Disclaimer: I don't own this.
Part Five – Undertaker
Deep, grey skies wisp above the snow buried valley, the mountain ranges that sit on either side of it framing the canvas. Flapping delicately with the sharp winter winds, a battlement flag peak out from the ground, stabbed into the earth by a prideful soldier.
The flag's field is painted a deep green, a blue circle sitting dead center. Within the circle sat a golden tree, its limbs branching out within the blue border.
Despite being charred and peppered with bullet holes the flag still stands strong, doing its best to ignore the carnage around it-
The ground beneath the flag explodes. Clumps of dirt, melted snow, and shrapnel is flung in every which direction. Men who were unfortunate enough to be within close proximity are flung back. Limbs are mangled, flesh is scorched, and fresh blood flies as the few men left conscious scream in pain.
Naruto, his moment of reflection ended, is brought back to the reality of his situation. Bullets fly overhead as cannon and mortar fire rains down on the valley, killing foe and friend alike. The all-encompassing battle cry screams around him, filling the void in between the release of thousands of firearms.
Packed within the valley, thousands of men are enmeshed in close quarters fighting. Men shoot at each other just feet apart. If they're out of ammo they use their rifles to bludgeon each other to death. When they're rifles break, they resort to their bare hands. Hundreds of men tumble and throttle along the snow laden field, the fog of war and adrenaline keeping their brawls ablaze.
Naruto stands at the outskirts of the tangled soldiers, picking off any Greys he sees get passed the Blue's line. He does his best to stay out of the massive melee, knowing that participating would be the death of him.
His attention returns to the battlefield, Naruto gripping his rifle close to the front of his shoulder. Looking down his sights, he gazes upon a medley of Iron Province soldiers. Their grey uniforms should normally mix well with the white backdrop of the Kenshin Valley, however, on this day the valley isn't white. It's red.
His sights level onto a random soldier's chest, the blonde barely taking the second to take a breath in before squeezing the trigger.
The rifle kicks back into his shoulder as the crack of his gunfire mixes in with the rest. His eyes are still focused down the sights, watching the bullet connect with the random soldier's chest. Pulling back the bolt action, he fishes into the cartridge box strapped to his side as the empty shell ejects from the chamber.
Quickly, he opens the magazine on the side of his rifle, hurriedly sliding five cartridges into the chamber before closing the magazine and cocking the bolt action into place.
He barely acknowledges the bullets that are flying over his shoulder as he looks back down the barrel of his gun. Searching for the same cluster of men he'd fired upon; he sees that most of them have broken up and have become lost in the chaos.
Bullets pepper the mound of snow at his feet, forcing Naruto to dash for cover as he curses under his breath. He dives behind a lone tree stump; the once full snag having been leveled by mortar fire. Burring himself into the snow, Naruto lays on his back as another shot cracks against the top of the stomp.
A stray mortar shell lands several yards away, the impact bringing a ringing to Naruto's ears as snow, dirt, and blood pelts him from above. Naruto closes his eyes, the ringing in his ears overwhelming him as his presses up against the stump as hard as he can.
Under his breath, he begins to relay a quick prayer, but before he can get halfway done a shout gets through his still vibrating eardrums.
"-ondie! Blondie wake the fuck up!"
Naruto's eyes shoot open, looking up to see Kiba Inuzuka standing over a few feet away. The brunette is covered in dirt and soot, and frozen blood clings to the left shoulder of his blue uniform.
Gazing down at the blonde with his feral eyes, the Inuzuka screams, "The Captain's tellin' us we just need to give 'em one final push! Come on!"
Shaking his head, Naruto grips his rifle closer to his chest, "What-"
"Now isn't the time to be playin' stupid!" Kiba shouts desperately. Looking ahead, he sees his fellow comrades giving a rallying cry as the cavalry charge into the melee. Looking down at the blonde, the Inuzuka gives a feral smile before shouting, "Don't think I'll leave any for you if you're gonna keep playing dumb, Blondie!" With that, the brunette continues his previous charge, screaming as he rushes into battle.
Blinking, Naruto quickly tries to collect himself. It's then that he notices the clicking of his rifle, the firearm vibrating slightly in his tight grip. Looking down, he realizes his left hand is shaking violently. Even as he grips it into a fist, the appendage vibrates and spasms uncontrollably.
"Stop it," He commands to the hand, knowing it wouldn't do much of anything to stop the tremors. Peaking out over the stump, he catches Kiba submerge himself within the large sea of combat. Gripping the rifle with his still shaking hand, Naruto slides out from behind the broken tree. And, as he gets to his feet, he raises his rifle up to his shoulder.
Picking a random Grey, he fires-
Violent thunder rolls overhead, breaking Naruto from his daydream.
