Shimura took a minute to compose himself, clearing his throat as he eyed Tobirama sharply. "I thought this was meant to be an open discussion in which we were all free to express our concerns. If mine are not to be taken into consideration, then perhaps the Shimura—" He made to stand, and Tobirama settled back in his seat, calling the bluff. Hashirama, predictably, fell for it.
"No Shimura-san, please stay. My brother is blunt—too blunt—but he didn't mean any disrespect…" Hashirama tried to make eye contact, silently pleading for him to offer some sort of apology. Tobirama turned away stubbornly. Shimura was wasting everyone's time. He refused to offer an apology for making his impatience known. "We would all be happy to let you speak…" Shimura considered the words and sat back down once again.
Clearing his throat, his eyes drifted around the room, landing squarely on Haruno. "As I was saying, it seems quite reckless to place civilian children in that environment. Quite idealistic that those of any background can become shinobi. But I am a realist."
"Shimura, if you don't mind me asking, where exactly are your concerns coming from?" Madara sighed. "Who are they for?"
"For the village, of course." Shimura retorted, looking indignant that anyone could think otherwise. "In the interest of seeing it prosper, I simply don't see allowing anyone who has a strong desire to become shinobi. That seems like a setup for disaster, inevitably. Our kunoichi friend," he gestured to Sakura, "perhaps is one of the few fortunate ones to survive this long, but most children not accustomed to the life of a ninja would have a hard time adapting. Would it not be cruel to let them think they could withstand it, only to see them cut down in their youth? Better to never put the idea in their heads. They can be perfectly satisfied as bakers and blacksmiths, can they not?"
"Shimura-san may have a bit of a point…" Chouto rubbed his chin. "While I'm not adverse to the idea of those without shinobi lineage being allowed to train, it's true that through generations of conditioning, the chakra coils of shinobi have become stronger and larger in comparison to a civilian-born counterpart. That's not to say that there isn't possible talent there."
"Exactly!" Tobirama watched as Haruno seized on the opportunity to take the floor. "When I started training, my chakra coil was nothing impressive. I wasn't physically very strong, either. I had perfect chakra control, but that was because I wasn't working with a large source of it. But I found a mentor willing to take me on, and I learned to play to my strengths. Maybe the conditions of being born civilian sound like an unsurmountable disadvantage to all of you, but it doesn't have to be. Someone like me is bound to have their own hidden strengths." She looked around the table, meeting eyes with all of them. "I think…I think it's impossible to say that you care about the future of the village, if you don't care about the futures of all of its villagers. The civilian child that's not allowed to enter the academy…might be the one who could have become the next Hokage!" Remembering herself, she turned to Hashirama with a shy smile. "Not that there's anything wrong with the current Hokage."
Hashirama waved his hand for her to continue.
"What I'm saying is, why place limits on a child? The academy curriculum, if it does its job, should naturally weed out anyone who doesn't feel inclined for shinobi life, or who isn't ready."
The clan heads began to murmur amongst themselves, Shimura sneering at them, disgruntled. "Touching," he spat, "but without anyone to back your claims—"
"I can attest to it!" Sarutobi interjected. "I was on a mission with Sakura not so long ago. She infiltrated the Kaguya stronghold and reigned hell down on them. I'm sure everyone here is aware of the Kaguya clan's reputation."
Shimura looked grudgingly impressed. "The Kaguya clan, you say? What were the specifications of the mission? How can we be truly sure that—"
"My daughter told me about that," Doi Nara confirmed. "She also said you figured out how to help her manage her condition...pretty quick thinking on your part."
Sakura looked away bashfully. "It was a simple solution in the end."
"For what it's worth, Shimura, Haruno did in fact take part in the mission to retrieve my fan." Madara added almost casually. "Handling the gunbai and fending off the Kaguya isn't a task suitable for a shinobi who doesn't have at least passable skills. Even you would admit that much."
Tobirama knew Madara and his pride well enough to understand that acknowledgement was not something he handed out lightly. Sakura recognized it as well, staring at the Uchiha in puzzlement, as if she didn't trust her own ears.
"Be that as it may, while I don't quite believe in luck, circumstances may sometimes permit unlikely things to happen. Such as surviving an encounter with the Kaguya with minimal skills."
Again, Shimura callously dismissed the possibility of Haruno's strength, and Tobirama recognized the temper he had become accustomed to build. Her eyes were an open window to her emotions, which was less than desirable for a shinobi, but convenient in the particular situation, where he found himself yet again giving her a stern look as one of her hands clenched the table, causing a faint mark. Her irritation redirected at him, the one who continued to give her nonverbal warnings to hold back.
'It isn't my fault,' he thought to say, 'That you don't have the temperament for diplomatic situations with the likes of Shimura.' Although, silently he would also agree that the man was grating at his own nerves. A healthy dose of skepticism, Tobirama was perfectly inclined to understand, but now Shimura seemed to be questioning decent logic in spite of himself, if only to spite Haruno.
"What if I could also vouch for Sakura-san's strength, Shimura-san?" Hashirama spoke up.
"Lord Hokage, with all respect, you are a man of fairness. It's why I felt comfortable pledging the Shimura to this village in the first place." Shimura said carefully. "But a woman's pretty words can be compelling…they offer the right…incentive…who is to say you wouldn't testify to something you haven't witnessed?"
The room grew silent. All conversation of the academy had almost become nonexistent in the last few minutes, but everyone was well aware that Shimura had crossed a line, bringing into question not only Hashirama's credibility, but also honesty, not to mention Haruno's virtue.
"Are you suggesting to her face that Sakura-san is immoral enough to seduce the Hokage to further her own agenda?" Izuna asked, his voice low.
"Forgive me if I misspoke, Izuna-san, I only meant—"
"Everyone here is aware of what you meant, Shimura." Madara cut in. "You forget your place."
Hashirama, his cheeks washed in red and no doubt humiliated, attempted to remain on higher ground, and offer Shimura an out he didn't deserve. "Ah…we should take a small intermission and allow ourselves time to…Sakura-san, are you alright?"
