Disclaimer: I do not own the series Naruto or any of the characters or concepts connected to it. I also have no claim to the various folk-tales that will be mentioned.
ONCE AND AFTER
Once upon a time, there was a turtle, and a person who saved that turtle, and a box that caused said savior a great deal of distress indeed.
But maybe not quite in that order.
Keita glanced suspiciously behind him to the back of the cave the squadron had claimed as their camp for the time being. He wasn't a superstitious man, but a long, hardened life beginning in the midst of the Bloody Mist and shaped by decades of harsh and largely unrewarding attempts towards revolution which had taught him that caution and listening to his gut could save not only himself, but his comrades and subordinates as well.
And right now, his instincts were positively screaming at him to grab his men and take them far, far away from the deceptively small wooden puzzle-box papered shut with ofuda and wrapped in five different layers of fabric to make sure it stayed that way.
Realistically, he knew that they could not afford to lose this particular 'asset', though personally he considered it to be little more than a time bomb, given what it contained. The power within would, if properly handled, give the village some power that was sorely needed in the wake of their long-sought and finally successful coup. The new change in regime was still on shaky legs, and kept so quiet that none but those directly involved in the shift knew much about it at all.
Realistically, he knew that their mission was to forge a weapon to protect their hard-won dream, but in his heart he couldn't help but resentfully wonder why the higher-ups were so set on creating a second Yagura while the first's ashes were still in the process of being tossed around and spat upon.
A faint clatter of metal on stone brought Keita's attention back to the other man left behind to guard the box. Izumi was one of the innumerable testaments to the cruelties of the previous Mizukage; he was a fuuinjutsu master of some ability, originally an Uzumaki prisoner-of-war who Yagura had broken like a poor-tempered horse.
The long, harrowing process had ended with the loss of the man's tongue and various loyalty and obedience seals being seared into his flesh. The once impetuous, hot-tempered man was now bowed and cowed by decades of slavery, his hair bleached white with age and his musculature atrophied by a diet of gruel and the heavy, chakra-draining manacles that had been clapped onto his wrists whenever he wasn't needed, stuffed away in a disgustingly small cell like an extra broom. Keita was no bleeding heart, but he was certainly far from Yagura's level. Some things just weren't right.
"Sorry," he apologized. "It…It's just that I suddenly felt like that thing was watching us." He immediately felt foolish, but Izumi merely shrugged, slow and as though each muscle involved was being taxed to its limits by the meager motion. He was still broken, in ways that would probably never be mended before his death, but the absence of Yagura seemed to have allowed a tentative spark of life to re-enter the withered husk of his body.
The old man sluggishly curled his fingers into the only form of communication he could use at the moment. They had plenty of ink and chalk with them, but those materials were dedicated to a much more important purpose in this excursion.
Keita was not filled with reassurance at that announcement, unsurprisingly. He had lost too many friends to the previous container of what lurked in the cage with them, was too used to associating the feel of its heinous chakra with massive carnage to ever be comfortable in its presence, shackled and muffled out as it was.
And they were here to shove its power within a young, autonomous being. He just didn't—well, no, he understood the logic perfectly. But that didn't mean he liked it.
If things had gone their way, for once, they would have been able to use Izumi to prepare a suitable, stable vessel that they could mold and control at their leisure, but even in death Yagura seemed to be determined to spite them all. To put it politely, it was not merely the seal master's tongue that was taken during the initial onslaught against his spirit.
Once that had been determined, the hits had just kept on coming. First, there was the violent aversion most veterans had developed towards the chakra of the Sanbi, followed soon after by the blanket incompatibility of the few infants and young children the village had to offer and finally rounded out with the private but dreaded announcement that the seals keeping the demon locked away would not last the year.
That was six months ago.
It had been decades since the Uzumaki clan had been scattered like ants after their sand hill was destroyed. Still, desperate times called for desperate measures, and that led their motley crew here, to Wave Country: the closest island left near where the island of Uzu had made its last, self-destructive stand and sunk beneath the surf.
There was little hope left, considering the way the remains of the once-great clan had scurried for whatever sanctuary the Hidden Villages could offer, trading their secrets and skills for survival. But if any unattached Uzumaki were left, or even just a mongrel raised as a civilian, this would be the most likely spot to find them.
It was a slim chance, but they had long since run out of more convenient alternatives.
