Prologue : Albatross
/ ˈalbətrɒs / · noun
A seemingly inescapable moral or emotional burden, as of guilt or responsibility.
The brush in her hand moved with intent, each brush stroke smooth and even without irregularities, perfect like a set typography and each piece elegant like an artist in her element. She lifted the apparatus dipped in a generous amount of ink as she studied her work with a keen eye, not allowing a single flaw to escape her intense scrutiny. She demanded perfection – or rather, the seal work did not allow for detriments – because what she pursued was a topic breached by many and yet succeeded by none, all her predecessors dying by their own creation or trapped in a different time.
But she would be different, she swore, hunger devastated in her eyes. She would succeed.
The dim room she dwelled in was dominated by her opus – her masterpiece – where large pieces of paper overlapped one another, each construct drawn with her lifeblood and significant to the complex array that she created. She knelt on a cloth surrounded by her papers, her ink-stained hands and sleeves hovering over parchment while she compared the rough sketch to the actual. She hoped fervently that it would be her last, her weary body exhausted of its zealous commitment to her piece, one that was tempered with more failures than successes. The ancient beast stayed deadly still as he watched his host gross over her work, likewise hoping that the current piece would not have to join the stack of rolled-up papers in the corner of the room.
Her thin lips twitched into a rare smile as she raised her hunched back leisurely slow, her head turning slowly to admire her handiwork that spanned over a few years. Parts of the outer layer were alight with vibrant red ink and it thrummed as if it was alive with stored power. As it reached the core, the spiraled words became more compact and detailed, its scriptures like another language as they layered on top of one another, the waxy thin paper faintly showing the delicate brush strokes beneath.
Her stained hands brushed locks of her unruly, unconditioned hair out of her face, revealing harrowed cerulean blue eyes. "It is completed," she whispered, her voice hoarse from disuse as she gripped onto the piece of cloth.
The Bijuu chuckled. 'Congratulations, kit.'
Naruto peered at the window that was covered by thick blinds, rising to her feet and flickering towards it, drawing them open to see the light. The midday sun blinded her; touching her paler skin and ruining her vision momentarily before it adjusted to the sterile life before her.
The small village she resided in was self-sufficient, going about their lives to sustain themselves with the bare necessities. It was mechanical and static as each of them went through the processes of life like ghouls, dragging along their props with lifeless eyes, seeking some kind of refuge that did not belong in this world. It wasn't like her old bustling village that she knew, filled with so much warmth and glory that it made her cheeks hurt. She missed the old smells of spices and clothes that her old affiliation had, filled with so much joy and boisterous noise. It was beautiful and vast with life, unlike this village that laid in the ruin of war, now a barren wasteland where everywhere she turned to was a living funeral, her loneliness a wretched reminder of everything she had lost.
Of everything she had failed to protect, even though she had sworn to.
Her eyelids flitted close as tears welled in her eyes once again, closing the blinds as she sank to the ground, her head leaning against the rough walls. Her body trembled but she doesn't allow herself to make a sound of anguish because she was tired of crying for the things that had already been done. She knows that she doesn't deserve the light. She can't stand looking at the villagers who were equally tormented by the losses of war – a morbid reflection of herself – because every time she did, she would remember all the deaths that she witnessed, the fading warmth in her bloodied arms, their faltering breaths –
Her eyes snapped open uncontrollably as she let out a whimper of despair, teeth biting her lips in attempt to halt it. She knew the truth that they all denied while they tried to move on from the catastrophic event: they just existed. She just existed. They stopped living when a fragment of them died along with the war.
'You don't have to do this, kit,' the fox implored in her head. 'Why do you seek to relieve the memories that haunt you? You have already done your part in the entire grand scheme of things; you have stopped the greater evil from triumphing. Why do you pursue this madness, Uzumaki-Namikaze Naruto?'
The kunoichi shrugged her shoulders lethargically. "This is not home," her voice cracked at the last word, her hand raking through her hair. "This is a graveyard, where they are no longer around because I failed to protect them. Home-"she broke for the second time- "is when they are around with me and not just a ghost in my memories that I cannot remove."
