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Of Harrowed Hearts

Chapter Text

It takes two days. Two days of moving the broken stone and wood of buildings, two days of digging through rubble and river silt, two days of gathering remains. Because he won’t leave them here to rot. He won’t.

He only stops once, the first time he finds the bones of a child, younger than him. He cries himself almost sick, because these were people once, left here to degrade until their skeletons were bared and bleached in the sunlight.

There are other bones too, but they’re fragmented, like they’ve been trampled or torn apart by animals. Whatever force protected the bones of Uzushio, its grace had not extended to their enemies.

As he works, toiling to uncover person after person with hands sore from moving rubble and making hand signs, he gets the distinct feeling he’s being watched. It doesn’t make much sense– the entire time he’s been here he hasn’t seen hide or hair of so much as a mouse skittering through the brush, and just when he’s starting to wonder where all the animals have gone, he finds out he’s not as alone as he thought.

Uzushio was a city in a way that’s nothing like the scattered buildings of Konoha clustered around the Hokage Mountain. It was far smaller and far more complex– that much is obvious by what Naruto can gather sifting through the pieces of its civilization. The entire place was built around the river, from the point where it the valley widens to the river’s endpoint, where it pours into the sea. The buildings had been crafted to move with the land instead of against it, conforming to the elongated bowl of the valley from the western bay to the upward rise of the hills in the east. The river divides everything into north and south portions, and there are heavy stones and treated wood along the banks of it, indications of bridges that might have once crossed water’s breadth.

He hisses as he bends over to sink his hands into the silt, thigh deep in river water in a quest for the bones he can sense buried under his feet. The cuts and scrapes on his knuckles and the blisters on his palms sting like mad, but he’s worked his way through far worse pain than that in the last few days alone. He needs to use some more chakra soon– he can feel the seeping crawl of the corruption pooling again in the seal– he just wishes he weren’t quite so exhausted of his own. The crawling pressure of the rancid energy is starting to make him sick to his stomach.

As he’s digging through the soft muddy silt a shadow flashes past him through the water, a dark shape as long as his arm and stark against the river rocks. He catches a glimpse of something shining too before it’s gone again, lost against the currents of the river upstream. Just as Naruto’s about to write the encounter off in favor of getting back to work, the shadow swings back around, curves to flick a graceful figure eight around his legs before settling to hover just shy of Naruto’s arm, still frozen in the water. A lean and beautiful fish idles past Naruto’s elbow, close enough that he could easily reach out and touch it.

It’s a… koi. Naruto knows the species from watching them in the decorative pools outside the Hyuuga complex, but this one is twice as long as any he’s seen, and other than the sleek carp body, it doesn’t look anything like the red and white variety that Hinata had been feeding when he asked about them. He immediately wishes he’d paid more attention to the informative little lecture she’d given him on the different varieties, because he’s not exactly sure how to classify a fish that looks more like a piece of jewelry than an animal.

He remembers that she’d called the ones she had been tending to ‘Kohaku’ Koi, and pointed out a few special ones that were all white but for a red dot on their foreheads, which she’d called ‘Tancho’. But this one is mostly black– no white whatsoever, with golden ridging down it’s back that looks like armor plating. It’s fins are long and flowing like ribbon, encrusted with more metallic gilding along the edges of the pectorals and the trailing ends of it’s tail like the trim on a silk dress. The fish’s scales shimmer like hundreds of tiny jewels, the golden accents stark against the inky black body. He remembers Hinata saying something about decorative breeding and black or metallic colouring being rare– this fish has both, and Naruto wonders what meticulous and selective care created this creature, and what the heck it’s doing swimming free in a river. The shining colours would be a beacon to predators, and Naruto has no idea how something so beautiful hasn’t been eaten yet. Maybe he was right, maybe there are no animals here but for this strange shining exception.

The fish looks at him expectantly, it’s big black and grey eyes alarmingly intelligent. Naruto doesn’t move, afraid that the slightest movement might startle it. All the koi in Hinata’s ponds had been afraid of him and had bolted at the sight of him. The young Hyuuga heir had commented offhand that they weren’t usually skittish creatures, and that she was sure that Naruto’s sudden appearance had only startled them, but the fish had kept their distance until he’d left.

