Katabasis (Greek): A journey to hell from which the traveler returns alive, after facing difficult trials, with a quest object, heightened knowledge, or a loved one.
Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto.
World: Branches off after 644 in a Glass Trinity AU. I wrote 90% of this before 645, so it assumes that Obito didn't activate Tsuki no Me Keikaku. Sorry. Also, there are implied references to a drabble I wrote on Tumblr called "Eclipse," which is TobiIzu. Not necessary to understand this, but helpful.
By the time the sun had set and Orochimaru had chosen to intervene in the battle himself, Karin had to wonder if it was too late. Obito had returned from that eerie parallel dimension she'd visited on more than one occasion, and now he'd somehow managed to become the Juubi's Jinchuuriki. His chakra was horrifying, his aura as dense and cold as a bottomless pit—indeed, examining his unnaturally dark chakra gave her the sense that an abyss was gazing into her, stealing warmth and light.
She wanted to help Sasuke, but his battle was too high-risk for her to do much at the moment. It would do no one any good if she got killed in the crossfire. Suigetsu, of course, had charged in without a second thought, ready to assist Juugo and Sasuke in the fight against Obito. Karin searched for an opening, but Orochimaru's intervention stayed her hand.
"It's no good," she said, lurid eyes scanning the area in search of something, anything, that might help them. "We can't do anything as long as he's got that monster inside him. If only there were a way to separate them."
Orochimaru chuckled to her left. "Quick to devise a plan of attack, aren't you? I expect a thank you from Sasuke when this is all over for saving you when I did."
Karin narrowed her eyes. "I don't have a plan, just a hypothetical. We don't have the capacity."
An explosion rumbled the earth with such force that Karin and Orochimaru each had to take a knee. A surge of panic coursed through Karin, her small desire to one-up Orochimaru quashed as the very real hopelessness of the situation rose in flames and black smoke before her. Somewhere out there, Sasuke and Suigetsu and Juugo were fighting with their lives to destroy the man who'd tried to tear them apart.
"Perhaps I can fix that," Orochimaru said, pulling himself up.
Karin dusted off her tights and stood. "What're you bullshitting now?"
"I suggest you watch your tongue in front of you elders, my dear."
"You're not my elder, Orochimaru."
How dare he after all he put me through—
"Kuchiyose: Edo Tensei!"
His summon interrupted her thoughts, and Karin coughed as the smoke cleared.
"I'm not your elder," Orochimaru said, peering through the smoke. "But they are."
Two figures began to take shape through the haze, but Karin had to clean the grime from her glasses if she hoped to see much of anything. By the time she was situated again, the summons approached them.
"Uzumaki Mito and Uzumaki Kushina," Orochimaru said, his lips stretched in that ghastly grin that used to make Karin's skin crawl with fear.
"Edo Tensei. This is Tobirama-kun's technique. What is the meaning of this?" Mito demanded.
"Mito-sama," Kushina said, surprised. "Then that means... Orochimaru. This is your doing."
"Ladies, we're in a bit of a tight spot. That thing behind you is the Juubi's Jinchuuriki, and he's been—"
"What did you just say?" Mito said, advancing. "That's impossible. The only way the Juubi could ever be revived would be if the nine Bijuu were fused together, and that would require advanced sealing techniques—"
"—that only the Uzumaki could pull off. Yes, being dead has kept you out of the loop for some time, I'm afraid," Orochimaru said.
He proceeded to explain the status of the current war, emphasizing the fact that the Allied Forces were losing dismally against Juubi Obito and a revived Uchiha Madara. The two women listened, but Mito's chakra fluctuated at the mention of the undead Uchiha, Karin noticed. She didn't think much of it.
"Anyway, a monster like that will wipe out the entire human race. We've gotta stop it." Kushina said, worried. "Mito-sama?"
Karin looked between the two women. Uzumaki. Just like Naruto. But what was the point of bringing them here?
"...A Bijuu of that magnitude is too much for even the two of us to handle, Kushina. We'll need help, but most of our clan was wiped out during the civil wars when you were a girl."
"Not all," Orochimaru said. "This is Karin. She's a full-blooded Uzumaki."
All eyes turned to Karin, who felt like someone had just doused her in ice water. "I... What?!"
"How do you think I found out so much about the Uzumaki if not through you? Your clan has distinctive chakra; its vigor is unparalleled. It's the reason you were able to save Tsunade-hime even in her condition. I thought perhaps you'd have picked up on that by now."
"Cut the crap," Karin said.
Of course I picked up on it, but this is...
A thought came to her then. If she was an Uzumaki, then could that possibly mean that she and Naruto were—
"Come here, child," Mito said, extending a hand.
"Hey, hands to yourself, lady," Karin said.
The detached calm Mito had been projecting earlier even as Orochimaru brought them up to speed on the war vanished and her chakra spiked. "Excuse me? If you don't want me to forcibly separate your consciousness from your body and seal it someplace where the sun doesn't shine, then you better change your tone with me right now."
Karin's mouth fell open, shocked at the drastic change in character and rather unpleasant threat. Was that even possible?
Kushina laughed nervously and put herself in between Mito and Karin. "There now, I'm sure she didn't mean anything by it, Mito-sama." Kushina turned to look at Karin over her shoulder, placating expression melting into something fiery and otherworldly. "Right?"
Karin had to take a step back at the overwhelming force of their combined chakra spiking, nearly choking. She pushed her glasses further up her nose.
Well, maybe we're related, after all.
"R-Right," Karin managed, indignation stunned out of her. "I mean, I guess."
Kushina smiled and took Karin's hand. "You must be around the same age as my son, Naruto, you know?"
"He's your son?"
"So you do know him!" Kushina beamed.
"Yeah, a little," Karin said, eyes softening as she remembered Naruto's bright chakra and how comforting it had felt, like coming home on a cold night to a blazing fire and cup of hot chocolate.
"Normally I'm a patient man, but I'm afraid time isn't a luxury we can afford right now," Orochimaru said, tone serious as he took a step toward the battlefield where another earthquake shook the ground. He scowled. "That woman's going to burn herself out before she even starts."
Karin wondered if he meant Tsunade, but decided not to ask.
"We need one more for the technique I have in mind," Mito said. "Kushina and I will lead the sealing, but we can't do it alone. We need another besides Karin and Naruto."
"Well, let's go get them!" Kushina said, fist-pumping. "Ah, I can't wait to see Minato and Naruto again!"
It was worse than Karin had imagined. Dead lay in growing piles, their blood staining the earth a rusty brown color that almost looked like wet sand at a beach. She had a sudden flash of her early childhood. She was at the beach and had found a precious patch of sand along the rocky coast of Whirlpool Country. The castle she'd built was nothing to write home about, but it was hers. Looking back on it, the small vacation she'd taken with her parents to a country in ruins made sense to her now, after all these years. They'd just wanted to see their home and show it to Karin, too, before running back to their backwater hiding place. A lot of good that did them in the end.
"I'm going to find Naruto, okay?" Kushina said.
"Make it quick, please," Mito said, careful not to step on any of the ruined bodies at their feet.
"He's about four hundred feet from here, two o'clock," Karin said, picking out Naruto's chakra from the copycat cloaks surrounding the remaining Allied Forces.
Kushina waved and took off in the direction Karin had indicated, her long hair lashing behind her in wild red waves.
"That's quite the talent you have," Mito said. "Maybe we can use it to our advantage now."
Karin took a moment to look at this woman about whose identity she still knew very little. Her grey-green eyes spoke of an ancient weight, like exhaustion or weariness, but not sadness. They were sharp, and Karin wondered if Mito could detect lies like she could. Her white, flowing yukata seemed unfit for this scene, but she wore arm guards underneath it from what Karin could see. The golden headpiece seemed a little ostentatious, but Karin found it pretty if she was being honest. Perhaps it was a crown of some sort. And her pinned hair, like Karin's and Kushina's, was as red as the blood pooling at their feet. The earlier outburst at Karin's behavior had made her seem comically caricatured (if threat of induced vegetation could be described as comical), but there was nothing funny about her now. She was beautiful in the way a marble statue or a priceless painting is—classic and poised even under the heat and stink of death—yet Mito seemed uninhibited by the internecine.
And her chakra was enormous.
"Find the source of the Jinchuuriki's power," Mito said. "We'll have to focus on that when we rip the Bijuu out of him."
"How the hell are we going to do that?" Karin said, already working on locating Obito.
Mito didn't answer right away, and Karin noticed that something had grabbed her attention.
"Hey Grams, are you even listening?"
"It's happening all over again," Mito said, voice worried but firm.
It was then that Karin noticed Mito wasn't focused on the heart of the battle where Obito was, but on another group of shinobi. Judging from their chakra signatures, their power was monstrous.
"Oh, it's that weird Hashirama guy. The Shodai Hokage," Karin said.
He may have been weird, but the readings she was getting were off the charts. How could anyone be this strong? Sasuke didn't come close...
"My husband," Mito said, brow furrowed with worry. "And Madara..."
Again, Karin felt like gaping. "Wait, you're that Uzumaki? The one who figured out how to seal all the Bijuu before anyone else?"