She sounded so aged and afflicted that it nearly broke the Kyuubi's non-beating heart, feeling the utter despair rolling off the formerly hyperactive ninja in waves. The war ruined her in more ways than one, trashing and stomping on her dreams ruthlessly before tossing it away like it was refuse. His host was just played out like a theatrical puppet by the ploy of another man, losing everything to the things she could not control, and that no immeasurable power could prevent. How could he not be aware of the desperation that anchored deep her heart, the palpable structure abused by her phantoms that made remedy impossible?
Living for her was a fate crueler than death.
It always started with a small trickle of water that dripped in their mindscape. But he doesn't know when – he presumed it was one of the numberless deaths – when it started pouring and he remembered himself drowning along with her endless grief that screamed and ripped like torrential rain, a maelstrom gathering and calling disaster. He doesn't know when she became inconsolable but he watched her retreated into herself, reduced to a pathetic shadow that flitted around the edges, never truly living.
Her albatross had a constant presence, refusing to let go of the tortured child. She constructed and planned tirelessly like a machine, often forgoing her meals and sleep for progress. She thrived on action to forget, only necessity and her body shutting down on itself as an indicator that she was still human, and she would wear and tear without rest. When she was uninspired, she would train for hours to perfect her amalgamated style, only collapsing when exhaustion overcame her and she would sink into a deep blank sleep. She never stopped working like clockwork empowered by sheer damaged will, forging her weapon and sharpening her own mind for something that was likely to fail.
She bet everything on her masterpiece to live again.
He sighed, stressing warily at the truth. 'And you are aware that this madness might bear no results, right?'
She looked at her seal work longingly like a woman mad obsessed. "It doesn't matter," she muttered. "I have nothing left to lose anyway. And even if it fails… at least I tried."
His red eyes softened, recognizing her own self-blame for inaction. Raising his body and onto his four limbs, his head inclined towards his host, a gesture that he hadn't done since the passing of his creator. 'I swore that you would be the last vessel that would host my chakra and I will follow you until your death. And no matter where you go, whether this succeeds or fails, I will stay with you until the end, Naruto. Hence, I ask of you once more, do you really wish for this?'
Her lips trembled at his unconditional support, guilt spiking within her. This was her lifelong partner that would be sacrificed along with her if she failed, and just as she was putting herself through the grinder again, he would have to follow. Could she really ask such a thing of him? She knew it was unfair to him and this was her decision.
She needed to do something about this.
"Kurama," she began, mustering her courage to speak without showing her weakness, "this has been my wish for years but it does not mean you have to follow me. The seal has always been open and you can leave if you want. I won't hold it against you even if you chose to do it. It will take me awhile to recuperate but I'll be okay, 'ttebane."
The Kyuubi no Kitsune's nostrils flared with anger at her suggestion, 'And abandon a foolish mortal like you that is upheld by pointless heroics? To believe that you are stable enough to carry out what you intend to do? I may be disapproving of this suicidal plan, but as your sworn partner, I am no fool. I will not abandon you when you need me most. Someone has to rein you in before you destroy your own plans with your own ideals.'
She flinched at the backhanded insult although her heart warmed at his proclamation.
"There are worse ways for me to die, kit," huffed out the fox, settling back to his original position before he spoke. 'I've lived and seen everything this world has to offer. I've experienced the sweetest of tender meats and the foulest of men and triumphed bitterly over a madman with you. My brethren have been domesticated and slaughtered and this world has been reduced to a desolate canvas that will not recover for centuries to come. There is no enjoyment in viewing misery when there is no happiness and there is nothing to seek in this wretched time.'
'There are worse ways to die, kit,' he repeated truthfully, his gaze earnest. 'But if I had to choose, dying with you may not be that bad after all.'
His vessel looked at him in amused sadness. "You're really bad at this, aren't you?"
'You are possibly the last mortal I want to hear that from, especially when you boast horrible social cues,' snapped the fox, irritated by the fact that she ruined his honesty. The kunoichi laughed in the mindscape.
The jinchūriki wiped away the remnant of her tears as she skirted around the edges of her papers and opened a door that led to a separate enclosed room in the house. Her hand pressed on the stasis seal momentarily to deactivate it, her eyes roving over the collection of mementos. The weapons of her fallen friends were decked out in displays on the walls and the unique assortment of items from techniques to accessories were organized by category on tables in the room, all of them precious to her in some way or another. She approached the leftmost table first, picking up her traditional Shinobi outfit that consisted of a dark orange jumpsuit and mesh armor delicately before hugging it to her chest. She stilled for a moment before she undressed, kimono pooling on the ground around her as slipped on her old garb, smiling at the familiar rough texture that lied on her skin. Her pouches were strung on her hip and right leg next, filled with storage scrolls that held her plans, her important effects and her own inventions in Fūinjutsu.
