He died when he was in his early fifties – when he was forty – when he was twenty eight – she was ninety one – he fifty two – nineteen – he died and he died and he died and…
He lived, almost always in the same place, and he remembered it in different points of existence. It was a forest first, then a grassy plain, full or ravines and crevices and strange boulders thrown about, and he remembers his father's hand, heavy and strong in his shoulder and, this was where we fought your grandmother, father told them, much was lost that day.
And he remembered planting seeds, for new trees – he remembered gardens and fields, this was where they set up the rice fields to support their clan. And he lived and he died and seeds grew, and forest slowly bloomed into existence and he lived and he died under their shade.
He lived and died, lived and died.
And there was him, his other, his brother, sometimes his lover. Always, in some way, his enemy. He killed him and he lived and died and sometimes he lived with him and they died together. They never saw eye to eye, because their visions were always too similar – they couldn't see each other, because they were the opposite reflections and they met too close and too far apart.
They were the halves of each other that they themselves couldn't be and they wanted each other and they rejected each other because somewhere within they knew, if we were a single person, we'd be perfect, and it was an uneasy thought.
And he lived and died, lived and died.
His name was Ashura and his father was the Father of Ninshu, and then he was Riki and by his time they'd forgotten Ninshu entirely, so he used Ninjutsu instead, developed his own. His name was Katsura and there was a famine and he was a gardener first and shinobi second. Her name was Aoka and she was more a pirate than a ninja, but the times were hard, she had provide for her family somehow. His name was Utane, his mother was a singer and entertained great lords and he was tone deaf and became an assassin instead and hated every moment of it. Her name was Akane, and they called her Blood Red not because of her hair, but because of the seals she painted with her blood.
His name was Hashirama, and he started the first Shinobi Village in the world. And he lived…
… and died.
"Oh, it's you.
"Of course it's you. I suppose we should've expected this, when we got sealed up – by you. You might've not known it was you, but we did – chakra always tells. And now here you are – and me, inside you. Did you plan this, Ashura? Did you design this? Is this why you sealed us, rather than banish us? Did you expect this?
"And to think Indra questioned why it was you Old Man chose. Hah!"
Haku could tell instantly that something had changed. It wasn't just the explosion of violent red chakra that had followed Naruto's obvious fracturing at the sight of his comrade falling, but the way it had just… stopped.
Something was different.
The blond boy was now standing stock still amidst his mirrors, staring down at the Uchiha lying still and by all appearances lifeless on the bridge, water logged and blood stained. He was still alive, though – Haku had made sure of it by determining how he fell, by keeping him from putting any weigh on the senbon with his own body weight. He was alive, only dormant, but from outside observer with no apparent medical abilities… they were one and the same.
"Well?" Haku asked and he knew he should be attacking. Naruto was just standing there, unreadable look on his face as he stared down at the Uchiha. He looked so open, so utterly defenceless, but… "He was one of your precious people, wasn't he? Aren't you going to do anything?"
That made the Konoha-nin look up. The look on his face was strange, blank, even a little confused. His eyes were different. Naruto stared at him silently for a moment, stretched into infinity by the unfathomable void of his eyes, and then he looked at the Uchiha again.
Then, ignoring Haku entirely, he knelt down and started tugging the needless off the Uchiha.
And even though it made Haku's skin crawl, even though he knew something was very wrong here, Haku couldn't let that happen. Quickly, he rushed out of the mirror behind Naruto, needle at the ready – it would take just one, if he could land just the one, he could immobilise Naruto's legs, that would be enough –
Next thing he knew, he was lying face flat on the bridge, Naruto's hand almost gentle on the back of his head. "Settle down, kid," Naruto said, his voice as strange as his eyes, as his behaviour. "This fight is over."
Haku struggled, trying to first push himself up and when that didn't work, he grabbed the senbon harder and tried to stab Naruto's knee with it. On the corner of his eye he could see Naruto making the slightest single handed seal – and then, then -!
