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It starts with a nudging sensation at the back of his mind, an itch just beyond reach.

The sensation ebbs and swells, an uncomfortable tide behind his eyes and within his nasal cavity, then levels out to no more than an inexplicable sense of presence. It all feels very familiar to him and yet, at the same time, utterly foreign.

That none of his children appear to notice the underlying hum of wrongness in the air suggests it's only his own fine-tuned chakra awareness that picks it up. Something unknown and dangerous lingers nearby, and he is somehow very certain that it should not be there.

He makes a motion to his eldest daughter to continue running drills with her younger siblings and his own students; several yards away, in the arms of his nursemaid, Indra's youngest son watches the proceedings with solemn, awed eyes. Uchiwa has only just learned to sit up, but from the way his gaze lingers and tiny body sways with the movements of the disciples, Indra knows the boy will be a talented practitioner of ninjutsu.

All the more reason to investigate the odd phenomena drawing his attention. His children are as much a legacy as his teachings, and nothing must interfere with their evolution.

The sound of Nirami's brusque orders and corrections fade away as Indra steals out of the tiny settlement and into the surrounding forest. Mist hangs low to the ground, obscuring the shapes of trees and roots to anyone with a less practiced gaze. There's a reason he chose this area to hide his people in, not least of all because of it's inhospitality to the heedless.

And yet, he knows without a doubt that there are people here.

The closer he walks, the more aware he is of an overwhelming chakra presence; there's something off about it—like an echo or a shadow, something that is not quite as swathed in reality as it could be.

But it's strength is inarguable.

He might say it nears his own or Asura's, though it shares nothing else in common. In fact, if he were to give name to it, he would say it reminded him of his deceased wife. Shachi was a powerful woman, though she didn't realise just how much until the time of her death; it wasn't until the life left her body that she even tapped into every recess of her chakra reserves.

Had she honed that gift in life, she might have—

Immediately, Indra erects a wall against that line of thought, resuming focus at the problem at hand. If there are people here, people with such an overwhelming power, he needs to determine their motives and, if need be, destroy them.

This decision made, he makes a beeline for the island shore, emerging from the shadowed forest onto the beach with nary a sound. The water is calm today, waves lapping so lazily against the shore that the surface barely moves. That's rare in and of itself, but not so rare as the creature he sees seated along the flat rocks by the water's edge.

Every part of the world has its myths and old wives tales; Indra has never considered these are more than stories told for entertainment. His own grandmother was said to be a goddess, but he always maintained that if that were the case, she could never have been overcome by her sons. He's not above allowing his students to circulate the story, since it adds to his own grandeur, but believing in eldritch creatures has always been beneath him.

Looking at the woman before him, he wonders if he hasn't been rash in his judgement.

The first thing he notices is her hair. It's a shade that he has never seen before: soft and pink in the morning sunlight and falling around her shoulders like a crown of cherry blossoms. Lighter hair colours aren't unheard of—he has seen some tow-headed individuals in his travels, and even once a giant of a man with hair like a firebrand—but never pink. She also has some sort of coloration on her forehead—a birthmark or a tattoo, he can't tell at this distance without calling upon the Sharingan.

And then there are her eyes. Bright and clear, the colour of jade.

Legends speak of green-eyed shapeshifters that sit by the water, taking the form of women to lure children and careless men to their deaths. If she were one of those, though, he suspects she would have chosen a more enticing form than that of a rumpled, travelworn woman in a faded cloak and bare legs scuffed with dirt.

Though she is clearly several years older than his oldest daughter, she dangles her feet in the cool water like a carefree child. The reason for this becomes evident to him when he notices the unquestionable swell of her belly beneath her clothing.

He remembers Shachi at that stage of pregnancy, her ankles swelling uncomfortably and the midwives cautioning less activity, much less climbing up onto the slippery rocks. No doubt they would be horrified at the sight of this woman; she should not be outside at her size.

Indra snorts in dismissal. It's nothing to him if a woman is so foolish as to court harm to herself and her child.

Except…

He sees no weapon upon her person but for a single kunai hanging from her waist. Women often go armed when travelling, even when under the protection of their husbands, and usually more substantially than she is. Never alone nor this heavily pregnant, since a weapon would be more hindrance than use. The blade is likely more for peace of mind than damage, and yet the set to the woman's chin suggests she holds no hesitation to use it.

She doesn't belong here, he intuits with a sudden certainty that is compounded by the absurd notion that he knows this woman.