The kunoichi was doubled over and shaking, clutching herself tightly as if she was in physical pain. Everyone's eyes curiously settled on her.
"No," she bit out. She lifted her head, and her green eyes had turned such a dark, turbulent shade, it was electrifying. For the first time since the meeting had begun, Tobirama saw a glimpse of the fierce, stubborn girl that refused to yield in their spar behind the elegant wrapping of a polished, poised woman. When she had entered the room, the loathsome Uchiha at her side, he had discreetly stared longer than he would ever admit.
Undeniably, she had done a decent job of polishing herself to a shine. But even as he looked at her red-painted lips and the formal kimono, he saw the sharp-tongued, heavy hitting pink-haired Sakura Haruno, more than the delicately groomed one. Something he preferred more than all the elegance. That was the side that had finally made an appearance.
When she stared across the table, her gaze was hard and biting. Tobirama watched on keenly as she leveled the brunt of her anger at Shimura. "I don't care what insults you use to describe me…you're not the first person to think I'm weak and you won't be the last…but," her jaw clenched. "You should speak to the Hokage with more respect."
"Agreed." came the quiet voice of Ayeka Aburame. "Shimura-san, you have toed the line the entirety of this assembly, but now it seems you've more than crossed it."
Shimura shifted, his eyes darting around the room. The other clan heads gave him pressing looks, and Tobirama enjoyed the discomfort it clearly brought him. He was a fool in over his head to speak so freely.
He scolded Hashirama often, but he never once doubted his commitment to the village, a dream he had been nurturing since childhood. For anyone to suggest that his brother would be stupid enough to jeopardize the hard work they had achieved—were achieving— for the temptation of a woman, didn't understand him at all. "What now, Shimura?" Tobirama asked, "You seem to have misplaced your bluster. Perhaps you aren't done discovering new ways in which to question the integrity of everyone here."
Shimura understood that he had no allies in that moment. Tobirama could see it as he refused to meet anyone's eyes. "My apologies, Lord Hokage."
Hashirama gave a silent nod.
"You know, I have to say I think a small intermission would clear the air." Madara intoned, standing. The clan heads looked amongst themselves, standing too. "Izuna, if you would?"
Izuna rose, smiling pleasantly. "If you'd all like to follow me to the courtyard for some fresh air, you're welcome to."
Haruno made to follow them, purposely avoiding Shimura as she carefully got to her feet.
Tobirama shared a wary look with Madara as he passed by. He didn't particularly want to join the others in the courtyard. Instead, he would stand by the door and wait for the meeting to resume. That would give him the time he needed to think of counterarguments. The others could tip either way, truthfully. He knew Sarutobi was as good as convinced, but it was harder to read Nara and Aburame. Akamichi seemed to have doubts, and Shimura was, of course, the biggest detractor and would likely remain so the entirety of the meeting.
As he mulled how best to convince each individual over in his head, he noticed Hashirama place a hand on Haruno's shoulder as she made to go with the others, motioning for her to follow him in the opposite direction. Izuna nor the clan heads seemed to pay much attention as they kept going straight while Hashirama and Haruno veered down a hall to the left. Tobirama glared. He couldn't imagine what his brother was up to. Shimura had just implied there was something between them that would influence Hashirama's decision, and this would only look more incriminating.
Deciding it was up to him to keep his brother from sabotaging himself, Tobirama followed, stealthy and silent, chakra suppressed as he soundlessly scaled the fusuma and settled above their heads in the wagoya. Their voices were low in the empty hall, as they both began talking at the same time, pausing in shared embarrassment, until Hashirama prompted her to speak first.
"I know what you're going to say," Haruno began. "And you're right."
"About?" Hashirama pressed.
"My behavior back there. I let Shimura get to me, and it probably didn't help the case. I'm sorry." she bowed shortly.
Sighing, Hashirama touched her shoulder, and she lifted her head. "Sakura-san, I actually wanted to apologize. For Shimura's words. They were uncalled for, and after this I plan to speak with him privately. You…You're a respectable woman, you shouldn't be demeaned—"
"Wait," Sakura held up her hands, and Hashirama stopped speaking instantly. "Are you offended on my behalf?"
Hashirama considered her question, slowly nodding. "Yes…I am. You were offended on mine, weren't you?"
"That's different," Haruno defended, "You're the Hokage. He didn't have any right to attack you just because he was arguing with me."
Tobirama knew his brother well enough to anticipate that he wouldn't accept such an answer. Just as expected, Hashirama's face plainly expressed his displeasure at the notion. "Why am I owed more respect than you, because of a title?"
She didn't respond right away, her eyes studied the knots in the hardwood floors instead. "It's just…" Haruno fidgeted with the length of her sleeve. "You earned it— the title and the respect. Without you and the other Founders, Konoha wouldn't be…Konoha."
Hashirama looked at her thoughtfully. "More than me, or Madara, or Tobirama sharing a dream, the village became a reality because others believed in it. Others were willing to take a risk in following us. Including you, Sakura-san. Everyone in the village is a pillar who raises it up, from the smallest child…to the Hokage. We may have different jobs, but in my eyes one title isn't worth any more respect than the next one."
The hidden shinobi could almost see Haruno's eyes shining as she absorbed Hashirama's words.
"Was that a poor choice of words?" Hashirama started to fret. "I can think of another example." He cleared his throat grandly, "We're all the roots that give life to the mighty tree."
Haruno's mouth fell open quietly.
"Ah…I'm sorry. I've been told I have a habit of relating everything back to plants in some way. I can think of another exam—"
Tobirama hung his head. Couldn't the idiot see that she was moved by his speech the first time?
Sakura's sincere laughter seemed to catch Hashirama off guard. "It wasn't meant to be a joke."