Mito smiled, but it didn't reach her ears. "I see I haven't been totally forgotten."
Karin had heard the stories of an Uzumaki princess, a prodigy in her own right, traveling across the country hunting the giant beasts. But they'd always been stories. Karin's mother told them as she fell asleep when she was little, a great warrior queen with hair like blood and her two comrades, one man as strong as the forest itself and the other with eyes that could hypnotize even the most fearsome creatures of the night. But never had Karin thought that those stories were based on truth. She'd liked them because the princess had red hair like her, but she hadn't realized the truth of such a coincidence until now.
What else did my parents hide from me?
Not that she'd ever have the chance to ask them now.
"But I can't take all the credit. Hashirama and Madara were always with me. We...were a team."
That was hard to believe. That Madara guy seemed to be one of the main antagonists in this war. But Karin said nothing of that.
Mito and Karin turned at the sound of Naruto's voice. For reasons she didn't want to dwell on, Karin's heart warmed at the sight of the golden boy who'd made her feel safe behind enemy lines, though she'd never say it aloud. Kushina was with him, as well as Haruno Sakura, the girl Sasuke had tried to murder back when the Curse of Hatred had consumed him.
That thought put a damper on Karin's mood. She didn't know this Sakura girl well, but no one deserved that kind of treatment. Sasuke had apologized to her, although they both knew he wasn't off the hook and wouldn't be for a long time, but had he afforded Sakura the same courtesy?
"...Oh, it's you," Karin said, scoffing. "You took your sweet time getting here."
Naruto grinned from ear to ear. "Yeah, well, I was kinda busy saving the world, you know?"
"No one's saved anything yet, dumbass."
Before anyone else could get a word in edgewise, Sakura walked right up to Karin and took her hands. There were tears in her eyes. "Karin," she said, eyes searching. "Thank you for saving Tsunade-sama. Thank you so much."
Karin's instincts screamed for her to push the other girl away, to shun physical contact. People grabbed her for one reason only, and the ingrained reflex was almost physically painful in its insistence. It was with some difficulty that she tamped it down, detecting no lie in Sakura's gratitude. She sighed and flipped her hair.
"Yeah, no big deal. Orochimaru was pretty insistent."
"Hey, I didn't know you saved Baa-chan! That's awesome, thanks Karin!" Naruto said.
"What's this about my granddaughter?" Mito said, approaching the group.
"Ah, it's nothing to worry about. Tsunade-sama's fighting now, you know?" Kushina said.
"Granddaughter?" Sakura said, putting two and two together. "Are you…Uzumaki Mito?"
Introductions were made briefly, and Kushina raised the question that had been on Karin's mind.
"We still need another person for the sealing," she said. "But Tsunade-sama's tied up in the fighting, and Minato's body isn't whole enough to handle it."
Mito pointed at Sakura's face. "Sakura, your forehead."
Sakura's eye twitched and Karin frowned. What was her problem?
"Hey, hey! Sakura-chan, she was just complimenting you! Don't get all scary, okay?" Naruto said, taking her elbow.
Sakura looked like she was going to release steam from her ears, and Karin smirked.
He's the only one of us without a temper.
"What about my forehead?" Sakura said, politely pissed.
Mito didn't seem to notice or care. "That's my Yin seal. I'm assuming you know how to release it fully?"
Sakura's anger subsided instantly, and she touched her free hand to the diamond on her forehead. "Oh! Um, yes I do. Tsunade-sama trained me."
"Then we have our fifth shinobi," Mito said. She then addressed the group. "This is going to take everything we've got. We're going to rip the Juubi from its Jinchuuriki, and then we're going to break it down to its nine parts."
"Oh," Sakura said, stunned.
"What?! How d'you think we're gonna do that? I don't know a lot about sealing, you know?" Naruto said.
"That's why we're here," Kushina said, putting a hand on her son's shoulder. "We'll guide you every step of the way."
Naruto's expression softened in a way that almost made Karin want to smile and cry at the same time. How must it feel to see his mother again? And his father? She would never have that chance.
But Naruto's not dead…
Karin looked away. She shouldn't be thinking like this right now. She was still Taka and he was Konoha, war notwithstanding. Her loyalty was to Sasuke, not to him. They might not even get a chance to talk once this war was over. They might not even live to see the end of it.
"Do you even know how to seal this thing?" Karin asked. "This is going to be a little tougher than an ordinary Bijuu."
"No," Mito said, unconcerned.
"No?!" Sakura said.
"No," Mito repeated. "But I can make it up."
"Make it up?!" Karin said, as flabbergasted as Sakura.
"You two, let her speak," Kushina said, that fiery venom returning to her tone.
Karin backed off, grumbling, and Naruto tugged on Sakura's shoulder, shaking his head.
Mito smirked. "Anyway, yes, I'll make it up. A five-point elemental seal should do the trick to separate the Bijuu from its Jinchuuriki."
"Obito," Naruto said. "Uchiha Obito. That's his name."
Karin thought Mito would get angry the way she had when Karin had spoken out of turn earlier, but she was wrong.
"Uchiha Obito," she said. "My mistake."
"So, let's get to it," Kushina said, expression grim.
The group headed toward Obito's location, but Karin hesitated. She wondered how Sasuke was doing now that Naruto wasn't fighting anymore. Knowing him, he was bringing out his best techniques and pummeling his enemy with all his strength. Normally, this would have been reassuring, but Obito was unlike any enemy they'd ever faced before. He was far stronger than Sasuke as a Jinchuuriki, and she worried that something awful might happen.
A hand on her shoulder made her jump.
"Sasuke's with my dad and the other Hokage," Naruto said, smiling. "You know those Uchiha: they get stronger the harder they get beat."
It took Karin a moment to realize that Naruto had picked up on her worry and then proceeded to comfort her. He was so bright and warm and she felt lightheaded, as though all her worries were gone if only for a moment.
"…Yeah," she said, brushing him off while trying to hide the softness in her eyes as she thought about the boy she loved. "They're like cockroaches. Can't kill them if you try."
"Exactly," Naruto said, smiling wider.
"Hey, come on you guys!" Sakura called. She and Kushina had already gone ahead.
"Coming, Sakura-chan!" Naruto said, bounding off.
Karin made to follow, but she caught Mito's gaze briefly. The older woman's expression was a little surprised, but otherwise unreadable.
"You coming, Grams?"
Mito blinked and nodded. "Yes, let's hurry."
Sasuke shot another of Susano'o's arrows at Obito, making him jump to avoid the colossal explosion of earth. It wasn't enough—Sasuke hadn't achieved Sage mode like Naruto, so his ninjutsu attacks weren't getting the job done. Minato, Tobirama, and Hiruzen weren't having much better luck at this point, either, but there was nothing to be done. Naruto had run off with a woman Sasuke understood to be his mother, and he had to assume it was for good reason. At least, Minato seemed to think so.
"My wife's amazing. She'll definitely help us out of this mess," he'd said, smiling and making the skin on his rematerializing face flake.
Whatever she's going to do, she better do it fast.
"Sasuke, are you still alive?" Juugo said, crouching beside him in Stage Two.
His attacks were the only ones hitting Obito at the moment, and the rest of them were working to ensure they did maximum damage. Sasuke never thought he'd wish for his Cursed Seal back, but if it meant damaging Obito and not feeling useless, then he'd have given just about anything to have it.
"This asshole doesn't know when to quit!" Suigetsu said, panting. His lower half was liquefied and ready to block any incoming attacks.
Suddenly, Tobirama turned away from the action without warning. Sasuke watched the reanimated Hokage.
"What is it?"
Tobirama had been short with him since he'd shown up, but as an ally he was a good man to have. Breaking the Curse of Hatred must have earned him a few brownie points with the former Hokage. Sasuke didn't care since the man was dead, anyway, but for now they had to fight together.
"Unbelievable," Tobirama said. "We might have a chance to win this after all."
"What is it?" Sasuke repeated, annoyed that he'd been ignored.
Hiruzen crash landed nearby and skidded through bedrock about twenty feet. One of Obito's attacks had grazed him, and a chunk of his shoulder was missing. Sasuke scowled, eyes searching for the elder Uchiha who'd manipulated him.
"Mito!" Tobirama said, leaving Hiruzen to Minato.
Sasuke turned to see Naruto again, flanked now by four women. Karin was among them, and he felt a weigh lift from his heart. She was alive.
"Karin," he said, approaching.
Karin noticed him and looked surprised, then relieved, then sour. She adjusted her glasses and glowered at him, and he stopped. She was still mad. It figured that an apology alone, however sincere, wouldn't be enough to rectify sacrificing her life…
He forced himself to finish his walk toward the group despite the small voice in his head that told him he was in for a punishment worse than death after all this was over.
"That plan is ludicrous," Tobirama said as Sasuke approached. "You'll kill us all."
"Thanks for the warning," a woman—Mito, he supposed—said. "But unless you have a better idea, then just let me do my job."
"Does my brother know?"
Mito blinked. "There's no time right now, but I'll need him for the next part."
"I'll get him. You know I was always good at getting in the middle of those two."
Sasuke noticed Karin standing close to Mito, and he had the strangest sensation that she was familiar somehow, but he couldn't place her.