Looking up, he realizes the day has turned into night. The moon and stars are nowhere in sight, hidden by thick and bursting storm clouds. Rain begins to patter down, landing gently on his person. A single drop lands on his left hand, the water rolling down jaggedly as the shaking appendage causes the droplet to go astray.
Kakashi sighs as he hears thunder rolling in the distance. From his squat within the mayor's office, the sheriff looks up at Genma, his deputy standing at the other corner of the room. The man is inspecting the mayor's desk, its contents thrown haphazardly from their drawers.
"Storm's coming," Genma mutters, "Rain'll make it harder for the dogs to track him down."
The sheriff hums to himself before saying, "Ebisu should've gathered a search party by now. We'd best get moving."
He stands up, giving one last look at the body lying next to him. The corpse's neck was bruised, her face bloody and pummeled.
"Poor woman," Genma grumbles, looking down at Koharu's lifeless body, "Who'll tell him? Mayor Hiruzen, I mean."
"That's for me," Kakashi answers tiredly, "Mizuki was my responsibility. I should've kept a better eye on him."
Genma scoffs, "If anyone's to blame for what happened here, it's Danzo-"
"And do you honestly think the judge will take that blame?" Kakashi demands rhetorically, "Come on, we best ride off before the rain comes."
The office doors swing open, two men stepping into the office's lobby. The first man holds an imposing figure, possibly as tall and wide as Jiraiya. Two jagged scars run along the left side of his square jaw and over his right cheek. A black top hat sits on his bald scalp, nasty scars peaking out under the brim. His hands are gripping the lapel of a classical suit, a bowtie wrapped loosely under a white collar.
The second man is noticeably the lesser of the two. His hair is long and shaggy, and he sports a nasty birthmark that runs along the bridge of his nose. He wears a blue suit that looks like a hand-me-down, with off color patches sewn into the random places along the jacket and pants.
"Ibiki," Kakashi greets, nodding to the first man. He then nods to the second, "Kotetsu."
Ibiki walks into the mayor's office, stepping over Kohura whose body is splayed out in the doorway, "Strangulation?" He asks Kakashi. When the sheriff nods, the man shakes his head before saying, "I see you have a search party forming. You'd best hurry."
"Getting a little impatient, aren't we? Is one box not good enough tonight?" Genma asks morbidly.
"I merely want justice for this woman," Ibiki states assuredly. He looks to Kakashi, "Izumo will be joining your search party. Use him as you like. Kotetsu will join as well after we take the body to the parlor."
Kakashi nods, "Thank you."
Kakashi and Genma walk past the two undertakers, exiting the mayor's office. Across the street, a mob of men have gathered outside the sheriff's office. Among them includes Ebisu, who's standing in front of the crowd on the office's front porch. The man is wearing a pair of circular shaded spectacles, a bowling hat sitting loosely on his head. A deputy's badge is pinned to the lapel of a dark green jacket. He's holding a pristine hunting rifle in his hands, the keen shine looking fresh and oiled.
Izumo, another of Ibiki's apprentices, stands within the crowd. Like his fellow apprentice, Izumo wears nothing to keep the hair out of his eyes, his long bangs brown hanging down his forehead. Following his fellow undertakers, he is wearing a classic two-piece suit, and like Kotetsu's his is worn and poorly patched together. A lantern sits in one hand, a sawed off shotgun in another.
As the lawmen approach the posy, they hear a woman's voice explaining, "Now remember boys, these're rentals. You break my guns, you buy 'em for double the price. And I don't want to hear no excuses either. I don't have to be letting you lot borrow my guns, I do this out of the kindness in my heart."
"And we all appreciate that kindness, Ms. Tenten," Ebisu assures sarcastically, "Ain't that right men?"
Tenten breaks through the crowd, a scoff adorning her features, "Make it triple for you then, Deputy Ebisu. I see one nick on that rifle I gave you, I'll come collecting."
The girl seems to model herself after Tsunade, wearing red trousers with suspenders to keep them up and a white high collar shirt. Her deep brown hair is tied back into a tight bun, and a pair of star shaped earrings shine in the moonlight.
Laughter breaks out among the men at Ebisu's expense. The laughter fades as Kakashi walks up onto his office's porch. Lifting his hand, he gestures for silence. Kakashi looks over the crowd one last time. Getting to the last person, he asks him, "Iruka, you seen Naruto around?"
"No, can't say I have," Iruka answers. The man's hair is pulled back into a loose ponytail. His complexion is noticeably tan, and a thin scar runs along the bridge of his nose.
