AN: Hey guys. Sorry for the delay. This was...not an easy chapter to write. Anyway, for any Sith'ari fans: that chapter will be up tomorrow.
Also, another notice: starting next week until the 1st of September, I will not be updating any of my stories due to the fact that I have my dissertation due in a couple of weeks and I have to move dorms. Therefore, I will be seeing you again in September, hopefully! :)
Anyway, hope you enjoy the chapter!
Konohagakure, Hi Country, Present Day…
"Lady Shuko, the messengers have arrived."
Shuko nodded calmly as she knelt in seiza, eyes closed as she slowly withdrew from her meditative state.
Shuko no longer started at the voices. She knew her ghosts were back, and in force. Coming to Konoha herself was a mistake on that end, bringing back all of her trauma to the fore. Wherever she looked, wherever she saw children playing or adults just interacting, she saw the ghosts that had haunted her for these many years.
She could scarcely believe it had been so long.
"Report," she ordered the moment the screen door was slid closed.
"Our scouts have reported that the...objectives were indeed where you suggested they would be, Shuko-sama," one of the messengers reported behind her. "There have been no further movements thus far."
"Takeru-san would like to know if you wish for us to proceed at this stage," added the other messenger.
Shuko held off on answering for a moment, thinking through the situation. On the one hand, she could just get rid of this threat to her plans immediately and not have to worry about it later on. On the other, it would bring unnecessary risk to her own forces. If her calculations were correct, the best moment to strike would be during the final stage of the Chūnin Exams, when everyone would be distracted by what is happening inside the village.
"Hold off, for now," she ordered. "Have our strike force lay low until the final stage of the Exams is underway. Once it does, I want all forces to proceed to their deployment zones, but to hold off on an actual attack until I give the signal."
"Understood, Lady Shuko," the first messenger said. "May I ask what the signal will be?"
"Not yet," she replied. "I will send a messenger with the full details at a later date, once all the pieces have moved into place."
"As you wish, Lady Shuko. By your leave, we'll depart immediately with your orders."
Shuko waved in dismissal and she was promptly unable to feel their presence in the room anymore. She sighed as she opened her eyes at last, staring at the blank wooden wall before her. Everything was rushing to the climax at this point. With most of her pieces in place, she knew she had calculated for almost every eventuality possible, but she still couldn't help but feel a twinge of unease.
It was hard not to — the last time she had been overconfident in one of her plans, so many had died as to almost break her clan. She frowned, mentally chastising herself. That had not been her fault, she had to remind herself. Her plan had been excellent — it had been faith in the abilities of others, of non-clansmen, that had led to the disaster.
She pushed the ghosts aside as she turned to look at the blank map of Konoha that lay sprawled on her bed. Getting up to her feet, she walked over and, with a simple gesture, activated its chakra-tracing function. Immediately, the map lit up with thousands of dots of light, representing each and every tagged shinobi within the village's walls. But they weren't what interested her.
No. What interested her were the two isolated dots near one of the training grounds. Where she had left Naruto.
Sadly, she was unable to tell who it was that was accompanying her clansman, but if her clansmen's observations thus far held true, then it was probably one of his former classmates. Perhaps the Inuzuka heir, or the Hyūga heiress...or possibly the Nara heir.
She mused at the possibility. Both the Inuzuka and Hyūga would be better for her plans if she wanted Naruto emotionally vulnerable to her influence. However, the presence of the Nara heir could make things far more interesting. And Shuko liked interesting things.
The screen door slid open almost immediately. "Here, Shuko-sama."
Shuko turned to look at her favourite clanswoman. It was uncanny how much like her grandmother she looked. "I need you to send a scout to this location," she pointed at the map.
Toshiko walked over to get a better look. "Understood, Shuko-sama. Is this purely reconnaissance, or…?"
"Recon for now," Shuko answered. "I just need my curiosity sated."
"As you wish, Shuko-sama."
As Toshiko departed, Shuko returned her gaze to the map, the plan still on her mind. Every few seconds, she turned it about, twisting and prodding at it mentally in an effort to determine whether she had left out any possible gaps. What if this happened? What if that? If this person went there, how would that change the dynamics of the plan? What if they didn't show up at all?
A thousand upon a thousand calculations ran through her mind in the inordinately complex process of creating what she hoped was a fool-proof plan. In her mind's eye, she laid out contingency upon contingency, hoping to deal with every possible problem, every possible conflict, anywhere, at any time.