"I know," she affirmed. "I know. But, I was just thinking, you remind me a little of someone. And you're right, we've all got our part to play. Instead of feeling sorry for myself, I need to go back in there and show Shimura all the reasons why he shouldn't underestimate civilian born shinobi." Haruno's eyes fell to her kimono. "That's what I'd like to say, but this kimono is a little hard to actually maneuver in. So I'll settle for explaining why I'm right for now."
"That's the spirit," encouraged Hashirama.
"They should be coming back inside by now, right?" Haruno asked, canting her head. "We should get back."
"After you," Hashirama motioned politely and she slowly made her way past, using the fusuma for balance. Tobirama crouched lower in his spot on the wagoya, willing her not to look up.
"You might wanna go around me," Sakura suggested. "I'm still really slow in this."
It was Hashirama's turn to give a good-natured laugh. "Here, I can help," he offered his arm, and Sakura stared at it in momentary shock, before accepting shyly. There was such an easy candidness to their interactions, he felt like an intruder.
His brother patiently guided her down the hall, their chatter amicable as they turned the corner. Tobirama waited, giving them time to make it back to the room. He was preparing himself to descend to the floor, but the dark, malignant chakra signature coming his way had him tensing instead. He glared through red, slitted eyes as Madara walked by, almost rounding the corner before stopping.
"It's rude for you to lurk there." Not one to back away from the likes of Madara, Tobirama dropped to the floor with a quiet thunk. The Uchiha turned fully, the same intense look of dislike that mirrored his own contorting his face.
One thing that could always be said for their relationship was that neither man bothered to hide his distrust for the other. Without Hashirama serving as the link between them, Tobirama suspected the Uchiha and the Senju would still be doing battle.
Madara gave him a weighing glance, folding his arms. "Am I under suspicion in my own home now?"
"You are under suspicion everywhere you go." Tobirama spat.
One side of Madara's mouth lifted in a smirk. "You, like Shimura, also forget your place. Within these walls, I have the upper-hand. Always." The Uchiha leaned into his personal space, his visible eye flickering threateningly into the red of the Sharingan. "So maybe it's you who should be more careful about coming across suspiciously."
Leveling Madara with one last withering glare, Tobirama moved around him, fully intending on returning to the meeting room. The clan heads would be coming back from the break soon enough.
"A tactical retreat?" Madara contemplated, "How unusually gracious of you. Or is it simply that you consider your reconnaissance accomplished?"
"I don't know what you're implying," Tobirama retorted, refusing to stop walking. Madara's footfalls behind him told him he wouldn't be getting away from the conversation easily.
"I doubt that," Madara continued. "Who is it that you mistrust more? Haruno or Hashirama?"
Tobirama hovered just outside the door of the meeting room, drawing his shoulders back. "Being in the Uchiha compound has you feeling emboldened."
"If it's not mistrust, then why listen to a conversation not meant for your ears?"
"I owe you no explanations." Tobirama entered the room, closing the door on the conversation.
After speaking with the Hokage, Sakura was invigorated with a new sense of purpose, more determined than ever to prove Shimura wrong.
When the clan heads reentered the room and took their seats, she sat straight and looked her adversary directly in the eyes. He returned the stare, albeit uncomfortably.
"Now that we've all had time to take a minute and process the arguments that have been brought up so far, let's get back to it," Izuna declared. "Doi-san, we haven't heard from you, yet."
The Nara's eye drifted to Izuna and he looked like he had swallowed something unpleasant. "Me? I'm not much for grandiose speeches, you see. So I've just been listening to all the others talk. But if you'd really like to hear what I have to say, well, I'll start by telling you that my ancestors were simple folks. They were nomadic and lived off their deer herds. Stumbling into becoming shinobi as an occupation was coincidental, more or less. So I can't really say if it's right or wrong civilians get to become shinobi, but at the heart of it all, the Nara didn't start out much differently."
"And you, Ayeka-san? Chouto?" Hashirama prompted.
"In our clan we do not underestimate opponents, regardless of lineage or appearance." Ayeka explained.
"You know, what Doi says is true. Not all of us here come from strictly shinobi lineages. That's something we should try to remember," acknowledged Chouto.
"That leaves you, Shimura-san," Sakura took some comfort in how he looked properly chastised after entering the room. She wondered if anyone had lambasted him over his remarks while they were gone. "Even if you don't think shinobi life is a job for civilians and don't want anything to do with the academy, I just want you to know that I'm going to keep fighting to prove you wrong."
"Is that so?" Shimura harrumphed, steepling his hands on the table and leaning back, raising his chin. "Nothing you said today has convinced me of anything other than the fact that you're a short-tempered, brash woman who has a great deal of naiveté to spare."
"Then if you don't mind me saying so," Sakura grinned evenly. "You're a dangerously narrow-minded traditionalist who doesn't understand that the world keeps changing, whether you're on board or not."
"She makes a point, Shimura," Izuna added. "Now is the moment where you make your choice. Not allowing children from the Shimura clan to attend is up to you, but, the children who do enter the academy are bound to keep advancing as they learn new things from peers and different instructors that they wouldn't be able to in their clans. In under a generation, the Shimura's fresh blood will be at a disadvantage."
Shinpachi Shimura ground his teeth, dark eyes flashing angrily. Izuna's words had struck something, a sense of pride, maybe.
"Let's put it to a vote," Madara suggested. "All those in favor of civilian entry into the academy?"
Resounding "ayes" from Nara, Aburame, Akamichi and Sarutobi made Sakura's heart soar. The Hokage happily raised his own hand, echoing their "ayes" with his own. Tobirama and Izuna and even Madara lifted their arms as well. Sakura gladly joined them. Only Shimura remained sour-faced, arms stubbornly crossed.
"Are you sure about this, Shinpachi?" Sarutobi questioned.
"You're asking me to choose to allow my son and the other Shimura children to learn with civilians!" he seethed, "Yet you dare to suggest that by not doing so, the Shimura will be left behind?"
"So what is your answer?" Tobirama asked. "You're holding things up."