This one doesn’t seem remotely fearful of him. Even when Naruto eventually straightens to pull his hand from the water, the koi flits closer, not away, its fins waving back and forth like ornamental fans to keep its place in the flow of the river. It seems to be waiting for him to do something– tail swishing back and forth exuberantly as he moves back towards his pack, and then he gets it.

It’s waiting for me to feed it.  

Hinata had been giving her koi little chunks of melon and strips of lettuce, and the fish had gathered around her in a swarm to compete for her attention and her goodies. He has some cubed honeydew in his bag, now that he thinks of it, so he wades to the edge of the river, casting a glance back at where he’d left the fish.

For a fraction of a second he’s convinced it’s darted off, until he sees a flicker of gold much closer than he expected and discovers that the koi has followed him, and is swimming back and forth in the shallows by his ankles.

“Huh.” he mutters, fishing the little bento tub from his bag and opening the lid with his teeth. He plucks out a square of green fruit, grateful for the break from picking through ruins in search of corpses. The fish flutters back excitedly at the sight of it, its tail swishing behind it a soft rush of gilded ink.

Naruto plops the melon piece in the water and pushes it out towards the strange koi. “There ya go, eat up.”

The Koi looks at the food floating on the surface, but doesn’t go for it. Instead it watches as it begins to float downstream, fins flitting curiously, before it loses interest entirely and turns it’s attention back to Naruto, staring intently at the box in his hand.

Naruto makes a face at it. “What? My food not good enough for you?”

The fish does a strangely graceful little wiggle, an almost playful undulation of its sleek body from side to side as if responding to the sound of his voice. It swims forwards a little, and when Naruto doesn’t move it swims forward some more. In a sharp motion the fish bops its head against Naruto’s left shin, the one closest to it, and then backpedals to its original position to continue staring at the box of fruit.

An askance for something else.

...Which displays a lot of intelligence for a fish.

Unsure what exactly it wants, Naruto crouches down a little further, studying the koi closely. It stares right back, the odd expectancy in its gaze still present. Naruto plucks another cube from his box and the fish flaps excitedly again. It clearly wants it; it just seems to have an issue with his method of delivery.

Feeling a little silly for it, Naruto maneuvers the melon chunk so that it rests on his palm in the soft cage of his fingers, and dunks his hand underwater before him, holding it out this time instead of letting it float. The likelihood of the fish coming right up to him is–

But before he can even finish the thought the koi darts forward with a graceful swish of its sleek body and wriggles it’s head between Naruto’s fingers to get at the morsel trapped there, sucking up the treat before Naruto can even think to pull his hand away. Naruto watches with bewildered fascination as the fish gobbles up the goods. Once it’s finished it flits around his hand, nibbling playfully at his now empty fingers. Naruto giggles and sits down in the shallows, wiggling the fingers of both hands to divide the fish’s attention between them. The koi darts happily around in response to the attention, chasing the movements of his hands and darting between his wrists to chase the currents he stirs to life. He winces a little when all the movement aggravates the splits over his knuckles, prompting soft wisps of blood to twine from the wounds. The fish pauses in it playful darts, watching the smoky curls of red spiral up to dissolve in the river’s current.

It swims forward slowly, as if the Koi is afraid of startling him and not the other way around, closer and closer until it’s head is nearly pressed against his hands, resting the water between his knees, first knuckles touching.

He nearly jumps when he feels the unmistakable hum of chakra radiating over his hands, building until a soft golden shine begins the glimmer in the water. The glow rolls softly over his skin, seeping into the cracks and the crevices between his fingers like a balm. It rests there for a few moments before it sinks beneath his skin, the light vanishing entirely.

Left in it’s wake is clear unbroken flesh, the only sign of damage remaining at all the vine-like crawl of corruption streaking up from the chakra points in his wrists. When he looks up the Koi has vanished, the only clue of its presence remaining is a streak of golden chakra leading upriver.

 

This encounter is the first, and in the end there are five.