Looking back to the rest of the crowd and seeing he has their attention, Kakashi says to them, "I know everyone here knows who we're after by sight, so I ain't gonna bother giving a description. We strongly believe this man broke into the mayor's office, killed the mayor's secretary and assistant Koharu Utatane, and stole the mayoral journal. For any who don't know, this journal is passed down from mayor to mayor. The writings in that book go back to the founding of this town. It should be needless to say that this book can make a man a lot of money if they know who to go to."
The sheriff looks around, his jaw set as he commands loudly, "All that said, we got ourselves a thief and a murderer. He's a no-good son of a bitch, and I don't know about you but I want him alive and well so he can pay for these crimes. That means if you find him and shots need to be fired, shoot to wound. We clear on that?"
The men give various forms of reluctant agreement.
Nodding, Kakashi continues, "We'll be splitting up into three groups. The first will be me and three of y'all, I don't care who. We'll be taking the dogs out and trying to sniff him out the way he was seen going. The second will be Ebisu and three others. You four are riding out to Tanzaku. If he's going anywhere, it's there. The third will be Genma and the rest of you. Y'all will split up and search the barns along the Ino-Shika-Cho properties and the Aburame's too for good measure. Let 'em know we got a criminal roaming about and to keep an eye and ear out for him."
As Kakashi finishes, a thick crack of thunder follows a thin flash of lightning. Rain begin to drizzle down, the heavy droplets pattering against the porch's roof.
As the lawmen and their makeshift posy break off in search of Mizuki, the rain escalates into a downpour, hammering down on them without mercy.
Sakura shakes her head as she watches the men split into smaller groups, watching them walk through the roundabout from her room's window. She turns to Shizune, the woman having helped her with her bags up the saloon's stairs.
The room given to her by Tsunade was small, though considering the price she should have figured as much. There is a small bed with thin sheets in one corner, a dresser just big enough to fit the clothing she has in her bags in another, and a feeble desk and chair in the last corner of the room. A small trunk sits at the foot of her bed, though she doubted it could keep much of anything inside.
In Sakura's honest opinion, she didn't know how comfortable she would be. But she dared not complain.
She looks back out the window, spotting two men she didn't recognize carrying a corpse between the two of them. The rain makes it impossible to see their features, but Sakura knows they're carrying the woman who'd been killed.
"I can't believe that man killed that poor old woman," Sakura mutters to herself.
Shizune, who is about to leave Sakura's room, stops. Nodding she says, "She was a good woman. Stern, but kind. She'd been around as long as I can remember, probably lived here her whole life. All of that for it to end like that. Seems so…pointless, I suppose."
"I just can't get it out of my head," Sakura admits, watching the figures disappear around the roundabout, "What she must've been thinking, how afraid she was-"
"Don't be thinking about ant of that," Shizune advises with concern, "It won't do you any good."
Sakura turns to her, "How do you not think about it?" She asks the woman.
"I don't know about me," Shizune begins to say with a smile, "But I know how Tsunade does it. Come on, I'll get you a drink on the house."
The pinkette smiles, "Thank you," She says appreciatively.
The two women exit the room and head downstairs, the saloon mostly empty after the night's events. The only patron left was Tenten, who'd only recently arrived.
Tenten turns when she notices the women walking down the stairs, raising her empty mug to them, "I was wondering where everybody went," She tells them before gesturing to the glass, "Mind filling this up for me? I'd do it myself, but the last time I tried that Tsunade threw me over the bar, so."
"Of course, sorry about that," Shizune apologizes as she walks behind the bar, "I was helping our newest resident with her bags."
"I see that," Tenten replies, glancing at Sakura before saying, "Go ahead and fill up a second one the 'new resident,' on me."
Sakura blinks, surprised by the gesture, "Thank you," She says gratefully.
Filling the two glasses with the cool draft, Shizune hands the ladies their glasses of beer. As Tenten takes a confident sip, Sakura ponders the drink, asking, "What is this, exactly?"
"It's Shiin," Tenten answers, "It's good, trust me. Best you'll get around here, that's for sure."
With that vote of confidence, Sakura takes a sip. When the taste didn't make her cringe, the girl gave a hum of surprise before taking a deeper drink, "That's not bad," She admits.
"Told ya," Tenten bragged, already halfway through with her drink.
Having only recently come down from her previous drinking spree, Sakura took her time with the beer in her hands as she and Tenten quietly enjoyed their glasses.
Eventually, Sakura looks up from her glass to ask, "What do you think will happen to him?"
"To who?" Tenten asks before quickly realizing who she meant, "Oh, you mean Mizuki."
"What do you think they'll do to him?" Sakura asks, "I heard the sheriff say to bring him in alive. What for?"
"So they can hang him," Tenten explains frankly, finishing her glass as she does.