"Sasuke!" Naruto said. "You take a break. Let us Uzumaki take it from here!"
So that's who she is, Sasuke thought. Uzumaki Mito, the first Jinchuuriki.
Sasuke smirked. No wonder Naruto was so happy.
"Fine, but don't screw this up," he said. He turned to Karin one last time before giving them space.
"Distract him for now," Sakura said. "We need a minute."
Easier said than done.
"What's this? Reinforcements?" Obito's voice boomed from atop his flowering tower. "You're prolonging the inevitable. Soon we'll all be dreaming together, and this pain will end."
Sasuke looked up at their nemesis, eternal Sharingan picking out his every move. It wasn't that he couldn't admit Obito was far stronger than he (anyone could see that), but the idea of losing irked him. Everything Itachi had worked for would be forsaken. Gone. Worthless. Sasuke could not abide that.
A large bird landed to his left, and Sasuke turned to observe the newcomer.
"…Sai," he said. He still wasn't thrilled to be working with a boy who'd tried to kill him upon their first meeting, but he supposed it was in the past. If Karin could still associate with him after what he'd done to her, then he supposed he could get over what Sai had tried to do to him.
He wasn't alone.
"Sasuke, I never thought I'd be saying this, but it's good to see you," Yamato said as Sai helped him down.
"Where is Sakura? He needs healing," Sai said.
"Busy," he said, gesturing the five-man group currently working on whatever plan they'd come here to enact. "But since you're here, you can make yourself useful."
Sai glanced at Yamato, who nodded.
"I'll find another medic, don't worry about me. This is more important."
Sai nodded. "What's the plan?"
"We're the distraction."
My thoughts exactly.
"I need an aerial vantage. I'd do it but my techniques work better on the ground."
"Okay," Sai said, mounting his bird and scribbling on his scroll. More birds flew forth from the pages and took to the sky.
"What about us?" Suigetsu said, eyeing Sai with suspicion.
"You're Juugo's shield. His attacks can hit, yours can't."
Suigetsu rolled his eyes. "When we get outta this shit, I'm making all of you be my shield."
Sasuke decided not to reprimand him for that. He hoped they got out of this mess, too. "All right, let's do this. Juugo!"
Juugo roared and hammered the ground with his heavy hands. The gloves were off, and Juugo could perform at his best. Even the Raikage hadn't managed to put him down. All Sasuke had to do was secure an opening.
Sai took to the sky, his ink birds flying high. Sasuke followed them with his right eye, counting. Time slowed down as his genjutsu took hold and split the birds again and again until they were swarming with the force of a plague. Obito fired off black balls of energy that incinerated them on contact, but most were mere genjutsu. So far, he hadn't detected the deception and Sasuke planned on keeping it that way.
Now to create that opening.
He summoned Susano'o again and marched toward Obito.
Karin held her hand seal with all the diligence of a sensor, careful not to move a muscle lest she lose her focus and her target. If anything, she was doing double the work keeping track of Obito's chakra center and powering the seal. But Mito had seemed confident that she could handle it.
Confidence never beat death.
But Karin persisted regardless, taking it one breath at a time. Until suddenly, she sensed doom approaching in the form of a black energy sphere hurtling straight for them.
"Above!" she shouted.
Kushina had told Sakura, Naruto, and her not to focus on anything but the seal lest it break, but Naruto looked ready to jump up and defend.
"Naruto!" Sakura said, sensing the same shift.
All of a sudden, glowing silver chains looped around their ankles and tethered them to the ground. Karin couldn't move even if she wanted to.
"Shit!" Naruto said.
"Focus!" Kushina said.
But Karin was having trouble focusing when their imminent death was mere seconds away. The energy ball flew closer and closer, like a black sun ready to swallow them up. Karin held her breath.
A yellowish liquid collided with the falling black meteor, sizzling on impact and delaying an explosion that whipped Karin's hair against her face. Something had stopped the attack and saved all their lives in the process. Or someone.
"Mito-sama," Sakura said, awed.
Dark blue markings rimmed Mito's eyes and something dribbled down her chin. It dripped to the ground and melted a hole where it made contact. Acid, undoubtedly.
"Hey, I didn't know you could do Sage mode, too!" Naruto said enthusiastically, his own Sage mode still in full power.
"I trained with the slugs and snails of the Shikkotsu Forest," Mito said.
Karin hadn't thought it possible, but her chakra levels were even higher like this. It was no wonder Mito was a legend, transformed into a fairytale for little girls to dream about in their beds. She seemed untouchable. Maybe they really did have a chance against Obito, after all.
"All right, everyone. We're going to launch the seal. On my mark!" Mito said.
Karin focused, finding Obito's core once again. "I got it!"
"Direct our chakra when we get the signal!" Kushina said.
Just as Karin was feeling ready to tackle this colossal task, something fell from the sky and crash-landed nearby.
"Sai!" Sakura shouted.
He struggled to pull himself up, and Karin wondered how many bones he'd broken.
"Don't move!" Kushina said.
The chakra chains tightened around them as if on queue, and Karin had to bite back a yelp of pain.
"Shit. Sai, get the hell up! You can't sleep right now!" Naruto said.
Whatever plan Sasuke and the others had cooked up was fizzling fast as Obito returned his attention to the sealing team.
"What do you think you're doing?" he roared, redirecting his flower tower at them.
"Oh my god," Sakura said. "He's going to attack us with everything he's got!"
"Mito-sama!" Kushina said.
"Steady," Mito said.
Steady my ass! Karin thought to herself, gritting her teeth.
"I've got him! Just do it!"
"Everyone hold on!" Kushina said, taking aim.
"Fire!" Mito said, releasing the seal.
Karin gasped at the sheer power that flowed from her fingertips, hers and theirs, like their essences had joined to form one massive force of will. A dazzling light collected from the five points they made on a sigil inscribed on the earth beneath them with the blood of their comrades before condensing into a thin beam. The white-hot laser shot forth at high speed, and Karin focused on Obito with every fiber of her being.
"That's quite the talent you have."
Karin felt like her body was on fire, and for a split second she thought she might die from all the energy passing through her. The pain was like being possessed by demons eating her from the inside out. But it was gone in moments, and the ensuing explosion took a minute to reach her already ringing ears.
The world spun topsy-turvy, a funhouse filled with bodies and mirrors. Mirrors everywhere. It took her a moment to realize she'd thrown up, one knee on the ground. Sound and sight gradually returned, as did the taste of bile and blood on her tongue. Her whole body shook with the ghosts of the worst pain she'd ever felt in her life. Removing her glasses to rub her eyes, Karin tried to take a moment to breathe and readjust to the moving world.
Someone yanked her to her feet—a blonde girl.
"You're okay. Just move!"
Karin didn't know from where the command had come, but she heard it and obeyed instinctively. Surely, anywhere was better than here. It was a good move, too, because the ground where she'd been standing suddenly went up in a conflagration of burning debris and melted rock. Karin coughed, finally regaining her bearings a little. The unnamed girl supported her.
"That was close, huh?" she said, smirking.
Karin glared at her. "Understatement of the century."
"Naruto said you were funny," she said. "Ino."
"…Karin. What happened?"
Ino was silent for a moment, as though deep in concentration, and Karin shrugged her off, teetering a little to keep her balance. Ino gasped and executed a sign Karin knew all too well.
"Oh my god! It worked!"
Not bothering to ask for clarification, Karin reached out with her own senses to confirm what she suspected Ino was trying to say. Obito…and the Juubi. They were no longer one entity!
"Holy shit is right!" Ino squealed. "Oh, hey you're wanted over there. I gotta get back! See ya!"
"Over…how do you know that?"
But Ino was gone and Karin was left to rejoin her group on her own. Not wasting any time, she ran to catch up with them.
They'd done it. Somehow, Naruto's group had accomplished the impossible, and now Obito was himself again. The Juubi was no longer under his control. Tobirama had returned with Hashirama, but unfortunately Madara was hot on their tail. Hashirama's clones could only slow him down so much even with Tobirama's Flying Thunder God Technique speeding them along. Sasuke stood back, surveying the damage. Karin seemed to be okay—Ino had gotten to her in time, so he let it go for now.
"It's true! My beautiful wife is here!" Hashirama said, breaking out into a stupid grin Sasuke remembered seeing on him when they'd first met.
"Hey, this isn't the time for a reunion, Hashirama," Tobirama said.
Hashirama ignored his (and Mito's) protests and scooped her up in a bear hug, laughing all the while. "God, I missed you."
Sasuke tried not to look, but they were right in his line of sight as he tried to survey the area for Madara, who was sure to show up at any moment. He squinted, ignoring the spike of pain in his eyes. Mito touched a gentle hand to Hashirama's face, a smile of her own on her lips. Sasuke suddenly felt uncomfortable, like he shouldn't have seen that smile.
"I missed you, too," she said.
"Hey, I heard you got rid of the Jinchuuriki problem. Not that I'm surprised!"
"Uchiha Obito is back to his normal self now," Mito said. "But the Juubi's still a problem."
"Well, let's do this like we used to," Hashirama said, previous lightheartedness gone from his tone as he got down to business. "I don't know how long I'll be able to hold it."