And this time, there were no allies, save for her family: only enemies and potential enemies. No more trust. Never again. She had learned that lesson the hard way.
Uzushiogakure, Uzu Country, 14 Years ago…
Shikamaru blinked rapidly to get the spots out of his sight as the memory fragment shifted again.
"Shuko-sama! The enemy ramps on the east side have collapsed, just as you planned!"
As his vision returned, Shikamaru began to discern his new whereabouts. From the looks of it, Shuko had set up a command centre of some kind atop the village's council building — a place where she could observe all four flanks from a somewhat equidistant location. Clever.
As for the Uzumaki strategist herself, she was standing before a table which, upon closer inspection, appeared to have a map that was...glowing? Frowning, he walked up to her side. No, not glowing. To his amazement, thousands of dots were glowing on the map's surface, and judging from their movement on the map, and the way Shuko kept glancing at each of the village's flanks, he deduced that it represented the active participants in the battle.
Individual lights blinking out of existence served as a grim reminder that they were still in the midst of a heated war.
"Good," she responded to the messenger's report. "That gives us breathing space. Cycle Kiyohiro's unit to the west wall. Once that flank is secure, send him back to the east wall."
Shikamaru had to give it to the woman — she was remarkably cool and collected as she handled the pressure of leading her clan in a losing fight. Even judging by the map, Shikamaru realised that the fight was lost. The concentration of enemy forces outside the walls was simply too large, and the casualties suffered by the Uzumaki for every attack they repelled were too many. It was simply a matter of attrition.
"Just a little longer," he heard her mutter as she slid her fingers on the map here and there. Shikamaru took a moment to recognise what she was doing — she was playing out the battle in her mind! Like a shogi player!
Shikamaru was familiar with the type — most of them lived in his clan. His own father was renowned for doing the same, and though Shikamaru was able to do the same with shogi, he had not yet climbed up to his father's level. Upon closer observation of her movements, Shikamaru judged that this past Shuko was not yet at his father's level, though that was not really a reflection of her present capabilities.
She'd had over two decades to improve her already formidable skills, after all.
"Runner!" she barked.
Immediately, one of the nearby shinobis who'd been waiting on her knelt behind her. "Here, Shuko-sama!"
"Tell Matsuyo to pull back her lines from her left flank. Give the enemy an opening," she ordered. "Then inform Ieyoshi to detach one tenth of his right flank to deal with the incoming enemy. The allied forces will not be expecting the North Wall defenders to attack them. Once his forces have engaged the enemy, have Matsuyo's forces destroy the siege pillar and attack the enemy's flank while they're busy dealing with Ieyoshi's forces."
As Shikamaru watched that messenger shunshin out of sight, he observed how two others appeared, relaying similar battle messages. For the most part, it seemed that Shuko's strategies were working out, but the grim look on her face told him she understood what he'd deduced: that they were losing.
"What do you think?"
Shikamaru repressed a yelp of surprise. He'd pushed Naruto out of his mind when he'd seen Shuko at work and, interested in her performance, had grown completely oblivious to his friend's presence. Until now.
"She's...very good," he conceded. "Her tactics are solid, but she knows she's losing."
"Don't get me wrong," Shikamaru added quickly as he gestured at her map. "I don't think even my dad would've been able to get your family out of this mess, but she's not doing a bad job at keeping the enemy at bay. It was always going to be a question of when and how badly they lost."
Naruto nodded silently, and the two turned their attention back to Shuko and her plans. From what Shikamaru could see, the vast majority of the Uzumaki forces were concentrated along the walls; however, there was a decently sized group scattered throughout the village, moving here to there. If he had to hazard a guess, they were looting the village of anything valuable for the evacuation that the elders had suggested and Shuko had backed.
He cupped his chin thoughtfully. How did Shuko plan to get all these people out of the village and to safety? Between the enormous amounts of supplies they would need, the number of refugees, and their dwindling number of soldiers, he couldn't really see how such a mass evacuation was possible without immediately being attacked by the enemy's combined forces.
Sure, the supplies could be placed within storage seals — but considering the evacuation of the Uzumaki would involve thousands, he didn't know if there would be sufficient storage scrolls to handle that sort of capacity, especially if you considered that, according to his father, one ought to always plan for up to three times as much food as your men actually needed for long marches, and that number doubled for civilians, whose needs could vary wildly and whose ability to march longer distances under harsh conditions was significantly lower than that of a soldier.
