Regret Not A Thing
Ch. 28: Carry You Home
Yugito stared intently at the statue before her. She paid no mind to the cadence of voices swirling around her. There was no point in stemming the blood flowing from her chest; she would need that in good time. Her narrowed cat eyes focused intently on some unseen target.
Naruto jerked awake, eyes snapped open wide, with no recollection of falling asleep. Hadn't he been…? Been…?
He couldn't remember what he'd been doing. Couldn't remember much of anything. Faces and places slid past the edges of consciousness but he could grasp none of it. He felt like it had been something important. He didn't know why. Didn't know why this blankness of memory didn't bother him.
It took him a moment to register where he actually was, but found he didn't recognize anything.
He was seated at a kitchen table; a rather plain wooden construct at that. He was facing a modest kitchen. Hardwood flooring that gave way to tile. There was a large houseplant in the corner. The place looked rather lived-in, yet everything seemed frozen somehow. As if the seemingly haphazard clutter was right where it was meant to be. Untouched, even.
He momentarily thought he might have still been dreaming, before that idea also fell away from his mind.
"You're early," Naruto jumped at the sound of the voice; he hadn't sensed someone else was in the room with him, "I haven't started dinner yet."
There was a woman standing by the kitchen window worrying at the dishrag in her hands. Naruto's jaw worked to form words but he couldn't shake them free from his throat. Long ginger hair hung loosely down her back, pale eyes, fair skin. He couldn't recall ever seeing her before, yet he had the distinct impression that he ought to know her.
Or, no, that wasn't quite it. Though it was, but there was something more. Maybe it was the orange dress she wore. The color he called his own. He stared at this apparent stranger and felt, just a little, like he was looking at himself.
He knew he knew this woman. Yet he had no memory of her.
It was this gap in his memory that troubled him more than anything else.
Shikamaru kept his back to the scene unfolding; that second wave of grief lapping at his spine. Not that looking forward was a much more manageable feat. Temari no longer bothered keeping herself propped up. She'd abandoned all pretenses of tending to her wounds and lay flat on her back with her arm cast over her eyes. She'd mumbled some time ago, or what seemed like some time ago, that "he" had been the one to save her brother. She was oddly silent since that (possibly unwilling) admission.
Perhaps she covered her eyes so that she wouldn't have to see Gaara suffer. Or to hide her worry that she didn't know how much he would change (regress) without such a presence in his life.
Shikamaru thought of emotional training and wondered if Temari didn't want him to see her cry.
Upon review, perhaps it was easier to focus on what might be going through her mind rather than his own.
There might be something ironic in that he'd initially believed for a few breaths that his strategy would ultimately succeed. They were banged up, certainly, but they held their own against the Akatsuki. But only heartbeats later and one of their own found dead, he could think of no other word but "defeat." The severity of the injuries his comrades had suffered in this battle all suddenly seemed all the worse. All so very pointless.
In all his calculations, how was it he never factored in what they would do if Naruto had been caught? Because he hadn't been able to believe that such an indomitable force like Uzumaki Naruto could be killed in such a senseless fashion? He didn't know if that made him arrogant or just plain naïve.
And now? Now he thought about time. And if he would only be able to mark it by the ghosts he kept. Or the bad habits he formed.
He fumbled through his pocket for (Asuma's) cigarettes. He found it odd that his right arm didn't seem willing to move very much. It took a few shuddering moments to remember the numbness trailing down to his fingertips originated from the stab wound in his shoulder. He belatedly realized he was in shock. From injuries and from loss and—
He struggled with the lighter. His hand was slick with blood and it was hard to spark a flame. He grit his teeth around the cigarette in his frustration, his anger. It was easier to focus all he felt on this small task. It distracted him enough to flinch at the unexpected touch against his back. He glanced over his shoulder to meet with Ino's drawn features.
"Let me take a look at your wounds," she spoke softly.
"Save your chakra," he muttered, unable to keep his eyes on her face. After all that happened, and even with others bearing worse wounds than he was, she came to him first like the loyal teammate that she was. Even though he hadn't done much to earn that kind of respect.