"I…" Shimura stared venomously at Sakura from across the table. "I do not consent to civilian entry, but I see I am outvoted, so yes, the Shimura will participate in the academy project." Sakura bit her lip, to keep from shouting triumphantly. While it didn't matter to her whether or not the Shimura clan were at the academy, she knew it meant a lot to Hashirama for everyone to participate. And, Shimura was cornered. That alone made her day.
"There we have it then," Hashirama announced. "We can proceed with the academy's construction, and entry will be open to everyone, civilian and clan heirs alike."
A week went by, and preparations were going smoothly. Hashirama lovingly pruned Bukkai, thinking that he should really be thanking Sakura.
He believed her presence had been instrumental to convince the others. Shinpachi was, and would likely remain unsatisfied, but even if everyone's heart hadn't been swayed, it was a start.
"You're really coming into your own." he told the plant. "Your petals are opening up more," Tobirama would never believe him, but the Hokage thought that the bonsai soaked up the praise and grew stronger.
There was something so tranquil about nurturing life, watching it reach its fullest potential. When he stood back from his desk and gazed at the bonsai's strong trunk and healthy leaves, it filled him with more than a little pride. Though he never considered himself one to boast, his green thumb at times impressed even himself! "There, now you brighten up the whole room!"
"This again?" Hashirama, fully expecting the arrival of his brother, turned to see Tobirama entering the office.
"Stop staring at Bukkai like that," he scolded.
"I know you get preoccupied about engagements when it comes to that bonsai, but if this continues to be a distraction, it can't stay in the office with you."
"You wouldn't," Hashirama moved protectively between Bukkai and his brother.
"You and I both know I would." Hashirama did know. "Leave that alone and come with me, or we'll be late."
Hashirama tilted his head back. Late…? Well it sounded vaguely like Tobirama was saying they had somewhere to be, and he'd forgotten.
"You can't honestly mean to tell me you've already forgotten?" his brother reprimanded, "You agreed to take a tour of the Nara Forest today."
Hashirama's eyes lit up and he felt excitement coursing through his veins. "You're right! Doi did say they'd been working on an interesting technique with the trees there."
"It only takes one mention of trees and it all comes back…" Tobirama complained under his breath.
Hashirama ignored him, rushing to place his red headband around his forehead and put the prune sheers aside. A quick straightening of his robes and he strolled by Tobirama, ready to go.
"Well, as guests, it'd be rude to keep the tre—the Nara waiting!"
"You're skipping," his brother shook his head, catching up with him.
"No, I'm not," Hashirama wouldn't have been surprised if he was, but the horticulturist in him was too eager to care.
Sakura answered the front door, only to nearly trip over the prone body face down in the dirt. She bit back a gasp as she noticed the familiar Nara crest on the back of suspicious 'corpse'.
"You're kidding…" she dragged the body inside by the legs with a grunt, flipping it over to reveal the slumbering face of Shikamarin Nara, who had apparently fallen asleep mid-knock. It had been a while since she'd seen the Nara, but the last time was fresh in her mind, and Sakura plucked an apple from a bowl on her table up and crouched beside her, pressing it to her lips. "Bite this."
Shikamarin was unresponsive, so Sakura pried her mouth open and lifted her up, moving her jaw until she heard the crunch of the apple's flesh being pierced. That was all it took before she began to chew and her gray eyes fluttered open. As before, Shikamarin quickly took the apple, eating away, as if there was nothing peculiar about coming to on someone's floor with an apple to her mouth.
"Long time no see," she greeted between bites.
"Uh, yeah..." Sakura rubbed at the back of her neck. "I'm going to have to make you some pills or something...you can't show up and fall asleep on just anyone's doorstep."
"I didn't," Shikamarin munched, juice dribbling down her chin. "I woke up on yours. Thanks for the apple."
"Nooo problem," Sakura stood wearily, but the other girl didn't even bother to try. Eating had become her top priority. "So, did you come by for a reason?" the rose-haired kunoichi stepped around the Nara and closed her front door. When she turned around, she noticed Usamaro had come slinking out of hiding and was pawing at Shikamarin's hand.
"Thought you'd wanna come for a walk with me in the Nara Forest."
Sakura did a double take. "The Nara Forest? Really?" She had never been, but Tsunade had mentioned on more than one occasion that the antlers from the Nara clan's deer were some of the best for medicine. Top quality, she claimed.
"Mhm...I understand if you wouldn't be interested, but Pops was impressed the other day in the meeting, and my mom says I owe you one for the mission."
"I'd love to come!" Sakura exclaimed, almost bouncing on her heels.
"A'right then..." Shikamarin stood, brushing the front of her skirt off. "We can go now, if you want. Pops has some big creation he's been raving about for days. Wants to show it to the Hokage."
The two girls stepped out into the streets.
"When you say he's been raving about a creation, what do you mean?" Sakura couldn't help asking. The scholar in her was intrigued. She wondered if it had something to do with the deer, or maybe a new jutsu. 'It's more likely to be the former though, right? The Nara are way too smart and too unmotivated to show off clan secrets.'
Shikamarin didn't particularly seem to share her excitement. "It's got something to do with trees and chakra...that's all I really know. Eh, when Pops gets like this it goes in one ear, out the other," she folded her arms behind her head. "You know how it is."
"No I don't!" Sakura muttered. "Don't new discoveries, I don't know, excite you? Even a little bit?"
Shikamarin gave her what she guessed passed for an incredulous expression. "Discoveries? No. Unless it's got something to do with food...I find discovering new things to eat pretty interesting."
'It almost seems like...she was born in the wrong family, now that I think about it.' Sakura kept the thought to herself, as two running children squeezed past them. "By the way, did your dad say anything about the academy? I mean, we're both too old to attend, but do you think that's exciting?"
Shikamarin yawned loudly. "Thinking about lessons makes me sort of tired, you know? It took me a while to learn any of our clan techniques when I was younger, because listening to my parents explain put me to sleep."