Everyone turned to see Madara, who'd caught up sooner than expected. Obito may have been beaten, but this man had bested five Kage at full power and he was still unbeatable. And he wasn't even a Jinchuuriki.
"…And Mito," he said, clenching a fist. "What a nice surprise. I'm assuming this is your handiwork?"
"I had help."
"Always so modest. You know I never liked that about you."
"There are many things you never liked about me."
"Come now," Madara said, stepping forward. Before anyone could move, he'd disappeared and reappeared directly behind Mito. "You know that's not true."
Sasuke narrowed his eyes at his ancestor. So that's it.
Before even Hashirama could intervene, Mito turned and slammed a hand through Madara's chest. A golden chain pierced through his back, shackling him to the earth and to her. He laughed.
"That trick won't work on me like this, Princess."
Black flames ignited around the hole in Madara's chest and snaked up the chain toward Mito. She was forced to release her hold, and he bounded backwards to a safe distance. Sasuke watched as the Edo Tensei restored his wounds, but the black flames of Amaterasu burned the length of chakra chain Mito had discarded, like a black snake hissing and popping under the intense heat.
"You're gonna have to sit tight, Madara," Hashirama said. "I've got a Bijuu to tame."
"I don't think so!" he said.
Madara lunged, but Sasuke intercepted him. Kusanagi plunged into his ancestor's heart, alight with electricity. Sharingan clashed with Sharingan, and Madara's scowl turned amused.
"So, the runt dares to challenge the king."
"You and I have the same eyes," Sasuke said, thrusting Kusanagi deeper to prevent Madara from giving him the slip. "Don't underestimate me."
"Don't buy into appearances, boy. It's all too easy to shatter a mirror."
Sasuke released the genjutsu he'd been holding since Madara arrived on the scene (a genjutsu within a genjutsu; he'd have to thank that Kumo nin, Shī, for that one) and decapitated him from behind. "I said, don't underestimate me."
The Edo Tensei swiftly pulled Madara back together, and when he looked up Sasuke locked eyes with the fabled Rinnegan.
"Perhaps you're my blood, after all. Fine, show me what you can do…Sasuke."
By the time Karin had rejoined the sealing team, Madara had shown up and was talking to Mito, although Karin hadn't been close enough to hear their conversation. It wasn't until Mito released a chakra chain without warning that she figured whatever had transpired had not ended well. Sasuke, who was thankfully unharmed, engaged Madara much to Karin's chagrin.
"Suigetsu! Get your ass over there and help him!" she yelled at the ex Mist nin pulling himself up from the ground.
"Karin!" Kushina said, surveying her for injury. "I'm so glad you're okay."
"That was awesome!" Naruto said. "We totally beat him!"
"Don't rejoice just yet," Sakura said.
Karin noticed that she was leaning on Naruto for support and her Yin seal had disappeared. A quick scanning of her chakra showed that she was running low. Dangerously low.
"You're not fit to keep fighting," Karin said. "You should rest."
"Yeah, Sakura-chan, just relax, okay? We're almost done, anyway, you know?"
"But I should be helping! There's still the Juubi to worry about and Madara—"
"Sakura-chan," Kushina said. "You've earned a rest. We couldn't have done it without you. Besides, I won't forgive you if anything happened to you. It would break Naruto's heart, you know?"
Sakura turned beet red and Naruto laughed, holding her closer.
"Well, that's true, haha!" He turned to Sakura again, serious. "Sakura-chan, thanks for all your help. Like Mom said, we couldna done it without you."
Sakura looked like she wanted to protest, but she sighed. "When we get out of this dump, I expect you to take me out for a whole week. You pay, got it?"
"A whole week?! I'm not made of money, you know!"
"A week, Naruto. It's either that or I stay and fight. Your choice."
"Aw, man! That's cheating!"
"I think it's fair," Karin said. "Actually, you should be buying all her meals, you damn cheapskate."
"Come on! Not you, too! Karin," Naruto pleaded.
"If you're all finished, we have more work to do," Mito said.
Karin glanced at her, noticing that something was off about her. She wasn't as collected as she'd been before, like something had frightened her to the core. But what?
"Good luck," Sakura said, her gaze lingering on Naruto for a half second too long.
"Who needs luck when I got family?" Naruto said softly, smiling as he watched her go.
"Okay, we have to separate the Juubi into its Bijuu parts. This is a forbidden technique that I think I should warn you about. Using it will draw upon your life force as well as your chakra. As Uzumaki, we're blessed with incredible life force that allows us to live far longer than the average human life span. You'll have to sacrifice a number of those years for this work," Mito explained.
"You mean…I'll die younger?" Naruto said.
"Mito-sama, there's gotta be another way, you know?" Kushina said.
"There isn't. We aren't the Sage of Six Paths. This is the only option, and it comes with a price. It's why the technique is forbidden."
"I'll do it," Naruto said. "I don't care if it takes away half my life. Everyone else's lives are just as important as mine."
Kushina put a hand on her son's shoulder, smiling like she wanted to cry but couldn't find the strength.
"…I'll do it, too," Karin said. "If I lived longer than anyone I know, that would defeat the purpose of living, anyway."
Mito held her gaze a moment, thoughtful. "All right. Let's get going."
Hashirama and Tobirama had engaged the Juubi along with Hiruzen and Minato. In their maimed states they could not inflict as much damage as they would have liked, but they weren't any worse off than they'd been fighting Obito. It would buy the Uzumaki enough time to engineer the reverse sealing technique.
"Hashirama! Now!" Mito said.
Initiating his technique, the abomination that was the incomplete Juubi wailed as it felt itself being pulled under Hashirama's influence. Karin watched as it stumbled, struggling and powering up a tailed beast ball in its desperation.
Kushina gasped. "We'll never make it!"
Sure enough, the Juubi unleashed its attack, which hurtled straight for the fight between Sasuke and Madara.
Before Karin could think of what she was doing, she screamed. "Sasuke!"
The explosion was blinding, and Karin lost sight of him.
"That genjutsu earlier wasn't half bad," Madara said, avoiding a slash from an electrified Kusanagi.
"My brother was a genjutsu master," Sasuke said, focusing his chakra and calling on Enton: Kagutsuchi.
Madara grinned at the flames that surrounded him and rose in thick, stygian spikes ready to impale him. "Itachi, right? If only my brother were alive to see his progeny now."
Sasuke launched his attack, striking Madara through the chest, face, and torso. The smell was revolting—rotting flesh. It reminded him of his battle with Itachi. He still had burn marks from that fight that would never fade.
"Of course. You didn't think you were born with extraordinary will by mere chance, did you? Our line is a tainted one, they said. Bastard sons with no name. And look at us now. We're here because we fought, blood with blood, to earn our place. Power that's given to you isn't real power; you have to snatch it for yourself for it to mean anything. But you already know that, don't you?"
The spike in anger materialized Susano'o, its violet fog clinging to Sasuke like miasma, a poison and a cure all in one.
"Getting serious now, hm?"
"I said, no more talking!"
Sasuke's Susano'o clashed with Madara's, which materialized in the blink of an eye. Everything he threw at the older shinobi seemed to bounce off him. Madara could counter every move, every attack, as though he were looking in a mirror. It was like fighting a better, invincible version of himself. All but the eyes. The eyes were pale and empty, rimmed with blood.
"I wonder what you think you can accomplish like this," Madara said. "You know they'll never take you back in Konoha, not after everything you've done. And yet, you fight their battles for them. Pathetic."
"I fight for Itachi's legacy. It's none of your business."
"But it is. See, I know you. I've been where you are and I know how it turns out." He spread his arms wide. "You'll have all this one day. Hatred makes you strong, so strong. But until you can embrace that, you won't even slow me down."
Sasuke growled under his breath, fed up with this. He directed Susano'o to launch an arrow, but Madara's Susano'o caught it between its hands and it fizzled out. Like it was nothing. Sasuke couldn't believe his eyes.
"What's the matter, Sasuke?" Madara said, advancing. "You look like you've seen a ghost."
Madara gathered his chakra and threw a massive Yasaka Magatama. Swearing, Sasuke tried to dodge but there was no time. He would have to rely on his ultimate defense to save him now.
Just then, an incredible wall of water rose up before him, blocking the projectile's path. Before Sasuke could shout at Suigetsu to move, Juugo launched himself past Sasuke and punched through the water. His transformed fist collided with the Yasaka Magatama, and Sasuke had to cover his ears to shield them from the crack. When he regained his senses, the water wall was gone along with Juugo and Suigetsu. Momentary panic held Sasuke in its grip as he searched for his fallen comrades. They lay on the ground several yards away. Suigetsu was completely liquefied and Juugo was struggling to pull himself up. His arm seemed not to be functioning properly.
"Vermin," Madara said. "You tend to attract them, I've noticed."
"Your opponent is me, not them. Leave them out of it."
"They're the ones who jumped in to protect you. Or are you so ungrateful for their assistance? Shameful, Sasuke. If you're going to burden yourself with human bonds, then the least you can do is thank them for dying in your stead."