The woman notices him at the same moment that he reaches this conclusion.

Instantly, her entire body becomes tense, and though her chakra remains perfectly level, her body language exudes a sense of alarm and defensiveness.

He intends to ask her who she is and what she's doing there, but instead he finds himself saying, "I won't harm you."

The words feel strange on his tongue, and perhaps she senses this, because there's a moment where she doesn't appear to believe him.

Her uncommon eyes narrow, calculation mixed with confusion as she assesses the potential risk, and her hand moves unconsciously to protect her unborn child. The gesture sends a gut-wrenching jolt through him, his memory offering up a similar image of his own wife cradling her belly, tears in her eyes.

Something of his loss must show in his eyes, because she relaxes then.

"No," she says slowly, tilting her head to one side as if to study him, "I don't think you will."

The way she speaks—with a rough, casual dialect close to what he's heard amongst the commoners back on the mainland—is not entirely unpleasant.

He shakes off that thought, mentally refocussing on his mission.

"Who are you?" he manages to ask at last. "Why are you here?"

"I'm a healer," she replies. "I've been travelling from place to place this past year with my husband, seeing to those who need it. But now with the baby coming, we're trying to return home before…" She trails off, needing no explanation given her condition and the pleased smile curling at her lips. Then she adds quietly, "It appears we travelled a bit farther than intended."

There's a something undecipherable in her tone, as if she is both amused and worried at the unforeseen complication.

He frowns, finding nothing amusing at a careless man dragging his pregnant wife across the world. Perhaps she is simpleminded, or perhaps her husband has little concern for her safety. He's seen men who treated their concubines and lesser wives in such a way, viewing their women as little more than receptacles for their needs and showing no interest in the bastards they bore.

But no, he is immediately sure that she is no concubine. This woman carries herself too confidently to be a lowly mistress. In fact, there's a regality to her, suggesting power and strength. His judgement of this is reinforced by the callouses on her palms and fists.

He also doesn't fail to notice that although she has given him more than enough information, she hasn't actually answered his question.

A warrior's woman, or a woman warrior? Indra muses, not entirely sure. It further peaks his curiosity; more so than suspicion, which would be his first inclination under normal circumstances. But he senses no guile or deception in this one. She's open and free and friendly in a way he has never known someone to be around him, even his shy and dutiful wife. And there is a mettle in her gaze, as if she has known pain and duress and come out the victor.

It's been years since he's felt such a curiosity, one that is fuelled by an intriguing puzzle instead of a consolidation of power. Yet he reigns in his ever-multiplying questions, on the off-chance this woman does end up a threat to him and his own.

"Where is your husband?" he asks, tone neutral. It's not what he really wants to know, but it's as logical a question as any. If he's to deal with an overprotective man bursting in on their conversation, he should know what direction he's coming from.

The woman smiles at him then, a twinkle in her eye like he's missing something obvious. Before he can puzzle over that, or even feel indignation, she nods her head toward the rising sun. "He's checking for landmarks to figure out where we are. If I had known you would find your way here first, though, he could have saved a trip. Then again, I've learned the hard way he's terrible with directions."

She laughs then, a musical sound that is definitely not unpleasant, though it's unexpected. It's as if she's sharing a private joke with a long-time friend and not a man she met only a minute ago. He should find her casual manner rude, or at least disrespectful to her husband, but the raw affection in her voice suggests the particular fault charms her.

Curious.

"You've travelled here from the mainland?" he wants to know.

"Originally, yes. We're from a village far to the west. I doubt you'd know of it. No one here would have heard of it." Again, the vague wording and the tone like she's amused.

"It sounds like a long way for a simple healer to travel."

"I wouldn't say I was a simple healer," she replies, her pride in her strength another contrast with any other woman he has met. No false modesty in this one, then.

"Nor would I," he tells her. "The intensity of your chakra alone would attest to that. There are few who could teach you to develop such reserves, including me. Yet I've never instructed you." He would have remembered her. "My own students who have travelled afar would have contacted me about a woman with your capabilities." His tone becomes hard and she tenses in response to his implicit threat. "Are you one of Asura's, then?"

"No," she answers him, not so fast that it would be a lie, but not as if she has to think about it. "My teacher is a woman from my village called Tsunade."

He detects no deception, but she still angles her body away from him, as if expecting him to make a move against her and her unborn child.