'It's sleeping or it's eating with her...I should try to help her find new hobbies. Right now, she'd be a good candidate to be adopted by a family of sloths.'
Sure enough, Doi Nara, the Hokage, and Tobirama Senju were waiting for them at the gates to the Nara Forest. "Good morning," Sakura waved.
"Welcome, young lady." Doi returned, scratching at the rough stubble on his cheek. "I trust my daughter didn't give you any trouble?"
"No, she was-"
"Lay off, Pops." Shikamarin warned languidly.
Doi pulled at one of her pigtails playfully, opening his arms grandly. "You're right on time to join our little tour." Doi nodded at the Hokage. Hashirama was looking up at the gates of the forest with shining eyes, while Tobirama remained cool and unaffected.
"Thank you for having us, Doi." Hashirama looked around as the gates swung open, everyone walking forward together.
"It only seemed right that you and Lord Tobirama be the first to see the properties these trees have." Doi explained as they walked. "I think Lord Tobirama especially will find them interesting."
Sakura noticed Tobirama had been glancing around, hands in his pant pockets, but instantly refocused his attention on Doi. "How so?"
Doi stopped walking, patting the bark of a particularly large, gnarled tree with patches of bark missing sporadically. Doi reached into a pouch at his waist, and Sakura almost thought he'd pull out a weapon. Instead, he pulled out small, thin slips of paper and handed one to each of them. "Recently, we found out the bark of some trees here are malleable to chakra. Concentrating chakra into them can reveal ones chakra nature."
Curiously, Sakura applied a small amount of chakra, watching as the paper crumbled into dirt in her hand before reforming and then instantly becoming a soggy mess in her hands.
Hashirama laughed behind her, and Sakura watched in awe to see his paper go through a total of five chakra nature transformations, Tobirama's doing the same.
Shikamarin's split neatly down the middle. "Huh. Futon..." she mused. "Fitting. It reminds me of napping."
Sakura sighed fondly. "Of course..."
"So I have Doton and Suit-hey!" Tobirama had snatched the paper from her hands, studying it.
"What's so funny?" she snapped.
"I understand Doton, but I would have imagined your second nature would be Katon."
"Why's that?" she asked, forgetting her annoyance.
"The temper of a Katon-user." Tobirama said simply.
"There's nothing wrong with being assertive," she defended, placing her hands on her hips. "Or passionate." she added.
"Are you denying being short-tempered?" Tobirama smirked.
"Actually, brother," Hashirama hummed, popping up between them and throwing an arm around each of their shoulders, "You're the one with the Katon nature, and you have to admit that you've got a temper yourself..."
Tobirama shrugged off his brother's arm. "This isn't about me."
"I think it's fortuitous!" Hashirama chirped. "You know, maybe you and Sakura-san could practice Suiton techniques together sometime. It's always nice to fight new opponents, no?"
Sakura coughed, choking on her own saliva. It would be woefully embarrassing for either of the Senju brothers to learn she didn't currently have a single Suiton technique in her arsenal.
"Don't make plans for me," Tobirama hissed.
"I wouldn't want to impose..." Sakura shrugged.
"You wouldn't be...there's not a single person aside from myself or Toka he can get to try going toe to toe with him in Suiton, and I think he's gotten bored with the both of us lately." Hashirama squeezed her shoulder. "Which is where you'd come in. What do you say?"
"Ah," Doi clicked his tongue several times. "It looks like we've got company." Sakura was never more relieved to see a spindly-legged fawn appear from the treeline, curiously venturing closer and closer. Its mother wasn't far behind, keeping a close eye on her offspring.
"How sweet," Hashirama crouched, unconcerned that his robes hung in the dirt as he held his arm outstretched toward the fawn.
Sakura, Tobirama and Shikamarin watched the fawn look at him, scenting the air quietly before creeping forward. The mother deer made a beeline to Doi, and he rubbed her head affectionately.
The fawn bumped its nose against Hashirama's fingers several times. When it leaned its head toward his palm, Sakura could almost feel the Hokage's elation. He proceeded to rub one of its ears. Sakura didn't have extensive knowledge of deer, but she could tell it was young judging by the white spots on its back. Its fluffy tail twitched and it stumbled back, its nose falling to the dirt before it began nosing at Hashirama's robes.
"Hm?" Hashirama laughed as the fawn circled him, nudging his leg expectantly. "Are you trying to play, little one?"
"Usually, they do that when they're hungry...or smell food. I don't suppose you've got any treats on you?" Doi joked.
"Treats?" Hashirama patted himself down. "You know, maybe she's after these?" He produced a handful of berries and the young fawn leapt around before trying to take them from his hand.
"Why are you carrying those around?" Sakura asked.
"Well, I've been growing a small bayberry shrub and it finally bore fruit." Hashirama offered the berries to the fawn, and it took them right away. "I sometimes grow things I can snack on," he admitted.
"That's well and good," Shikamarin drawled, "But I hope you've got enough for all of them too, Lord Hokage."
Sakura gaped as more deer began making their way from behind trees. It had gone from the fawn and its mother, to a gathering of at least fifteen within minutes.
Doi rubbed at his whiskers. "Hmm...how odd. They must really want to greet our guests."
"En masse?" Shikamarin scoffed. "Come on Pops, they came to eat the Hokage. That's pretty obvious."
Doi thumped the back of her head. "Don't be stupid,"
Tobirama seemed to be oblivious to his brother's plight as he studied the bark samples intently. Sakura watched him take out a concealed kunai and collect several more, murmuring to himself. "I could use these to layer...that would stabilize..."
"Uh," Sakura tapped his arm. "Shouldn't you be concerned about...whatever's happening?"
Tobirama followed her eyes. A large stag, at least sixteen points, had trotted forward and was pawing the ground aggressively.
"If my brother isn't capable of defending himself against herbivorous creatures, maybe the village deserves a better leader." He dropped his head and continued to exam the thin slits of bark in his hands.
"That's a good point, but..."