Sasuke was about to respond to that when Karin's voice shouting his name drew his attention. A giant tailed beast ball was heading straight for them, and there was no time to move. Thinking quickly, Sasuke bulked up his Susano'o and extended it to protect Juugo and Suigetsu nearby. No sooner had he finished than the attack struck.
And there was nothing.
"Karin, we need you!" Kushina said.
Sasuke's fate was still unknown, and she couldn't sense anything through the oppressive mass of the Juubi's chakra residue. Had he survived? It killed her not to know, and everything in her begged to go to him, to heal him. She took a step away from the group toward Sasuke's location.
Mito's voice stopped her, but it wasn't angry.
"I have to make sure he's okay," Karin said. "You can manage without me."
"No, we can't."
Karin sensed a tough choice before her now. Should she go to Sasuke or stay and help? Normally, the answer would have been a no brainer, but now that she was involved and responsible, she hesitated.
"You love him," Mito said.
Karin recoiled. "I-I what? It's not—"
"I can sense your emotions, and that's love if I ever saw it."
Karin was speechless, a first for her. "Y-Yeah, well, what's it to you?"
The Juubi's roar cut them off from further conversation. Mito and Karin were forced to flee the immediate area to avoid being bludgeoned by a massive tail.
"Hey, you okay?" Naruto asked, helping Karin up.
Naruto studied her for a minute. "He's okay, you know. That last attack didn't kill him."
"How do you—"
"I'm pretty good friends with a mind reader. She knows everything."
Karin stared at him a moment, wondering.
"Okay. Let's finish this damn thing."
Naruto nodded. "Yeah. I'm getting hungry."
They ran to rejoin Kushina and Mito, who'd regrouped near Hashirama.
"I can't seem to hold it long enough," Hashirama said. "It's too powerful even for me!"
"There's got to be something you can do!" Kushina said.
Minato stood by Kushina as Tobirama and Hiruzen took their turn keeping the beast at bay as much as possible. Karin wracked her brain for a solution, but none came. If they couldn't restrain the beast long enough to enact the reverse sealing, then there was nothing they could do.
"Maybe I can help."
Everyone turned to see Yamato, who looked much better than he had the last time he'd shown up.
"What can you do?" Karin asked bluntly.
"Hey, Yamato-taichou's the best at this kind of thing!" Naruto said. "He calmed me down plenty of times, you know?"
Hashirama smiled. "In that case, I welcome the help."
Yamato nodded and jogged to catch up with the Hokage. "At your service, sir."
The Juubi howled and stamped the earth, ready to charge. Hashirama swore, hands flying through hand seals for a way to stop its death march in their direction. Suddenly, out of nowhere a figure rammed the Juubi's head from the right and knocked it off course. The beast collided with a cliff face fifty yards away, causing a rockslide. Tsunade picked herself up from the ground, Byakugo glowing upon her skin as lacerations steamed shut. A high-pitched hissing made Karin cringe—three enormous pythons slithered toward the Juubi and slammed into it, constricting it with their armored bodies.
"Whoa!" Hashirama said. "That's my little grandbaby?"
"Orochimaru," Karin said, eyeing the two Sannin as they worked together to hold off the beast.
"We'll hold it off," Tobirama said. "Stop fooling around and finish this."
He ran toward the Juubi with Minato and Hiruzen to aid Tsunade and Orochimaru in distracting it while the others prepared for the sealing.
Hashirama sighed. "Always in such a rush. But I have to agree with him. I can see Tsunade later. You, over there!"
"Yamato, sir," Yamato said, taking his place next to Hashirama.
"Yamato, what a fine name! Let's subdue the beast for as long as we can so they can separate it. Ready?"
Hashirama turned to Mito and smiled. If it wasn't bad enough, he gave her a thumbs-up. Karin shook her head.
"Give 'em hell, darling," Hashirama said before taking off with Yamato.
"You heard the man," Mito said, smirking. "Let's finish this. Follow my lead!"
Karin joined Naruto, Kushina, and Mito as they ran in formation toward the Juubi. Mito explained the seal they would be using on the way and how Naruto and Karin would have to deliver the final contact while Mito and Kushina restrained the beast with their chakra chains.
"This hinges upon you two not dying," Mito said.
"Great," Karin said, feeling anything but.
Hashirama and Yamato had forced the Juubi to the ground while the others pelted it with ninjutsu. Still it struggled, and Karin was more than a little worried to see Yamato and Hashirama fall to their knees.
The sealing team worked fast despite Karin's body's protests to the mounting strain. Sakura had been drained completely by the last sealing, but just because Karin and Naruto were Uzumaki didn't mean they were inexhaustible. As they channeled their energy into the seal, Karin felt herself losing focus and began to see dark spots. The pain had returned, a living knife somewhere inside trying to cut free of her.
Naruto's voice reached her in echoes. A part of her, the part that had kept her alive all these years in Sound despite the vile assaults she'd lived with daily for the sake of science, refused to let her give up now. She still had to work things out with Sasuke, and Suigetsu would devolve into a lesser species if she weren't around to keep him in line. And who would be there to talk to Juugo over the voices in his head, keep him sane and focused? No, she couldn't just give up like a coward. If Sakura could face almost certain death in a sealing and still find the energy to smile after, then Karin could withstand a little reverse sealing, damnit.
And suddenly her will to fight was back, pulsing and hot, almost too hot. Her skin hummed with energy that wasn't hers, but it breathed life into her. When Karin opened her eyes, she saw that it wasn't her imagination comforting her on her deathbed—Naruto had infused them with the Kyuubi's chakra cloak.
"Do it, now!" Hashirama said just as a tailed beast ball slammed into him and took off his entire left side.
Mito and Kushina released their chakra chains, binding the Juubi with innumerable seals and spells. Its wail pierced Karin to the bone, a ghastly sound that surely foretold death and destruction to all who witnessed it. But the chains didn't break, and Naruto called to her.
Karin took a deep breath and ran after him toward the Juubi. They jumped from one of its tails to its back and ran up its spine. The beast shook beneath them, and Naruto had to reach for Karin's hand to keep her from being thrown off. This chakra burned, but it kept her awake.
"Now!" Mito said, releasing her portion of the sealing technique and channeling it through her chains.
Kushina followed suit. Naruto and Karin shared a brief glance and, in unison, slammed their open palms between the Juubi's shoulder blades.
All the energy that had fueled her this far was siphoned off her faster than she could think. Karin gagged and fell over, but the Juubi's body didn't break her fall. Unable to breathe for a split second, she thought this might truly be the end, that they'd pushed too hard, and really, who could expect a couple of teenagers to take on the ultimate Bijuu and live to tell the tale?
Reality met her with all the enthusiasm of a brick wall; indeed, if felt as though she'd fallen from the sky and crashed through one. Something felt warm under her head, and vaguely she realized she must be bleeding. Bleeding and broken. This feeling was familiar, and it made her want to curl into a ball and sleep forever.
A hand found hers, and Karin coughed. One of the lenses in her glasses was cracked. Blood dribbled from her mouth, making it difficult to breath. She could hear something wet when she inhaled—probably not a good sign.
"Naruto?" she ventured.
Turning her head, Karin caught sight of one blue eye (the other was swollen shut and turning purple). He looked like he'd survived a natural disaster, and somehow that stupid grin had made it out with him.
"We did it," he whispered.
It took unimaginable energy, but Karin forced herself to look up. Shadows loomed above her, teetering, like strange bubbles in black water. A slug and a turtle, a monkey and a cat. The Bijuu were restored, if not severely weakened from the battle.
Karin turned back to Naruto, a half smile working its way onto her face. "…We did it," she said, breathless.
He was beaten. Sasuke hated to admit it, but he wasn't delusional. This fight had been a losing one on his part from the start, its aim merely to keep Madara busy until Hashirama returned, but even that had proven too much for the last Uchiha. His chakra was nearly depleted, his right arm was shattered in more places than he could count, and blood dripped from him like a leaky faucet—it just kept coming no matter how much pressure he applied between attacking and dodging, all in futility. Madara kept coming back.
"I'm getting bored," Madara said. "It's not my style to kill my own kind, but if you insist then I'll be happy to make an exception just this once before I move on to your allies."
"I'm your opponent. Leave them out of it," Sasuke said.
"You're no opponent. An opponent is someone who can match my power. You're just a pebble in my shoe."
Sasuke panted, ignoring the slight. With Suigetsu and Juugo still out of commission, he was having a hard time barely staying alive against Madara. Perhaps if he'd been a normal shinobi, not an invincible, undead god, Sasuke could have at least knocked him around enough to stand a chance.
"You look like you could use some help."
Sasuke didn't have to look up to know the owner of that voice. "Gaara."
"I brought friends," Gaara said.
The Mizukage, Tsuchikage, and Raikage flanked him, all looking worse for wear but in far better shape than Sasuke.
"If you think you're off the hook just because you're fighting with us, you got another thing coming, punk," the Raikage said, cracking the knuckles on his remaining hand.
"Cool it, Raikage," Mei said. "He may be handsome, but he's only a child. And children, as we know, can be very stupid."
"I see you lot want another beating," Madara said. "I'll dispose of you for good this time."
Oonoki stepped forward. "Madara, this is as far as you go."