Then there were the enormous amounts of enemy soldiers lurking outside the village walls. Even if only a fraction of the extant Uzumaki were to attempt to flee, they would be noticed at some point by the enemy — especially considering the village was smack in the middle of Uzu, straddling three rivers.
Which brought about another problem: geography. How was it that Shuko had managed to smuggle any refugees off Uzu? With its central location, it was nowhere near the shore of the island, and they had no ships to transport any non-shinobi refugees across the channel. And that was assuming they didn't get chased overwater by the Alliance shinobis or the ships they likely used to bring the rest of Uzu to heel.
He had to admit — knowing that she had achieved such a feat made him all the more eager to know how she had pulled off such a logistical miracle.
Another messenger popped up then, and Shikamaru would've ignored him if it weren't for the fact that Shuko herself turned to meet him — unlike the others.
"Is everything prepared?" she asked quickly. Shikamaru perked up at that. Would he finally get to see what her plan involved?
The messenger nodded. "Yes, Shuko-sama. All supplies have been gathered and the Academies looted and brought to the Council Hall. The seal masters say they are nearly finished setting up the array."
Shuko nodded. "And the welcome mat?"
The messenger smirked. "Ready, Shuko-sama."
Shikamaru observed Shuko as the older woman nodded with an expression of relieved satisfaction. What could this be about? As he had analysed previously, Shuko had ordered a gathering of supplies and the looting of the village. But why the Council Hall? For all of its central location, it was hardly the best staging point for a mass evacuation.
Past!Shuko gave him no answers. Instead, she turned to the other awaiting shinobi and swept out her arm. "Send word to every unit on the walls! Operation Whirlpool begins at nightfall!"
Shikamaru nodded briefly. Using the cover of night to carry out an evacuation made sense, particularly if it was a New Moon, when the darkness would be deepest. The problem now was noise. If she expected to use the cover of night to smuggle out her people, there was no way she would be able to hide what she was doing for long — a dozen people, sure, but hundreds? Thousands? The stomp of their feet would give them away to any half-awake scout.
More to the point: where she had found a gap in the enemy lines? As far as he could tell from her ingenious chakra-tracking map, the village was completely surrounded, with the only thinned out flank being the southern.
Which was obviously a trap.
Given that, he couldn't really see how she would manage to smuggle out hundreds, if not thousands of Uzumaki through the enemy lines. Then again, a trap was only really a trap if you didn't know about it. If you did...well, then it was just a challenge, right?
The thought gnawed at him as the scene shifted, returning him and Naruto to the Council Chambers, where Shuko and the remaining Elders were holding a meeting of some sort. Hs briefly took note that two more of the Elders were missing — most likely killed in combat. Besides Shuko, all five remaining elders seemed injured one way or another — though he couldn't recognise the fifth man, who had a bloodstained bandage covering up one of his eyes.
"Are preparations completed?" asked the head Elder, Ieyoshi, gravely.
Shuko nodded from her seat. "Supplies have been gathered and every scroll our scouts found in the Academies have been placed in the great seal," she reported. "Our scouts have confirmed that the escape routes are still usable, if old and dirty, and we've received word from Konoha that Hi country will be sending ships to help us evacuate once they reach the rallying point. Our final farewell gift to our enemies is also ready."
Ieyoshi nodded. "What of the non-combatants?" he asked, turning to Heiyako.
She inclined her head. "Most of them are ready, but we're having trouble mobilising the wounded. Some of them have serious injuries, so moving them around carelessly would likely aggravate their condition, or kill them."
Keisuke nodded. "We'll need more time to get them ready for the road."
Shikamaru turned to look at the one unfamiliar face in the group. Besides the bloodstained bandage over his eye, a shift in the man's seating position allowed Shikamaru to see that his arms and chest also seemed similarly bandaged up. This was a man who had been injured numerous times and survived — not someone to take lightly.
"You can't be serious!" cried out Heiyako. "I just need a little more time!"
"Nobu, we do not kill our own!" Keisuke snapped.
The man identified now as Nobu shrugged. "Then we die here."
As Keisuke and Heiyako kept haranguing him, however, Nobu turned to Shuko, which prompted Ieyoshi to do the same. Shikamaru saw that the clan's strategist seemed uncomfortable with the sudden attention, especially given the controversial topic, but eventually she sighed resignedly and nodded.
"Nobu has a point," she conceded. That seemed to shut up Heiyako and Keisuke immediately as they gaped at her in horror. "As much as I hate to admit it, we may need to kill the worst-off among the wounded to give the rest of us a chance at escape."
