Twenty-One

"NO!"

A figure with a mop of brunette hair sat in the rain in the middle of a clearing situated just the northern outskirts of the village. Around her, the rain fell like a shower, with its droplets of cold misery coming down upon the people. The colours of life darken as it cleanses away the blood and the surface horrors of what had just passed. The battle for freedom was over but now the hardest part was to move on.

Maiko sat there cradling a familiar face that has seen her through all the years. The one face she thought would never leave her side. Ishida had grabbed her in battle when one guy tried to stab her in the back. Fight between her and the guy was over but somehow embedded in the ground was one more shot of a weapon that was launched straight for her back. Lacking time for response, the guy, the one person closest to her took the shot.

She sat there tearing and was preparing to bring him back to the hospital when he halted her.

He shook his head.

It was too late. The thin steel with jagged edges had gone through clean to the other side and was nestled too tight in his abdominal region. Anbu medics had gathered but he waved them off. He wanted time alone with his constant companion.

"Baka! You shouldn't have-"

"You would have done the same."

The guy that has always watched her back and protected her from being bullied from the rest in Black Dragons was dying.

The brilliance of his green eyes was fading.

Her tears flowed constantly.

"I'll go find Onee-chan! She'll fix you like old times and you'll be fine-"

And he silenced her with a bloodied finger.

"We have been taking her for granted. We depend on her too much to always save our tails when things go bad. She's not some tool. She's human too. She can't always play saint."

"But!"

"No butts. I'm running out of time."

Indeed he was. He was turning cold to the touch and his pulse was slowing down steadily. She couldn't stop crying. Not him. Of all people, she never prepared herself to lose him this soon.

"Stop crying. You look ugly when you do that."

He tried wiping off the tears trailing from her cheeks but instead, he painted streak of red on them instead. He gave up soon after.

"You should be happy for me. I'll be seeing Aya again."

"Aya-chan? You still-'

He smiled.

"I missed her a lot. I've never forgotten her. For the past five years, I have only been cheating myself. Pretending to flirt and be ok, but inside, I still love her. Maiko, I cried, me the proud one cried when I heard she died in the mission to Wind country."

No wonder. He couldn't move on. Couldn't love another. All because his first love was still very much alive in his heart.

"Maiko."

She turned to look at him straight. He was smiling.

"Let me do one last thing as your older brother."

Eh?

"The answer to your dilemma is: The one guy you love would be the one whose arms you find solace in. Trust your heart. It knows."

"That not important!"

"It is."

She shook her head. Now's not the time to be talking about her love life!

"Because I can't take care of you anymore."

She stroked the side of his face. Choking with tears,

"I-Ishida…."

"Take care, kid."

And the rain poured from the darken skies of sorrow.


Kakashi heart was racing as he ran through the hallowed architecture of the hospital. Upon receiving the news from Genma, he had run all the way. Cuts and bruises asides, nothing else mattered except to reach that room in time. A heavy feeling sat upon his heart as the arduous journey to the room continued.

His mind raced about. Somehow it seems so ironic. One moment he was laughing with her, the next he was making love to her and now, he was fighting time to reach her side sooner.

With every step, he was praying. Willing himself to be strong. Convincing himself that everything was all right and she was going to be fine.

Amidst the chaos of frenzied emotions, he suddenly thought of the morning a few days earlier…….


FLASHBACK

"Ne. Who are you visiting?" A familiar female voice said from the side. He looked up to see her standing by the side, smiling. It would seem that she had spied him leaving the apartment early and gone to spy on him. She stood there in the corner, flipping through one of his books!

"An old friend. What are you doing with my book?"

"Reading. But this is no intellectually-stimulating book, from what I am reading. What cheesy and trashy lines in here. The author lacks depth and there is a need for some variations of dialogue."

It's meant for pleasure. Nothing else. He thought.

Then suddenly the crimson-haired one crossed over to his side after tossing the book back to him. Saying a prayer first, she then put her hand up to rub his cloth-covered cheek. He quickly tucked the book away in his pouch.

"Past things cannot be undone. I'm sure Obito understands it best."

"Eh? How do you know it's Obito I'm visiting?"

"Baka! It's written on the stone!"

And her musical laughter filled the morning air. She stopped to peer at the greenery around.

"This village is beautiful, Kakashi. Everyone here works hard to do their part for the village. It is a combined effort to which the people are willing to cooperate for the one sole purpose of protecting the village."