<> 

The second comes late that first night, when he finally stops to rest after pulling skeleton after skeleton from the southern half of the city, Uzushio nin and civilian alike, out from underneath debris and silt and the powdered bone of enemy shinobi. He figures the chakra reaching out to him from their bones is the result of some kind of seal, a power that calls to kin. He’s been lying them down in the only clear portion of the city he’s found, the only place not littered with destroyed buildings or earth upturned in some kind of attack. It’s a shopping plaza or a city circle or something, a round stretch of pale stone with a mosaic of a whirlpool in dark gray stone lain over it. The mosaic itself is cracked and broken, entire sections of it missing completely, but the pale stone beneath is whole and unblemished, not so much as a split in its surface.

Each time he lies another body down in the plaza he gets an impression, a flux of memory not his own that gives him an idea of who they were. A blacksmith, a chunin teacher, a hunter nin, a shopkeeper. With each one he begins to piece together what life must have looked like before the attack– Genin teams running drills across the water of the bay, civilians standing on the bridges and waving at shinobi walking across the river below, strange people in robes that aren’t shinobi, but aren’t civilians either. He knows that the broken building of wood and glass at the far end of the valley next to the waterfall used to be an aviary, knows that the tower that lies shattered across the river used have the Arashikage’s office at the top, knows that this plaza was used for ceremonies of all kinds, festivals and funerals alike.

He sits on a hill just outside of it, overlooking the circle of stone, and tries not to be overwhelmed by all of it; the grief, the loss, the pain. Because they’re not just corpses anymore. He knows them now in small pieces and flashes, knows what they could have been and what they never were, and it’s so much worse to know. Their spirits weigh heavy on him atop his own burdens, and now that he’s stopped to rest, he’s finding it very hard to breathe against it. His hands are the only things that don’t hurt him now, as if that strange koi’s blessing still lingers there, even the ache of the rotten chakra in his blood seems dulled.

He knows he needs sleep, but has no idea how he’s going to manage it with spirits racing through his thoughts, hundreds of moments from hundreds of lives never lived. He takes a deep breath against despair, because there is not just and pain and loss in the moments he’s seen. There’s life and light and pieces of souls, and maybe if he can’t push these moments and memories away he can bring them in, make sure that he remembers what no one else will ever know, make sure he can recall what Uzushio was, not what it is now.

Maybe he can hang their moments on his heart and remember for them.

And so he leans back against the broken wall behind him, stares up at the stars beginning to peek through the dim light of dusk left by the sunset, and makes room for their pieces with his own.

<> 

A crack and a rustle jolt him from his head much later, when the stars have turned from scattered pinpricks to a river of light streaking across the sky. He turns and blinks, one hand planted on the brick at his back in preparation for fight or flight. At first he sees nothing but the expanse of the forest, oak and yew and the occasional willow, brush overflowing between the trunks. But then he blinks away the echoes of starlight on his retina and his eyes adjust to the wind of shadows cast by the wood.

An enormous stag stands between the thick trunks of two yew trees; it’s rack of twelve-point horns almost invisible against the winding branches. Naruto freezes, remembering Shikamaru’s words about how an aggravated stag can be just as dangerous as any predator– capable of lashing out with sharp scything horns and bone crushing kicks.

The stag doesn’t seem agitated though, and the only movement comes from its cupped ears as they twitch in response to the sound of Naruto’s feet against the grass and his hand against the bricks. The stag’s eyes are a bright mossy green that stands out from the charcoal grey of its coat like peridot stone, unnervingly steady and abnormally wise. For long moment it’s a staring contest– Naruto’s bright and startled blue eyes locked on the great hart’s soft emerald ones. Eventually the creature tips its massive head, its horns dipping with the movement, and steps out from the shelter of the trees. As the horns tilt they catch the starlight and flash golden, bright and out of place with the surroundings, unmistakably similar to the golden armor of the koi. Naruto gets the sense he’s being sized up and evaluated by this being of the wood, a being that, no matter how much it looks like deer and acts like a deer, isn’t one.

The hart steps forwards again when Naruto doesn’t move, its head dipping as it moves closer, taking a heavy breath through its snout. Its gaze shifts, flows from suspicious to curious, and it takes another few long strides forward until it’s eye to eye with Naruto, who is still crouched barely breathing against the broken wall. The hart exhales in a snort, it’s breath rushing past Naruto’s ear as the beast looks at him sideways, head dipping even closer until Naruto can feel the disturbance of the air above his head where the enormous rack of antlers sway with each of the hart’s smallest motions.

