kushina's body, and her death collective with Namikaze Minato...the Fourth Hokage...the masked man who had manipulated it all for his own ends...It can't be...
The Third Hokage quickly composed himself. "So he killed my ROOT police-force commander. I've never trusted Danzo, but he's a worthy shinobi. This Tobi is a threat to Konoha…Sakura, please continue."
"Witnessing Danzo's death was a shock. In a panic, our ANBU team dispersed as the Akatsuki charged. I defeated some of their newest recruits and looked for the others and…" Sakura's voice broke as she roughly swept her arm over her eyes. "T-There were numerous casualties. Naruto had disappeared and Sasuke's eyes were…"
Sarutobi and Yuugao waited gravely in silent patience until the inconsolable kunoichi was able to continue.
"I h-healed those were still alive, but we – we were attacked relentlessly. As a medic, I knew I had no choice; I had to stay away from battle and heal those I could. I evaded every member I could sense and healed when I could, stopping and getting up to run again. I was cornered at the peak of the mountain by Uchiha Itachi. At the last minute, he decided to spare my life. To this day, I still don't know why, but I jumped off the cliff after he left." Sakura gave a wobbly laugh through her tears. "Foolish, I know. But that's how I met Yuugao…and here we are."
The silence took on a better atmosphere of hope, until Sarutobi spoke, startling them out of the stillness.
"Uchiha Itachi? Wasn't…he dead, before any of this occurred?"
Sakura gasped. It was true! How could Itachi appear, when Sasuke had fulfilled his revenge nearly three years before? She thought again…but did she really know?
Sasuke heaved a sigh. "It's all my fault... All these lives lost…What can I do to be redeemed?... … … If Konoha calls for my execution, I'll accept it…"
Sakura had to ask, "What about your revenge?"
Sasuke didn't answer. She looked up from her healing to see his exhausted face smoothed away with oblivion.
And afterwards, even while Sakura and Sasuke mended each other's souls as Konoha was resurrected, she patiently waited for the time when Sasuke would be ready to talk of his past openly. And they never did…
I'm sorry, Sakura thought, directed to Sasuke. I waited, but I never knew how little time we had.
"I thought he was dead too…" Sakura said. Then another possibility occurred to her. "But that might not have been him!"
"She's right, Hiruzen. I felt a presence that was too strong to be matched with the one I saw through Sakura's memories. That Uchiha Itachi was a fake. In fact, I know the very person that chakra belonged to. My captor, the man who encased me into a human body."
Sakura felt chilled, rubbing her arms nervously. She remembered discussing with Yuugao of the possibility of Madara's hand in all this, but how did this all connect?
"Reports said that Tobi could be Madara."
"That could just have been Tobi-Madara, shadow-transformed as Itachi."
"Then…why did he spare my life?"
That question beckoned the quiet, but the voices made no answers.
A chuunin sat at a riverbank, gently removing her sandals. As her small bare feet touched the banks, the brush coiled and shrank away, leaving an odd patch of dead, sparse, and yellow grass.
She removed her gloves, and cupped some clear river water into her hands. In seconds, the shimmering liquid evaporated.
Her tears of shame went unnoticed by the cheerful day as she reluctantly donned her stifling shoes and gloves. Her face turned eastward, to her village, and her eyes saw the fire.
Her village was burning.
Her mouth opened in a soundless shriek, her feet took her flying to her home.
There were villagers streaming all over the place, fleeing their houses and dragging young ones and belongings away. And in the middle, a single man stood, facing the fire.
The girl took a moment to stop at his side and was about to warn him from the flames, but her mind stopped. He wasn't a villager.
His cold, handsome face stared down at hers. Her eyes widened - his were beautiful, splashes of ruby engraved with a mesmerizing, spiral of ebony.
'You're the white-haired one the elders told me about. This strange affinity…show me it. Stop time, if you want to save your village.'
The girl's heart filled with hope for a second. For once, this person, like so many others, had not shunned her. In fact, he asked her to demonstrate the ability she was born with!
She took a deep breath and squeezed her eyes shut. Pain shot through her body, but she let it build until she could bear it no more. She let go of her breath and opened her eyes, the throbbing immediately dispersing. She looked to her companion, and saw him smiling. She looked to the world, and saw it still.
She glowed with unidentifiable warmth, but couldn't help asking, 'Will you help me? Save them, I mean. The fire's stopped, but we can put it out now and pull out the ones still in their homes.'
'But why would you want to help your enemies? They've neglected you and hated you for all your life. Surely, you would be happier elsewhere.'