He smiled.

"Indeed. There's no place else I'll rather be."

She smiled and shut her eyes.

"Then stay."

"Hmm?"

"Stay with me, here."

He looked at her. He had wanted to ask this question. Given the demise of Herb Village, there were lingering thoughts of whether she would go there to set up the place again.

She smiled.

"Of course. I'll always be with you."

And they locked in an embrace. To which, he whispered for the first time,

"I love you, Kei.'

END OF FLASHBACK


"Kei, please, don't die……….."

And after the corner turn, he came to where a crowd had gathered. Pushing through them, he made it into the room where Tsunade had a hand over Kei's forehead.

"Kakashi."

Kendon saw him and his head hung apologetically. Kakashi patted the guy on the shoulder. There was no need to for him to blame it on himself.

He walked over. Tubes and wires and everything complicated surrounded her. She looked so serene. She lay there amidst white sheets to which, blood stains were eminent. Bending down, he took a hand and stoked her hair.

"The seal on her back was broken."

Kakashi looked up at Tsunade who was done with her diagnosis.

"But that would have been fine if she had not transferred all her chakra to Sasuke who is now in stable condition. I'm sorry. This is beyond me."

He smiled sadly.

"It's ok. It was her choice anyway."

And he continued to stroke her side of the cheeks.

Tsunade's heart sat heavy.

Kakashi. It must be hard watching this over and over again. First, you had to be the one who discovered her father's fallen body after his suicide. Then, you watched your best friend die in mission. Now, this. If only there was a way to heal wounds of the heart……..

She looked at Ken and Kaede who were holding up, just barely. It's hard to watch a fellow comrade go slowly especially when there is nothing you can do to ease the passing.

But there was something that nagged at her. Given what had happened according to Ken, she wouldn't have even made it to the hospital. There was still a thread somewhere that was keeping her still afloat. But what? It made no sense. Unless……….

Tsunade took a step to the side and gently passed her hand over Kei's abdominal region. Her own chakra flowed out to reach into the inner being of the patient.

Her eyes flew open.

Oh no………

But her attention was diverted away when Shizune called for her to attend to others. She excused herself and patted on the shoulder of Kakashi. Perhaps she could tell him later, it would not help for him to about the matter yet.

And she left.

Only to be almost knocked on by a soaking wet Maiko who came rushing down the corridors and into the room. Fluids flowed. They dripped their elements to the floor.

Rain. Sweat. Tears. Blood.

She stammered in. Her eyes swollen and her body fatigue. Her posture forlorn and just plain tired. She walked. One step at a time.

Again. She was here to watch another go.

Kendon pulled at her arm to ask if she was all right.

"Where Ishida?"

She paused.

"Dead."

They were stunned. The room fell silent. No one moved as they took in the news.

She walked on to the bedside. She looked at the figure she so admired all these years. Somehow the serenity brought no tears. She remembered Ishida's words about them always taking her for granted, that she is no immortal herself.

Shizune came over and was asking her to be allowed to be examined and dressed in fresh clothes.

Quietly, almost dejectedly, she nodded after a while.

No sense crying. It'll only make things worse for everyone here. She thought numbly.

And so, she bent down to kiss her forehead.

Thank you for everything, Onee-chan.

Maiko nodded at Shizune who helped her out of the room to nearby treatment areas to be treated. Tsunade, seeing that she was needed elsewhere left as well.


Along the steps, Maiko and Shizune encountered Iruka.

"Maiko-chan! Are you all right? Is it serious?"

The younger girl offered a weak smile.

"It's all right. Just minor wounds."

"Don't worry, I'll have her fixed up in no time. If you can wait, I'll bring out as soon as I'm done with her." Shizune assured the concerned one.

"Ah. I'll wait outside then."

Shizune smiled but upon turning to look at her patient, saw a dejected and somehow tired Maiko staring at the floor. Guiding her, they walked into a treatment area where she drew the curtains closed for privacy.

As Shizune peeled the soaked garment and attended to the wounds, Maiko merely sat there like a doll. Staring into nothingness, Shizune could see that her mind was not there at all. But no one could blame her. To be watching two of one's close people as they die is never an easy thing. Moreover, Ishida and her were the closest. They never left each other side. They were like twins who were always together. Having lost him and now, with Kei in critical condition, must feel like as if she was losing huge chunks of herself.