"Hang him?" Sakura demands, bewildered, "That still goes on? I thought the Federation had forgone that for electric executions."
Tenten laughs, "Well, this isn't the Federation. This is the west. And out here, we hang folk like him every other week. Public too."
Sakura's jaw goes slack, "Public? People actually watch something like that? In this day and age?"
"We don't have much say in the matter, Sakura," Shizune tries to explain, "Judge Danzo believes mandatory public executions will deter violent crimes-"
"Which it did, for a bit," Tenten drawls, "Must've been nice, those four months. After that though, things went right back to normal."
Shizune nods, giving an awkward smile as she says, "I was a little girl when they started. You get used to it, after a while."
"And it's not like most of the folk they hanged didn't deserve what they got," The three turn to see Tsunade walking out from the back office, the woman sporting a very displeased frown as she says, "Mizuki sure as hell ain't. Fucking bastard."
Taken aback, Sakura shakes her head as she says, "How can you all be so blasé about all this-"
Sakura is interrupted by the saloon doors swinging open wildly. Charging through in an attempt to get out of the pouring rain, Naruto enters the bar wet to the bone. He's clutching his right arm to his chest, keeping something within his jacket dry. He's breathing is ragged, likely from running for shelter.
Tenten gets up from her stool, "Naruto?" She questions with surprise.
Naruto looks up as he takes the mayoral journal out from his jacket. Surprised, his drenched face lights up at the sight of the girl, "Hey," He mutters lamely.
The brunette laughs, rushing forward before glopping the soaked man with a hug. Naruto returns the gesture, lifting the girl off her feet as they embrace.
When their hug begins to tick by, Tsunade clears her throat before saying, "Alright, enough of that. Come over here and sit down. Shizune, fetch him a towel will you."
As Shizue rushes off to the back of the bar in search of a towel, Naruto and Tenten reach the bar. As they sit down, Tenten notices Naruto's left hand, "You're shaking," She observes with worry, "You've got to be freezing."
"I'm fine," Naruto reassures calmly, placing his hand underneath his thigh to try and hide the shaking.
Sakura, noticing the journal he'd set down on the bar, asks him, "What is that, Naruto?"
"The mayoral journal," Naruto answers simply, "Got it off Mizuki."
The room goes quiet with only the sound of heavy rain filling the stilled room.
"And how did you get the journal from him, exactly?" Tsunade asks slowly, her eyes combing over the boy's face with hidden worry.
"Killed him," Naruto states bluntly. Seeing their bewilderment, he explains, "The bastard had his gun on me, though the damn thing blew up on him after he took a shot. Lucky me I guess."
As Shizune returns with a towel in hand, Tsunade approaches her softly, "Run over and tell Jiraiya to find one of Kakashi's men. Tell them Mizuki's dead and the journal is here. And make sure he doesn't dilly dally about it."
Once again, Shizune runs off, put off by the worry written on Tsunade's face.
Tenten, having taken Naruto's right hand, watches as Tsunade walks back over to them. Naruto's unfocused eyes land on her, snapping back to reality, "I'm fine. Really. Just a little…frazzled, is all," He mutters, trying reassure them.
"I know you are," Tsunade consoles him as she pats his cheek, "Where'd it happen?"
"At Kurama's totem," Naruto answers. He gives a cheeky smile before quipping, "I think he was lookin' out for me, Tsunade."
Tsunade can't help but laugh, "Yeah, that sounds like him," She says, playing along.
As Tsunade and Tenten tend to him Sakura stays put, unsure what to do or how she can comfort her friend. Her hands fidget and her brow creases with worry as she watches Naruto be cared for. As his shoulders relax and his eyes grow more focused, her hands wring tighter.
Kakashi steps out of the sheriff's office, a key and a pair of handcuffs in hand. The morning sun glares over the town, the smell of fresh rain clinging to the air. His boots plump down into the muddied road, the thick sludge sticking to the soles of his boots like tar.
Stepping into the jailhouse, Kakashi walks over to Idate's cell. Using his key, he unlocks the cell's door. As he swings it open, the door sings as its rusted hinges grind together. The sound causes Idate to stir. Looking up, the tired young man asks flippantly, "Letting me out, Sheriff?"
"Time for your hearing," Kakashi tells him apathetically.
The brunette stands up, allowing the sheriff to place the handcuffs around his wrists. He flinches as the thin manacles dig into the joints, leaving no room for movement.
Idate exits the cell, Kakashi following close behind, "So, what're you thinking it'll be?" The young man asks, "Send me off to a chain gang up by Flint, or laying train tracks down in Wind County?"