"Easy boy, easy..." Doi was approaching the stag, arms raised as it continued unperturbed toward Hashirama. The Hokage was attempting to offer it berries as a peace offering, grinning uncertainly.
The deer sniffed at his hand, tasting one of the berries, and Sakura heard the Hokage expel a sigh of relief. "See there?" he patted the buck's neck. "I knew we could be frie-" In one fluid motioned it had jammed his head into Hashirama's abdomen and used its thick neck to flip him. Sakura watched the Hokage hanging pitifully across the stag's back as it trotted off, the rest of the herd following.
"I guess...we're friends..." Hashirama wheezed as he was carried off.
Sakura couldn't believe her eyes. "H-He's being taken away!" she cried.
"I've never seen anything like that...deer taking enough of an interest in a person to want to keep them. Huh. Learn something new everyday I guess." Doi thought aloud.
"Shouldn't you be more concerned than impressed? The Hokage was kidnapped by deer."
"I told you they were out for blood," Shikamarin nodded. "But once they realize he isn't actually made of plant matter, I'm sure they'll lose interest."
"It's his own fault, really." Tobirama agreed absently. "Doi, I'd like to get samples from a few different tree species that have these properties and see which one is most resistant."
Sakura felt almost guilty that no one was too bothered about the Hokage's fate. 'Well...he is considered a God of Shinobi for a reason. They're probably all right. Deer don't eat meat, and he can get away whenever he wants.'
"Haruno," Sakura was surprised as Tobirama cleared his throat.
"Starting tomorrow, we will meet for Suiton training."
Sakura nodded. "Sure, I'm not doing much tomorrow, so...wait, what?"
"You heard me." his red eyes narrowed impatiently. "Suiton. Tomorrow. I'd like a rematch eventually, but I know the way things stand now, you wouldn't be able to go against me in ninjutsu, otherwise you wouldn't have relied so heavily on taijutsu in our last spar."
'He's right...but when he says it like that it still pisses me off.' she pouted.
"I want our next all out spar to be on fair footing. If I don't hold back, then you shouldn't either."
'Is this his weird way of saying he thinks I have potential to be his equal?' "A-Alright...if you're serious, then I'll take you up on it."
"A wise choice." Tobirama put all the bark he'd collected into his yukata and wandered off toward the next tree, back into his analysis.
Shikamarin patted her arm. "You got yourself a really strong teacher. Nice. I wish..." she sighed. "I wish I could lay down, actually..." she rubbed at her eyes.
"You spend too much time laying down as it is." Doi commented. "You know...maybe I really should go and check on Lord Hokage. Shika, you're with me."
The two Nara walked off. Doi did most of the walking, dragging his daughter away by the collar as they ventured deeper into the woods.
Sakura scratched at her head. She could see Tobirama from a distance, scraping bark samples off another tree. "This has been...a really bizarre day." she told herself.
Knowing what she planned to do after leaving the Nara Forest, she had a feeling it was only bound to get stranger. She had questions for a certain goddess that still needed answering, and it was about time to make another call.
Mizuchi examined the bowl of figs that had been brought to her. Fresh picked from a tree in the gardens, brought to her by one of the many adoring followers she had gained as of late.
Such strange, whimsical creatures. Not quite as whimsical as herself, but sometimes they still managed to surprise her.
When given the chance at freedom, they chose a new form of subjugation. Calling her their savior and pledging to worship her, they went as far as erecting a temple of worship in the ruins of the Kaguya. Over the bones of their captors, they rebuilt everything she had burned down, and chose to remain in that settlement. They plodded around dutifully, like ants foraging and bringing spoils back to their queen. Mizuchi was no queen. She was a goddess. But they treated her like royalty all the same, and whenever she would breeze through to check on what had become of those she liberated, fanfare greeted her.
The humans would hold out their babies, hoping she would touch and bless them. Those infants carrying Kaguya blood, whose mothers neither wanted nor accepted them, she would allow to go peacefully in sleep.
They would call her the "Dragon Savior", and offer her fresh-picked fruit and grand meals, or burn incense for her. Mizuchi sat on the throne that had once been Yoshiro Kaguya's and contemplated it all.
A goddess' natural lifespan lasted longer than eternity. In comparison, the lives of mortals were as feeble as candles in the wind. Mizuchi had seen many a man be born and die, his descendants populating the earth, and then one day dying too. The monotony of the cycle amused her less and less as countless centuries passed, locked away in her prison. She watched foolish mortals stray down the same pointless paths and repeat the same pointless mistakes. In particular, she watched Kaguya's descendants.
Imprisonment meant she had plenty of time for that. It began with her sons; one of them had two sons of his own. It was interesting, how much their ideologies grew to differ. Mizuchi supposed she shouldn't have found herself perplexed when Indra and Ashura died, and, their chakra lived on. In the bodies of Madara and Hashirama. A meeting by chance had spawned into a friendship, a bittersweet rivalry, and then what? Ruin. Ruin for them and for the world. Men, Mizuchi ruminated, so predictable.
Time passed, so very much time, and yet, just a pinprick of her everlasting life. One minute she would close her eyes to rest in boredom. When she opened them again, the world was different. Different, but plagued with the same problems. She couldn't imagine what her brethren in the heavens were doing. They seemed content to watch humanity destroy itself every generation and rebuild as best they could. Maybe they found it dull, as she did.
Kaguya populating the earth had far reaching consequences not even she had imagined. So many of those responsible for the world's problems—the one calling themselves shinobi—were her descendants. Not all though.
Just as she lifted the fig to her lips, biting into its skin, Sakura summoned her. The distinct feeling of urgency flowed into her through the link, and she rose. Mizuchi looped her arm through the air and a portal popped into existence, blinking at her with a reptilian eye that mirrored her own.
Two of her followers had pushed open the door to the Receiving Room, as it had been renamed, only to see her stepping through the eye. They froze, the length of silk held between them trailing the ground and their smiles dropping. It was devilishly fun to see the reactions humans had to her fastest mode of transport.