The hot snap of her voice startled him enough for the cigarette to slip from his mouth. It had been so long, really, since she'd last raised her voice to him about anything. More importantly, when did he accept that Ino being docile as normal?
She busied herself with cleaning away the excess blood from his wound with a piece of torn fabric. A constant mutter (about stupid boys and can't they just think for once) fluttered under her breath.
For Ino, this was another one of those moments. The shift and slide from one epoch to the next. She'd lived these years with those two timelines running like a chasm through her life. Before and After that fateful mission from four years ago. She could see the cycle getting ready to wind up before her eyes. Where she would offer Shikamaru what little comfort she could muster (while he otherwise fell apart) and she would suffer in isolated silence. Rinse. Repeat.
They weren't supposed to be like this. And they didn't have to be like this. Because life was too short to spend counting only their losses. She couldn't bring the people she loved back once they were gone. But she didn't have to let the rest fade away, so long as she was still here to do something about it.
(And she made a promise, didn't she? That she and Sakura were going to grow into little old ladies…)
It was not a fairy tale.
Not to mention it would be a damn insult to someone like Naruto if his friends gave up just because things got tough. He certainly never quit. Not even at the end.
"Our lives aren't over yet," she spoke up a little louder. Making sure he heard her. "So don't act like it."
He heard what she wasn't saying, either. She wasn't going to shy away or bend beneath their long-shared sorrow. Ino was going to face her life head-on and no amount of loss was going to shake her resolve again. Because she was lucky enough to still be here. They were all so lucky to still be here.
The corners of his mouth twitched upward. He wasn't ready to smile, not just yet, not here in this place. But suddenly he felt like, yeah, somehow he'd get through this. No amount of pills could replace this kind of faith.
"Damn troublesome woman."
Temari made some sort of choked, aborted noise. Like maybe she wasn't quite ready to laugh, either. But maybe she was starting to think (wish, hope) that these Leaf comrades would still stand beside her brother in this. And everything after.
Lee stood back from the group, left floundering with his indecision. Sakura lay on the floor with her team and it seemed too intimate a scene to intrude upon. Even the way his own teammates huddled in on each other seemed too personal for him to approach. He watched Kankurou caught in his own hesitancy over which of his siblings to stand beside. And Lee thought perhaps now, more than ever, he should let Gaara know he really meant it when he said they were friends. That as much as this hurt, all was not lost.
"What is she doing?"
Lee nearly jumped out of his skin at the abrupt sound of Shino's voice.
"That Cloud woman."
Admist all the chaos, Lee had nearly forgotten about her. No longer standing by Gaara's side, she now sat in full Lotus with eyes closed and murmuring breath. As they drew closer, they realized there was a darkened wet circle surrounding her that looked rather suspiciously like…
"Don't," Gaara interrupted any question Lee might have asked.
Though he was close enough now to make out some of her mumbled words.
"…Last year, this year, the waxing and waning moons,
The days, nights, and indivisible time are all impermanent…"
Shino shifted uncomfortably. His insects buzzed hotly in response to the steadily rising pulse of chakra.
"What is this jutsu?"
"...we too are face to face with death..."
"The Nekomata," Gaara's voice had taken on an oddly tight quality. Lee wasn't sure what to call it, that strange feeling of familiarity that only the jinchuuriki could feel towards one another. A closeness that Lee was certain Gaara couldn't even express towards his own siblings.
"It's been said that, as Shuukaku can control sand," he continued, "That the Nekomata's affinity is with Death itself."
"…the father and the mother,
the rain, the blackness,
the thunderous sound,
the fearful and terrifying experiences,
the nature of these and of all phenomena is
"She says…she found Naruto's soul."
Naruto stood in the kitchen with this stranger of a woman.
(But I know you, I know you, I know you.)
He didn't know what to say to her. And didn't he have somewhere else to be…?
"I hope your name didn't make you hate ramen," she teased as she put a pot of water on to boil.
There was such a soft gentleness to her. Even the simple gestures of her fixing dinner left him with an inexplicable warmness in his chest. But he couldn't keep his thoughts slipping from him like the tide and contemplated it no further. He could hold onto nothing long enough to ask any of the questions stuck in his throat.