"We do not kill our own!" Keisuke thundered, seal arrays glowing all over his body. Heiyako looked equally rebellious.
"Then Nobu is right," Shuko countered. "We die here. If we ever slow down, we'll get caught out in the open. If we wait for a second longer than necessary, that might make the difference between success and failure. As it stands, the enemy attack will end in another hour or so, based on their past forays. We are wasting precious preparation time debating this!"
Keisuke snarled at her. "I never believed you to be so heartless, Shuko!" he snapped. "These are your kin!"
Shuko glowered right back. "I am giving them a chance at a merciful death at the hands of those who love them, rather than a cruel death at the hands of those who hate them!" she countered. "I am saving our clan!"
All heads, including Shikamaru's, swerved to look at Ieyoshi, who suddenly looked two decades older than before. The stress of leadership, he presumed. After all, the final decision would inevitably rest with him, not Shuko or any of the other Elders.
Ieyoshi looked at Nobu. "Do it," he ordered softly. "Make it swift and as painless as possible."
"I've spoken!" Ieyoshi suddenly shouted, silencing Heiyako's indignant outburst. "This is not a decision I make lightly, but if the clan is to survive, we must be willing to make hard choices!"
Keisuke was not mollified. "These are our kinsmen's lives!" he snapped back. "The clan will never forgive you for this!"
Ieyoshi closed his eyes and inclined his head, such that his chin rested against his clavicle. "Then so be it," he said softly. "I do not intend to outlive this siege anyway." He turned to Shuko even as the others reacted to his words. "You will need someone to stay behind and see that part of the plan through, yes?"
Shuko nodded hesitantly. "Yes, but…"
"I will do it," Ieyoshi declared. "I have given my whole life to Uzushio, as my predecessors did. I will not be known as the Clan Head who abandoned his village. I was born here. I will die here, in the Sage's light and amidst my...family," his voice broke.
Shikamaru looked away as the old man brought up a hand to his face. It was...difficult to watch a man as old as his own clan elders look so broken, but given what he'd already heard, about how his daughter had been killed in battle...could he really blame the man for having a death wish?
As the man's quiet sobs filled the awkward silence in the room, Shikamaru suddenly felt a strong desire to hug his parents.
"Where are we?"
Naruto shrugged. He hadn't been very clear on this last time, either. "I think it's a sewer beneath the village," he said before holding up a hand at him. "Don't bother trying to make some light. I tried it last time and nothing happened."
Shikamaru nodded in the darkness. Maybe. "Makes sense. Can't alter memories."
"Follow me," Naruto said, walking further down the tunnel. There was a soft glow of light in the far distance. "They're this way."
"So this is how they got out?" Shikamaru wondered aloud. "Tunnels?"
Naruto nodded. "I think the guys outside the village didn't realise my family wouldn't dump their sewers into the village rivers."
Shikamaru was silent for a moment. "The coast. They lead out to the coast."
Naruto nodded. "Yeah."
His friend chuckled behind him. "At least we don't have to smell it."
Naruto grinned in the darkness. "Yeah."
They fell back into companionable silence as he led the way down the dark tunnel, thankful that he wasn't getting dirty from the sludge at their feet. He could only imagine what his clansmen had felt actually making this trek all those years ago. The smell, the the filth...if he recalled his lessons right, it would be a miracle if they came out of such a trek without a decent amount getting sick.
They were about fifty feet from the curve that would lead to the Uzumaki rallying point when everything around them seemed to suddenly shake.
"What the hell was that?!"
"Explosion," Naruto supplied. "You'll see. Come on."
At long last, they reached the curve, and he moved aside for Shikamaru to see what had caused it. In front of them lay the opening into what looked to be a bay of some sort, with sludge dripping into a nearby river that poured into the ocean. As Shikamaru walked forward to get a better look at the survivors, Naruto slowly followed behind, taking a glance back at the sewer exit — just like last time, he couldn't see it anymore. If he was right, then his family had set up some kind of seal array to conceal its existence.
"Clever," Shikamaru said out loud. Naruto turned to see his friend having noticed the same thing. "That would explain why the village was never attacked from within by enemy infiltrators."
Naruto nodded before gesturing to the Uzumaki clansmen gathered on the beach. "If you listen to them, you'll also hear that there was another such drain: on the opposite coast."