Indra considers her for a long moment, trying to reconcile her information with his own knowledge of the world. She shows no confusion at the name of his brother, so she knows of him—not an impossible feat, considering Asura is as famous as Indra is infamous. But her tone is somewhat removed, suggesting she has never personally met him.

Her story does dredge up a long-buried memory—such are most of those he shared with his father and brother.

Hagoromo once told Indra and Asura the story of his very first student, a woman he met in his early travels, who was proficient with chakra and who possessed a natural affinity for manipulating it. He had hoped she would return with him as his student and perhaps later his wife, but she chose to remain amongst her people as a healer.

It's entirely possible this woman's teacher is the one from the story.

For whatever reason, he finds himself wanting to believe this.

Best to learn more before deciding she poses no threat.

The woman is remarkably good at keeping the information he wants to learn to herself. Though it would be the work of a second to use genjutsu on her, he would rather she tell him willingly. He has no wish to put undue strain on a woman with child.

That's his opening, he decides; women always become more emotional when speaking of their children. She may let something slip.

"This is your first," he asks, still more statement than question.

She flushes with pleasure and nods. "Yes. Is it that obvious?"

"Hm."

Her face lacks the underlying look of exhaustion that only a woman that has born children can display. And though she is older than most first-time mothers he has seen, there's the brightness in her eyes at the prospect of her first child's arrival. He knows how that brightness can dim with each successive child, replaced instead with warm weariness and hard-won patience.

'Do you want a son or a daughter this time…if I were with child again…when we…when we know…what would you hope for…?'

'It doesn't matter. Any child of ours will be strong.'

He is so taken aback by the sudden detail of the memory that he almost doesn't here the woman's next words.

"You have children?" she asks, polite inquiry but almost like she is also certain of the answer.

Indra shakes off the clawing talons of nostalgia. "Yes."

"If I may…how many?"

Trying to decide if she is interrogating him, he pauses, but when she continues to exhibit nothing but curiosity, he replies, "Seven."

Her eyes sparkle. There's something there he can't quite decipher.

Triumph or pride? There's no reason for either.

"Seven?" she sounds delighted. "You're so lucky. They must bring you so much joy."

He reflects on this, having never considered such a perspective regarding his children. It's true they are a credit to his blood, filling him with pride at their natural skill and a loyalty that he would never question. But joy…

Perhaps.

The fleeting moments in his life that he knew anything close to that was being told by his wife that he would be a father. And holding his infant children in his arms.

"Yes," he says at last, only a little wondering. "They do."

It is something he has never acknowledged out loud, either to his children or even his wife. He wonders if his will is becoming weaker as he gets older, and he wants to lash out at this woman that makes him think and feel this way. And yet, where he might once have simply narrowed his eyes and caused her to burst into flame, her glaringly pregnant belly remains like a bulwark against his power.

And she remains, apparently, utterly unaware of his rumpled state of mind. Or that his answers—or even the fact of his answering!—are a rare occurrence.

She is most eager to hear about his children, her eyes lighting as she asks if they are all walking and running about yet. He supposes that's natural for a woman so close to childbirth, envisioning her own children completing such milestones.

He has always dismissed such talk as the preoccupation of females, of no interest to him until a child grows strong enough to be taught like an adult. But when he remarks that his youngest son is weaned, her amazed exclamation fills him with an odd pride.

"He's only four months old, and he can sit up by himself?" she gasps. "Amazing! That's…" She trails off here, like she wants to say one thing, but then instead asks, "Were your other children so advanced in their development?"

He blinks at this, momentarily unable to come up with an answer; the rearing of his children was largely left to Shachi. He spent much of their early years training his disciples and hearing second-hand the accomplishments of his sons and daughters. Something akin to regret begins to flare up, but he tamps it down with practiced ease.

Necessary, he deems it and replies, "All of my children excelled."

"Of course," she agrees, still smiling. "Which do you think is the most like you?" She pats her abdomen affectionately. "My husband expects she'll be like me—hopes she will, I think—but I'd rather she was more like him. I guess that's how it always is."

She laughs again, as if at a private joke. Indra allows himself to enjoy it for a moment, before contemplating her words.

The woman speaks of her unborn child as a female, and with such certainty that even he feels no question as to the sex. And yet there is no regret in her tone, or lamentation for this fact. Any pregnant woman he has ever encountered in his community has spoken of their unborn child as male, as if in the hopes the gods would hear that prayer and bestow a son at birth. Yet this woman, she seems very happy to know she will bear a girl.