Naruto reached out hesitantly to the two hitat-ate that laid flat on the table next to where her outfit was, her fingers brushing against the metal plates, weighing their significance in her mind. The Konoha insignia would eternally be the only affiliation that she would swear loyalty to and it had stayed with her for the majority of her life. But the kanji for nin and the symbol of tolerance represented the last years of her Shinobi career that encompassed everything she wanted to forget. Beyond its ugliness, it also meant the great people that she met in the midst of the sanguineous war, who impacted and parted things onto her.
'Just take the latter, kit,' her partner advised, 'you can get the Konoha insignia again later.'
She nodded, hanging the hitat-ate on her waist, turning around and striding out of the room, not even giving the mementos a last glance. She shut the door behind her and re-sealed the stasis – permanently this time – her eyelids fluttering close as she etched all the things she had left behind in her mind.
This time, she vowed, I won't have to collect them ever again.
She would see those items hang off their owners proudly and watch them wield it with the mastery she could never hold a cup to, allowing those items to be more than just of ornamental value.
"We only have one chance, Kurama," Naruto said, determination apparent in her eyes. "I hope you're not out of practice."
"Never," he vowed similarly, giving her a foxy grin as she floated towards the middle of the seal array and settling down on her knees. "We will succeed."
She pulled her hair into a ponytail before she pressed her palms flat on an empty space of the array. "Silence," she commanded as the seals around the room glowed, the noises of the village outside fading into nothingness. "Barrier," intoned the seal master, watching as the inner fittings of the house adopted eight different colored outlines before it stayed at yellow.
Her left palm lied on the seal of her stomach, "Lock." The large gates in their mindscape closed and the Eight Trigram Seal spiraled to a close, the prisoner still lying on his belly without protest. He peeked one red eye at his host, smiling at her renewed vigor. 'Do you have enough chakra for this sequence, kit?'
"If eighty large chakra storages with a three to two ratio of your chakra and mine respectively aren't enough," she grimaced as she coaxed chakra into her creation, "then this world is done for."
Black words started to trail up her arms and coil around her body like a snake, branding her for its own. The heated ink seared into her skin and she winced slightly, feeling as if she truly became the center of the seal, a single entity rather than two. The dark marks of the seal from the core started lighting up with a vibrant crimson as if it were alive, the color slowly spreading outwards to meet the smoldering red that lined the outer edges. The kunoichi watched the colors creep slowly as she continued the steady influx of chakra, a sense of anticipation and worry welling within her. Her eyes narrowed at the possibility of failure. I'm an Uzumaki through and through, 'ttebane! I don't simply fail at Fūinjutsu. I bled for this piece and I'm going to get ever drop's worth once this succeeds, she hissed in her mind.
The encouraging smiles of her friends flashed across her mind and a grin ghosted on her lips. For them, for their futures, I cannot fail.
'Hey kit,' the Kyuubi called out, causing her grunt in reply.
'Do you remember what day it is?' he asked knowingly.
The question took her by surprise. "What?"
Blue, blacks, and reds merged just as she reacted, the white light blinding as it engulfed the entire room. The array bled with overwhelming chakra and it pulsed tangibly in the room, the two mediums in the storages blending as the barrier of the house cracked from its ferocity. The wooden structure of the house groaned from the tension while the origin stayed unmoving in the middle of the chaotic whirlwind of power, bleeding out from her seven orifices while she strained herself to channel the last part of the sequence.
A loud explosion boomed in her ears. In her mind's eye, she saw the Kyuubi no Kitsune smiling at her fondly.
'Happy Birthday kit.'
And in the next instant, the entire room was decimated into the pieces, the paper ripped into shreds after serving its purpose and floated into the air, its edges singed. Wooden splinters flew in all directions when the barrier could no longer hold up and exploded in a shower of sparks, the fallen structure hot and jagged. The remaining chakra swept across the village like a shock wave accompanied by a blast of wind, alarming everyone in the nearby vicinity.
The lady who once resided in the demolished house, the supposed Nanadaime Hokage that never took up her role, disappeared from the timeline without a trace.