Then the creature ducks even closer, bumps a nose into Naruto’s chest and presses softly. A long moment of barely-there breaths, a long moment of trying to decide whether he wants to be freaked out or confused or anxious or all of the above, and then the strange motion changes. The odd press turns abruptly into a friendly nuzzle, a rub of rough warm fur against his sternum and an affectionate huff.

Naruto feels abruptly like he’s just passed some sort of test.

Hesitantly he reaches out to run a hand softly over the beast’s neck, stroking the warm course pelt as the creature nuzzles around Naruto’s torso.

Though the fur color is different and the texture isn’t right, Naruto is reminded immediately and painfully of Kurama. His eyes well with tears before he can blink them back, and the next thing he knows they’re coming down his face in streams, his body beginning to shake with the effort of holding back sobs. The stag withdraws, blinking it’s large wide eyes, and for a while just watches him. Naruto doesn’t look away, there’s no point, no reason for him to hide.

The hart stamps a foreleg and chakra kicks up under it’s hoof, bright green like new spring growth, curling up around the beast's leg and sinking into the earth beneath. The hart shakes its head and stamps again, the chakra rising up brighter and fiercer as the ground begins to vibrate and the creature takes off at a run.

Naruto follows it, bewildered, into the thick of the forest, watching with awe as the trees bend and part to make way for them as the hart darts between the trees and across outcroppings of rock with a grace that belies it’s size. He skids to a stop at the foot of a ravine and watches disbelieving as the stag continues to run, climbing the nearly sheer surface with the same ease as the soft slant of the valley.

Naruto channels more chakra, feels the acid-like burn of Kurama’s rancid chakra scorch through him in the absence of enough of his own to counter it, but he pushes through the pain and exhaustion and climbs anyway.

He reaches the top with knees scraped from sliding on the loose rock. The blood that runs down his shins is a shade to dark to be healthy, and his chest feels like it’s been the victim of a rockslide. The hart waits for him at the edge of the summit, watching him with wise keen eyes as he pulls himself to his feet.

He stands at the edge of a ruin that must have once been some kind of temple. The wind is strong here, rushing off the ocean at speeds high enough to sting his eyes. He throws a hand up to shield them, staring at the broken tablets and mosaics that circle a set of stairs leading higher up the slope. His eyes travel along the length of the steps, widening at the expanse of them as they wind across the cliffs. When he turns he can see the ruins of Uzushio below him, curled in the safety of its valley on the island’s eastern edge.

The moon shines down on him now, no longer hidden by these very cliffs, washing the sparse grass and jagged rocks a silvery pale. In the distance at the end of the stairs he can see the outline of another temple, smaller than the ruin of the one he stands in, perched perilously along the narrow cliff’s highest point, far above the rest of the forest.

There’s a nudge at his back as the stag buts him softly between the shoulder blades to urge him forward, stepping around to shield him from the worst of the wind coming off the sea. Naruto twines his fingers the beast’s dark grey fur for comfort and stability, and they walk the steps side by side.

Naruto isn’t sure exactly where the creature is leading him or why, but his instincts are telling him that he’s safe here, that he has nothing to fear. His instincts have gotten him this far. He’s going to trust them now.

The path is long and winding, and by the time he reaches the end of it he’s being pulled towards two different kinds of exhaustion– the kind that’s telling him to drop where he is and sleep for a month, and the kind that’s telling him that rest is the last thing he needs.

This temple, unlike the other, is almost entirely intact; the only signs of wear being the erosion of time. The temple itself is little more than a gateway, the dark stone of the roof barely wide enough to be shelter in a rainstorm. It’s also old, far older than the other ruins here, and it’s decorated with beautiful if worn engravings of a massive tree whose branches and roots curl in twining knot-like patterns.

His companion snorts and steps back, nudging him forward again and urging him through the gateway to the edge of the winding cliff. Though Naruto waits, the stag doesn’t follow, seemingly unwilling to cross the threshold with him. Instead it folds its legs under itself and lies down on the other side of the gate to wait for him.

The edge of the cliff sticks out like a long flat needle with a rounded point, all grassless pale stone not unlike the kind that makes up the plaza.

Suddenly memories not his own flood through him, flashes of a pilgrimage, a journey to the precipice, people in long robes kneeling in the circle that represents the very center of the island.