Shikamaru nodded thoughtfully. "That would allow for greater drainage, but also more options in the event of an evacuation, like this one," he reasoned. "Not bad. Assuming, of course, that the enemy couldn't figure out where the drain was."
Naruto chose not to reply, knowing what came after. Instead, he sought out the main character in this tragedy, whom he knew was about to face her worst nightmare.
"Where are they?!"
Ah, there she was.
Naruto gestured for Shikamaru to follow him. They found Shuko near the water, gazing anxiously outwards. Keisuke and Heiyako were standing by her.
"Those ships should've arrived by now!" Shuko said insistently as she paced her small corner of the beach. "Where are they?!"
"It's dark," Heiyako pointed out. "Maybe they're having difficulty navigating their way here."
Shuko shook her head erratically. "No...no. That's not possible. We discussed this. I gave them explicit directions. I accounted for wind and currents. They should've picked up the others by now, and then come for us. They should be here."
She turned to Keisuke. "Are you sure there hasn't been any word from Norimune? From...From Tetsuo or Daisuke?" her voice shook.
Naruto's chest tightened at hearing his grandfather's name. The grandfather he'd never known. Nor would ever know. He would've given anything for the ability to change what was about to happen, but he knew he was powerless to do so. He could think of no crueler act by Shuko than to force him to watch this happen.
"Nothing," Keisuke answered softly, his gaze fixed on a distant, glowing point in the horizon. "At least the plan seems to have worked thus far," he added bitterly.
Naruto followed his gaze, ignoring Shuko's cutting rebuttal. That glow had once been his home. Now, it was a site of devastation.
"Ieyoshi did his duty," Heiyako said softly. "Now he rests with Hinyo and his ancestors in the Sage's light."
Keisuke scowled but said nothing.
"As will we if the ships we were promised don't arrive soon," grumbled Nobu as he walked up to the group. "Anything?" he asked Shuko directly, avoiding the glares from Heiyako and Keisuke. It didn't take a genius to figure out that they still hated him for having had their wounded kinsmen mercy-killed.
"Nothing," Shuko bit out, her gaze still fixed on the empty waters before her. "This isn't right."
"Maybe we arrived too early?" Heiyako offered.
Shuko glowered at her.
"Or not," Heiyako quickly retracted.
Naruto closed his eyes just as a distant thunder sounded. His chest tightened even more, and he felt his shoulders shake.
"Naruto?" Shikamaru asked softly.
"What was that?!" Shuko shouted, pushing her way past her colleagues to look back at the distant glow.
"Just thunder," Keisuke commented.
Shuko paled. "No. No thunder. There shouldn't be a storm today. Even with the fire at Uzushio, it's too soon," she mumbled quickly. "No storm...no thunder….no…"
It broke a piece of Naruto's soul to see realisation and horror dawn on Shuko's face. "No...no, no, no, no...NO!" she shrieked. "Tetsuo! Daisuke!"
Before anyone could react, Shuko had already sprinted back towards the drain, disappearing from view the moment she crossed the seal array's concealing barrier.
"Shuko!" Keisuke cried out in surprise.
"What's going on?" someone among the Uzumaki refugees called out.
"Where'd she go?"
A gaggle of voices, most of them concerned, began to rise among the awaiting Uzumaki clansmen. Keisuke, Heiyako, and Nobu exchanged grim glances.
"Something's wrong," Nobu declared. "I'm going to follow Shuko and make sure she doesn't get killed. Get the others back inside the tunnels."
"But the ships…"
"They're not coming," Nobu cut off Heiyako's protest. "Don't you see? Shuko's right. They should be here. Konoha betrayed us."
Keisuke and Heiyako gaped in shock. "No...that can't be!" Keisuke protested.
Nobu glowered at him. "Believe what you want! But get our people back in the tunnels! I'll take care of Shuko!"
With that, Nobu shot after his Elder colleague and disappeared from view as well, just as the scene began to blur.
Before Shikamaru could properly process what was going on, the scene had shifted again, and he was once more mired in the darkness of the tunnels that ran underneath Uzushio. Then, out of nowhere, he saw the Elder called Nobu run past him, followed by an "oomph!" and a splash further up.
He looked down and, despite the darkness, he could barely make out Naruto sitting on the floor, his knees brought up so he could rest his head.
"I don't want to see it again."
Shikamaru understood and dreaded those words all at once. Thus far, his friend had held it together fairly well, demonstrating pride in his clan and making a few astute observations here and there. But what came next…
What came next had caused him to lose his self-control.
