Chapter 8: Past and Future
The sound of blades colliding was both a kinetic one and an ear-bleeding one, the vibrations alone from such a collision enough to cave the ground. Amidst the upheaval of dust and toppling of trees, two blurs, red as blood, shot from the crater in opposite directions.
Compared to the more recent clashes, that last one seemed to lack any and all motivation to actually maim. It was little more than another 'feeling' interaction. Both women were still testing each other, trying to determine the skill difference between past and future.
And so far, Kushina was able to glean there wasn't one. Nothing noticeable anyway. Which made sense, considering the span of time that had progressed between the current point and Kushina's death was one day, now thrown in reverse.
Her 'latter' half glanced her head to toe, further analyzing. "It's clear that you're not a henge of me, nor a doppelgänger," she said, somewhat amused. "You have my skills, my attack patterns, my stamina… Just what are you?"
A hope? Kushina would take it. "Will talking be enough levy to lower our weapons?"
"No. I'm fascinated, yes, but not so much so that I can just let a stranger see my face and live," the other Kushina responded. "Talk while you can, I will listen."
Then she leapt, this time to the right. It was clearly a feint and so in response, Kushina turned in the opposite direction, deflecting the numerous sword swings that glittered to life on her left. This, too, was nothing exceptional, just a string of mid-high to low blows.
As their blades sang off one another in a blinding flurry, Kushina could find no anger in her latter versions unwillingness to listen. Were she the same woman from this time, she would have done exactly the same. Listening to the perceived 'enemy', or even giving them a chance to explain themselves, was a notion quickly stomped out in the Zero Ninja.
Actually, Kushina thought, with realization striking her just as hard as the other Kushina's sword against her own, that was a notion that needed to be eradicated in general.
"In less than forty hours' time, you will die," she explained emotionlessly.
The stutter in Past Kushina's swordplay was instant and absolute, and exploitable. Combat sense activated, Kushina flipped her sword point down and plunged the blade into her others' right thigh. She barely managed to dig it in more than a couple inches before the other Kushina reacted with reflexes honed to that same terrifying degree. The slightest of frowns touched her face, like the assault was more annoying than painful, and then her other foot shot out in a blur that kicked Kushina's sword upwards at the perfect angle to dislodge the weapon from her flesh.
Exactly what I would have done, Kushina mused when her latter version leapt back. Now, knowing me, the next move shall be…
She almost let slip something of a victorious grin when her other self instantly snatched a strand of crimson hair from her head. The reddish hue that quickly outlined it was an indicator to the chakra boost, and then she tied it above the wound in her thigh.
Again, her actions mimic what I would do, using chakra-enforced hair as a tourniquet…
The other straightened up, her eyes, now dangerously wide, locked onto her mirror image. "And what… do you mean by that?"
The subtle tranquility laced into each of her words was paramount. She knew exactly what the other Kushina meant, and Kushina knew it as well. She flicked her sword at the ground sending a cascade of blood droplets over the grass. "I know what you're planning, about the coup to destroy Konoha on Naruto's birthday—oh yes, I know of it very well. I know because it's already happened… and you—we—died."
That slight glimpse of serenity from before vanished like a candle being snuffed and Past Kushina's face darkened, darkened even further than the surrounding gloom of night. She lifted her weapon, fueling it with so much chakra that the blade itself began to bleed a murderous red hue.
"Whether you know it or not, I think you've just cemented your own death, whoever you are," she uttered, tone hollow, but Kushina continued over her.
"The entire mission was a debacle: Ibiki dealt us a fatal wound, Sakumo had—has—been refusing his treatment, believing this coup to be his swan song, Naruto nearly dies... but… perhaps the absolute worst was…"
The catharsis of emotion was something Kushina had not been accustomed to for quite some time, all the myriad of raw feelings that seeped into her previously diamond-hard skin and crawled at her heart… She hated it. She hated it all. Emotions bred weakness, and she was not weak; she couldn't afford to be.
But that didn't stop her face from scrunching up, didn't stop her bottom lip from quivering as a child's might at the sorrow blooming just behind her chest.
She lifted her sword, pointing it at her past self. "The absolute worst was… we didn't know that our own son had friends all along."
"He… no, you lie. He… he has no friends!"
Slowly, Kushina nodded. "Yes, he does," she whispered. "A good mother would have noticed such things."
The earth exploded, quite literally erupted like a geyser when both Kushina's dove towards the other. Blades were swung with killing intent, slicing through air almost tangible, meeting with the most unholiest of metallic clangs. A lesser ninja would have had their equilibrium thrown out of whack from the sound alone, never mind the force, yet neither one buckled under the pressure and a deadlock ensued.
As their swords ground against the other, as sparks continued to skip off and illuminate the moonlit forest, Kushina could see the woman opposite her struggling internally with the knowledge divulged to her. Kushina already knew it sounded outlandish, downright inconceivable, and were the positions reversed she couldn't honestly say she would have acted any different.
A sweat had begun to form over Past Kushina's brow, a sweat that had nothing to do with exerted energy, because the two of them had barely even begun to fight seriously. It was a nervous sweat, a visual indicator to the mental debate raging in her head.