The heart tap. The convergence of world chakra. Something is supposed to be here that isn’t. Something far below.

The words flow from deep in a memory not his own, an old secret, an answer when he doesn’t know the question.

He steps out onto the circle of stone and peers over the edge.

Far below him is a lake as wide as a village, filled with dark water gleaming under the moonlight like a mirror. It’s deep, so deep Naruto can’t even imagine a bottom; like a hole drilled so far into the earth it might as well be bottomless. Chakra hums in the air, dark and fluid and oddly comforting. It’s so potent that Naruto can feel it whispering across his skin and ringing in his ears, can practically see it rippling through the air like the heat off a hot sidewalk.

At first he kneels like he’s seen the monks do in his memories, but it seems wrong almost as soon as he does it, so he shifts his legs so that they’re crossed instead. It’s the same kind of stance he uses when he managing or monitoring his chakra or talking with Kurama when he’s awake, a kind of stance used for meditation, not prayer. He rests his hands open on his knees, shifts his shoulders, and evens out his heartbeat.

As he calms himself something starts to change– the nearly empty expanse of Naruto’s chakra vessels seems to react to the energy around him, a strange sort of pull on the outside energy. The odd phenomenon is easily disrupted; every time Naruto shifts or fidgets or even breathes too deeply the process grinds to a halt, separating the two energies immediately until Naruto settles again and it all starts over.

Naruto never thought complete stillness could be so hard, but the urge to shift or test muscles or flutter his eyelids is stronger than he realized.

But each time he tries he manages a little longer.

At first he can’t even hold it for a full minute, but then he can hold it for two, then five, then twelve. After that he stops counting the seconds and the minutes, stops measuring time entirely and instead focuses on the pull and push and flow of the chakra around him.

The emptiness in his chakra vessels seems to create some kind of negative space, a space that exerts a kind of gravity on the chakra around him, like an empty cup dipped straight down into a stream. But moving seems to have the effect of turning the cup sideways downstream– the water flows more around the cup instead of inside of it.

But the longer he manages to keep himself still the easier the outside energy flows in, and the more he can feel his chakra levels rising. Eventually he senses equilibrium– no more negative space, no more flow. And when he opens his eyes and lets out a deep breath, he feels stronger than he has in days.

Now he doesn’t feel tired at all.

 

Even though the coming sunrise has already begun to turn the horizon from dark navy to soft grey, the hart is still waiting for him on the other side of the gate, steadfast and patient. It accompanies him down the steps the same way it did up, but this time it doesn’t bother shielding Naruto from the harsh wind. He doesn’t need the protection now.

The descent is quieter; the only sounds the clack of hooves on the hard stone and whistling wind overhead. Naruto strokes the stag's neck in thanks, but no longer needs to hold on to be sure of his footing. In response the beast tucks its head over Naruto’s small shoulder, careful not to clip him with gilded antlers, and stays that way for the rest of the hike down.

<> 

His third encounter comes is the form of an attack on two fronts.

The first is a sneak attack, launched while he’s distracted with the last few sets of bones mid afternoon on his second day in Uzushio. The only warning he gets is a shadow out of place among the grass on the far side of the fallen Kage’s tower, a dark rush through the tall blades of green waving in the breeze. He stands, turns, and only barely manages to roll sideways before a flash of black and white streaks past him.

He bird coasts high, feathers gleaming golden around the edges against the glare of the sun overhead, and dives again before Naruto can get a better look. It lets loose a long screech that immediately tells him it’s some kind of raptor, though not any kind that Naruto has seen circling the nests in Konoha’s redwoods. The bird dips and circles, dives again, this time so close that Naruto is almost positive he can feel the swish of talons on the back of his neck.

Another caw, this one offended, and the enormous bird turns a wide circle above his head. He gets a good look at it while it does, noting stark black and white plumage as the strong wings ride the coastal winds. The flash of yellow wasn't just the sun though, and Naruto can see now the lining of familiar gold along the bird’s primaries and the fan of it’s tail, a flash of more gilding shining at him from the crest of it’s head.

Twice might be coincidence but three times is a pattern, and the other two animal spirits of the island had no intention of hurting him. So this time when the bird dives, Naruto doesn’t duck or roll away. He holds his ground.