The bridge's surface broke, and tree roots grew out, winding around his wrists and arms and waist, pinning his neck and legs and feet to the bridge's surface. Pinned down, Haku gasped for breath, panicking and amazed because he knew this – everyone knew this, this was the most famous Bloodline Limit in the world.
"Mokuton," Haku breathed and turned his head as much as he could to look at Naruto. "You're a – a Senju?"
Naruto quirked a slight, wry smile at that and then turned back to the Uchiha, pulling the last of the senbon needles out. Then he made another single handed seal, and green chakra manifested around his hand.
It wiped away the last of Haku's handiwork, healing the puncture marks, and bringing the Uchiha back to consciousness.
"You knew?" Haku asked. "How did you – and how… how?" He had Naruto pegged for a poor shinobi at best, knuckle head fool with one ability and lot of boasting. This – Mokuton, healing – this he hadn't seen at all. Had Naruto been hiding it? How good an actor could he be to hide all this?
The Uchiha woke with a gasp and then sat up, coughing. "Na-Naruto?" he asked and then turned, and stared. First, uncomprehending, at Haku, bound down by Naruto's roots, and then at Naruto.
Then, with obvious alarm, the Uchiha was already jumping back, kunai coming to his hand. "Who are you?" he demanded and red bled into the black of his eyes, and the sharingan whirled. "You - where's Naruto? What did you do to him?"
Naruto – was it Naruto? – blinked at him and then hesitated, looking away, looking at Haku and frowning. He looked… confused, searching, like he was trying to remember something. "Let's," he started, paused, and then tried again. "Let's go help Kakashi-sensei," he said, and the name sounded rather like a question.
"Where is Naruto?" The Uchiha growled, just as confused and worse, almost panicking. "What did you do to him? Answer me!"
"I didn't… I didn't do anything," Naruto said and ran a hand over his face. "I never did anything. Did I?"
The not-Naruto stood suddenly, swift and all too confident for Naruto. Sasuke wavered where he stood, watching him, preparing for an attack, but it never came – instead the not-Naruto shook his head.
"I don't know, I don't know anything, I never knew anything," he muttered and looked over at Sasuke. "You –" he started and then made a face, pained and uncertain. "No, of course not, what am I thinking," he said and turned away again, by the looks of it thinking hard.
"What," Sasuke said, "did you do to Naruto?"
"I didn't do anything – use those damned eyes of yours," Naruto snapped at him. "Do I look like an illusion, do I look like a duplicate?"
"No – but you sure as hell aren't acting like Naruto either," Sasuke snapped and gripped the kunai harder. No there was no illusion, not that his Sharingan could see it – but what they could see didn't make him feel any better about the whole thing. "Who are you?"
"I'm –" the not-Naruto started and stopped and ran a hand through his hair. He gripped a few strands and tugged them loose, staring at them. "I'm blonde, apparently. At last, the looks match the person," he said with strange, almost theatrical sarcasm and then looked up sharply, frowning.
"Zabuza-sama!" the fake-hunter-nin gasped on the concrete and tried to get up. The roots held on tight, though, and he could barely wiggle in place, never mind get lose. "Zabuza-sama, Zabuza-sama!"
"What's going on?" Sasuke demanded to know.
"Zabuza just died," the not-Naruto said while the fake-hunter-nin wailed in misery. "Kakashi-sensei killed him."
And then Kakashi was there, his right hand covered with blood all the way up to the elbow and dripping. "Naruto!" he called and then stopped to stare, just like Sasuke had, first at the roots holding the fake-hunter-nin down, and then at Naruto.
Naruto met his eyes with somewhat mixed expression, looking from sharingan eye to the normal eye and back and saying nothing. Beside him, the fake-hunter-nin was sobbing into the bridge, wet and ugly and miserable.
"What happened?" Kakashi asked after a moment of tense staring,
"I don't know. I went down, and… It's not Naruto," Sasuke said, shaking his head. "And I don't know who he is, but he's not Naruto."