But the young man isn't given an answer as he's pulled out of the jailhouse. Flinching at the morning sun, Idate looks out over the still resting district. Walking down into the road, the prisoner is greeted by the two deputies. Genma looks at the man with a stoic calmness. His hand sits at his side, his fingers gracing the handle of his revolver. Ebisu, Idate notices, is another story. Sweat paints his forehead, a nervous frown marring his face. His hands are balled stiffly at his side.
Before Idate can think too much on that, Kakashi gives him a gentle nudge forward. Taking the hint, Idate heads for the courthouse. Genma and Ebisu go with them, Genma at the front and Ebisu at his side.
As they step onto the porch, Ebisu leans forward to whisper softly into Idate's ear, "Whatever happens in there, just plead guilty. Take the work camp, take the prison time. You don't want to try your hand any other way. Trust me."
Idate is barely able to give the man a confused look before the deputy stops, waiting to the side as Kakashi and Genma take the prisoner into the courthouse.
Entering the building, Idate is surprised to see a full house. The pews on either side are nearly filled, sitting dozens of people. His attention lands on one person in particular, the mayor himself. Hiruzen, sitting in the front row, is accompanied by his grandson Konohamaru and the deputy mayor Homura Mitokado. Homura is a thin, rigid man, with spectacles sitting loosely on the bridge of his nose and a thick beard wrapped around his chin.
His eyes naturally work their way up, landing on the empty judge's bench. The large square desk is made from a deep oak, the wood so dark it's nearly black. It stands tall, with Idate's barely able to look over the desk's top edge.
And standing just to the right of the bench, stands the undertaker himself.
"Ibiki?" Idate wonders, confused. As they draw closer to the accused dock on the left side of the room, Idate tries to catch his brother's eye as he asks, "Ibiki, what the hell's going on? Why's all these people here? Ibiki? Ibiki?"
But Ibiki remains still, firmly looking ahead as the brunette is dragged to his seat.
With Idate in place, Kakashi backs to the side before clearing his throat. With all the attendants' attention on him, Kakashi begins, "Please rise." He states with surprising firmness.
A chorus of shifting bodies fills the courthouse as every attendant rises to their feet. With everyone on their feet, the sheriff continues, "Federation Court of the Province of Trees, County of Fire is now in session. The honorable judge, Danzo Shimura, is now presiding."
Danzo, draped in traditional judge's robes, enters the courthouse from an entry behind the bench. As he takes his seat, Kakashi says, "Please be seated."
After everyone retakes their seats, and Danzo gives a thankful nod to the sheriff, the judge turns his attention to the accused, "Idate Morino, are you aware of the crimes brought against you?" He questions, his face scrunched sternly.
Idate, wracked with nerves, shifts on his feet before answering, "Uh, yes, I think I do-"
"That includes the charges brought against you as of last night?" Danzo demands firmly.
"Last night?" Idate asks, confused, "I-I don't understand-"
Danzo cuts him off sharply, "Yesterday, around late evening, Koharu Utatane was found dead in her place of work, her cause of death being strangulation."
A surprised pause ends when Idate realizes what the judge is alluding to, "How could I have killed anyone?" Idate demands heatedly, "I've been locked in a cell for half a week, how can you think I had anything to do with that?"
Undeterred, Danzo continues, "It is believed that Utatane's death was an unfortunate circumstance of wrong place and wrong time. She happened to be in the mayor's office when a burglar entered the premises with the intention of stealing the mayoral journal."
Idate, who seemed on the verge of another outburst, clams up at the mention of the journal.
"And you know all about the mayoral journal, do you not?" Danzo asks rhetorically. Leaning forward, the judge continues, "This burglar, a man named Mizuki, happened to be occupying the cell adjacent to yours the afternoon proceeding the crime. I'm truly curious what you talked about, in the short time you two spent together."
Swallowing the lump in his throat, Idate says, "We-well, uh," He begins, fumbling with his words, "He was pretty drunk, so it wasn't like we could have much of a conversation-"
"According to Sheriff Hatake, Mizuki was cognizant upon regaining consciousness," Danzo reveals, his voice shifting dangerously, "And, also according to Sheriff Hatake, you had already started a conversation with the sheriff and Naruto Uzumaki about said journal, within earshot of the conscious Mizuki."
"What does any of this have to do with me getting the blame for-"
Danzo slams the gavel in his hand, the mallet's head slamming against the sound block to create an echoing crack that bounced throughout the room, "Shut your mouth, boy!" Danzo shouts harshly. Leaning forward, the judge says intensely, "It's simple deduction to conclude that without you, Mizuki would have never thought to steal the mayoral journal. Informing him of the journal was the catalyst to not only the journal's theft, but Koharu Utatane's murder as well. As far as I'm concerned, you're just as responsible for Mizuki's actions as the man himself might've been had he not gotten himself killed."