The raptor hurtles towards him in a long graceful dive, but even as it get’s close it keeps it’s razor talons tucked close to its body, and Naruto knows he has nothing to fear.

True to his instincts the bird pulls the dive last minute, raising its massive wings up to fan in a powerful backstroke that halts its forwards momentum half a meter from his face. It caws high at him, and in an instinct born from memory not his own, he hold his arm out in front of him.

More memory comes to him in flashes as the beautiful bird extends it talons to grasp his forearm, and he knows what kind of bird this is. It’s an osprey, the pride of the Uzushio aviary, prized for it’s precision fishing and hunting skill and used to carry the most sensitive of Uzushio’s information. The talons that grip his forearm are incredibly gentle for what they’re capable of– he knows full well that they could shred his arm to ribbons at even the slightest pressure.

“Hey there.” He says to it softly, turning his head to give the bird a few curious blinks. “You here to tell me something too?”

The bird tucks its head a little, the feathers on the back of its neck fanning slightly and then smoothing out again. It really is gorgeous– its feathers are a layered medley of black and white crested with gold at the edges, it’s head mostly white on a black neck but for two symmetrical streaks of black across its eyes like a bandit mask. It looks at him curiously with round yellow eyes, it’s head tipping back and forth. It lets out a soft kee and takes off again, gliding to perch of the bottom portion of the remains of the tower. He approaches and the bird leads him further down the ruin, towards the broken edges of what used to be it’s peak.

Naruto isn’t quite sure why it wants him to go there– Naruto had already pulled all the people left inside from it’s shattered depths just like he had with all the other buildings– with doton jutsu and by hand. He follows it though like he had the others, trusting the spirit of the island that seems to have manifested itself in the shape of these animals.

The osprey leads him to one of the few rooms in the fallen tower still relatively intact. Naruto recognizes it instantly.

It’s where he found the body of the Arashikage, along with the bodies of nearly a full dozen of her Anbu guard. Throughout the whole of the tower though, none of the bodies Naruto found were civilians. Naruto knows it’s because she gave her life to a teleportation seal of some kind, a Kinjutsu that transported more than a hundred civilian lives to safety. She was an Uzumaki, like him, but he has no idea how closely they were related. Her hair had been darker than his mother’s, the color of garnets and blood, and her eyes had been topaz.

The soft swoop of the osprey’s flight draws his eyes to the corner of the room, where a shelf lies fallen over a short ornamental table. It alights on the floor beside the small space between the shelf and the floor and sticks its head into the hole. The bird is far too large to fit though, so it sticks its head back out and caws at him again impatiently. Naruto huffs, stepping over the rubble to get to it. “I’m coming I’m coming.”

The osprey hops sideways to make room for him as Naruto slips his fingers under the shelf and pulls. It’s dark oak and heavy, so Naruto channels chakra into his legs and upper arms to pull harder. Even that much chakra use though almost makes him sick– even though he has enough chakra to dull the ache of the corruption to ignorable levels, he can still feel it pooling in his veins and lodging in his joints each time he uses more of it. He no longer remembers how it feels to not have too much pressure in his chakra vessels and his lungs.

A groaning lurch and the shelf moves, scraping across the rubble and the opposite wall. He hears the osprey give a happy kee as it dives underneath, and then scraping sounds as it roots for something buried in the plaster. After a few too long minutes the bird darts back out and Naruto lets the shelf drop again, planting his hands on his knees as he fights the urge to hurl.

The osprey flaps its wings and perches atop the shelf in front of him, bobbing its head excitedly. There’s something shining in its beak, something that jingles slightly as the raptor tips it’s head back and forth.

“Whatcha got there?” He asks when he can manage to stand up straight. The bird doesn’t answer, obviously, and Naruto laughs at himself. “Fine, don’t tell me. I hope it was worth it though.”

The osprey’s only response to that is to tilt it’s head again curiously as Naruto starts to pick his way back across the rubble and out from underneath the shadow of the broken tower so that he can get back to work. He only has one more body to place in the plaza, and he can sense it’s nearby.

But the second he’s outside of the confines of the tower the bird dive bombs him again without warning, swooping to land on Naruto’s shoulder just as he turns. It ducks its head at him, shaking the shiny trinket in its beak. Naruto holds his hand out, and the bird drops it into his open palm.