And it was only now, above the steady bubble of water, did he take note of the faint scratching sound coming from behind what he assumed was the front door.
"Oh," the woman was preoccupied with rummaging through the cupboard, "Could you let the cat in?"
Some part of Naruto realized this whole situation should have struck him as unbelievably strange, yet he found it impossible to question any of it for very long. He opened the door to find a pale-furred, bright-eyed cat pacing irritably on the other side. It paused only to give him a rather shrewd look before bolting towards the stairwell at the end of the corridor.
"You'll have to catch it," the woman called from the kitchen, "You won't find it again once the sun goes down."
And this should have been inherently bizarre. It was. Yet Naruto still found himself unable to contemplate anything beyond how long he had until sunset.
Kakashi charged onward, more bothered now that everything had gotten so remarkably quiet. He barely paused long enough to confirm the body he'd come across, features burned beyond any sort of recongnition, was in fact deceased. Only a strange orange mask lying nearby gave any clues towards the owner's identity. Not that it really mattered much at this point.
But now there was no sound. No fighting. Not chakra weighing down the air. There was no sign of anyone and it left him restless for resolution.
He wouldn't relent until he saw for himself that those reckless tweleve shinobi were found alive.
(Thirteen, he realized, Sasuke would be number thirteen.)
Not that he considered himself a particularly superstitious man.
Jiraiya, however, ground to a halt. The silence did bother him. The worry was gnawing at his gut. But staring at the slack face of another student of his left him trapped in entropy.
(Though he had no way of knowing it hadn't really been his student—that person was a long-time gone. Hadn't seen the eyes.)
"I'm sorry, you know," he thought of kneeling beside the body; thought better of it, "This wasn't what I meant for you. I thought giving you the ability to defend yourselves would have been enough…"
His hands tightened by his sides and again thought of Orochimaru's suggestion when they'd crossed paths with three Rain orphans all those years ago. And who really benefitted from his choice that day.
"Things were hard for you, weren't they. After…"
(And he'd heard those murmurs coming out of Rain, as isolated and strife-ridden a place as it was. Whispers that Hanzou was dead. As was anyone with any remote connection to him. The chains of hatred coiling around the country's borders like a snake.)
"I bet it must have gotten so lonely."
He needed more time. Not that saying anything now was going to change any of this. Or clear his conscience.
(He wouldn't know/realize/accept that none of this was ever his fault.)
But there was sudden static surge of chakra filling up the air and sparking across his skin. Felt like a storm on the horizon and he knew there was no time left.
Naruto raced through the time-frozen streets of Konoha, managing to just keep sight of the cat as it rounded corners and charged down alleyways. But he didn't seem capable of getting any closer to it. Set as he was in his task, it did not strike him odd that the Village was ultimately empty. No people. No sounds. No wind.
The sun dropped lower on the horizon.
They made it to the outskirts, towards the riverbanks. The old shrine. The tatami mat already pulled aside and Naruto spotted the cat's tail just as it descended the carved stone stairs. And he didn't remember the stairs being quite so steep before, or going on this far before.
When he reached the landing, his feet splashed in ankle-high water. Piping and service lights loomed overhead.
He knew this place. Knew it deeper than his own bones.
The dim lighting flickered overhead. In the strobe-journey deeper and deeper underground, Naruto thought he saw things that were not there. Sometimes that cat seemed to glow a faint shimmering blue. Sometimes he thought it had two tails instead of one. And this should have mattered to him. It should have. He couldn't remember why.
They came upon a thick steel door, seemingly caught open just wide enough for water to sluice through. Or a cat to squeeze through. But Naruto was committed. He led in with his shoulder and gave the door a good set of shoves before fitting himself through.
He found himself before the cage. Its bars were rusted and moss-covered; the ofuda sealing it shut yellowed and water-stained. That cat paced with that same sense of impatience with its tail(s?) thrashing about. But the cage was silent. Naruto stared into the endless abyss of it in search of what he knew should have been there. His memories were seemingly unavailable, his feelings flowing by too fast to retain, but this was knowledge he could never forget.