Idate is left speechless, his eyes losing focus as he realizes his situation.
"Before I declare my verdict, how do you plead?" Questions Danzo, the judge leaning back in his seat as he awaits the accused's answer.
Swallowing the lump in his throat, Idate looks up, "Guilty, I'm guilty." He answers, his voice shaking.
Surprised murmurs fill the courthouse, forcing Danzo to slam down his gavel to reign silence. Looking down at the accused, Danzo folds his hands together before making his statement, "Thank you, for admitting to this wrongdoing. Under normal circumstances, I would abide by the normal procedure of a guilty plea and send you off to the work camps of Stone Province. However, to me these are not normal circumstances. It is clear that you are pleading guilty to avoid capital punishment. But so long as I sit on this bench, no man will avoid the justice they deserve."
The color drains from Idate's face as he begins to say, "Wait, what-"
"Idate Morino, I sentence you to death by public hanging." To finalize the sentence, Danzo slams the gavel thrice on the sound block.
Before Idate could muster a word, he's grabbed from behind by Genma, the deputy pulling him up from his seat. As they reach the entrance doors, Idate turns as far as he can towards Ibiki. The man, having not moved an inch since the proceedings began, has turned to leave through the side exit.
"Ibiki, wait!" Idate screams at the man whose back is facing him, "Please, Ibiki please wait!"
But Idate's calls go ignored, the young man pulled out of the courthouse and into the town streets. The court attendants follow close behind as Idate is dragged towards the town's roundabout.
Naruto, sitting at one of the tables in Tsunade's saloon, takes a sip of water as he watches Sakura scribble onto a piece of paper, "Whatcha writin?" He asks with a mouth full of scrambled eggs, curtesy of Shizune.
Sakura's nose crinkles at the blonde's lack of table manners. Shaking her head, she answers his question, "My father."
"Oh yeah?" Naruto wonders, swallowing the eggs before asking, "What's he do?"
"He's a doctor," Answers Sakura, "He's cardiac surgeon. You might say he's the pioneer of cardiac surgery, actually."
Naruto's egg filled fork pauses halfway to its destination, "Wow, so you're rich, huh?" Naruto says with interest, "I mean, I figured you were from some money, but I didn't think you were rich rich, you know?"
"Trust me, I know," Sakura mutters as she signs off at the bottom of the page. Gently setting down her pen, she looks at the blonde from the corner of her eye, "Are…are you alright?" She asks softly.
"Alright how?" Naruto asks before stuffing his mouth.
Sakura fidgets for a moment before elaborating, "You seemed, I don't know, upset yesterday. And, well, you seem alright now, but…are you?"
"Oh, that?" Naruto asks with a façade of indifference, "Yeah, I'm fine. I mean, I wasn't. But that's just because of, well, you know. Just not used to it, I guess. Well, actually, I am. But I'm not," Naruto laughs as he scratches at the side of his scalp, "It's kinda hard to explain."
An awkward pause between them forces Sakura to think up a quick conversation starter, "So…how do you know that Tenten girl?" She asks with a timidly teasing smile.
"Tenten?" Naruto wonders, unaware of her undertone, "Oh, I've known her since forever. We grew up here together. Her, me, Sasuke, Shikamaru, Ino, Choji, we're all around the same age give a year or two."
"Who're the other three?" Sakura asks, knowing that this Sasuke fellow was a friend Naruto had sent a letter to.
After finishing another mouthful, Naruto answers, "They're some ranch hands I grew up with. Their parents own a joint cattle and horse ranch just a few miles south of here. They're the ones who watched Dattebayo for me while I was away."
"Dattebayo?" Sakura questions, confused by the name.
Naruto nods, sliding his empty plate to the side, "My horse," He explains simply.
Eyes brightening with excitement, Sakura began to ask, "Could you show me-"
She pauses midsentence as the metronomic clanging of a bell begins to ring from outside. Perking up and looking towards the door, Sakura cocks her head to the side as the ringing continues at a labored pace. Looking back at Naruto, she's about to ask what the bell means only to pause at seeing Naruto's unusually stern expression.
Looking around, she notices that the entire bar shares the blonde's mood. The air is stiff, the half a dozen patrons having forgotten their breakfasts in favor of acknowledging the ominous bell.
"What's that bell mean?" Sakura eventually asks, her nerves working their way up into her throat.
Instead of answering, Naruto gets up from his seat, "We gotta go to the hawthorn," He says simply, looking at her expectantly, sympathy swimming in his eyes.
"Why?" Sakura asks, as the other patrons and even Shizune begin to walk outside. Tsunade, exiting the back office, has a disgruntled frown in place as she watches her costumers exit the saloon.