"I suppose a woman is secretly be happy for a daughter when her husband is out of hearing," he remarks, but she smiles and shakes her head.

"No. My husband is just as happy. He believes a girl represents hope for the future."

Which Indra allows makes a certain amount of sense; only a woman can bear children, and that is a trial no man could endure. If childbirth didn't speak to a woman's potential strength, he doesn't know what else would.

He has never considered himself as traditional-minded as older generations; he teaches girls as well as boys if they show promise and talent. Up until now, his own Nirami has shown herself to be the most talented of his brood, taking to his teachings like a fish to water. Though her younger brother Rishaba is already taller and larger than she, he does not possess the same raw talent. The same goes for all her younger sisters and brothers, though Indra suspects Uchiwa will excel as well.

Despite the boy's difficult start in life—perhaps even because of it—his development has been amazing to watch. Sometimes Indra wonders if, in her dying moments, Shachi's power did not seep into his very blood to ensure his survival.

Time will tell, but one thing he is sure of is that merit is the only true means of judging a person.

Still, he thinks it would be intriguing to meet a man who would prefer a daughter to a son.

"I'm more worried about keeping her healthy, to be honest," the woman goes on. "I've read so much on the subject, but I still don't feel like I'm prepared—"

She's educated, then. A rarity in these parts, and even more so for a woman.

"—and every old biddy we cross paths with has some nugget of advice for me, and I won't remember any of it, I'm sure," she finishes with a frustrated sigh. Then she shakes her head and rolls her eyes in self-depreciation. Then she trains her strange eyes upon him once more, and something flickers there, as if an idea occurs to her then. "Your children…they grew up well? Healthy, I mean?"

It's an odd question, and not the one he expected.

"Yes," he replies slowly, his thoughts whirring in the kind of off-guard manner he has rarely experienced.

"And they sleep well at night?" she continues, clearly unaware of his confusion. Then she hastily adds, "I'm trying to prepare myself for everything that could happen once the baby's born. I keep hearing that there's not much sleep in the first few years, but that seems counterproductive for a growing child."

Indra blinks at this.

This odd foreign woman is really talking with him as if he is an old comrade of hers. Or a fellow expectant mother.

He might be insulted by the crassness of it all, if he didn't get the sense that she comes from a place where men are more open about such matters. Perhaps they are not given to war, and their men remain at home with the children, while the women fight? That doesn't seem like a practical society to him, but then, it would explain the woman's glaring power, and the fact of her being armed.

His eyes flick again to the weapon she wears.

Perhaps the people in the west are more utilitarian than the small communities and tribes he has encountered in his travels. Based on the weaponry alone, he thinks they must be very advanced. Her kunai is better constructed than the first such weapon he created when he was designing his way of ninjutsu. It's even better than any he has hewn since. Sharingan or not, he doesn't have the talent to craft such a razor thin edge, and the material itself is pure, not carved and flecked from a crude forge.

He becomes abruptly aware of the silence and glances up, noting that she is watching him expectantly. He realises that he hasn't answered her question from before, too caught up in puzzling the mystery of her.

Indra has to go back and think about it for a few seconds.

His children's sleeping habits were always his wife's purview. She insisted on letting him sleep after his long days teaching, and even once the children were weaned, they had nurses to mind them at night.

Except Itaku.

Indra did much of the minding himself, except for Nirami and the other children helping. None of them would entrust the precious boy to the crude hands of a nurse.

But thinking on it, Uchiwa was not a fussy infant.

"Yes," he answers at last. "They slept easily."

She exhales a little at this, looking pleased and strangely relieved.

"Oh, I'm so glad," she says, and this too makes little sense, because before today she has never spoken to him and does not know his children. Yet the weight of her words suggests some personal stake.

Which is when he starts to get suspicious.

Turning his head incrementally—enough to scan the area, but not so much that he wouldn't catch an incoming attack—he notes that there is no sign of a boat or other such vessel on the shore. There's no evidence of how she or her mysteriously missing husband could have come here. He only recently been able to teach that ability to his students, which means this woman should not be able to do so.

Is she one of his brother's people after all? Perhaps a student of Asura's students, making a pilgrimage to him? At last check, his brother's home is in the West as well, and though she didn't lie when she said Asura didn't teach her, she also didn't ask who he was.