It’s a piece of jewelry of some kind, though he’s never seen anything quite like it before. There’s a curled cuff like a small half-formed ring in some kind of shiny black metal. Both parts of the ring on either side of the gap bear an etching of a golden spiral, the symbol of Uzushio. The curved side is connected to two lengths of thin gold chain, each of which attach to a separate rounded stone with a needle-like point on the back. One is almost the size of the tip of his pinky finger and is some kind of rippling luminescent gemstone; the colours inside range from blue so dark it’s almost black to a bright purplish shine and every brilliant shade of rich blue imaginable in between. The gemstone itself seems to change as it moves, reflecting different nebulas of colour in ribbons and shards as he examines it dangling from his fingers. The other stone is entirely black– onyx, or maybe jet? – except for a soft etching of gold in the familiar shape of a tree with branches and roots twisted like knots.

“You want me to have it?” he asks, and the bird gives him a happy kee of agreement, leaning forward and using its sharp beak to preen a few stray strands of Naruto’s hair out of his eyes and tuck them behind his ear.

Naruto folds the odd piece of jewelry into the inner pocket of his shirt, right beside the scroll containing Kurama’s seal.

<> 

Just as he’s placing the last of the bones of Uzushio with its fellows, Naruto spots a thief.

He looks up from settling the last body just in time to see the burglar crouching at his bag– a long lean wildcat with a coat of marbled black and gold, teeth clamped into the strap of his old pack. There’s a moment of total silence as the cat stares at him, eyes mischievous.

“Don’t…” Naruto mutters, rising as slowly as possible, but the cat’s eyes just sparkle as it shifts its shoulders in a playful wiggle. “It’s not funny, don’t do it… –shit!” The cat takes off with a lithe bound and Naruto tears off after it like a thing possessed. That bag has not only all of his sealing scrolls and changes of clothes, but it also has his last container of Iruka-sensei’s curry and there is no way he’s letting that end up anywhere but in his stomach.

The cat doesn’t go outside the plaza, instead it’s playing some screwed up game of cat and mouse as it darts around, slipping away each time Naruto is sure he has the stupid thing. It goes on until Naruto clips his foot on a section of the plaza and almost takes a header into a broken piece of mosaic, and when he rolls over a looks up the thing is standing right there staring down at him. The wildcat licks its chops smugly and Naruto is reminded for an odd moment of Sasuke right after he’s just won a spar. In fact the similarities are uncanny. It leans back on its haunches as he sits up, batting his pack towards him as he crosses his legs beneath him.

He glares at the pack, not trusting it for a second. “So what do you want from me?” he asks, and the cat trots over, it’s fur rippling like a lava flow. It stops over a portion of pale stone where the whirlpool mosaic has been ripped up, just to the right of the chunk he almost smacked his head on. There's a long curved line underneath it, out of place with the natural circles of stone, but the cat doesn’t call attention to it, instead it places a clawed foot over the stone, and when it’s sure Naruto is watching, it lets loose a pulse of chakra and lifts its paw. Underneath it, scorched in the stone in fiery lines, is a symbol of a moon twined together with a sun.

When he looks up the cat is gone, much like all the other spirits, and when he looks down again so is the symbol.

<> 

That evening, Naruto pulls broken branches and leaves from the brush to use for kindling. He could have done this as soon as he found the last body, when the sun was still relatively high in the sky, but it had felt wrong somehow to just get it over with like that.

So he’d waited for the sunset.

Warm reds and buttery golds paint over the dust and old blood, cleansing the ground beneath the bones if only for a moment. He sets the tinder between the bleached frames, careful not to place any over the bones themselves. When he’s finished he sits before his makeshift pyre and makes four exhausted hand signs; snake, dragon, rabbit, tiger.

Katon: Dragon Fire.”

Fire rolls, soft and seeking, across the inhabitants of Uzushio. It catches green first, then deepens to blue, heat furling from the blaze across Naruto’s face to make his eyes burn.

But he doesn’t turn away.

He watches until the bones are reduced to ash, watches as that ash is whisked away by the wind as it stirs out of the stillness. When the last of the bones have been rendered to dust the wind whips up, whirling the flame into a spiral, a firestorm that burns white hot for a spare few seconds, searing his eyes before it vanishes entirely.