"Sakura, we gotta go," Naruto tells her firmly as Tsunade walks up behind them, "I'll explain on the way I-"
Sakura folds her arms under her chest, "I want to know what's going on, I'm not going anywhere-"
"Now isn't the time for stubbornness, girl," Tsunade grumbles harshly, "We all have to go. I don't want to, Naruto doesn't want to, hell I doubt most this damn town wants to anymore. But we don't gotta choice. Now move." Grabbing the back of Sakura's chair, the woman pulls it back. The legs scream against the wooden floorboards, Sakura's eyes widening in shock at how easily the woman moved her from her spot at the table.
Standing up and following the woman out of fear for what she'd do next, Sakura looks at Naruto, who's walking besides her with an apologetic expression, "What's happening?" The pinkette whispers to the blonde.
"Danzo just passed a verdict, on a man named Idate, I think," Naruto explained, "The bells, they're kinda a warning, I guess."
"A warning for what?" Sakura wonders.
Naruto points ahead, towards the roundabout, "That they're bringing out the gallows."
Sakura follows where his hand is pointing, seeing two men push what looked like a mobile executioning scaffold into the town's roundabout. Setting the gallows in place and taking the wheels off the pegs, the two men walk up onto the scaffolding, a long and thick rope in the first man's hands and a wooden stool in the second's.
Kotetsu sets the stool down just on top of the scaffolding's trapdoor. Stepping onto the stool, Kotetsu is handed the rope by Izumo, who watches to make sure his fellow apprentice ties the rope securely onto the gallows' horizontal beam. After wrapping the rope several times around the front of the beam, Kotetsu secures the rope with a tight and elaborate knot. Letting the rope hang free, the man steps down to check the noose at the other end. After a quick inspection the two men step to the side, waiting for the towns folk to arrive.
Sakura, having watched the preparations, stops in her tracks. Naruto, quickly realizing she's fallen behind, backtracks to the girl.
"Sakura, I know how awful this has to be for you, but you've got to-"
"How would they know?" Sakura asks, "How would anyone one know I wasn't there? There's got to be hundreds of people in town today, they won't notice me. I've barely been here for a day; they don't even know who I am or-"
"Sakura, you have pink hair," Naruto says bluntly, grabbing her shoulders gently as he continues, "They'll notice. And when they realize you weren't there, when Danzo realizes someone didn't come when they heard the bell, he'll cause trouble. It's a law here, Sakura. A stupid, old, gross law. But we gotta follow it."
"Sakura you have to-"
But Sakura won't budge, tears building up as she says, "No, I can't. I can't, I can't, I can't. I won't."
Naruto's grip grows tighter, "If I promise not to let you see, will you come? If I promise that, you gotta come okay?"
"You promise?" Sakura asks feebly, looking up at him with shimmering eyes as the tears are barely held back.
A broad smile stretches across Naruto's face, his eyes gentle as he speaks firmly, "Promise of a lifetime. Just hold onto my shirt the whole time, and when you want to look away just squeeze as hard as you can. But you can't do it until the end, okay? You've gotta be as brave as you can, as long as you can. Promise?"
After a short pause, Sakura nods, "Alright. I promise."
"Alright, now come on, it's about to start." Naruto tells her, turning to lead the way.
As Naruto walks ahead, Sakura grabs the back of his sleeve, walking close behind him as they approach the gallows.
Standing atop the scaffold, Danzo and Hiruzen watch as the crowd reaches its usual capacity, "That's everyone then?" Danzo asks the mayor, tiredly leaning on his cane for support after the laborious climb up the gallows' steps.
Hiruzen nods, "It would seem it is. Let's get on with it then, I'm sure they have better things to do."
"Better things than watching justice be enacted?" The judge asks softly, looking at his old friend from the corner of his eye.
The mayor doesn't return the look, instead walking down the gallows' steps as he says, "This isn't justice, Judge Shimura. Not the kind she deserves. But it's the kind we'll make do with, I suppose."
As the mayor reaches the bottom step, a gentle cough catches his attention. Turning, he sees Ibiki standing at the back corner of the gallows, looking at the mayor expectantly. With a sigh, the mayor approaches the undertaker.
"Is there nothing you can do?" Ibiki asks as Hiruzen approaches, cutting right to the chase.
Hiruzen wavers, resting his hand on the much taller man's shoulder, "You know there isn't, Ibiki. We must do our duty. All of us."
"You could send him to a work camp, overrule Danzo and-"
"Despite my distaste of the circumstance, this is justice, Ibiki," Hiruzen states somberly, "He's guilty. I know it, Danzo knows it, Idate knows it, and you know it."