"If what you say is true… then tell me, how are you here?" was what she finally managed to ask, and her eyes were red, bloodshot. Considering this Kushina was before the emotional rollercoaster that the rebirthed one went through, causing her to cry could only mean one thing.
Realizing that caused Kushina's guard to drop. It was the slightest of twitches but Past Kushina didn't miss a beat and leapt, spreading her legs; one knee knocked Kushina's sword hand away while the other rammed into her throat. She stumbled, gagging, sighting a fast approaching glint just in time to pivot sideways, quick enough to avoid being pierced through the eye, but not the shoulder.
The pain wasn't what caused her to stumble—she had suffered worse and remained lucid under worse conditions. It was the force behind Past Kushina's strike that sent her flailing backwards until her back slammed up against a tree.
The words were growled out and Kushina was temporarily blinded by a flurry of scarlet hair when her previous self spun in place. She thought it weird at first, until Past Kushina pulled out of that twirl and kicked the sword in Kushina's shoulder up to the hilt, effectively impaling her to the tree.
A quick intake of breath let Kushina know a lung hadn't been pierced and, aside from the very-present danger of blood loss, she was utterly fine, if immobilized. The gush of fluids from her shoulder that leaked down her arm and dripped off her fingers, it was both deathly cold and black as pitch. Underneath the moonlight, it seemed to glisten, definitely catching Past Kushina's eye, but if she noticed, or found it strange for a future version of herself to be bleeding black, she didn't make mention.
Face as emotionless as a slab of fresh marble, Kushina watched as her past self gripped the hilt—"Answer me"—and twisted it, slowly, with sadistic purpose.
The anguish that ripped through Kushina's mind made her lightheaded, caused the bile to bubble threateningly in her stomach. But her face? Hardly a flinch. She could feel every miniscule strand of flesh and sinew being severed as the other Kushina continued twisting, the glint in her wide eyes absolutely depraved.
Even if she wanted to speak, she feared the moment she opened her mouth nothing but vomit would rush out.
Perhaps her past self realized this because she ceased her torture to lean in close, so close their noses almost touched, and once again breathed out, "Answer me."
It was tough, trying to form words with her brain trying to restart itself. She still felt nauseous but the pain was ebbing away into a dull throbbing. She could barely feel her fingers anymore; they were little more than five numb nubs. There were several ways to answer Past Kushina's inquiry, numerous, colorful ways ranging from the short response to something that would keep them both there until the morning sun. Would she last long enough to properly explain herself? Her head was already swimming; she was very aware of her own breathing and how she had to push herself to keep it going.
I… that's right, I need to kill something… or someone, she realized internally, remembering the regenerative effects of consuming the soul of whatever she slayed. Unfortunately, there was nothing around for her to cut down… nothing at all except…
A gasp escaped before anything else. She could feel a few trickles of chakra beginning to flow into her through the blade in her shoulder; the flow was agitated, almost impatient, a clear reflection of how her past self was beginning to feel under her labored silence. Pretty soon, an answer wouldn't matter—she would more than likely be killed, information be damned, and the cycle would continue itself toward that fatal conclusion with no hope of another chance.
So Kushina started to talk, somehow managing to get her floundering lips to work. From start to finish, she revealed everything, about everyone, as quickly as she could, more than once pausing and more than once receiving a painful jerk of the sword stuck in her shoulder to spur her on. Several times she witnessed something akin to horror flash over Past Kushina's face, and it seemed to stick when she reached the part with Naruto being impaled by Kakashi's Chidori. In fact, by the time Kushina finished, her past self had taken a few steps back, eyes wide, mouth agape—the struggle to comprehend was all too prominent over her regal features.
And then all of it died in a blink. As if flipping some sort of mental switch, Past Kushina's face sank into an expressionless shell, once more reverting back into the way she had been molded since her rebirth. The space she'd born between them was closed again and she stood before Kushina with an air of determination, her abnormal amount of chakra so refined and focused that it caused Kushina's skin to prickle uncomfortably.
"I thank you," she spoke, tone even, voice steady, and her hair was whipped about on the night air, flowing in the breeze. She regarded Kushina with eerily wide, calm eyes, the kind of eyes that resonated death. "You have done your part. Now that I know the obstacles, I can readjust accordingly. While I remain a bit dubious as to how I could amass that many mistakes, nevertheless… I will correct them. Thank you again for your information, future Kushina, but now… you have to disappear."
Oh, how the thought seemed so tantalizing in the moment… to simply disappear and be gone of it all, of this pain spreading like decay throughout her body, of this responsibility weighing heavy on her back, of just any and everything… but the darkness that her past self wanted her to 'disappear' into, her child… Naruto… resting would mean breaking her promise for a second time.
"No." Kushina couldn't allow that, and she expressed it by shaking her head. "I can't let you go on... you won't do it right," she said solemnly, the strength behind her words the aftermath of ingesting what little chakra her past self had pushed into her. Since they were one and the same, albeit from different times, chakra assimilation was an easy affair. "Knowing the outcome, for you, is meaningless… You'll be so concentrated on avoiding what I fell prey to that you'll be blindsided by the present. You can't overcome this, I'm proof of that… the me of now, no matter how many times… it can't be done. You lack the experience of failure. You can't win… but I can," she declared, her chakra beginning to pulse, "even if I have to destroy myself to do it."