Tying up the last bandage, Shizune fetched some clean hospital clothing for her to change into. She left her some privacy while she went off to send Maiko's black clothing off for cleaning.

Maiko was in a world of her own.

Now left alone, her mind wondered wild. She was taking memory trips back into the past. Happy thoughts of times spent with all of them – Ishida, Ken and Kei. Of the idiot pranks she played with Ishida, of the stern face Kei has whenever they got into trouble and the knowing smiled that Ken always has. They were family and all that she's ever known. And suddenly, within a span of a day, it was gone. Don't talk about Ken. He has Kaede after all. So technically, there was no one left.

How do I move on from here? Without Ishida's prompting and without Kei's guidance, how does one go on in life?

After some more pondering, she slipped off the bed and decided to walk back to Kei's room.

The curtains rustled and soon a hand appeared out of no way and grabbed her.

Stunned. Before she could react, she was dragged into the next bed through the curtain that separated the spaces.

Dragged in front of a guy named Genma.

"I thought it was you." He grinned. He was shirtless and with some bandages on his shoulder.

She said nothing.

She still had that numb feeling going.

He noticed.

"Yo. What's wrong? Hmm?" And he shook her.

She tried to yank her arm from him. They had not spoken for some time ever since that night since Maiko has done all she can to ignore and avoid him. And right now, she had no intention of talking to him.

He held on firm.

"Let go." She had a deadly calm tone.

"Not until you've said what happened?"

She glared at him.

"Ishida's dead and Kei's lying in one of the room dying!'

He froze. She shook her head.

"Happy? Can you let go now?"

Instead he pulled her close to him. Wrapping his arms securely around her arms, he held on firm as she started to struggle.

"Let go of me! Pervert! Let go!"

He said nothing as he chewed onto his stick. He fought hard to hold on as her screams got louder and louder and the force of her emotions leaked out into physical expression.

"LET GO!"

"It's not your fault. Stop blaming yourself."

"What the hell are you talking about! Let go of me you freak!"

He merely hugged her tighter.

"Sniff. He wasn't supposed to. He didn't need to die. He should have taken that blow for me!"

He was now rubbing her back and whispering soothing words.

"Let it out. It's all right."

'Why them? Why? Why!" The sobs turned into full fledge crying and she hung onto the shoulders of the one who had seen everything. The thin body of a girl who was barely out of adolescence was now shaking. Her arms clung on to the support he offered as the tears poured freely in the warmth that she gathered in his embrace

On the side, a quiet Iruka slipped out. He smiled.

"At least, I don't need to worry about apologising for my change of heart for her. She's in good hands."

And he walked off to check on Naruto and Sasuke.


Meanwhile, back at the other room, Kakashi was left alone to spend some time alone with Kei. The rest upon seeing the deteriorating signs on the monitors said their goodbyes and left the place. The darken room was still and sterile. The only light source came from the lamb beside him and the cheap light cast a ghostly tinge to her pale skin.

He was holding onto her hand.

It was turning icy.

Swallowing an imaginary lump in his throat, he closer to her and buried his face on her cheeks. He breathed in the faint scent of jasmine that was still there.

Her breathing was ragged and signs of struggle were evident.

A tight knot twisted in his chest.

And hot tears flowed.

One drop per drop spilt from the edges of his eyes. They soaked into the clothed covered mask and behind the head protector, forming damp patches that touched cold on his skin.

His mind rewind the last message Ken passed to him before the guy took off.

"Gomenasai Kakashi, for taking so long to say I love you.'

But that wasn't the end of it.

"I really wanted to stay here in Konoha with you."

Swallowing hard, Kakashi hugged Kei close to him and buried his face at her neck.

Grown men do cry.

Beep. Beep. Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep……………………………………..


2 years later………

Kakashi stood by a window in Konoha's hospital reading his usual books. Today, the weather was good and so, he took delight in poking in head out into the sunlight to take in the warmth of the sun. Time sure flies but it had no dampening effect on him at all. He still looked the same as when he first met his genin team at 26 years.

2 years. 2 years is a long time and it has been a while since that fateful day when he was last here at the hospital. The village took a while to rebuild its fortress again but with the people's help, life got back to way it was in no time.