Ibiki, seemingly on the verge of argument, holds his tongue with clear effort. Nodding stiffly, the man says lowly, "I do. I understand. My apologies."
Patting the man's shoulder, Hiruzen steps away and walks to the front of the crowd. As he nods and greets several random citizens, he catches a pair of blue eyes at the back of the crowd.
Naruto and Hiruzen hold eye contact, the two holding a wordless conversation before breaking apart with nods given to each other. Looking down Naruto sees that Sakura is doing her best to look brave. But he can feel her nerves, hear her knees quaking under her skirt. Her hand grips the back forearm of his jacket sleeve, the blonde wondering to himself how she could possibly hold it any tighter.
"Let's get down to business, shall we?" Danzo asks the crowd rhetorically, "Bring up the guilty party, if you would."
Idate, with Kakashi and Genma on either side of him, slowly walks up onto the scaffold. The brunette's face is drained of all color, the young man looking like a cornered animal as he's led onto the trapdoor. Kakashi takes the noose, placing it gently around Idate's neck.
"Idate Morino has been found guilty for the crimes of conspiracy and manslaughter," Danzo states assuredly, his stoic assertion sinking into the crowd as he continues, "For these crimes, I, Judge Danzo Shimura of the Federation Court, have sentenced him to die by public hanging. Hangman Ibiki Morino, please hood the guilty party."
Sakura, hearing the man's last name, looks up at Naruto and whispers, "Did he say Morino?"
"They're brothers," Naruto whispers back, noticing the girl's grip growing tighter, "Ibiki Morino is Hawthorne's undertaker and Danzo's personal hangman. Pay's good, apparently."
"Oh my Mother," Sakura breathes a short prayer, watching as Ibiki walks up to Idate, a black hood hovering over the younger brother's head.
"Have you any last words?" Ibiki asks his brother softly, looking his brother in the eye as the hood awaits in his hands.
Idate looks up, tears spilling as he wheezes, "Please Ibiki, please. This isn't right, we're family. Please-"
Ibiki stuffs the hood over his brother's head, his muffled pleas still audible as the hangman steps away towards the hanging lever. His hand grips the lever, the undertaker looking towards the judge for approval.
Sakura lets go of Naruto's shirt, forcing the blonde to look down at her from the corner of his eyes. However, instead of running off like he thought she might, she grips at his forearm with both hands. Using it for leverage, she pulls herself into his chest digging her face into his arm.
As the girl does her best to avoid the situation, Naruto doesn't look away, watching Ibiki's grip on the lever tighten and his arms tense to pull.
Danzo gives a small nod, Ibiki returning one of his own. He looks to his brother one last time, Idate's pleas for mercy coming to a head, "Ibiki! Ibiki, no! I'm sorry! I'm-"
Ibiki pulls the lever sharply, releasing the trap door under Idate's feet with a metallic 'thwang.' Idate goes into a brief freefall only for his decent to be caught by the beam and rope. The rope snaps taught, with Idate's neck along with it.
The beam groans under the dead man's weight, the rope swinging slowly from the violent drop. Hanging limply from his broken vertebra, Idate swings back and forth as the rope wretches with each heavy sway.
The hangman stands above his brother's broken body, his eyes combing over his dimensions. Looking to his apprentices, the undertaker in him takes over, "We'll need a medium sized box. Grab the oak, it's fresh," Ibiki orders, reserved.
Kotetsu and Izumo share a glance before nodding, Izumo saying, "Right away, sir."
"And grab a shovel and pick, just the pair."
The two pause, "Sir?" Kotetsu asks, puzzled.
"I'm burying him. Alone." Ibiki states, giving the two a challenging glare, "You too will prepare Koharu Utatane. Can you handle that?"
"Of course, sir."
This chapter was really hard to write. With the morbid themes, it was a little depressing and I had a hard time coming back to it each time. In this chapter, Sakura's preconceptions on Western life are being challenged. It's not a pulp fiction story about heroes and bad guys. A lot of the time, awful things happen for no good reason to good people. Next chapter will revolve around Sakura dealing with this revelation, and how her romanticized views are being challenged. We also got some of Naruto's background, particularly his time at war and how he's been damaged by that time. I really want to create a hero we don't typically see in Westerns. Sasuke, as seen in the last chapter, is the stereotypical Western antihero in the vein of the Man with No Name and Ethan Edwards. Naruto, however, is my attempt at a not so stereotypical hero. He'll be more of a reluctant hero, doing what's right despite his trauma. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this chapter. It was a lot of fun to write, and I can't wait to see what you guys think. Don't forget to follow and/or favorite, and please drop some reviews telling me what you think of the chapter and story as a whole. Thanks for reading!