"Lady Dragon, are you leaving already?" one asked as soon as she recovered her voice.
"Yes," she smiled. "As always, I was pleased by your offerings." Their faces flushed and they slipped into bows.
"Safe return!" The farewell echoed in her ears as she slid completely through the eye, instantly appearing before a pacing Sakura, in the forest that bordered her village. For the sake of discretion, this was where her protégé always deemed fit to bring her.
"Sakura," she greeted.
The pink-haired girl barely looked up, her face pinched in thought. "We need to talk."
"Such directness. And here I thought you simply could use the company." The deity lifted the ends of her kimono and waded into the water of the river.
"I…I have questions. I've been doing everything you asked me to. Everything." The kunoichi turned pleading green eyes on her, and Mizuchi softened, but only just.
"Ask then, the questions you keep in your heart make your face drawn. It's unbecoming,"
Sakura sat heavily on the bank, kicking her feet anxiously. "My first question is about blighting. You said that you can curse someone…but you can remove it too, right?"
"If I so choose, yes. What of it?"
"Did you…did you save a man named Izuna Uchiha?"
Some of the mirth fell away as she studied Sakura's countenance. "One Uchiha looks exactly like all the others. How should I know their names? Why should I be bothered to care, for that matter?"
"Mizuchi, please," she begged. "Did you?"
"I suppose I did pull a blight from one shortly before I placed you in this time. He was slipping so quickly, it was a wonder it worked at all." The goddess opened her hand, and a fish swimming downstream brushed her fingers. She briefly considered catching it, but let it continue on its way.
"So Izuna was supposed to die?" Sakura seemed to be letting that sink in. "Izuna…was supposed to die." She fisted a hand into the fabric near her chest. "It's not that I'm upset you saved him, but what about the consequences?"
"What about them?" Mizuchi challenged. "You're fond enough of the Uchiha,"
"I…I never said that!" Sakura tried unsuccessfully to hide her rosy cheeks.
"And you've lived in a world that bore the consequences of his premature death, whether you realized it or not."
"Consequences like…?" Sakura put a finger to her bottom lip and pushed at it. "Like him not getting to do something important?"
Mizuchi waved her hand. "I am a goddess, Sakura, I am not omnipotent. I myself cannot say if sparing his life will truly make the future brighter, but his death was the catalyst of Madara Uchiha's insanity."
Sakura froze. "It was?"
"Have you not seen how the loss of a family member is enough to radically change an Uchiha?"
Sakura thought of a young Sasuke when they entered the academy, and of older Sasuke, who could never give up on his goal of revenge.
"You're saying that maybe things might be different now? You saved Izuna…to save Madara?"
"Please," Mizuchi denied. "I am not that benevolent nor that optimistic. As I said, I cannot see the outcome of how events may change from here on out. I have found that descendants of my sister in particular seem resolute in seeking their own destruction. That was why it was imperative that you, someone with none of Kaguya's blood, complete this task."
Sakura looked at her slowly. "You said her name…" When the mortal met her eyes, there was…almost compassion there.
"What is your next question?" the goddess found herself uncharacteristally uncomfortable, being on the receiving end of such a pitying look.
Sakura rose, wading deeper into the river toward her. She stopped when the water touched her thighs, her lips drawn in concentration. "I know it's asking for a lot…but can you show me something like you did before when you," she winced. "when you killed the Kaguya. If you showed me a memory, I think I'd understand better."
"You don't need to understand in order to obey."
"That's true…" Sakura scratched at her neck, lifting some of the hair that had escaped a loose bun. "But I feel like I've just been blindly listening, not really understanding. If I understood why you chose me, even just a little…it would answer so many questions!"
"You seek enlightenment…that is something I never promised you'd gain." Mizuchi frowned, considering. "Come closer," Sakura hesitantly waded even closer, until they were chest to chest. The mortal was correct that she had obeyed, and yet the deity kept her at arm's length, enshrouded herself in secrets. How soon was too soon?
For over a month, Sakura Haruno had been doing what she was told. A glimpse at the inner workings of her mind, might be an apt reward after all. "You might find, Sakura," she whispered, bringing her index finger closer and lightly tapping it to the Yin Seal, "That enlightenment is the last thing you truly want."
The girl's eyes dilated, pupils thinning until they rivaled her own. She swayed, falling backwards into the water with a splash.
Mizuchi had the water toss her back onto the riverbank before she could float away.
Sakura's blank eyes stared up at the tree line, her knuckles clenching the grass underneath her. Her mind had been transported deep into one of Mizuchi's memories.
The one she had picked was a simple but important one. The one that had decided her path.
Settling herself in the grass beside the girl's head, she stroked strands of pink hair back from her face, and concentrated on joining her inside the mindscape. The shift was minute, hardly discernable, but she knew immediately that the forest around them was no longer near Konoha. It was the long-destroyed forest in the Land of Ancestors.
Sakura groaned as she got to her feet. "Where'd all this fog come from?" she mumbled. "Mizuchi, where is this? These don't look like trees from the forest around Konoha."
"Astute as always," Mizuchi sighed. "You are correct. This is the Land of Ancestors, Sakura. A long destroyed region. You are in my memories," she gestured with a sweep of her hand to the kunai embedded in tree trunks and the grass that looked like it had been burnt in places. Sakura wandered forward, grimacing at the dark crimson patch of earth puddled on the ground.
"You may have guessed at the fact that this country was recently invaded. Not unlike the time in which you currently reside, this millennia faced constant skirmishes of all sizes."
The kunoichi glanced at a tree where a piece of cloth was still pinned there by a kunai, a blood splatter not very far down the bark. "No matter what time period it is, people always find ways to hurt each other." Sakura hastily rubbed at her eyes. "Is this what you wanted to show me?"
"Not at all." Mizuchi pushed at her shoulders. "Go forth, and you will get the enlightenment you came for."
Sakura whirled around clumsily as she gaped at Mizuchi. "You keep talking like I'm going to regret this. What's back there?"