His words stole her breath away. How did he know this?
He took her silence and continued. 'My village… surely you have heard of the eminent Konoha? A newborn village, but already, its fame has spread as a shinobi power. It treasures all with powers and affinities like yours. You would grow up loved. Come with me, after dealing with any business here.'
It was so tempting. But she was afraid, for some reason. She stared at the frozen flames ahead of them. He watched her golden eyes flicker with uncertainty, and smirked. She would make a wonderful gift for his daughter...
'Look into my eyes and tell me what you think.'
He bent over a little to allow her to see his face.
The pinwheels of his eyes spun slowly. Suddenly, she was certain.
'I'll go with you.'
'That's a good girl.'
She watched in amazement as his eyes grew darker, and suddenly she was falling…
When she awoke, her hands were covered in blood and screams echoed in her ears.
'A beautiful sacrifice, don't you think? That's a good girl.'
Sakura awoke as a gentle hand shook her arm. The kunoichi looked up blearily to see an eerily beautiful girl at her side, looking on impassively. Who - ?
"It's me, Yuugao. I let you take a break after training, but now it's time to go!"
"I just had this strangest dream..."
A shadow past over the face of Yuugao's avatar, but Sakura dismissed it. "Let's train."
Sakura's eyes brightened; she quickly forgot her troubled dreams as she stood. The sky glowed softly as the sun set over the mountains in Konoha, casting shadows in the pits Sakura and Yuugao created in their training. Earlier, their conversation with the Hokage had closed on a hopeful note as he departed to a meeting with the other village heads and the two left to spar.
Fighting the human form of Yuugao was like trying to hold the flow of a waterfall. Sakura presumed the ornate furisode kimono with its long sleeves would be cumbersome and heavy; she even offered the Nekomata her clothes to spar in. She declined – but even with the weighty silk donned, the demon lord was lithe.
The strictly tai-jutsu sparring was well-matched and intense, but the younger girl clearly held the upper hand. She was quicker and slippery in movement; Sakura struggled to even touch her while darting blows frequently landed on her arms and abdomen. They both noticed that their fighting styles (in human form) were similar, using more aerial and defensive movements than brash, outright hand-to-hand combat. When it came down to that, both were pretty efficient. But otherwise, they preferred to attack at range and occasionally dart in for a chakra-packed blow.
Of course, Sakura was exhausted after two hours and Yuugao knew that overexertion would be costly, so she 'allowed,' (as she humorously called it) Sakura to have some naps in between each session.
"Aren't you tired?" the kunoichi laughed weakly, panting out the question. She was already sitting at the base of a tree, curling up for a restorative sleep.
"I'm all right," the demon lord brushed her off airily. The human form dissipated and the astonished Sakura found herself looking at an elegant silver cat with the keenest gold eyes. The cat settled against Sakura's side with an air of ownership and closed its eyes with a purr.
"I'm all right," Sakura snorted dubiously as she fell into a sleep filled with abstract flickers of colors and pictures, and fire.
Suddenly feeling uncomfortable – What was that dream? – Sakura turned to her companion as they walked to her home.
"So…you defended Konoha at one point in history, right?"
Yuugao stopped and faced Sakura, gesturing to a bench along the street.
"In the very beginning, I hated Konoha," the girl said softly as they sat down. She avoided her gaze and stared at the bustling vendor across from them.
"My memories aren't so clear. In fact, I'm afraid that someone has tampered with them," she continued, tiptoeing around the someone.
"But I still remember many things from my first days here. I came to love the people here. But they never loved me. They didn't know that it was 'me.' My body wasn't even my own."
"Were you human at one point? Or were you always a Nekomata?"
The pair of golden eyes - Sakura tried to remember where she had seen them, besides on the Nekomata - examined her.
"I don't remember," came the quiet answer. Sakura tensed; the demon lord was lying.
"But I've always had an affinity for Time. It wasn't as strong as it is now. Somehow, I came to be here…in a young girl's body. This body – I can't recall my own, it's been that long. Of that particular girl, I…" she carefully said, "Cannot tell you. I'm sorry."
Sakura felt somehow, as if she was being denied some crucial information. She hid the slight hurt and questioned, "What happened, that endangered Konoha so?"
"At that time, Uchiha Madara was quite politically influential in Konoha's standing. There was much conflict between his Uchiha clan and the Senju clan, particularly Hashirama Senju."
"The first Hokage."