"I didn't ask for help," Sasuke said to Gaara's back as the Kage prepared to step in for him.
"That's the thing about allies," Gaara said, walking toward the fight. "We help each other without having to ask."
A small part of Sasuke was relieved to have a break from this torture, but he knew it wasn't meant to be. They stood no better chance than he had. And there was nothing he could do to change that.
"Cant's say I'm happy to be returning the favor, but at least you're okay. Both of you," Tsunade said as she finished patching up Karin.
Karin winced and pushed herself up on her elbows. "…Ow."
Mito watched as Tsunade healed Karin and Naruto. The technique had taken too much out of both of them, and even though they'd lived they would feel the consequences of using the kinjutsu for the rest of their shortened lives. There was no way to tell how much they'd lost, but she was certain it was too much.
"Mito-sama, your Yin seal," Kushina said.
Mito raised a hand to her forehead. "I guess it's only natural that last sealing would take nearly all we had."
"Sir, I… I have to apologize for my performance. I let you take the hit from the Juubi just before the sealing," Yamato said.
Hashirama grinned. "Nonsense! You were a big help, and I can't die. Hah!"
He slapped a hand over Yamato's back for good measure, which caused Yamato to stumble forward and cough.
"You lot are quite chatty for a bunch of dead people," Orochimaru said. "But I think you're forgetting about the last fly in the ointment."
"Madara," Tsunade said, standing now that Karin and Naruto were functioning again.
Mito caught her husband's eye, all mirth gone from his expression as they reached an unspoken conclusion about what would happen next.
"He was fighting Sasuke last I saw," Naruto said, teeth bared. He'd reverted to his normal state after the reverse sealing, his and Kurama's chakra all but gone. "I gotta help him!"
"You don't gotta do anything," Kushina said. "You can barely stand, you know?"
"I'm fine! Tell her, Dad," Naruto said, turning to Minato for backup.
Kushina glared at her husband, and he laughed nervously. "Uh, sorry, Naruto. I think your mother's right about this one."
"Let's just go. We're wasting time," Tobirama said.
"What about the Bijuu?" Tsunade said. "We can't just leave them here."
"Saru," Hashirama said. "You stay and make sure they don't cause any trouble while we finish. We'll have to do something about them once this is all over."
Hiruzen nodded. "No problem, sensei." Then, turning to his former students he added, "Tsunade…Orochimaru. I could use your help with this."
Tsunade stepped forward, hesitated, then turned to Orochimaru. "Well?"
Orochimaru chuckled. "Don't say I never did anything for you."
Hiruzen smiled, a little sad, but he said nothing.
"We'll help, too," Minato said, taking Kushina's hand. "In case anything goes wrong."
Naruto was surprised to see them hanging back, but Kushina ruffled his hair and smiled.
"Your friend needs you now more than we do. We'll be here when you get back, you know?"
Before Naruto could say anything to that, an explosion rattled with such intensity that cracked the earth beneath their feet. All eyes turned toward Sasuke and Madara's fight in the distance.
"Damn you, Madara," Hashirama said.
"I think that's our cue to get the hell over there," Tobirama said.
Naruto growled and started forward. "Mom, Dad, see ya. There's something I gotta do."
"I'm coming with you," Karin said.
The pair took off with Tobirama in tow. Hiruzen's group parted ways to tend to the Bijuu, and soon only Hashirama and Mito were left.
"I wonder if it's true what they say," Hashirama said. "That we're doomed to repeat history no matter what we do."
In the distance, Mito could make out Madara's Susano'o, fog-like but nearly impenetrable. She remembered the day he'd awakened it, the day she'd nearly died and he couldn't let her go. With Madara, there was never any discerning a line between his love and his hatred—they had always been one and the same. There was nothing left of him after that day, just a shell of a man running too fast to salvage what little good there was left in his life only to trample it underfoot.
"Not this time," Mito said, taking Hashirama's hand. "It ends with us."
Hashirama squeezed her hand, and for a fleeting moment Mito allowed herself to take comfort in him. He was immovable, like the blanched trees of the Shikkotsu forest as old as time itself. Nothing could bend Hashirama. But Madara was fire—he didn't need to bend when he could burn right through.
He could have asked her the question they were both thinking, the one that had haunted them even in their happiest days for as long as Madara was still living, still an option. But Mito had made her choice and stood by it. There was no doubt in her mind that this, at least, she'd done right. She leaned against Hashirama's side briefly, and he held her close.
"I know," he said.
For a man who usually said the wrong thing, he knew how to convey everything they both needed to hear in a few simple words when he wanted to.
They stayed close as they ran to catch up with the group.
By the time Naruto and his group had reached his location, Sasuke was more than relieved to see them. Naruto and Karin both looked like they'd been through hell, but they had clearly made it out. There was no time to relax, however. Madara had pummeled the four Kage that joined the fight. The Raikage lay in pieces some distance away, ripped apart by Susano'o. The others were on the verge of joining him. Sasuke had nearly thrown up when he saw how Madara had dealt with the Raikage, a man he'd faced not long ago and narrowly escaped to tell the tale.
"Vermin. They keep crawling out from hidden cracks begging to die," Madara said. "I'm bored of this."
Gaara tried to pick himself up from the ground to Sasuke's left, but was having a hard time of it. He'd lost a lot of blood.
"Damnit, I leave you for five minutes and you can't even get up," Naruto said, standing next to where Sasuke was crouched on the ground.
"He's invincible," Sasuke said. "And it was more than five minutes."
Naruto noticed Gaara similarly incapacitated and swore. "I'm sick of this old man, you know?"
Karin kept her distance somewhat, which did not escape Sasuke's notice. Despite her cold exterior, he knew how to read her. Lurid eyes scanned his person, lingering on his right arm that felt like it had taken a trip through a wood chipper. She bit her lip and leaned forward slightly. He almost felt ashamed. Even after everything he'd put her through, even though she'd made it perfectly clear that his apology wasn't enough to fix things between them (he'd only ever been good at breaking things, never putting them back together), still she worried about him. Shame turned to anger. She should be worrying about herself, not him. He was stronger than her, and he could take care of himself. He could take care of Juugo and Suigetsu and her, just like he always had.
"Enough of this," Madara said. "I've beaten the best you have, and I'm still standing. It's time for the rest of you to die."
"Madara, you piece of shit," Tobirama said. "If you think I'll let you get away with all this—"
"I don't need your permission to get away with anything!"
Susano'o fired another Yasaka Magatama, this time directed at Tobirama, who materialized an incredible wall of water out of thin air to block.
"Shit, Naruto!" Karin said, already running.
Steam and fire exploded, superheating the vicinity and making Sasuke gag for lack of oxygen. Strong arms pulled him up and away from ground zero, and just in time. A smoking pit sat where he'd been only seconds ago once the fog cleared.
Tobirama lay on the ground, bisected and missing an alarming portion of his upper body and face. The Edo Tensei slowly reconstructed him, but the sight was grisly regardless. Madara walked toward him and kicked him hard in what was left of his stomach, causing Tobirama to heave.
"That was for my brother. And I'm just getting warmed up."
Tobirama coughed. "If Izuna could see you now, he'd hate what you've become."
This seemed to make Madara even angrier. "How dare you." He reached down and picked Tobirama up by the collar. "Everything is your fault! You murdered him!"
Tobirama wheezed and cracked a smile. "He thanked me, you know. For breaking his curse. I did for him what you could never do—"
Madara had apparently heard enough. He drove Tobirama's broken body into the ground hard. Sasuke watched all this, feeling fear for the first time since he'd joined the war. He remembered the story Obito had told him about Madara and his brother, Izuna. Watching Madara beat Tobirama literally into the ground, he felt all thoughts but one leave him:
That could have been me.
Perhaps Madara was right on some level about them being the same. And that terrified him more than anything.
"Sasuke, you're in bad shape," Karin said, easing him down.
She'd pulled him away from the confrontation between Madara and Tobirama just in time. It was the second time she'd saved his life. Naruto sat a distance away with Gaara, similarly rescued from what would have been certain death.
Sasuke stared at Karin as she offered him her arm, refusing to look him in the eye.
"Come on, I'll heal you."
"I can't," Sasuke said, pushing her arm away. "You're too weak. It'll kill you."
"It won't. I'm not as weakened as you think."
Madara overheard the conversation and turned on them. "Another Uzumaki," he said, smirking.
Sasuke and Karin looked at Madara, and Sasuke decided he did not like what he saw. Acting on instinct, he shifted so that his body stood between Karin and Madara for all the good it would them. "Leave her out of this."
Madara threw his head back and laughed. "I see how it is! Deny it all you want, but you and I are the same. Take if from me. Even she won't be enough for you, just as she was never enough for me."
"You're wrong, Madara."
All eyes turned to the new voice. Mito and Hashirama had arrived, the latter immediately noticing Tobirama in bad shape. While Hashirama focused on his brother, Mito confronted Madara.
"Speak of the devil," Madara said.
When they saw the incredible collision of water and spectral fire, Hashirama ordered Mito to go ahead while he checked on his brother. Madara and Tobirama had never gotten along even during the Senju-Uchiha alliance. Izuna always stood between them. Mito was relieved Tobirama was under the Edo Tensei's spell at the moment, otherwise he surely would be dead.