He knew damn well what belonged behind those bars. Knew that the abyss should have stared back.
"You're more stubborn than I thought," the voice rumbled; it sounded distant and underwater, "To think I'd end up having to put up with a mangy feline like you."
It occurred to Naruto that maybe he should find it a little bit strange that the fox seemed interested in talking to the cat. Or that the fox should sound so far away and just how deep was that cage…? Or that the cat, small and ultimately insignificant, could manage to look so smug. Yet Naruto found himself moving ever closer towards those bars. Because he wants…wants…
(To understand? Remember? Connect??)
"I wouldn't get to much closer," there was a voice by his ear and a hand on his shoulder, "Even cutting things this close, the Kyuubi is not a weak creature."
Naruto turned slowly, unreasonably hesitant, to look upon the face of the man he idolized his entire life.
"Yondaime," the fox gave a tinny, echoing growl, "How dare you show your face after what you did to me!!"
"Well. I never wanted to see you again. But I had things set up so that I could fix the seal if it was ever weakened this much."
Naruto merely stared at him in muted shock. At any other time, he might have angrily questioned why the fox had even been shoved inside him in the first place. But even these feelings would not stay with him.
"Besides," Minato continued on casually, "Even you have to agree that my being here wound up benefitting you now."
Because neither Naruto nor the Kyuubi could survive without the other now.
Minato touched the ofuda and it flashed once before returning to crisp white, the bars solid steel once more. Then, of all things, he reached down to scoop up the cat.
"I'm sorry we don't have more time to talk," he admitted, offering Naruto a wry sort of smile.
"I—There was so much I wanted to ask you," Naruto wanted to feel angry that he couldn't keep hold of the questions as the drifted from his mind. And now it strangely felt like his entire self was being pulled somewhere. It was all too much at once.
(And wasn't there something else he should be doing?)
"And there is so much I wanted to tell you," Minato agreed, "…And I'm sorry we never got to have dinner together. The three of us."
Naruto saw her so clearly for one blinding moment. A ginger-haired woman in a sun soaked kitchen in late afternoon. He could only give his own weak smile in reply.
"You owe me a bowl of ramen."
It earned him a laugh from Minato. In return, it gave Naruto that same warm feeling that woman left in him.
"You do live up to your name," Minato teased, "It is a hero's name, you know."
"Here," Minato held out the cat, "You should be heading back. They're waiting for you."
And there was that nagging feeling again. That sense that he was supposed to be doing something else. Something important.
He took that cat in his arms and his skin tingled at the touch of its fur. It didn't feel like fur. It thrumed in his arms like pure energy.
Like pure chakra.
A flash of light.
A sense of surfacing from beneath a deep ocean.
Naruto came up choking and clawing for air. He blinked rapidly to clear his blurred vision, waited for the white noise flooding his ears to grow quiet. When he regained enough sense of self, felt the cold bite of stone against his back, the first thing he achingly thought of was home. Family. He couldn't explain why.
But then he noticed his hand held in an iron grip.
He turned his head slowly, unsure of what he'd see, and found himself face to face with Sasuke. And wondered if he was actually awake. Features worn and withdrawn, but two charcoal eyes stared back at him. Naruto, of all people, couldn't think of what to say. Sasuke, of all people, took the initiative.
"Nice too see you too, asshole," Naruto managed a sleepy grin.
"Can't you two go five minutes without picking a fight??" Sakura complained as she struggled to sit up.
Sasuke, with his weak and trembling left hand, took hold of her arm and silently urged her to settle back down. Exhausted (relieved) as she was, she didn't bother to press the issue.
Naruto wanted to tell Sakura that he known she'd succeed at healing Sasuke. Especially with Hinata's help. But he found himself floundering. Tried to fill in the gaps of what led to this moment. He remembered (rather stupidly) getting caught, a great sense of burning, then…Something safe, warm. He felt its absence somehow, whatever it might have been. But as he tried to piece together this jigsaw timeline, he had more questions than his mind could even process. So he went with the first one that came to mind.