"Here's hoping we're just a pair of paranoid old bastards," Keita said, raising his flask in a makeshift toast.
Izumi stiltedly tilted his canteen in return, his craggy expression unchanging.
Not long after, the rest of their men returned. There was a suitably small body slung over Hazuki, the mission leader's shoulder, but the expression on the trio's faces told Izumi that there was something about the long-sought candidate that he would most definitely not be happy about.
Haruno Sakura was not happy.
She wasn't quite at the level where her temper would blow, but she was definitely disgruntled. It might be easier if her woes had a single root, but as things stood she was the victim of multiple disadvantageous circumstances, some of which had since, most annoyingly, actually twisted around to benefit her.
First, her parents had left on business, to broker a deal with some merchant or another for some new deal. It was old hat in the Haruno household, to be true, but this time it coincided with her very first C-Rank mission, forcing her to scurry around and ransack her closet and supplies for what to pack without the valuable input of her well-traveled parents.
She had, grudgingly, shelved her pretty dresses for the occasion. Normally she would leap on the chance to show off in front of the boy she loved, but she had by chance overheard Ino bemoaning the loss of a particularly cute outfit after a stint guarding a caravan while restocking her first-aid field kit.
So her more cherished, higher-quality clothes were out, which included most of the blouses and dresses embossed with the clan crest. Sakura was left with the official uniforms her parents had purchased for her, still higher quality than most, given their connections, but there would be no tears shed over any rips or tears she managed to incur.
But she wasn't happy about it, no matter how well the dark blue of the sleeveless turtlenecks suited her complexion. It just felt wrong, wearing a red spiral over her chest and across her back rather than the normal, elegant white ring. Maybe she would have to get used to it eventually, since chuunin and jounin both had it on their flak vests, but as it was it felt like a foreign weight rather than an honor.
The pants were just a necessary evil, no two ways about it. They were simple gray canvas with more pockets than Sakura knew what to do with, and she had a sneaking suspicion that they had originated from the men's section, since they actually came close to fitting her perfectly but did absolutely nothing for her slender form.
She was even deprived of a good, passive-aggressive sulk over the matter, because as soon as Kakashi—who was early for once, the horrible, contrary man—laid eyes on her, he was all smiles and praise for her professionalism.
Well, she wasn't sure if it was really for her sake, considering how Naruto and Sasuke-kun had shuffled and glared at the pointed, elated way the man waxed poetic about her sensible decisions for her traveling clothes.
Their client was sluggish, and by the time he trudged to the gate, bloody-eyed and churlish, Naruto had somehow been shamed into trading his orange tracksuit for stock gray pants and a black jacket with white piping on the sleeves that Kakashi had, after a long and heavy pause, deemed an 'acceptable' alternative.
Sasuke-kun had clenched his jaw, but left and reappeared in a purple, zip-up over-shirt with its wide, iconic collar folded down and a much less eye-catching uchiwa as the zipper itself. Sakura had been torn between guilt at being the cause for the object of her affections being inconvenienced and delight at him not having a swathe of fabric readily available to hide his handsome features for once.
Tazuna himself quickly negated any particular high notes that the mission itself might offer, however.
When that man wasn't swilling down cheap booze, he was complaining—about being 'shafted' with a squad of children, with the apparently mercenary prices of the average Konoha inn and restaurant businesses, with the state of the roads that Kakashi chose for their route, to the cheekiness of the brats he was shafted with.
Sakura, who had until that point done her level best to mitigate Naruto's inherent…Naruto-ness, was understandably incensed by the offhand bellyaching. Sasuke-kun was also decidedly less than charmed by the complaint. If it weren't for Kakashi's seemingly random interventions, the genin of his squad might have showcased just how 'cheeky' they could be.
Sakura managed to end the complaining finally, but the cure turned out to be nearly as bitter as the original ailment itself. Once a few innocent questions about the bridge-builder himself were tossed out, the old man just would not shut up. Her cheeks were cramping from the effort of maintaining the polite smile she had pasted up.
She nodded every so often, taking in maybe one word for every ten and taking every one with a generous helping of salt. It was a taxing task, but she was the only one on their team qualified to do it, given that Kakashi-sensei was busy keeping Naruto and Sasuke-kun's grudging peace in tact. Sakura couldn't fault him for that, though in her admittedly poor mood she had definitely tried once or twice. Six times tops, really.