Still, Hashirama was asking her to do the one thing that scared her most. It had been so long since she'd confronted Madara alone. Not since the night he'd left Konoha for good.
"Come with me."
Damn him. Those words had haunted her the rest of her too-long life. So many questions, so much doubt, and here they were all over again. Maybe Hashirama was right. The waves of time beat them endlessly into the past the harder they struggled against the current.
But not for Karin and Sasuke.
"You're wrong," Mito repeated, walking closer. "Those two are not like us at all."
"Is that so?" Madara let her approach, making no move to attack the way he had the last time they were close. "You don't see yourself in that girl, so consumed by him that she would give what little is left of her life for a man who would take her until she had nothing left to give?"
Mito stopped her approach, but if she wanted to she could have reached out and touched Madara with her fingertips. A part of her wanted to, had always wanted to despite it all. A part of her refused to forget the man he used to be, the part that could have chosen him over Hashirama.
But that man had died long ago with his brother. Ghosts could not love.
"I see a girl who went through hell and kept going," Mito said. "And she'll drag him out with her."
Madara sneered. "That's where you're wrong. He'll bring her down with him. He did it once, and he'll do it again. That's the curse of the Uchiha."
As much as she loved Hashirama, Madara had always been at the back of her mind, waiting to catch her off guard. He was the shadow flickering out of the corner of her eye, and when she turned there was no one there. He was the sound of her name on the wind with no voice and no origin. He was the space of time when she was just waking in the morning with one foot still in the dream world, a place that could never be and never should be. He was the wind, incorporeal, but Hashirama was the earth—solid and true and teeming with life. He raised her up where Madara only ever swept her away.
"Mito," Hashirama said, drawing up behind her a ways. His voice was soft, subdued.
"The hero returns," Madara said.
"I did love you once," Mito admitted, taking a careful step closer to Madara.
Nearby, Karin and Sasuke were still watching, silent.
"I loved the boy you used to be," she continued. "I loved you more than my title, more than my name, more than my own life. It's just as you say."
The air tasted thick and sour upon Mito's tongue as she slowly drew closer to Madara, and he let her. Rinnegan eyes watched her every move. He knew her tactics well, and any move was a threat.
"But that boy is gone. I was too young to know I was chasing a ghost."
She reached out as though to touch his face, but before she could make contact he thrust a hand forward and plunged it through her middle. Mito gasped and staggered on her feet. The Edo Tensei was so refined that it could mimic the pain of life, the innate reactions of the body. Everything but warmth. Madara's hand was like ice in her heart.
"Grams!" Karin said.
Mito heaved. As long as Madara's arm impaled her, the Edo Tensei could not heal her. Eyes downcast, she nevertheless managed to smile.
"Don't you see?" she said. "You and I were doomed from the start. But them? They've surpassed us in every way."
Madara's expression twisted in a scowl. "Uchiha wallow in hatred. It's always been that way."
"No," Hashirama said, suddenly behind Madara. "You were my friend once. No matter what you do, you can never erase that."
Madara tried to turn around, but Mito's grip on his arm impeded his movement. His arm was still through her, and only now did he realize his mistake. Hashirama restrained him from behind while Mito held fast in front.
"Just like old times," Madara spat. "The two of you against me. But this time I can't die."
"But you can be banished," Mito said, tightening her grip on his wrist.
Before Madara could strike her with his free hand, Hashirama twisted it backwards. Roots burst through the earth and wound around Madara's legs and torso, imprisoning him. He struggled, but it was futile.
"I didn't think you had it in you. That was a dirty trick."
Mito met his eyes, and she was unable to hold back her tears any longer. "No," she said. "You let it happen, just like last time."
"Come with me."
Golden threads of light crawled up Madara's arm from her hands, intricate symbols of a language long dead. They made their way across his shoulder and down his chest to a point in his abdomen. It was the place Mito's chain had struck him earlier.
Madara released a strained breath. "Clever, Princess."
"It was lucky."
"That damned modesty again," he said. "I hate it."
"This is the end, Madara. This time you won't get up and walk away," Hashirama said. "None of us will."
The seconds ticked by. Madara's breathing was labored as he fought the effects of Mito's seal. It was slowly dismantling him from the inside out, the fruit of her extended life alone. To undo the darkness Tobirama had brought into the world if only one day it would serve some use. She never had believed Madara died that day. He'd been invincible since the day they met, just innocent children alone on the shore watching the tide come in.
"Remember this, Sasuke," Madara said, his skin beginning to flake and dissolve. "To love is to hate. In the end, death is the only constant."
Sasuke, who looked about ready to collapse from his obvious pain, nevertheless struggled to stand on his two feet. Karin lent him a shoulder despite her own enfeeblement. His breathing was labored so much that Mito could hear it from this distance. The eternal Sharingan glowed in the wan moonlight, and she repressed the urge to shiver.
"I…am nothing like you," Sasuke said.
Madara tried to respond, to tear down Sasuke's defiance, but the jutsu was taking its toll. He heaved, and veins of light pierced his skin from the inside out. It took Mito a moment to realize he was laughing.
"Fitting," he said, eyes turned skyward. "My only friend stabs me in the back, and the woman I love rips my heart out. I truly am wretched."
Mito choked on her tears. "Madara…"
"We'll join you soon, Madara," Hashirama said, eyes downcast to hide his own tears. "You won't be alone."
The light pushed out from him, ever brighter and warmer. Madara's Rinnegan faded to his trademark Sharingan.
"Can't get rid of you," he said.
And then he looked at her, saw her tears. She wanted to apologize, to tell him how things could have been different in another life, another time, if only they hadn't been born Uchiha and Uzumaki. If only they'd had time. If only.
"A princess never cries for a soldier," he said.
Those words, the same words he'd said to her on her wedding day, shocked her speechless. His blessing, bitter and hurting but still given when she needed to hear it more than anything. She stared into those red eyes that had once captivated her. The illusion was over, and he was fading. Transparent, all she could see was Hashirama behind him, holding her through him. And like the wind, he faded away on a gentle breath warmer than she could remember until there was no one there at all.
Mito collapsed, her chakra completely gone, but Hashirama caught her. He always caught her.
"Hashirama," she said, the tears falling anew.
"It's okay," he said, smiling through his tears. "We're okay."
Naruto, Karin, and Sasuke approached their ancestors now that the threat was gone.
"It's over," Naruto said. He didn't seem happy about it.
Tobirama hobbled over to the group, favoring his side where the Edo Tensei had yet to heal him fully. "Yes, once and for all, I hope."
Hiruzen and his group arrived with a report that the Bijuu were under control. Kushina and Minato hugged Naruto, rejoicing and happy now that they had a moment to be together without the threat of war. Even Orochimaru seemed content to talk with Tsunade and their old teacher. Dead covered the earth as far as the eye could see, but those who remained scurried about searching for survivors. The losses were daunting, she imagined, but they'd won. Karin watched it all in silence, disbelieving of this victory. Was it really over?
Slowly, those who remained began to gather. Sakura threw herself at Naruto, crushing him in a hug that Karin was sure had to hurt. But Naruto never looked happier than he did in that moment. Sai, who'd recovered since his last battle, also made his way toward his teammates with the help of Ino's supportive shoulder, although Sakura spared him any bone crushing due to his poor condition.
Even Suigetsu and Juugo managed to pick themselves up.
"Oh, so you're not dead after all," Karin said.
"Che, as if you could get rid of me that easily. Please," Suigetsu said, grinning.
Karin smirked, secretly relieved to see that he and Juugo had made it through all right.
Some reunions were happy and heartfelt, a blessing to behold in the face of so much death and destruction. But others were left wanting as soldiers searched for their missing leaders, men and women for the lovers with whom they'd fought side by side. Fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters: some had made it to the end, most had not. Screams and wails of pain and anguish soon resounded through the laughter and rejoicing. War was death, and death was absolute. Even those brought back could not avoid it forever.
"It's time," Tobirama said.
He didn't elaborate, but the message was clear.
"…and we can check out Ichiraku's when we get back to Konoha!" Naruto said, grinning from ear to ear.
Minato smiled at his only son. "I'm so proud of you, Naruto."
Naruto's good mood faded somewhat at the odd response. "…Dad?"
Kushina covered her mouth, trying not to cry. "Oh Naruto, there's nothing I'd rather do than eat ramen with you, you know?"
"Hey, don't cry," Naruto said.
"Naruto," Minato said, putting a hand on his shoulder. "It's time for us to go."
"But you only just got here!"
Karin was also surprised. "You're leaving already?"
Mito turned to her and smiled. "We're no longer needed."
Suddenly, Karin felt anxious, like all this was happening so fast and there was still so much she needed to say. But try as she might, she couldn't figure out where to begin. So much had happened in such a short time, but her life had changed forever because of it. She had a family. The revelations of this day and night began to sink in, and her knees shook. If not for Sasuke, who still leaned against her, she may have toppled over.
"But I still…"
Mito smiled and reached out a hand to brush the ends of Karin's hair. "You have everything you need right here. Just don't lose sight of it."