He wondered if that might be the case for him, too.
He decided to let his friend remain here. He wasn't about to force Naruto to endure further psychological torture for his benefit. "I'll be back for you," he said. The blond merely mumbled something he couldn't make out.
He hesitated to leave. Naruto needed his help, but he had also wanted Shikamaru to see everything. To understand what had happened to him. Which was the greater help he could offer?
The answer was obvious.
Reluctantly, he made his way down the tunnel, towards where he could see a glow of light at the end. The other end of the drain.
His mind was awhirl as he neared the sound of someone sobbing and another cursing softly. What he'd heard on that beachfront...he didn't want to believe it. There was just no way.
But the evidence before his eyes seemed incontrovertible.
He caught up to Nobu and Shuko quickly enough, and found them on the ground. Shuko was desperately trying to claw her way forward, while Nobu was holding her down, a look of despair on both their faces. With the entrance up front, he could see why.
When he had exited the other drain, he had been witness to hundreds of Uzumaki clansmen huddled on the beachfront, waiting. He should have expected the same here. Should have being the operative word.
Instead, his ears were filled with screams. His eyes were flooded with carnage. His senses were overloaded with war. He had thought the scene atop the wall the worst kind of fighting he'd ever seen.
Now, he knew he was horrifically wrong.
Instead of huddled, frightened Uzumaki waiting for ships to arrive, all he could see were Iwa, Kumo, and Kiri shinobi murdering their way through the Uzumaki refugees, laughing gleefully at their actions. Not twenty steps from him, a pleading Uzumaki woman in civilian garb was summarily beheaded by a Kiri shinobi with a crazed grin. Beyond him, he saw a group of Uzumaki — men, women, and children — being murdered by three Iwa shinobi's combined fire jutsu, burning them alive. Seemingly not one to be outdone, a nearby Kumo ninja dropped a slab of stone on another group, killing them on impact.
Men, women and children...brutalised. Defiled. Tortured. Murdered.
The screams were horrifying. The terror on their faces was heartbreaking. His helplessness was soul crushing.
These were civilians. Wounded shinobi. Children. They posed as much a threat to the enemy as a puppy. As an ant.
Why were they doing this?!
For what? Their seals? Because they had the unfortunate lack of luck of being born into the wrong family? The wrong village? Because some petty Kages couldn't take the blow to their egos?
He shut his eyes as he watched another Uzumaki woman be murdered before his eyes. He was wrong. This wasn't war. This was slaughter. This was murder on a grand scale, no matter how anyone wanted to dress it up. There was no honour here. No glory. No purpose other than to kill.
"Nobu, let me go! Please, let me GO!"
He grit his teeth, fists clenching at his sides as he heard Shuko's whimpering. From the circumstances, he knew her husband and son were out here. So was Naruto's grandfather. No wonder his friend had refused to come this time around. Who in their right mind would want to see their family die all over again?
"I can't...I can't…"
Shikamaru felt tears run down his cheeks as he heard Nobu. The man sounded every bit as heartbroken as she was. But he knew the man was correct in preventing her from rushing out. It would reveal the presence of the tunnels, and then the enemy would search it, until they finally found the rest of the clan on the other side.
It was the worst form of torture he could imagine.
"Tetsuo...Tetsuo...Daisuke!" she sobbed behind him, the screams of her dying family and the laughter of their murderers nearly drowning her out. "Please...let me go…save them! PLEASE!"
"I can't...I can't...we need you, Shuko...please…"
He opened his eyes at last as a new wave of determination rose through him. He couldn't afford to look away. This is what his friend had seen. What his family had gone through, and Naruto needed him. He needed him to understand his pain, his rage, his grief.
He heard Nobu slap his hand over her mouth, suddenly cutting off her scream. He refused to let it distract him from his new purpose. He wanted the sight of all these people dying seared into his brain. To remember each one, as Naruto undoubtedly would for the rest of his life.
He didn't know how long he stood there, but when someone clasped him on the shoulder, the nighttime dark had turned into early dawn. There were no screams now, only smoke, flies, and rotting corpses.
Shikamaru shook his head, trying to push aside the horrors he'd just witnessed for now. He turned to look at Naruto and nodded at him. "I get it now," he said softly. Behind them, still lying in the sewer filth, were Nobu and Shuko.
Shuko was still sobbing softly, while Nobu's own tear-streaked face showed nothing but cold fury. He didn't blame them. The two Elders had been forced to watch their people get murdered in cold blood.