The not-Naruto sighed and bowed his head, rubbing at his eyes. "Damn it," he murmured and then looked up, at Kakashi. "I don't suppose," he started and again stopped, rethinking. "No there's actually nothing I can do and say that will easily solve this, is there?" he said. "Uh. I surrender?"
"What?" Sasuke asked with disbelief and Kakashi narrowed his eyes.
The not-Naruto shrugged his shoulders, helpless. "I… don't really know what else to do. You don't…" he trailed away yet again, looking at Sasuke sadly and then away again. "I don't want to fight you. And I don't think you're too happy with me right now. So. In hopes of avoiding conflict, I surrender."
"Right," Kakashi said slowly. "And you won't tell us what happened to Naruto."
"I am Naruto," the not-Naruto said.
Sasuke scoffed loudly at that. "Yeah, right."
The not-Naruto's shoulders slumped a little. "Yeah," he agreed. "Right." Then looked down at the fake-hunter-nin. "So, what should I do about him?"
"Did you create those roots?" Kakashi asked, glancing down. "That's Mokuton… isn't it?"
The not-Naruto shrugged again and made a single handed seal. The roots shifted, pulling the crying fake-hunter-nin's arms and legs together and tying him up in winding branches before retreating back into the bridge, leaving behind only broken concrete.
The not-Naruto winced. "I broke the bridge a little. Oops."
Sasuke glanced very hesitantly at Kakashi, whose frown had gotten only deeper. "Sasuke, go see Sakura and Tazuna, make sure they're alright," the jounin then said. "I'll deal with this."
Sasuke hesitated but… he knew his history. Mokuton was damn serious business. "Right," he said and then even though it kind of tore at him, he hurried away. Kakashi would deal with it.
Why did it feel like that was his job, though?
Kakashi straightened up slowly, watching Naruto. He couldn't feel the Kyubi's chakra anymore – it had came and gone in a flash – but what it had left behind was obviously even more serious. Because Sasuke was right – it wasn't Naruto. It was Naruto's body, but the person in control of it…
"Who are you?" Kakashi asked. "Where did you come from?"
The… person inhibiting Naruto's body shook his head, and for someone obviously powerful, he looked… powerless. "That's… not easy question to answer," he admitted. "I'm not sure myself yet – well," he shrugged. "I know and I don't know. It's all a bit of a jumble. I am Naruto, though," he then said. "I'm just…more."
"More," Kakashi said flatly.
Naruto's face twisted into a wry smile. "Yeah," he said and then shook his head. "There's nothing I can say that will convince you of anything, there's no point of me trying to explain this to you," he then said. "Take me to Konoha. Saru will understand better."
"…Saru," Kakashi repeated.
"… the Hokage, I mean. The Hokage, of course," Naruto said and frowned looking away, thinking. "He is the Hokage right? Why do I keep thinking that there's been four…"
Kakashi frowned at him. That was… interesting. And worrisome. Even Naruto knew his history better than whoever was in control of his body. Was it Kyubi then, somehow saner and more reasonable than anyone could've assumed? Or… what was it?
Naruto looked back at him. "There are people coming," he said. "A lot of them. Some of them have ninjutsu training, though their chakra reserves are fairly low. They seem to have hostile intentions."
Kakashi blinked at that and then considered. "Mercenaries hired by Gato," he then said and Naruto frowned, puzzled, like he was trying to remember. "You can sense them?"
"I'm not as good a chakra sensor as – well. Yes," Naruto said and frowned. "They'll be here in few minutes."
Kakashi grit his teeth. He'd used up lot of his chakra during his fight Zabuza, and as good as his kids were, he wouldn't want to match Sasuke and Sakura at superior numbers, not if he could help it.
"Could you subdue them with Mokuton?" Kakashi asked.
Naruto looked at him. "I could subdue them a lot of ways," he admitted cautiously. "Are you sure you want me to do that?"
"… wait until they make it to the bridge, then use your least destructive, least lethal means," Kakashi said finally. "And don't leave my sight."
"Alright," Naruto said. "And him?" he asked, nodding at the hunter-nin that had worked with Zabuza.