It was absurd, ludicrous, even, but Karin felt the overwhelming urge to cry.
"Are we ready?" Tobirama said. "Orochimaru, if you don't mind."
Orochimaru nodded, breaking away from Tsunade and Hiruzen. "Everyone stand over there."
The Edo Tensei shinobi clustered together, waiting for the sendoff. Orochimaru performed the unsealing, and just as with Madara before, veins of light pierced through them.
"Mom, Dad, thank you!" Naruto said, smiling even as his tears fell and Sakura held his hand in hers. "You're the best!"
Karin watched as Mito dissolved into light, so poised even in death. Everything she didn't think she could ever be.
"You said I was nothing like you," she said. "Why?"
Mito looked surprised for a moment before smiling softly. "Because, you're better."
Karin stepped forward, dragging Sasuke with her. He didn't protest.
"Why?" she repeated. "How can I be? You're… You're so…"
"You already know the answer to that," Mito said, nearly transparent now. Even so, Hashirama held her hand and they seemed to melt into each other, bound as one.
The lights intensified and Karin had to shield her eyes. When she looked up, they were all gone. The war was over.
They had won.
Team Taka huddled together as the medics circled the battlefield, healing the worst of the injuries. Somehow, Sakura had managed to wrangle one of them and send them over, for which Sasuke's mangled arm was grateful.
Sasuke hadn't said more than two words since Madara was released. Suigetsu, of course, filled in the silence with his usual prattle, but Karin was thankful for the background noise.
"So, where to next?" Juugo asked once the medic had finished salvaging Sasuke's arm enough to ensure he'd have working use of it again one day.
All eyes turned to Sasuke, waiting. "…Sound."
"What the fuck?" Suigetsu said. "I'm not playing goldfish again."
"Sasuke, are you sure?" Juugo said, concerned.
"What's in Sound?" Karin asked.
"Nothing yet," Sasuke said. He leaned his weight on his good arm and lifted his eyes skyward. "But there will be one day."
It wasn't easy, but Karin hadn't been expecting otherwise. The Great Hidden Villages were still wary of Sasuke and his criminal record. Even with the Raikage dead, Cloud had not been the first to endorse Konoha's conditional decision to allow Sasuke and his team to live peacefully. But Darui, the new Raikage, wasn't entirely opposed to the idea given Taka's invaluable support in the war. Or maybe he didn't feel like wasting energy arguing with Konoha and Suna on the matter.
The Bijuu dispersed after a conversation with Naruto and Killer B. If ever someone else got it into their head to fuse them again, it would be too soon. The villages without Jinchuuriki had agreed to relinquishing the power of their Bijuu on the condition that Konoha and Cloud freed the Eight and Nine Tails upon their hosts' deaths. It wasn't the happiest moment of the postwar peace talks, but there was little pushback after what everyone had seen in the war. As forces of nature, the Bijuu were never meant to be controlled by humans.
Naruto returned to Konoha the hero he'd always dreamed of becoming, loved and accepted by all. There were times when he'd stay up late and think about the parents he'd met only briefly, wishing things could have been different but thankful that he'd had the chance to meet them after all. It was times like those that Sakura waited up for him no matter how long he needed. He was only human, even if this was hard for many to believe sometimes.
One condition of Taka's freedom and Sasuke's exculpation was indefinite unpaid service to Konoha. Such missions were uncommon, but they required Taka to check in with the Hokage personally. Karin secretly looked forward to their report, which she usually got stuck writing up, because it was a chance to see Naruto. He had so many questions for her about her childhood, her family, about the massacre and her subsequent life in Sound. Never had Karin thought her life of particular interest or sympathy to an outsider, but Naruto was different.
He was family.
"D'you think there are more of us out there?" he'd asked her once. "You know, hiding? Or maybe they don't even know they're Uzumaki, like you."
Their clan had faced near extinction during the civil wars, Karin learned. Of course, she'd taken it upon herself to raid Orochimaru's old research as well as the Konoha archives for any information she could find about the Uzumaki, and Naruto had been eager to hear it all (but he complained about the grunt work constantly). But the question of survivors had never been answered. It was as much a mystery to them now as it had been to her most of her life.
"I don't know," she'd said. "But I'd like to think there are."
Orochimaru disappeared after the war's end, taking advantage of the commotion in the wake of Madara's defeat. When Tsunade was alerted of her old teammate's escape, she waved it off.
"We'll give him a head start. He's an old man, after all."
To this day, Karin didn't know what had become of her old master, although sometimes she suspected Sasuke had some idea. But he never let on.
Obito perished as a result of his forcible separation from the Juubi, but not before Hatake Kakashi made it back from Kamui's parallel dimension to watch him go. No one knew exactly what happened in Obito's final moments with Kakashi, but it was rumored that he died with a smile on his face, finally free of the Curse of Hatred and able to reunite with the woman he'd missed all his life. Kakashi never talked about Obito or their battle, even when the interrogators tried to get it out of him. The case was dismissed, and Obito's name was added to a gravestone for fallen Konoha shinobi, along with Uchiha Itachi's, at Naruto's insistence. Any objections fell upon deaf ears.
Now, as the former Team Taka returned to Sound to make it their home with their rules, things were just starting to get back to normal. Maybe even a little better than normal. Juugo was having some success regulating his chakra, and he was less prone to fits of rage. Suigetsu was back to his annoying self, but it was a welcome change. Karin would have sooner died than admitted it, but their bickering was something she'd come to enjoy. In the beginning it had been hurtful, but after everything they'd gone through, it was a way to relieve stress for them both. Sasuke noticed, too, and he stopped telling them to lay off each other.
Sasuke had always been recalcitrant, but after the war he'd maintained a level of silence rare even for him. Still, he made an effort with her in his own way. It was little things, like going out of his way to help her with odd jobs around their home or the village. He listened to her, just as he always had, but now he made a point of soliciting her opinion proactively.
And one day, he thanked her.
Karin thought she'd heard wrong. He'd never thanked her for anything, and this was particularly unprompted. They'd just finished dinner and he'd done the dishes. Outside, the night air was cool. Winter was around the corner, but they still had a few weeks left of Fall. A full moon shone bright overhead, heavy as though it might fall out of the sky at any moment.
"For what?" she asked, watching him seated beside her on their porch.
Karin peered at him through her glasses. He was grinding his teeth, something he did whenever he was thinking of what to say. She gave him time to gather his thoughts.
"What I did to you…"
"We're past that now," she said. "You weren't you back then."
"But I could have been." He was looking at her now, dark eyes cloudy with emotions he rarely ever showed, even to her. "I could have become like him. I should have."
Karin pursed her lips. They'd both been thinking it. Everyone had been thinking it. The Curse of Hatred was the downfall of the Uchiha. It indirectly destroyed Itachi, drove Obito mad, and kept Madara's nightmare alive for generations. It should have pulled Sasuke under, too, and it had. When he'd tried to kill her, she'd heard both their hearts break. The only difference was that it made him stronger.
"Mito said I was better than her." Karin scoffed. "Ridiculous, right? As if I could compare to a legend like her."
Mito had been everything Karin never knew she wanted to be. Strong but gentle, compassionate but ruthless when she needed to be, a leader and the support for those who could not stand on their own. She'd started out as a fairytale, a childhood dream. Now, she was a wall meant to be scaled, a standard of excellence. She was human, and she'd made mistakes that had haunted her for the rest of her life and beyond. She wasn't perfect, and she didn't have to be.
"She wasn't just talking to me when she said that, though. She and Madara were…" Karin paused, searching for the right words. "They failed. We'll probably never know exactly what happened, but they failed. They couldn't beat the Curse of Hatred."
She searched for Sasuke's hand, and he let her take it. Karin stared at their clasped hands outlined in pale moonlight.
"But you beat it," she said, tears welling in her eyes. She removed her glasses to wipe them away. "You did what Madara couldn't do. You're better than him."
Sasuke pulled her hand away from her face, startling her. "What are you—"
He silenced her with a kiss and pulled her close, almost desperate. Karin let him lead, momentarily stunned by the sudden display of emotion. He rarely behaved this way with her, especially since she'd still been angry with him for what had happened for some time after the war. But time had a way of smoothing out the edges. Having seen the consequences of failure in their ancestors, they'd both come to reevaluate the precious opportunity they had before them not to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Karin had seen Sasuke at his highest of highs and when he'd hit rock bottom. But when there's nowhere left to fall, the only way to go is up. Behind the pain of betrayal and the despair over his selfish decisions, she'd always thought that the Sasuke she knew was stronger than that. That he'd been living in the worst kind of hell for long enough to know the end was in sight if he just kept going. And Karin would always be wading through the thick of it beside him. She wouldn't wait in the safety of the light, hoping he would make it out alive by some miracle. They were a team, and they were in this together. That was always how it had been, and how it always would be.
Moonlight and muted candlelight were their only witnesses as they lay together in the home they'd built with their own hands. Outside, Sound was a work in progress after Orochimaru and Kabuto had bled it nearly dry. But they had time. Mito and Madara may have run out, but Karin and Sasuke were just beginning.
For the first time in their lives, they could let the currents sweep them away to the future instead of the past. Together.