The scene shifted again, though they remained in the same place. Except, Shuko was now weeping and screaming over two covered bodies, a few clansmen joining her in her grief. Around them, other Uzumaki were either doing the same or helping recover the bodies.
The smallest ones broke Shikamaru's heart all over again.
Shikamaru looked to the side, to the ashen-faced Elders who remained. All of them looked broken.
Seeing what he had, he knew they were broken.
"There were three thousand of us left when Whirlpool began," Nobu reported softly, his cheeks still showing evidence of his tears and his clothes still filthy from lying in the sewers all night. No one seemed to care. "Four hundred died to lure the enemy forces into Uzushio. We split our refugees roughly in half. Norimune had a bit more than we did because his were all the noncombatants and the injured. So about fifteen hundred."
Shikamaru flinched like the rest of them. Heiyako bit back a sob.
"All dead?" asked Heiyako before sniffing to hold back her tears. "All of them?"
Nobu nodded. "I...watched it happen. They didn't leave a single survivor."
Keisuke grabbed him by the filthy gi, his expression one of fury. "You should have helped!" he yelled. "You should have...should've…!" he fell to his knees, then his hands, sobbing. Nobu looked away.
"How did this happen?" Heiyako asked, her voice trembling. "How could this happen?"
Shikamaru winced at what he knew was coming. It was, regrettably, the only logical answer to that query, for he saw nothing to disprove it.
Shikamaru refused to meet Naruto's eyes as Nobu hissed the word.
"Nobu, you can't be serious, why would—?"
"Who else knew where Norimune and the others would be waiting for the ships?!" Nobu demanded. "Who?! The plan was always to load the refugees here, then have Norimune tell them where to pick us up!"
"Maybe...maybe someone in Uzushio survived and they forced it out of them?" suggested Heiyako, obviously grasping at straws now. Even Shikamaru could see how faulty that logic was.
"No one was told," Keisuke said softly as he got back up to his feet, still sniffling. "Ieyoshi asked that Shuko not tell him any details, nor his men, just in case that happened. They wouldn't have known."
"Someone leaked the plan," Nobu snarled. "And I'll bet you anything it was Konoha! Those treacherous, dishonorable kinslayers!"
"We can't rush to judgment," Heiyako insisted. "We need to keep an open mind until we have the truth!"
Nobu pointed at Shuko, who was still screaming incoherently over her family's bodies. Each new pained shriek hit Shikamaru like a hammer.
"Tell her that!" Nobu hissed at Heiyako. "Tell her to keep an open mind while she watched her family die!"
Shikamaru couldn't stand it anymore. Refusing to listen any further, he walked off onto the beach, watching sadly as the surviving refugees claimed their relatives' bodies and prepared them for funeral.
There weren't many, he noticed — just enough to carry on with the burying detail. That meant the rest of them were probably still hiding out in the tunnels. Smart. There was no telling whether the enemy might return, though he doubted it. Between Uzushio's explosion and these few noncombatant refugees, any commander worth his salt would've easily believed that the entire Uzumaki clan had been exterminated.
Shikamaru didn't dare face his friend. Not after what he'd seen. Not after knowing what his village had done to his friend's family. Hells, he didn't even know what to say.
Naruto was silent as he took a seat on the sand, next to him. "For what?" the blond asked. "You didn't do this."
"Our...my village did."
"By that logic, I should also hate Sakura-chan. Hinata-chan. Ino-chan. I should hate Shino. Kiba. Choji. Sasuke. I don't," he said softly before shooting him a weak grin. "Well, maybe I hate Sasuke a little."
Shikamaru chuckled throatily. "Dumbass."
Naruto smiled at him before pointing at a covered body. "That's Norimune."
He nodded. "I never knew him."
"Was he in the memories before?" Shikamaru asked. He hadn't noticed anyone being referred to as Norimune, so he didn't his face. Naruto shook his head.
"Not once," he said. "All these memories...and not one where I got to see my grandfather."
Shikamaru nodded. "That's rough," he said blandly.
"Didn't even get a chance to see if I looked like him. Or spoke like him."
Shikamaru stayed silent.
"Didn't even get to know if he would've liked me."
"He loved your mother enough not to want to let her go to Konoha," Shikamaru pointed out. "So he must've loved her. I'm sure he would've loved you, too."