She sighed, as quietly as possible, and did her very best to find some entertainment in the bridge-builder's bragging.
"—fifteen of my men tried and failed…at the same time!" Tazuna crowed, waving his booze for emphasis. "They were forced to bow to my superior skills, and the dispute at the site was settled. They've all been faultlessly loyal to me since, and never tossed so much as another glance at my precious Tsunami again."
There was something strange and unsettling about a construction worker naming his only child after a massively destructive force of nature, but she was a pink-haired girl named Sakura. She didn't exactly have many stones she could cast on that front.
"But there was somebody worthy of her eventually, wasn't there?" Sakura asked, angling for a slightly more engaging love story rather than another manly tall tale. "I mean, you said that you had a grandson, right?"
"Ah, yes." His alcohol-flushed face brightened with pride. "Inari, my cute little grandson! He's at his rebellious age right now, but still as adorable as ever." He scratched his beard slowly. "And now that you mention it…there was one man. Not the trash she married first," he explained airily. "Certainly not him. The only good thing about that lout was that he helped bring Inari into the world. But my second son-in-law…now there was a real man!"
Two things stopped Sakura from pursuing that line of conversation further; the first being the two bladed-chains that circled Kakashi-sensei and pulled horrifically taut, and the second being the wire that looped around her ankle and dragged her bodily into the forest. She saw a dark gloved hand swooping down, and for a time knew no more.
"A leaf-nin?!" Keita scrubbed his face tiredly, glaring at the offensive metal plate tied on the top of the girl's head. "Are you—this is not a good idea, Hazuki!" Temporary commanding officer or not, Keita reserved the right to call a spade a spade and a fool a fool.
"Look," said Hazuki, his voice harsh as Yuki and Toru shuffled nervously behind him. "We need an Uzumaki, and I'd bet my life that she makes the cut. We've developed plenty of techniques for Yagura—sure, they never kept him down, but they debilitated him pretty well when he couldn't get help. We just need her until we can get a better vessel."
"We also need to run like hell from the Copy-nin," Yuki added, rubbing his neck worriedly. "Apparently, he herds kids and old men now."
Keita wondered if the burning in his gut was a dark omen, simple despair, or the beginnings of a stress-induced ulcer. "Of course. Of course Hatake gods-damned Kakashi would be involved with this." He felt, suddenly and massively, an overwhelming relief that he and the others were still wearing their marred emblems. If this went south, then at the very least the village would not be implicated. "It's never simple."
Izumi, on the other hand, had spent his time far more valuably than his fellow guard. He had laid out the girl, binding her hands from wrist to fingertip, removed her shoes to be safe, and tied her knees and ankles as well. He rucked up her shirt and tugged down the hem of her pants with slow, methodical motions. Without any hurry or nerves, he removed a small glass bottle from a pocket in his vest, covered with ofuda so thoroughly that the contents were a mystery.
He carefully unwrapped one and uncorked the container, up-ending the bottle and pressing the lip to her abdomen. When he lifted the bottle way, a small shard of what Izumi realized was a shard of one of the monster's scales was resting gently between where the girl's Gates of View and Wonder should lie. The old man pressed his hand over it and channeled chakra briefly, before stepping back to deliver the verdict.
'Small reserves. Growing coils. Precise control. Girl is suitable.' He signed laboriously.
"They haven't started training her as a sensor?" Hazuki asked, to be certain. That was usually what was done with Uzumaki women that lacked the natural reserve-boost that cropped up in their clan. Or had been, back during the war.
Izumi shook his head, raising his hands again. 'No specialization yet. Girl is suitable.'
"…we're probably going to have to do the sealing now," Toru noted with a faint note of dismay in his gruff voice. "If Hatake's near by, he'll dog after us as soon as he figures out where we are."
"Yeah." Hazuki sighed, rubbing his eyes tiredly. Keita couldn't help but feel a pang of sympathy, despite his leader being mostly at fault for their need to rush. It seemed like they had to do everything the hard way, these days. "Keita, you take north. Yuki, opposite for south. I'll take the east corner, so that will leave you on the west, Toru. If we're up against Hatake, then we'll have a few hours at best before he picks up our trail. Get started, Izumi."
The squad blurred into motion. Fortunately for Keita, the mouth of their cave face the north, so he would be the only pillar of the barrier to miss witnessing the sealing. Well, he used that term loosely—he would be keeping his eyes firmly locked on the outside, both out of necessity and out of a deep-seated desire to not see what he personally considered to be a crime against humanity.