"Yes. I was also…influenced…by Uchiha Madara. But against his wishes, I allied with Hashirama because it felt right. His ideals were so much more…"
"Exactly. In secret, I believed him to be a kinder and more qualified man than Madara. And so did the girl, my vessel. Eventually, civil war broke out in Konohagakure between those who supported the opponents. My host and I succeeded in escaping from Madara and joining Senju's allies. It was fierce, and she and I found ourselves fighting against loved ones. But in the end – we triumphed. At a loss."
Sakura waited for a moment and then inquired softly, "What loss?"
"She died," Yuugao said woodenly, staring at the hands of the bodily form she inhabited.
"You said something about a debt to the girl, of that body," Sakura recalled gently. "Back in the Hokage's office."
"Yes. She…saved me and destroyed me, at the same time. I can't say any more…"
"Who killed her?"
Yuugao laughed bitterly, a hollow and mocking shadow of mirth. "Oh, not just by any underling of Madara's. She was killed by the man himself."
Sakura felt shell-shocked. "W-what? But…how did you survive?"
"She weakened him enough. The moment her soul let go of her body, I was released, and he was too near-death to encase me. Senju, the only person who knew of my existence, kindly secured a mountain for me to live quietly, in secret, upon. And I stayed there, for a few centuries. Occasionally, each Hokage visited me, in his time, except for the Fourth. The Third was still alive, you see, and felt it was best to deal with Madara before telling the world about the demon lords. My brothers and sisters…"
The listener desperately wanted to hear more, but Yuugao abruptly stood up, still not looking directly at Sakura. She smiled vacantly. "Sleep is awaiting, kit." They left to go, and no more was said. But there was plenty heard – of broken dreams and secrets lingering in the silent, aged streets of Konoha.
Six days later, Haruno Sakura, found herself standing at Konoha's chuunin match stadium's back hallways.
Kit, calm down. We've trained for this, and even without all the work, you had the power to win.
I can't help feeling so nervous, Sakura said anxiously to the Nekomata presence, once again in her mind.
She shivered restlessly, and watched the other genin, qualified or not, gather and wish each other luck or seethe in envy. Spotting her team at the end of the hall, she waved and let out a call.
"Yo! Nervous, Sakura?"
"Yeah," she responded with mixed feelings. Was it possible to be confident and anxious at the same time? Well, she was feeling it.
"How was training with the boys?" she inquired, attempting to reflect the subject off of her.
Naruto made a sour face. "Kakashi-sensei took us to a place with a waterfall out of the blue. He didn't even bother telling us to pack!" For once, Sasuke and Naruto seemed to agree in their indignant righteousness against their sensei.
"I prefer my silence as a cue to be prepared," their teacher said drily. "Anyhow, that wasn't a real waterfall. That was just a place for training and meditating; the former for you and the latter for Sasuke.
Naruto sulked. "I train enough. You let Sasuke sit there and sleep in the water."
"That's impossible, dobe. All that rushing noise was as loud as you are," the said genin interjected. "Besides, I was meditating."
Kakashi turned to Sakura and lifted his shoulders in a mocking semblance of a confused parent. "See what I do to tailor their shinobi training? And all they do is complain!" As if on cue, Naruto wailed loudly, "I need a shower!" earning a few disgusted looks from the other teams nearby.
A horn blew from outside and the Teams flooded into the stadium, most of them marveling at the vast structure for the first time. Unlike Sakura's first visit, the stadium was completely empty of audience. At the center of the floor stood their Hokage, flanked by three other kages and four young ninjas.
"We have gathered here in continuation of the Genin Preliminaries," Konoha's leader announced solemnly. "In light of recent events, the tests have been customized to fit those who have been left without a rival genin to fight. Now – "
"What happened to those guys? And what's all the fuss about Orochimaru?" An impudent genin shouted.
"All questions will be answered in due time," Sarutobi continued calmly. "Now, from all of the villages' data, a 'form' of the average genin has been created."
He gestured to four genin standing beside him. Their faces were oddly blank, and they wore no defining village headband. They were equipped with regular shuriken and kunai pouches, but no other significant detail pointed them out from any other child.
"These are bunshins that have been 'given' the traits of the average genin. For," he looked at a slip of paper, "Hyuuga Neji, Hyuuga Hinata, Kankuro, and Rock Lee, the test will simply be to survive against these bunshins until their endurance expires."
"However," the Hokage added warningly, "they are unique in retaining one special ability, each. Just as real genin are unique in family jutsu or ability, each of these bunshins specialize in something different."
"That said," said the Mizukage, a kindly looking woman – "Let the Preliminaries resume!"
To be continued…
And a long chapter as my apologies x) Thanks for reading, all of you! Many hugs and kisses.