In a final exchange of unbridled power, both Kushina's uttered at the same time, "Release."
The ground around Past Kushina heaved, bulging outward in an explosion of debris to reveal dozens of spear-tipped silver chains that wiggled like snakes, all of them lashing like a cracked whip; in the same instant, a meager six chains burst from the wound in Kushina's shoulder, each of them a glistening black, tinged with her blood. The fight for supremacy amongst the two masterful kunoichi was decided rather quickly after a few spark-inducing clashes: the black chains absolutely overwhelmed the silver ones despite being outnumbered, tearing them down.
"NO!" The fury expressed in Past Kushina's scream was paramount, almost terrifying, but it was cut short when one of the sullied chains pierced the thin layer of flesh between her collar bones, gagging her; it quickly wrapped itself around her throat and snatched her high into the air where she struggled, eyes bulging and legs kicking.
Seemingly immune to the disturbing gurgles echoing above her, Kushina reached up, the fingers of her good hand wrapping around the sword caught in her flesh, and began to pull. One of her chains joined in the effort, tugging gently, easing it free; another chain was busy retrieving her own long dropped katana.
"This… is how it must be," and she shot a jolt of chakra down her lifeless arm, shocking it back to life in a series of painful spasms. Her fingers twitched in different directions like her hand had a glitch, then took the weapon being offered to her. It seemed to hum in her grasp, almost as if pleased to be back in her care; and she delighted in the feeling even if her blade had been corrupted by that beast.
Plit. Plit. Plit.
Cold droplets of blood began to drip from above, a steady flow that splattered against Kushina's shoulder, her cheek, amidst her already scarlet hair… It wasn't exactly raining with as much blood as she was normally used to unleashing and seeing coat the earth but she figured that was alright, it was surreal enough knowing that she was being struck with what were technically droplets of her own blood.
To the left she lifted her arm, hefting her blackened blade and golden guard.
To the right came the other arm, rising slow like the moon in the distance, the crimson sword of her past self also extended.
Almost as if reading her mind, the chains holding Past Kushina aloft began to lower her down like an offering, or, in Kushina's mind, like a helpless lamb, bound and ready for slaughter. Perhaps her past self seemed to realize this, realize her fate, because she drew in her bottom lip and began to cry. When they were finally face-to-face, with the past Kushina desperately trying to touch the ground with her kicking legs, the Kushina of the future knew that face… oh yes, she knew it very well.
The despair, the abject loss of self, the heartbreak over wondering just where it all went so wrong, the red-rimmed eyes, the runny nose, the trembling chin—yes, she was well accustomed to that face.
She used to make it every single time she dared to check in on Naruto.
"How dare you. I… we… vowed to never let anyone see our face like that," Kushina reminded her former self, jaw firm, "not even ourselves. It's really quite gruesome to look at…."
On a mere mental whim, the remaining chains of corrosion latched onto the past Kushina, pulling her arms straight and joining her legs together until she looked as if she were about to crucified.
"You r-really are me," Past Kushina managed to gargle out, and for a second, she smiled, fully accepting of her fate—
"I am. "
—but then it quickly fell into a frown that brought forth more tears, more glittering streaks down her face. "All I w-wanted was to see my son again… to see Naruto, to… to hug him, tell him he had a mother and that he w-wasn't alone..."
"I do all of that," Kushina whispered but she wasn't heard.
"… I was s-so close—it can't end like this, it's not fair… Naruto, m-my baby..."
It was almost as if Kushina had been pierced by one of her own chains; she felt something tight and sharp stab into her heart with considerable force. She felt it… in a place that was only recently revived after all that had happened on that disastrous night, she felt it burning raw and hot. Her heart ached with an anguish for her former self, for this version of Kushina who would never get the chance to hug Naruto, to feel those adorable whiskers of his scratch her face, to tell him that really bad joke….
She would die trapped in every mothers most horrible nightmare: never experiencing the warmth of their own child.
"I'm… sorry, but if this goes undone then nothing will be saved," and now Kushina herself sounded hoarse, winded and dazed.
Amazingly, Past Kushina ceased her struggles and fell still; everything about her body language seemed to reflect acquiesce. She looked quite like a puppet cut from its strings, hanging limply, limbs swaying, with trails of blood streaming down her throat. "You… you say you've seen him?" she asked quietly and Kushina nodded, however stringently. "Then tell me… please… how… h-how is he?"
Gravity seemed to increase tenfold under the weight of that question. The wind died, silence ran rampant through the motionless trees, whatever used to breathe was snuffed out—Kushina met the sorrowful, inquisitive eyes of her past self, a clash of violet pupils.
"He is whole."
The moon had just taken its place in the darkened sky as blood, so red and thick and bright, spurted into the air; it gushed over the blades stabbing and digging and carving their way into the belated Kushina's chest.
A/N: Overcoming yourself is usually the hardest step, and Kushina ascended it beautifully. So... what happens now...?