"Besides, I'm sure you'll grow to be a great warrior like him," Shikamaru added. "I mean, he was good enough to be trusted with the safety of over half the refugees, right? So I'm sure he took...down…"
Suddenly, Shikamaru's head turned left and right as his mind raced at a million leagues a second. Sprinting to his feet, he rushed from burial ground to burial ground, from stack of bodies to stack of bodies, checking each one as thoroughly as the memories allowed him.
Where were they? Where?
He turned to see Naruto jogging up to him, looking concerned. "Naruto?"
"What's wrong with you?" his friend asked worriedly before eyeing him warily. "You didn't snap, did you?"
Shikamaru blinked before looking indignant. "What? No!" he protested. "The bodies, Naruto! Where are the bodies?!"
Naruto looked at him quizzically before frowning. "That's not funny, Shika," he growled.
Shikamaru shook his head quickly, pieces falling into place at long last. "No, not your family's bodies! The enemy's! Where are their dead?!"
Naruto stared at him blankly before apparently realising what he did. Looking around, Naruto frowned. "You know, I didn't really check last time."
Makes sense. Who thought about looking for the bodies of murderers right after seeing one's family die? Not many.
"Naruto, who takes their own bodies right after something like this, but not their victims?" he asked. "No one! Even dead, a corpse has a ton of secrets, so why would they leave these bodies here?"
Naruto frowned. "They didn't...want them?"
Shikamaru shook his head. "Iwa, Kiri, and Kumo joined forces just to kill your family, Naruto! Don't you think it's suspicious that, now that they've won, they would turn their back on such prizes?"
Naruto's frown deepened. "Then...why?"
"I don't know," Shikamaru admitted. "Maybe they found something on the bodies they didn't like. Maybe they were on a schedule. But the fact that there is no enemy camp here, with people scouring for secrets of the Uzumaki, makes me believe there's something else at play here."
Naruto eyed him suspiciously. "How do I know that's not just a way to deflect the blame from Konoha?" he asked.
Shikamaru felt a bit hurt, but had to concede that, from where Naruto was standing, that was a valid concern. "It's not, but I can't say I'm sure that's the explanation," he conceded. "But think about it, Naruto. If the enemy had been tipped off about the refugees here, why attack Uzushio at all? Why not just converge with everything they had on this one beach?"
Naruto nodded slowly. "They wouldn't have had to lose anyone at the city," he agreed reluctantly. "They could've just attacked here and forced the defenders to leave and try to buy the people here time to evacuate."
Shikamaru nodded feverishly. "Exactly!" he confirmed. "Do you understand what this means?"
Naruto nodded, his gaze becoming harder. "It means the alliance didn't kill my family, but someone did. Someone who had access to the information Shuko sent Konoha."
Shikamaru nodded. "That's my conclusion, too," he agreed.
"Any idea who that could be?"
He shook his head. "I'm afraid not."
Naruto nodded. "Then I want your promise, Shika," he said softly as he extended his hand to his friend. "I want you to promise me you'll help me find the person responsible for this. And that when we do find them, you will not stop me."
Shikamaru eyed his friend's hand warily. "What are you planning to do, Naruto?"
For a moment, Shikamaru swore his friend's pupils had become feline slits.
"I'm going to tear them apart, limb from limb, until all they know is the pain they put my family through."
Konohagakure, Hi Country, Present Day…
Shuko sat up on her bed, her back against the wall. Her knees were drawn up against her chest, her head resting on her crossed arms atop her knees. There was a minor street festival of some kind going on outside, but she had long stopped hearing it.
We trust you, Shuko-sama!
Her room was dark, much like it had been in that tunnel on that fateful day. The day her heart and soul had shattered into a million pieces, impossible to repair.
Shuko, come on!
Congratulations, Shuko. I knew you could do it.
Welcome to the Council, Shuko. We're depending on you.
Shuko, there's a party at Hinyo's later. Do you want to maybe...go together?
She remembered each and every name of the people she'd failed. Before giving the scroll to Naruto, it had been her way to remember the people she'd lost, to sear their faces into her memory for the rest of her cursed days on this earth. She would never forget them, nor did she want to.
I love you, kaa-chan!
I love you, Shuko.
She looked up from her knees and could just imagine the face of her beloved Tetsuo. Daisuke. Hinyo-chan. Ieyoshi. Matsuo. Kana…so many of her friends and family. Gone forever save for the ghosts she kept around.
Yet she could not bring herself to shed tears for the fallen, for she had already cried them all a hundred lifetimes over.
Ghosts of my village. Are you with me?
Now and forever.