Naruto looks down from the phenomenon, blinking flashes of white from his eyes, and his heart stops dead in his chest.

Before him, standing only a few feet from where the center of the pyre had been, is a wolf.

It’s enormous and black as pitch, it’s fur long unbroken ebony from nose to tail. It watches him steadily with unnerving eyes of pure silvery white, pupiless and luminescent.

He scrambles to his feet, and even that amount of motion is enough to make his vision blur and his stomach roll– the corruption is taking it’s toll now, and he’s nearly at his limit. If the wolf is planning to attack him, then there is nothing he could do to stop it.

But the wolf doesn’t move, makes no shift to indicate aggression. It merely waits, and stares.

Something connects, brings that old instinct in Naruto forward again, that animal sense of true north. His instincts haven’t lead him astray yet, not with Uzushio and not with Kurama, so he trusts them, gives into the feeling and trusts the animal part of himself more than the human.  

Tired and damaged as he is, when he can barely stand let alone take another step forward, he meets the force in the wolf’s eyes with a challenge of his own.

This time the wolf does move. It shifts powerful shoulders, leans back on its hunches, throws its head back, and howls.

The sound rings in Naruto’s ears, powerful and haunting, and the entire island starts to quake. The air shakes with vibration as whatever spell that had held the island suspended shatters, as the curse of stillness breaks.

Like a first breath taken after so long without air, life surges through the earth on a gasp.

Sound roars to life around him, trees rubbing together in the flood of wind that races through the valley, water crashing through the river as if let from a dam. Naruto turns, watching movement dance across this once still pocket of the world.

A crunch, a crack, a resurgence of dormant chakra singed the air with its intensity as Naruto turns again to the wolf.

Light is splintering through the stone at the beast’s feet, flooding though unseen lines in the form of a looped five pointed star. It runs along unseen lines like liquid starlight, filling groves with chakra so concentrated Naruto can hardly stand to look at it. Another crack and a pattern unfurls along the entire breadth of the plaza, vaporizing mosaic pieces and debris as it twines into an unbelievably massive seal.

The wolf’s eyes catch his again, lightning cracking against the creature’s fur in cracks of light that split the air in the new chaos that breaks around them as clouds begin gathering dark overhead.

He tries to move forward but even a single step is too much for him now as nausea rolls from his stomach up his throat. He falls to his knees, hand snapping to his mouth, but it’s not enough and when he manages to turn his head it’s to vomit rancid chakra.

His head is spinning and his vision cuts out, but he can still feel the urgency building in the atmosphere, can still sense the storm that’s converging over his head, unnatural and angry.

Naruto senses a crackle of energy too close as teeth nip into the fabric of his shirt and yank him forward, forcing him to stumble upright in order to keep his balance. He blinks vision into his eyes again and finds the wolf has come to him, eyes bright and intent. Like the other spirits before it comes to his aid, tucking underneath Naruto’s arm to lend it’s strength to his.

It drags him to the center of the massive seal, to the point at the center of star. He expects the chakra raging in the seal to at least burn him, but the energy doesn’t harm him as he passes through it. He’s unsure if it’s because of the nature of the chakra or if it’s because the spirit of the wolf is protecting him.

When he reaches the center he finds only a tangle of lines that don’t make any sense– random curves and slashes that have no real order to them at. But he remembers Kurama’s teachings, remembers that great power sometimes lies in opposites, that true balance sometimes lies in contradiction, so he looks for order in the chaos.

If he hadn’t been given a hint he would never have seen the method in the madness, but in the odd swishes and half circles, he finds it. A moon and sun. Yin and Yang.

Another memory floods through him, the Arashikage’s memory–

The defending storm is calmed by the blood of the eldest.

Naruto bites into his thumb, allows the blood to well against his finger and drip down his palm, dark and diseased, but still Uzumaki. He finds the center of the symbol, the place where the tines of the moon meet the center of the sun, and slams his hand down over it.

A boom echoes like a struck drum, a cleansing force sweeps from beneath him and the air clears of anger and tension, the clouds above his head disperse. Energy floods him, more than he can stand, a reaching power that pushes through him, sinks its claws into that space below his heart, and pulls him under.