Almost literally, since they were all but stealing the girl's humanity.
But Keita was a survivor of the Bloody Mist, and had learned to stamp out guilt. The sacrifice of the girl would mean a huge step towards stability for his village, and if his comrades had laid down their lives for such a thing, the life of one girl was hardly a steep price. Keita kept his eyes to the north and did his best not to be alarmed by the soft sounds of ink being poured and brushes being dragged across stone.
The preparations seemed to take forever, sealing matrix after sealing matrix being inscribed with Izumi's slow, careful strokes, unhurried despite the infamous, white-maned death doubtlessly searching them out, coming closer every second. It felt like an eternity before a softer pop and a quiet clatter of treated wood signaled that Izumi had moved on to applying the necessary major seals to the girl herself.
It couldn't have taken more than two hours in total for all of the preparations, but to Keita it felt like days. Still, once he heard the gentle rustle of cloth being untied and the near-silent hiss of the ofuda being peeled away, he found himself wishing, impossibly, that the old expert had taken longer with his craft. But with a few small clicks of lacquered wood being pressed and shifted and then balanced, gently, on the center of the matrix mapped out on the girl's skin, the wheels were set into motion.
The hairs on the back of Keita's neck rose as that chakra began leaking out, but he stubbornly refused to let it interfere with the portion of his concentration dedicated to the barrier. It was the only thing keeping the monster and the sealing process from broadcasting their location to every creature with even a slight sensitivity to chakra within a hundred mile radius, and would ideally buy them precious time to escape with the girl before Hatake's hounds could get a lock on their scents.
The girl started screaming at one point, raw and primal in a way that chilled Keita to the bone, but was promptly muffled by something Izumi did. That was when the air of the cave was saturated the thickest with the beast's aura, so Keita couldn't blame her. She fell quiet not long after, and the oppressive chakra gradually drained away.
When he heard Hazuki's slow, relieved exhale, Keita chanced a look back. The cave was free of any seals, now, but the final product was still setting on her skin, a complex grid of swirls and squiggles to his untrained eye. The girl was limp and glassy-eyed in the aftermath, and her undergarments had been pushed aside so that she was completely bare from collarbone to mid-thigh. She was a tiny thing, so he supposed Izumi had needed all the canvas he could get.
Izumi himself was nursing a bleeding forearm, which Keita realized was because he had used it to silence the girl and keep her from biting her tongue off during the sealing.
He had a moment to relish their success, before a furious, near inhuman snarl and what sounded like the chirping of birds alerted him to the attack rocketing towards the barrier.
He strengthened it as much as he could, keeping his eyes rooted to the ground, but Hatake's rage was palpable as the energy of his attack crackled uselessly across the only thing standing between himself and the men who had poached his student.
Keita swallowed thickly, and hoped that the man would run out of chakra before they did. For a time, as Hatake tried and failed to break through like a man possessed, it seemed as though they might actually get a break.
Naturally, that didn't last.
"Izumi?!" Keita heard Yuki yelp. "The hell are you doing, old ma—urk…!" The team's youngest member's voice trailed off into a wet gurgle Keita had heard too many times not to recognize it. Still, his head turned involuntarily to see the young man clutch at his cut throat and stumble back against the cave wall as his murderer slowly and methodically dropped his blade and made his way back to the new jinchuuriki's side.
The loyalty and obedience seals were already exacting their punishment, blood beginning to pool from his eyes and ears and mouth and nose, dripping and sliding down the hollowed crevices of his face, but Izumi looked happier and more peaceful than Keita could ever remember seeing him. He knelt down and gently folded the girl's fingers around the puzzle-box that had led them here, smoothed her hair back with his own, still-steady fingers, pressed a soft kiss to her brow, and finally slumped over, dead.
Yuki quickly followed suit, limp against the rock and dirt.
Keita had a moment of perfect, hateful clarity when he remembered just how recklessly, viciously sentimental the Uzumaki clan had always been and cursed himself for ever forgetting just how potent and volatile a weapon those emotions could be when used properly.
And then the barrier unraveled and Hatake descended upon them with the vigor and bitterness of a mad wolf, and Keita heard the birds once more and saw the flickering light. And then he knew no more.
Chapter Word Count: 3,624
Total Word Count: 3,624