Kakashi looked at him. The kid was still sobbing wretchedly, now curled up into a ball, face pressed into knees. "Leave him for now," he said. "We'll figure out what to do with him later."
Naruto hesitated at that, obviously wanting to object. In the end he just nodded and with last sad glance at the mist-nin, he turned to follow Kakashi out of cover of the melting ice mirrors.
Sakura stared, still confused about everything, as Kakashi-sensei and Naruto walked out of the mist which was now starting to break. On the other end of the bridge stood Gato with a whole bunch of people, and they were all cackling over Zabuza's bloody corpse.
Sasuke was tense and alert beside her, staring at Naruto as he stood beside Kakashi. And yeah, Sakura could see it too, there was something very wrong.
"And to think!" Gato was shouting, putting up a show for his mercenaries more than anything. "To think this guy was called a Demon – can you even believe such bullshit! Weak little critter more like, two short fights and he's down, just like that! Pathetic."
"Yeah, fucking pathetic!" one of the mercenaries shouted.
"Ninja are all talk, no balls!"
Gato nodded in full agreement and then pointed at them. "And lookie here, we have more ball-less ninja. Hah, one of them is even a girl! Ridiculous. Time to take care of them. Everyone ready?"
As Sakura watched and waited, preparing for battle. Kakashi looked down at Naruto and nodded. Naruto faced the mercenary forces and then made a few lightning-fast hand seals before finishing at tiger and concentrating, eyes narrowed. At first it seemed like nothing happened and then… then the mercenaries started wavering, stumbling and finally dropping down.
"What?" Sakura asked, surprised as one after the other the mercenaries just… fell asleep right in front of their eyes. "What is that, what did he do?"
"Genjutsu," Sasuke answered, sounding more than slightly incredulous. "That's a sleep inducing genjutsu, I think."
"What is that?" Kakashi asked suspiciously.
"Temple of Nirvana," Naruto answered quietly. "To… It's a genjutsu created by Senju Tobirama,"
"How does Naruto know Genjutsu?" Sakura asked, her voice low as she turned to look at Sasuke. "Since when?"
"Since he was possessed by… something," Sasuke grunted, gritting his teeth. "I didn't see it, I don't know what happened – that damn fake-hunter-nin knocked me out. By the time I came to… Naruto was…" he made a motion at Naruto's direction, "like that."
With that said, Sasuke jogged over to Kakashi and Naruto, all but stalking over with intense look about his face.
Behind Sakura, Tazuna let out a quivering sigh. "Is it over?" he asked. "We won, right?"
Sakura frowned, glancing at him and then back at Kakashi. "I don't know. I really don't know."
Ashura hesitated, lowering his hands, looking between Sasuke and Kakashi. Then he looked over to the mercenaries he'd knocked out.
Everything was moving so fast and he was lagging behind – somewhere at his father's temple, at the rice fields, in Senju compound, building Konoha, planting seeds. His head was stuffed full of several life time's worth of memories, all of them vying for attention, and he had hard time remembering who he was. Ashura, yes, always Ashura, but so many other people too.
And Naruto, poor young Naruto with only twelve years of existence and memories from only some of those years, had been quite buried under it all. Hashirama was much more closer to the surface and even Akane had more to her than Naruto, and she'd died at nineteen. It was hard… to remember him.
Remember the time, and these people – Naruto himself. Blond, loud, hated, jinchuuriki, Ashura thought, though that too was so recent. Everything was so new. Drops in bucket, mingling with lifetimes before.
That's what you get for messing with reincarnation. Immortality is tricky business, for you poor mortal sods. Everything gets all messy, Kurama laughed in his ear, inside his mind and Ashura frowned, resting a hand on his stomach, the seal there burning.
I didn't, Ashura thought, except… Akane had created that seal – or at least, laid the ground work for it. The four trigram seal had been one of her bloody specialities – with it, she'd been able to seal people's chakra near permanently. It was probably why she'd been killed so young.