Sakura went back to be under Tsunade's tutelage while Naruto left soon after to continue his training with Jiraiya. Sasuke was also not around. He had left quietly one night on a quest to improve himself too. He felt that he needed to go find his own strength and so had left the village around the same time as Naruto. And so, he had absolutely no clue as to their growth and development.

Well, he'll soon find out anyway. Today is the day when Team 7's reunion will occur. And it would be interesting to see how they are now.

He smiled as he continued to flip a page.

As for the 'unintentioinal strangers', Ishida was given due recognition for his actions and his name was proudly carved upon the memorial stone. Maiko and Genma finally got together and she decided to stay. Ken and Kaede left after some time to return back to rebuild Herb Village. This was despite Tsunade and Shizune's concern for her to not move back until she's had her baby, Kaede was persisted as she wanted the newcomer to be born on her native land. They had to relent. No one argues with a pregnant woman with horrible mood swings.

He sighed.

Poor Ken. 10 months of mood swings and being a slave to his wife was no easy business. His heart went out for the guy.

Kakashi peered at the fluffy clouds in the blue sky.

I wonder how they are doing? It's been a while since they wrote back.

His thoughts were interrupted when he felt a tug at his pants.

"Eh?"

He looked down and spied a girl, about two years of age peering up at him with her dark eyes. She had a little head of tousled silver hair that fell just above her shoulder, dressed in a black and red shirt with a wrap skirt and tights under for freedom for movement. She looked up at him with a sleepy look.

"………………"

What was he supposed to do?

She stretched out her arms at him.

He stared.

She persisted.

He sighed and kept his book. Bending down, he picked the small one up. Upon being secured in his arms, the girl promptly found a comfortable spot and snuggled her head at his shoulder before falling off to sleep.

He signed again.

But he had to admit. Carrying a child was rather therapeutic. There is a nice warm feeling that one gets out of cuddling another body next you.

He smiled and looked out the window again.

He was thinking of one other individual that could elicit warm feelings whenever he held her near. One very special individual with a head of tousled crimson hair and blue-grey eyes and associated with a familiar jasmine scent.

Kei……….

Suddenly the young one in his arms stirred. She raised her head to the direction behind him and yelled out with gee,

"Okaa-san!"

He turned to look. And smiling as proud, he welcomed the sight of a certain individual as she made her way over towards them. And she was as beautiful as ever.

"Kakashi!"

She no longer wore her old combat clothes, choosing instead to wear a modified version of the clothes she wore in Herb Village which was basically all black. She smiled as the little boy with spiked red-hair and blue-grey eyes in her arms stirred at the commotion.

His heart swelled with pride at the sight.

Who would have thought that these two bundles of trouble would be their mother's saviours?

"Apparently, all the excess chakra that she couldn't integrate into hers had merged with the developing foetuses in Kei. By the removal of the residual chakra, her condition had stabilised. After the fight and after treating Sasuke, the defensive mechanism of the foetuses took over and that was what kept her alive. They brought her the time for her own healing mechanism to recover enough to help heal all the wounds. The seal may have been broken but it merely served to open a channel for Fuyu to absorb her chakra directly. There was no Seiryuu to release."

Tsunade had explained some time after when Kei had finally gained consciousness.

He still couldn't forgive her for accidentally tripping on the heart monitor wires and turning it off! His heart literally fell when the monotonous tone rang!

But It doesn't matter now.

They chatted as they slowly made their way out of the hospital.

"How's Maiko and daughter doing?"

"They are good. They should be able to discharge in a few days."

She said smiling as Obito, the boy shifted his head to make himself more comfortable. Rin, on the other hand was busy watching a bird as it flew by.

"I'll say good luck to Genma. He sure needs it now more than ever!" He said, recalling his own experience when they first brought the two back from the hospital.

Kei laughed.

"Shouldn't you be off to meet your students?"

"They are no longer my students. From today on, we are all equal in this team."

"Indeed."

"I'll see all of you home first before I go."

And so, Amidst the afternoon sun and little breeze, above on the roofs of Konoha's civilians, all members of the Hatake family headed home.

THE END


Author's note:

Hi everyone,

It's finally finished! Ahh! I can't believe I finished it! My first fic! Thanks so much for everyone's support and I hope that you have enjoyed this story. It's has been a very enlightening experience and I wouldn't have made it without the support of you guys! Thanks so much! I hope that I managed to tie up everything and that you like the ending too. Do hope that you'll continue to read my other works.

Thanks and take care!

Arte