Which means she knows who he is. And she knows who you are, the niggling voice at the back of his mind whispers. It might be best to get rid of her now and investigate later. Lay a trap for the husband, interrogate him—

But she looks at him in a way similar to the way Shachi used to, her eyes soft and forgiving and knowing every sin he has ever committed.

Which should not be possible.

"Who are you?" he asks, his voice hard.

For the first time since she started speaking to him she pauses, like she's thinking of what to say.

Preparing for a lie, he decides in rueful triumph.

"I have no patience for lies," he tells her, and calls upon his Sharingan. She tenses immediately at the sight of it—with alarm instead of the fear most people react with then they see his eyes—and he can't help the modicum of respect he feels at that.

Still, she's an unknown factor, and with too much mystery attached to her than he is comfortable with. He'll have the truth from her now, whether she's pregnant or not.

FWOOM.

What happens next, Indra could never have predicted.

There's an explosion of light and heat, and suddenly an impenetrable wall of chakra manifests around the woman, shielding her from the black flames.

No, not a wall, Indra realises instantly, a breastplate.

He can't hold back his shock as the chakra grows, forming the familiar shape of Susanoo. It's practically identical to his own, and there! Materialising within it, a man, whose right eye gleams with the red of a Sharingan. That is startling by itself, but the swirling air whips his long black hair from his face, exposing the left side with its—

"Rinnegan!" Indra hisses. "Impossible!"

Anger and confusion well within him, and he feels his own chakra rise, preparing to call up his own chakra guardian.

Yet the man doesn't engage. Shielding the woman—his wife, Indra realises—he allows his startling energy to dissipate.

"We have no quarrel with you," the man tells him, voice laced with tension. "Allow us to take our leave, and we will never return here."

There's a strange emphasis on the word here.

"Who are you?" Indra demands, no longer caring for the reason of the strangers' presence or their well-being. He has spent years trying to awaken the bloodline ability of his father, without success. But this man has a Sharingan and a Rinnegan, suggesting one of two options: either this man killed Indra's father and took one of his eyes, or he is a secret son of Hagoromo.

Indra can't decide which is the more unlikely scenario.

What he does know without question, is that the strange man is not the type to answer questions easily. He will have to break him down and find out himself.

"You will tell me how you have attained a Rinnegan," he declares, his Sharingan burning; he doesn't have to even look at the woman to imply a threat there. The man takes his meaning though, because a dark look passes over his face and he suddenly darts forward, tossing a kunai at him.

He only has one arm, Indra realises, already mentally preparing himself to account for this handicap. He brings his own kunai up to bat the missile away, but inexplicably, he doesn't find it. Instead, the weapon disappears, exchanged instead with the full body of the man.

His knees moves downward, in an arc meant to smash into Indra's face. The exchange took place too fast for him to even see, let alone stop it. It's pure change and his years of training that allow him to get his wrists up to block it.

Indra feels a momentary smugness, and then freezes.

Fingers press against his forehead, and he is suddenly immobilised.

The man used the frontal assault as a feint to catch him in a genjutsu. It's such a basic tactic that Indra is overcome with fury and shame.

Yet it still isn't enough to break the paralysing genjutsu, which is impossibly and frustratingly strong.

Indra's stomach flips unpleasantly when he sees the six-pointed shape that spins in the right eye; it's the same Sharingan that he has caught sight of in his own reflection.

"How…?" he manages to get out through gritted teeth, but his opponent has no mercy for him.

"Your destiny is to continue on your path as you always have," the man tells him coolly. "The answers you seek will be a long time in coming."

His Sharingan gleams, and Indra tries to prepare for the mental attack he knows is coming. His gut tells him he won't be able to fight it.

The last thing he is aware of is the green-eyed woman, lingering behind her husband in worry and resignation.

"Some men wander a long way to find forgiveness, my lord," she tells him, almost sympathetic. "But they do find it in the end. I'll keep you in my heart."

He can't help his thoughts flying to Shachi at that moment.

And then, nothing.

大筒木

Indra awakens from the odd dream to discover he has passed out on the shoreline. He blinks, dream lingering in the corner of his mind, but the details flee the more wakefulness asserts itself. Eventually, he shakes it off as fancy born of exhaustion. It's been days since he slept, his constant vigil to protect his family finally taking its toll.

He drags his hand down his face, forcing himself to full alertness, and then turns back toward the settlement.

He doesn't know why, but his tread feels heavier than normal.

終わり