Naruto found it hard to turn his head to the other side; his body seemingly stiff and slow to respond. Even then, he found himself facing Hinata's knees. It took a moment for him to manage looking up at her.
Tears clung stubbornly to her eyelashes, though their tracks carved out distinct paths through the dirt smudging her cheeks. She was worrying at her bottom lip with her teeth, fidgeting with the cuffs of her sleeves, seemingly caught between feeling disbelief and giddy relief. Or, if Naruto had a bit more clarity of mind, like she was trying to make a very important decision.
She exhaled a shaky breath and looked like she wanted to say something, but the words wouldn't come.
"Hey, it's okay—" Naruto tried to reassure her.
But then she leaned forward; the briefest press of her lips against his. She sat back so quickly that if it weren't for her reddening cheeks, he might not have believed anything happened at all. He sputtered for a moment as he tried to process everything as it happened. But then his trademark fox grin spread across his face.
"Heh, maybe I should get hurt more often."
Hinata squeaked with embarrassment, and Naruto was pretty sure both of his teammates were muttering under their breath about his idiocy. Hell, even Neji sounded scandalized from across the room.
But the moment's weary humor subsided as Kakashi and Jiraiya appeared at the entrance one after the other. The men stood frozen as they took in the sight of the young men and women before them. Dirtied, bloodied children that, despite what their terrible imaginations had conjured up, were all very much alive.
The pair both invariable were drawn towards the trio sprawled out in the middle of the cavern.
"You—you're all—" Kakashi didn't even know where to begin with his wayward students. Wasn't sure if he should be praising them or scolding them. Sasuke invariably remained silent, but the other two looked up at him and spoke as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening.
"Ah," Kakashi tried to quell that bubble of nervous laughter threatening to choke him, "I got held up trying to think of a good excuse not to come here."
He thought he heard Sakura mutter that that was lame even for him. But it was lost beneath the violent shudder that monstrous statue gave. A large chunk of it dropped off and smashed into the stone floor.
He glanced briefly at a young women seemingly wearing the uniform of a Cloud shinobi. He could briefly make out her advising Gaara that things put into the statue evidently weren't meant to be taken out. He'd have to inquire about what that entailed later. At the present moment, it was a scramble of the less injured shouldering the weight of their wounded comrades as they prepared to make a run for it. This place was going to come down around them at a moment's notice.
Everything seemed to move slow and quick all in the same breath. Lee was kneeling down and hoisting Sakura onto his back with brisk yet softened motions. It spoke of injuries that Kakashi didn't have time to contemplate just yet. Jiraiya was offering the same treatment to Naruto. Beneath those rushed movements were murmured platitudes sounding too apologetic for him to feel comfortable overhearing. Kakashi instead focused his attention on Sasuke.
Sasuke, with his carefully masked expression, stared up at him with two dark eyes.
"You didn't have to come here."
And they've had this conversation before, haven't they?
"It's never stopped me before," Kakashi replied evenly as he stood, Sasuke's weight light against his back. He couldn't explain why this surprises him.
It wasn't until they'd cleared the cave, dust rising in the distance after its inevitable collapse. Not until after one of Kakashi's other ninja dogs came rushing through the woods to let them know Ibiki's people were on their way to clean up whatever was still salvageable, that Sasuke spoke again.
It felt strange for him to say it now, considering everything that was tied up in his memories of those two words.
"It's no trouble," Kakashi obliged, "To do at least this much."
Considering how much more I should have done before.
"No—I meant," Sasuke's fingers tightened around their hold on Kakashi's flak jacket, "Before. That first day back."
The image of Sasuke beneath that tree, half-feral with a knife pressed against his own throat, before Kakashi eased it away from him. Made him survive that immediate aftermath. So that he could have this chance at reckless heroics that he couldn't have remotely foreseen in those first breaths after Itachi—
"…It was no trouble."
It was slow goings on the way back to Konoha. Without the constant flow of adrenaline and fear to speed their blood, it was a tedious and exhausted trek home broken up by pauses to change bandages. Very few words were said by anyone; only tenative and hopeful glances passed between the ragged group.
(Though if Naruto and Hinata shared a few stolen, tenative kisses, no one made any note of it.)