He'd never intended to tamper with reincarnation. It had never crossed his mind. For most of his lives, he didn't even believe in it, not like he did as Ashura, with all the surety of fact. But maybe… maybe he had. Subconsciously, spiritually, life by life, he'd laid out bred crumbs. He'd developed the skills, the techniques.
Riki had learned Ninjutsu because Ninshu was gone then, and he'd started with elements, experimented with mixing them. Katsura had been the first Mokuton user, and it hadn't been a bloodline limit then. Aoka had accumulated the knowledge about the tailed beasts and their whereabouts, slowly building a library of subconscious knowledge while struggling to keep the Uzumaki clan alive. Utane had lived on the fringes of courts of feudal lords, killing for them, learning their ways. Akane had created the seals, bloody and terrible and just good enough.
Such sealing was forgotten knowledge by then, a mere myth at best. Not many remembered the Sage of Six Paths, or his and his brother's blight against the Ten Tailed Demon. The sealing arts of those days… simply did not exists. Not until Hashirama had sealed the trailed beasts into human vessels, concept utterly beyond understanding in his time, and now…
Now Naruto had one of them in his body, and Ashura remembered everything.
What could it be, but design. His own design, even but… how? And why? He couldn't find a reason, couldn't remember when if ever he'd even decided to do it – it was almost as if all versions of him had separately worked for a goal only his future self would understand.
Closing his eyes, Ashura took breath and centred himself. Was it Ninshu? Their father had never spoken of this, this had never been included in Ninshu teachings, but… reincarnation was an aspect, an important aspect. Did it work in reverse? Were past incarnations of his soul the same as future ones – were they connected by some universal thread of destiny, a string of knowledge and power than traversed time and space both?
Ashura opened his eyes and looked, first at Kakashi – Hatake Kakashi, remember it – and then at… Sasuke. Uchiha Sasuke, who had Indra's thread inside him, and yet did not know him.
Sasuke was glaring at him like he was his enemy. How nostalgic.
They'd fought in every single life they'd lived. In one of them, they'd been married. Uchiha Hashiro had hunted Uzumaki Aoka down to the ends of the world, watched her utterly destroy countless suitors, and still pursued her with single-minded lunacy just because he'd been the first one she'd rejected. She'd let him, strung him along for years, and then turned around and married him when they'd been in their fifties, and they'd fought daily until they were ninety. They had no children together, but they established what in Hashirama's time became Uzushiogakure no Sato, and it – and Aoka's five daughters by other men – were more than good enough.
Indra, Sasuke… he looked very young, and very proud now. But then, Naruto was young too. Young and stupid, like every version of Ashura always was. And Sasuke didn't know.
Indra had never known.
"Now what?" Ashura asked smothering the urge to – to everything. He wanted to hug Indra, shake him, throw him off the bridge, fight him and beat him and prove him wrong. He did none of that. "Now what?" he repeated instead.
"You tell us," Kakashi said, watching him warily.
"Now you bring Naruto back," Indra demanded.
Ashura smiled at that. "I'm sorry," he said and shook his head. Naruto was such a thin veneer on top of so many lifetimes, Ashura had no hope of pulling him back together into a coherent individual. As it was, he wouldn't even if he could. "I can't do that."
He was what he was – everyone he'd ever been. That was the point of the whole thing.
"Right," Kakashi said. "You surrendered. You will cooperate with us, and come to Konoha?"
"That would be the best, yes," Ashura agreed.
"Good," Kakashi nodded briskly. "Then, let's take care of the prisoners. And see what we can do about that Hyoton boy."
Ashura nodded and then, after giving Indra another uneasy look, he turned to follow Kakashi, fully prepared to offer whatever assistance required. Anything, so as long as it got him home to Konohagakure, Village Hidden in Leaves, Home which he'd build with Indra – then Madara. Home, where young Saru, now an old man, lived. Home, where everything happened, where everything begun. Maybe even where everything ended. Would end. Had ended.
Ashura sighed at himself. Kurama was right. Tampering with reincarnation was tricky business.