The deity placed a finger against the mortal's lips. "Listen…"
In the silence, quiet cries permeated the air. Like a child attempting to muffle their sobs. Sakura heard them too, and the perplexed look wasn't lost on Mizuchi. The kunoichi turned and ran blindly into the fog of the memory, her escort easily following. When Sakura broke through the clearing, she stopped short, nearly tripping. A freshly erected wooden shrine with a small body curled in front of it caught her eyes. Try as she might, the child's body shook with the effort to contain her crying, her incoherent mutterings sounding reminiscent of "nee-san".
"It's a memorial shrine." Sakura guessed. "She's…she's in mourning."
Mizuchi watched on silently as the young girl continued to sob, calling out for a sister who wouldn't return.
"Why do you cry, human?"
The river deity closed her eyes and smiled bitterly. The accursed moment when she lost and gained everything.
The sobs coming from the child took several minutes to dissipate, but she slowly lifted her head in confusion. "Who…who said that?" she hiccupped. "Are you…are you a god?"
"After a fashion, yes."
"I…I don't want to talk to the gods!" Sakura was baffled as the small child placed both hands to her ears and cried louder.
"Humans…they cry for everything, don't they? I cannot imagine. So tell me, why do you cry?"
The little girl got to her knees, rubbing valiantly at her face. Sakura couldn't see her face, but the short white hair, parted jaggedly down the middle was vaguely familiar. "M-My nee-san is gone…She was a healer, but t-they sent her away to f-fight…and she…she's not coming back!"
Mizuchi knew Sakura's heart broke over the child, who had begun bawling in earnest again.
"You cry because her soul has ascended? …That's a foolish reason. All of you die, in one way or another."
"I just want her back!" the girl wailed, "I want n-nee-san back!"
"Quiet!" barked the sterner voice. "Enough is enough. If her soul is gone then she will not come back!" The young girl continued to cry.
Sakura made to step closer to the scene, but Mizuchi placed a hand on her shoulder. "This is only a memory of events long passed. You cannot affect them even if you wanted to."
"Alright," the voice said after a beat. "Tell me why you cannot accept death as a permanent fixture in the lives of humans?"
The child turned for the first time, leaning her back against the shrine and raising her face from her hands. Sakura's breath hitched in her throat at the sight of large, pearlescent eyes. Tears dripped from her cheeks and between her fingers. Her white kimono showing dirt stains at the knees. "B-Because the gods took someone I loved away. T-They didn't care how much I miss her. The emperor…he says they needed her more, but I know he's wrong. I need her more! She was all I had…"
"…I see. Humans place so much value on things they know cannot last, and then break their hearts when it is taken away. But…what if I were to grant you a sister once more?"
Her white eyes blinked rapidly. "You can do that? You can bring her back?"
"Me…? No. Souls that have left the mortal plane belong to the Shinigami." There was a flash of light from behind the shrine, brilliant and intense, like a dying star, and then, Sakura watched as what she could only describe as a prepubescent girl who looked startlingly like the graceful Mizuchi appeared.
"S-S-Sena?" The girl ran into her arms, hugging her tightly.
"I am not your sister. I only assumed her form." An unsure hand found the top of the girl's white head, and patted at it hesitantly.
"You really do look just like her," the sniffling girl confirmed. "Except your eyes…a-and your ears and…those things on your head."
The young deity touched a hand to her horns. She smiled gently as they disappeared. Her distinct eyes and ears, however, remained. "Tell me your name then."
"Kaguya." she replied shyly.
The deity crouched before Kaguya, and Sakura took a step back, looking at Mizuchi in bewilderment as her younger counterpart took a small Kaguya's hand.
"From now on, Kaguya, I will be your sister."
"W-what's your name?" Kaguya ventured.
"I…am called Mizuchi."
"Mizuchi…" Kaguya repeated. "I like it!" she pulled at the river goddess' hand. "I want us to go back to the village together. Y-You can stay with me, okay?"
"Absolutely." Mizuchi agreed.
Sakura and the adult goddess watched as the two wandered off together, hand in hand. The scene blurred and Mizuchi found herself staring back out across the river in Konoha's forest.
Sakura was coming to, and when her eyes regained their focus, she shot up and away, quickly falling again in her disorientation.
"You…you told me you were an Otsutsuki!" Sakura accused, pointing.
"I was…" Mizuchi sighed. "For a time, I assumed the form of Sena Otutsuki, and I lived at Kaguya's side, learning about humans."
"So you were a real goddess all along?" Sakura's face paled. She glanced at her wrist. "What is this? What is it really?" The human shook her arm around wildly.
"My essence." explained the deity, "Just a drop of it, but potent enough to make you formidable, as strong as the Uchiha and the Uzumaki you call friends. Not enough to make you immortal or invulnerable, of course."
"All this time…I've been your pet project, like Kaguya was? You're going to observe through me now?" Sakura whispered heatedly. "What was the point of anything I did? What's the point of me being here at all?! Send me home!" Mizuchi's eyes flashed, and her hand seized Sakura by the back of her neck, drawing her close until their eyes met and their noses touched.
"Sakura…" her breath hit the girl's lips, but she continued, "I have appreciated your obedience up until now. I understand that it would be hard for a willful girl like you to blindly follow. My interaction with Kaguya and the far-reaching consequences is my burden to bear and to cherish for eternity."
Sakura trembled, in fear or indignation, Mizuchi couldn't tell. "Why?" she asked helplessly.
"An explanation, a complete one, would take time." Mizuchi released the back of her neck, finger by finger, stepping away in an attempt to compose herself. "You have just witnessed more of my secrets than anyone has in millennia. For now, let that be enough."
There was no doubt in her mind as she disappeared, leaving the girl there to flail for answers, that her stubborn progeny's mind wouldn't settle for that. Sakura would demand to know more. And in time, maybe it would make sense. In the meantime, she didn't have time for a quarrel. What she needed was an obedient Godslayer, and soon.