And one might have thought, all things considered, that things had gone too smoothly for too long.
The gates were in their sights now, a precious thing of beauty, when the group could make out Shizune racing up to meet them.
"Ah, they've even sent a beautiful welcoming party for us," Jiraiya joked as he shifted Naruto's weight. He pointedly ignored Naruto's protests that he wasn't a child, could walk perfectly fine on his own, and weren't you getting tired, old man?
Shizune was out of breath, looking tense and frantic. Something wasn't right.
She bipassed Jiraiya and Kakashi, and oddly enough approached Gaara. And in turn, Yugito floating beside him on a sand cloud.
"I'm sorry," Shizune kept her eyes firmly averted.
"I understand," Yugito sounded resigned, "I know our villages aren't on good terms—"
Shizune shook her head.
"It's not that. They're not letting any foreigners in."
"What happened?" Kakashi asked as Sasuke's fingers tightened their hold again.
"Sand is only a couple of days away," Temari spoke up.
"Temari, your injuries—" Kankurou tried to intercede.
"We'll manage," she bit out gruffly.
"We'll be in touch," Gaara made the decision final.
Naruto managed to pull away from Jiraiya's hold and swayed briefly on his feet. Both Gaara and Yugito took his arms to steady him and remained there for a moment. The three felt the inexplicable pull of their bond as jinchuuriki as they stood together.
"I'm gonna hold you to that," Naruto declared.
There was more he wanted to say to her. He'd been told in bits and pieces what happened during that "lost" time. No one seemed to want to come right out and say it, but Naruto got the gist. He knew what Yugito had done for him. And he wasn't going to forget that. Wasn't going to let anyone forget what a stranger, on paper what amounted to an enemy ninja, had done for him.
"We'll see you soon," Yugito acknowledged.
She, in turn, unable to forget that shimmering sense of hope that complete strangers would in turn rescue her from dying alone so far from home.
The feeling of another hand pressing prayer beads against her palm in the dark.
It was with great trepidition that the group walked into Konoha. Tsunade was standing there waiting for them looking terrifically angry about something.
"What's going on?" Jiraiya asked her in low tones.
"The usual," Tsunade all but hissed under her breath, "Always win big before some disasterous happens."
Before he could ask any further questions, Danzou came forward flanked by Anbu.
"Uchiha Sasuke," he called out.
Sasuke stiffened against Kakashi's back but remained silent.
"You are under arrest for fleeing confinement pending from your initial capture on charges of treason and dereliction of duty."
The eruption of outraged shouting was to be expected. Sasuke climbing down and forcing himself to walk forward with his jaw clenched tight was not.
"Sasuke!" Naruto caught him by the wrist, "You can't seriously be planning to go along with this crap!"
Sasuke gave him a baleful look, as if he couldn't believe Naruto wasn't going along with him.
"And you, Uzumaki Naruto," Danzou spoke again as if he hadn't been interrupted, "Are to be held in confinement for recklessly endangering the ninja world by unleashing the power of the Nine Tails."
There was naturally more shouting in response to this announcement. But strangely none of it came from Naruto. He glanced briefly at Tsunade's tight-lipped expression before sharing another rather pointed look with Sasuke when something clicked.
He allowed the Anbu to snap the shackles around his wrists and lead him away. Even though it hurt like hell to listen to Hinata's stuttered sobbing. Or Sakura's furied cussing.
Sasuke, you crazy bastard. I sure as hell wish I knew what the hell you were scheming at this time.
Being this way, being carried this way, reminded him of being small. It should have crippled him with humiliation. But things being as they were, it was really the least of his concerns.
But the truth of it, the stark and honest things he could scarecely admit to himself, was that he had longed for this.
There was too much history between them now, so much of it violently unpleasant. But pressed against his back like this with nothing but unending road stretched before them let him wind back the clock for at least a brief bit of time. It felt frighteningly like freedom.
Safe and comforting things that he could barely recall. Things he didn't dare speak of.
(It felt like coming home.)
To be continued...
A/N: Yugito's prayer is an excerpt from Gyurme Dorje's translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead.