Small dark specks flew in ever narrowing spirals, high in the sky, growing slightly larger every few minutes.
Vultures. How did they find this place so soon? Naturally, with things the way they were now, there would be scavengers. Just like peasants and opportunists would descend upon the charred remnants of the village after the shinobi had left.
"Naruto? Are you alright?" Sakura walked over to check on her teammate. She had a concerned look on her face. Concern, sadness, and disgust. The disgust was not meant for her teammate. She wasn't the only one filled with mixed emotions.
"I'm OK," Naruto mumbled. The restrained and quiet nature of his reply said more than any word or body posture could. "I'm not hurt." He rubbed at some dried blood caked on the side of his face. It might or might not be his own. Things had happened too quickly at first for him to be sure.
"That's not what I mean," Sakura said softly. She had a big heart herself, and was sickened by unnecessary death and destruction. A dedicated ninja, she had grown somewhat more desensitized to killing with good reason; but, it did not mean that she would ever like it, or get used to it entirely. Naruto, though, still seemed to take things harder than everyone else. That was no badge of shame in her eyes. Quite the opposite.
"It had to be done." Kakashi walked over slowly, sporting a slight limp. It was a fierce battle that would leave the skilled ninja with that kind of injury. "And not just because Tsunade gave the orders." He watched Naruto's face intensely, looking for any sign that should give him reason for concern. They had all done their share of fighting and killing, but it had been Naruto's final jutsu that had caused the greatest amount of damage, to buildings and people alike. "You know that…"
"Yes." Naruto nodded his head. He didn't realize that tears were tracking down his soot-covered face, leaving long smeared marks. "I know." He clenched his fists. There was no sense in standing their feeling sorry for the enemy. He was shinobi. He had a job to do. He had done that job, and done it well. "It doesn't make it any easier, though." The stench of burning bodies causing him to cough, he surveyed his surroundings. There had been a village stronghold here. There had been enemy ninjas in the stronghold. There had also been women and children with them.
Numerous columns of gray-black smoke rose skyward, in narrow lazy curls, and huge billowing clouds. The glow of embers dotted the exposed wood, and pieces of burnt timber broke off and fell to the ground throughout the smoky ruins. Proud stone walls still stood, a reminder that there were once beautiful and sturdy buildings lining the simple mud and stone streets. Now, bodies and wreckage covered those same pathways.
Looking down at his feet, Naruto felt his breath catch in his throat. Partly covered by a slab of concrete, the face and upper torso of a doll were evident. He closed his eyes and bit his lip. It felt as if someone had poured a bucket of ice water down his back.
"We should be moving now," Gai said, striding over to where Kakashi stood. He was soon joined by Asuma and a group of chuunin. "There are nearby encampments. If we wait too long, we will have another fight on our hands. There are plenty of injured as there is." He gave Sakura a pointed look. She left to resume her care for the wounded.
"Right." Kakashi straightened his mask, and then placed a hand on Naruto's shoulder. He looked down at the doll, too. "I know what you must be thinking. Remember, we weren't expecting noncombatants. The enemy, on the other hand, knew they had been burning farms and family homes. That might not make it any better, but it's the truth. It was your attack at the end that swung the balance. That won't bring any innocents back; but, it means that more of your friends and fellow villagers will be going home alive." With that, he left to supervise the withdrawal.
Naruto didn't reply. Kneeling down, he picked up the doll, wondering who had owned it. It probably had a name. Someone had probably treasured it. Someone had probably treasured the little girl who had called it her own. Clutching it to his chest for a moment, he fought the urge to scream. So much death. So much destruction. So… much… guilt. He felt as if it was going to suffocate him.
"It's not all fun and games," he muttered, repeating the words that Iruka had told him and his classmates at the academy. For a moment he thought back to those days. They hadn't been all sunshine and good cheer by any stretch of the imagination. But, he had been carefree, even though he always felt the weight of everyone's hatred or apathy. There had been no blood staining his hands, and no echoes of screams and cries echoing between his ears.
"Ninja are like knives. They can be kept in colorful and shiny sheaths, or rough and worn belts. They can be used in amazingly skillful ways, in honorable contests between adversaries. They can be used to slit throats in the night, and strike down those who stand against the village, guilty and innocent alike." The word 'innocent' burned his tongue, as if he had swallowed one of the glowing embers.
Being shinobi was not all flash and spectacle. The battles were not always straightforward, good against evil. The contests of man-against-man were not always done with respect for the opponent, or care for the people who stepped into the middle of that fight. Yes, he knew that the members of the Leaf tried to do what was right, when they could. But, he was no longer a starry-eyed child, ignorant to the ways of his profession.
Watching anime about ninja, and reading the latest comics and manga about ninjas, he had developed a glorified image of the trained warriors. He had wanted more than anything to become one when he grew up, his dreams leading him to the Academy. Even today, he was continually striving to become stronger and more powerful. But, at times like this, there was a price to pay. Truth and reality were hardly comforting bedfellows.
The shinobi of Grass were under the command of a new leader in Kusagakure, a man who wanted to be viewed as a Kage, and who wanted his country to be viewed as the equal of Leaf, Mist, Rock, Cloud, and Sand. The enemy ninjas had been making inroads into the Fire Country for months now, fighting minor skirmished with town guards and ninja patrols. But, without warning, they had mounted a series of raids on farms, outlying towns, and small isolated hamlets. They had killed without discretion, slaughtering men, women, children, and livestock without mercy. There was no way that the Hokage could let actions like those go unpunished.
"Jiraiya told me not to use that jutsu." Naruto put his hand to his head. He felt weak and dizzy. Maybe he should have listened to his mentor; things had been close, and he had nearly damaged his friends along with his foes. There had been more collateral damage done than he wanted, and that implied an increase in the number of innocents who were dead instead of homeless wanderers. "It… it could have been worse…" Sakura had been in grave danger at one point, rushing in when a medical ninja should hang back. In his rush to protect her, he had sprouted two shadowy Kyuubi tails. Who knows what might have happened if things had progressed? Yamato was not a member of this raiding party.
He routinely used Rasengan too much. He knew that. But, he wasn't a two trick pony, with that and his Bunshin jutsus. He had numerous techniques now, thanks to Jiraiya, and to a lesser extent, the Copy Ninja. The reason he often found himself gather the swirling chakra in his hand was more than the visceral pleasure its use brought him, or the familiarity that attack carried: it was something he could control better, up close and personal. His more powerful jutsus weren't cowardly by any stretch of the imagination, but they did seem impersonal. Impersonal… callous… capricious.
Despite his maturity, and the time he spent training with one of the Legendary Sannin, Naruto realized that he was still too impulsive. He had gotten a lot better. But, he still made Lee look like the poster child for patience and careful planning. In this instance however, he had taken time to think things through. It all made logical sense. His head knew that. His heart was slow to buy in.
"Naruto, do you need help?" As coincidence would have it, that was Lee speaking. The young ninja looked no worse for wear, except for a few burn marks on his customary green stretchy suit. "Did you use up to much chakra? You can lean on me if necessary."
"I'm alright," Naruto replied, trying to put on a cheerful face and waves things away. "Sakura has her work cut out for her, though. You might see if she needs help." He managed a smile when the bushy eye-browed boy ran off. Rock Lee had a big crush on Sakura. His teammate did not return that crush. Miracle of miracles, she actually seemed much kinder and compassionate towards a certain ninja in an orange and black jumpsuit than before. No doubt she would come to him later, complaining about Lee being like an over affectionate puppy or something. It was good for her!
Lee wasn't the last person to check in on him, when he lagged back during the retreat. Neji took a moment to speak to him, as did Shikamaru and Choji. Ino stopped to wipe away the tracks made by his tears, and Ten Ten made it a point top brush some ash off of his hair. He came close to tears again. It was wonderful to have friends. If he had to fight his hardest to protect people like that, he would have no long-lasting regrets. Just the same, all of the kindness in the world did not make him feel any less burdened at that moment.
"We fight for our precious ones," Naruto said to no one in particular, when he was the last living soul standing in the center of the once peopled fortification. Looking down at the doll again, he was all too cognizant that the toy had once belonged to someone else's precious one. The little girl had never done anything to hurt the Leaf. She was not the one who ordered the attack on the homesteads. She wasn't one of the ruthless men and women who had struck with out warning. "Maybe… maybe she was one of the ones who got away in time…"
As he made his way after his departed comrades, Naruto stopped, turned around, and walked over near an open area in the remnants of a courtyard. Moving some soil aside with his hands, he made an ersatz grave, and placed the doll down in it, gingerly, showing it more respect than he had shown most of his adversaries. Covering it up with dirt, he hung his head a moment.
Standing, he brushed himself off. Looking around himself again, he realized that he stood in one of the few plots of earth that wasn't covered with broken buildings, ruined household items, singed fur and bones, or human remains. For a brief moment, he felt as if he were the Nine Tails, surveying the fruit of his destructive labors. Smoke in his eyes, it almost looked like the entire world surrounding him had been scourged clean of everything good and green.
"I am not the demon," Naruto affirmed. "He had no role in this." Whether it was his imagination, or his conscience chiding him, he was not certain: he thought he heard a sepulchural chuckle deep inside his head, as if Kyuubi was rather pleased with the day's events. "Screw you, bastard fox. I… didn't… want… this. I didn't really want any of this." He lifted his head up, when he heard a long high-pitched whistle blow. That was one of the jounins, no doubt. If the call was meant for him, he had better hurry and catch up. If it signaled signs of enemy action, he wanted to rejoin his friends, even though he felt drained and depleted.
Moving quickly through the dreary and frightful wreckage, his mind became numb to the horrors that he saw. Bodies had been torn asunder. Blood painted places far out of reach of human hands. Girders and support beams had been tossed about like a child's jackstraws. A small number of dogs had survived, limping about the ruins, sniffing out their fallen masters. The bravest of the carrion birds had landed on the high points of the shattered walls, biding their time.
Something caught his eyes. It was a small flash of color. Sliding to a halt, he fought the urge to keep running. His curious had control of him now, even though he couldn't begin to say why. In all of the grey, brown, black, and bloody red, the vibrant yellow stood out.
Carefully, he moved some broken and burned timbers aside, not wanting to bring the remains of one fractured building down upon his head. Kicking aside a warped board, he uncovered a small flower. It was some kind of lily. Things had fallen just right, to preserve that small piece of nature. It was alive. For some reason, seeing that made Naruto feel better. He hadn't destroyed everything. He hadn't wiped everything beautiful from the village.
The whistle sounded again, this time from a greater distance. The sounds came in short repetitive bursts, a code that the Leaf ninjas would all understand. There was indeed an enemy counterattack. Not only that, it was a superior force. He should go. Now. Not only because his companions would need his help, but also because enemy shinobi would doubtless be arriving at his location very soon.
"I have a minute," Naruto whispered, knowing that every moment he waited, his strength would return, even if it was in small bits and pieces. He wasn't trying to find a reason to justify his actions. He wasn't thinking in those terms. All he could think about was the flower. It was intact. It was alive. It was beautiful. Not one to pay attention to such things usually, he was drawn to it now like a magnet to steel. "This won't take long…"
With utmost care, Naruto dug his hands deep into the yielding soil, creating a large crater around the roots of the plant. Spying a broken piece of pottery, he grabbed it, using it as a makeshift pot. Plunging his fingers into the earth, he displaced the flower, scooping it and the surrounding dirt into the container. After that, he disappeared in a rush.
Flower stem bending slightly as he ran, Naruto did his best to protect the small growth he had salvaged. It was important, somehow. At least to him. The sparsely populated and rocky terrain seemed to zoom past him as he sped on his way. As the trees grew greater in number and density, the sounds of battle grew louder. There was indeed a full scale skirmish going on. He was needed.
"No." He thought about leaving the flower behind, in the most secluded and best shielded place he could find. He couldn't chance it. He might not be able to find the same exact place again, and might not have time to return for the pot. "Kage Bunshin No Justsu." He had a different plan in mind. It might be foolish, using up his chakra this way, but he was in no mood to be logical. A large number of clones popped into being, wreathed in small rings and swirls of light grey smoke. "You guys take care of this. Whatever it takes!" He handed the flower to the nearest clone, before hurrying off to join the fighting.
The next fifteen minutes felt like hours. He had been exhausted to start with. The action was fast and furious, with enemies seemingly coming in droves, or suddenly appearing individually out of nowhere. He fought. He ran. He fell, and got back up again. He lost track of how many men and women he squared off against. He didn't keep track of how many times he escaped death by a whisker. Everything happened in one long blur.
"Naruto!" Sakura ran to his side again, when the battle was over. The Leaf had won that engagement; but, there was no telling how many more enemy parties they might run across, leaving foreign territory. The medical ninjas needed to patch people up as best they could, and get them on their way. "Naruto… are you OK?" She had seen him collapse to the ground. Checking him over, she was relieved to see he was merely spent, not severely wounded.
"Take a few minutes to catch your breath." Kakashi wandered over. He still had his limp, but otherwise looked no worse for wear. He didn't have any new marks or smudges on his near immaculate vest. "We will leave as soon as we are able."
"What is that all about?" Gai pointed after walking up with a number of jounin.
"Huh?" Naruto strained his vision, trying to make things out. "What are they up to?" 'They' was his remaining clones. A large number of them ran towards the temporary encampment, stretched out in a long line. They seemed to be tossing something from one to the other, the rear clone in line disappearing just after making the throw.
"Where do you think you're going?" Sakura looked somewhat cross, the way that Tsunade did at times. "Sit back down, until I finish with the bandages." She was in the process of wrapping one around his forehead.
"No time!" Naruto pulled from his teammate's grasp. He had a good idea what the clones must be doing. He wanted to get there before they all disappeared. Why? So he could get the flower before the last copy vanished. And, because he wanted to kick each of the remaining clones in the ass for treating the frail little plant that way!
A short while later, the droopy-eyed ninja straggled back into camp, just as the wounded were being moved out. Advanced scouts had failed to find signs of further enemy activity; but, Kakashi and the others didn't want to take any chances.
"What's that?" Sakura noticed the flower. She blinked rapidly, her eyes zeroing in on Naruto's face. "Is that… did you get that for me?" She brought one hand to her chest, just as Ino and Ten Ten both happened to walk past. They listened eagerly along with her.
"No. It's not." Naruto made a face. He knew that he sounded harsher than he had to. He was sorry about that. But, he didn't feel like explaining everything at the moment. Running one hand through his sweaty hair, he hugged the pot tighter to him.
"Do you have a girlfriend?" Ino raised one eyebrow. It was the perfect question. If Naruto answered, she would have something to gossip about. If he said 'yes,' and the girl was not Sakura, she would have something to smirk about. If he said 'no,' she could tease Sakura about that, too. She knew that her friend was developing feelings for Naruto, even if he didn't have a clue. "Is the flower for her?"
Naruto didn't answer. He did not want to get caught up in any of the nonsense the kunoichi often found themselves in. He was a ninja, not some teenage basket case. Girls!
"It's very pretty." Ten Ten bent over to sniff the perfume of the perfectly shaped yellow blossom. She smiled, enjoying the wonderful scent. "Where did you find it?"
"At the enemy camp," Naruto said curtly. "It was all that was left." The way he said that had the three girls looking at each other, and then back at him. There was a look of sympathy on their weary faces. They all decided to drop the subject.
The journey back to Konoha took place without incident. At each rest spot, Naruto looked to the flower's needs before he took care of his own. When Choji stopped by to check on him, he felt a bit silly when he placed the pot behind his back. It wasn't as if he really thought his friend would eat the flower. Just the same, with Choji, it never paid to take chances.
"I want you to report to the Hospital immediately, if not sooner." Sakura's voice had that bossy intonation of hers, as if Naruto had no choice but to follow her orders. They had just come within view of the Great Gate surrounding their home village. "Shizune can give you a thorough once-over." She looked down at the flower. "I can take care of that, if you like."
"I'll look after it." He sounded rude. He knew that. Sakura hadn't done anything to deserve that. Part of him knew he was being ridiculously protective of the plant. He thought about giving it to his teammate. She had done a yeoman's job on the battlefield, and had made it a point to put everyone else's welfare ahead of her own. No. He wouldn't give it to her. He wasn't certain why, but he was clear on his decision.
As Fate would have it, Kurenai's team was heading back from practice at the same time that the war party made its way into Hidden Leaf Village. Kiba and Shino had gone on ahead, trailing the large shaggy form of Akamaru. Kurenai hurried over to speak with Asuma, Kakashi, and Gai. That left Hinata alone for the moment, walking back towards the Hyuuga estate. She stopped, catching sight of Naruto.
"Now what is she doing?" Naruto noticed Hinata. She was standing still, like a statue, looking in his direction. Well, at least that was something different. Usually, she was leaning up against a wall, just around some corner, or hiding behind a lamp post or something. What was it with that girl? He took a moment to stare in return, having not had much of a chance to see her after returning from his training with Ero-Sennin.
Naruto shrugged. If Hinata had something to say, she should just come out and say it. Not wanting to be rude, he waved to her, before resuming his trek to the Hospital. After a few steps, he grimaced, clasping his side. A sharp pain shot through him for an instant, and then was gone. He stumbled slightly, immediately making certain that his grip on the flower pot was secure.
"Naruto-kun!" Seeing him in obvious pain snapped Hinata out of her usual Naruto-funk. "Naruto… are you hurt… do you need help…" She even managed to rush to his side, her concern brushing aside her timidity and embarrassment. She still wasn't ready to talk to him; but, that didn't matter. He was hurt. He might need help. "I'll carry the flower for you…"
"No!" Naruto hugged the flower pot tightly to him, making a fierce face that had Hinata taking a step back by reflex. He forced himself to take a deep breath and let it out slowly. "No," he repeated more softly, an apologetic look on his face. "It's OK. It's not too heavy. I'm fine, really."
"Oh." Hinata looked skeptical, eyeing Naruto's condition. She made a momentous decision. At least, it was momentous for her. She decided to walk with Naruto to the Medical Center to make certain he didn't collapse on the way there. "Did… did the mission go well…" It wasn't easy, making conversation. But, her confidence grew a tiny bit, after she managed to ask that in a smooth even voice.
"I really don't want to talk about it!" Naruto's face snapped closed like a book. He really wasn't ready to talk to anyone about the things he had seen and done. The words echoing inside his head sounded churlish and immature, bringing him to a halt again. "Sorry. It was rough…" He squared his shoulders, thinking that Uzumaki Naruto should be stronger than this. "We won. We did what we were sent to do. Most of us came back OK."
"I'm glad." Hinata rubbed her fingers together in that classic manner of hers, unaware that her old habit had returned. She found herself wanting to talk more to him, but had no idea what to say. Everything seemed to put Naruto on edge. He didn't hate her for some reason, did he? Why would he? Swallowing hard, she asked: "Who is the flower for?" She immediately regretted that question. He might just answer! What if it was for a girl?
"No one." Naruto turned slightly away from Hinata. Once again, he found himself questioning his own reaction. She was only curious. It wasn't as if she were going to swipe the flower. And, she showed no inclination to judge him for his actions. How could she? She didn't even know what had happened. "Well... it's for me… it's a long story..." Seeing the look in her eyes, he almost felt an urge to talk about his experiences. No. Not now. Not here. But, he felt some tension leave him. It was a start.
"It's beautiful," Hinata blurted out. She was very fond of flowers. She kept a large garden at her father's estate, and loved to press blossoms when time allowed.
Naruto didn't reply right away. He looked down at the small flower, no worse the wear for its difficult travels. He felt tears well up in his eyes, and immediately clenched his free hand. He was not going to get all emotional. He was not some silly girl or something. It was just a stupid flower. "Yes." Looking over at Hinata, he felt a different kind of twinge. For a moment there, standing in the light, he reminded him of one of the young women who had taken care of him at the Orphange. He couldn't recall the girl's name; but, he would never forget her face, since she was one of the few people who smiled at him, and didn't treat him like he had some kind of disease. "I'll tell you about it some time."
"…" Hinata froze. Was that a promise? Naruto always kept his word. Was he saying that he would tell her about the flower, and why it seemed to be so important to him? After a few moments, she took a deep breath, not realizing that she had stopped breathing. Her eyes went very wide, and her lower lip trembled slightly.
"Yeh… well…" Naruto felt funny, seeing the strange change that came over Hinata's face. Why was she acting that way? She didn't seem to do that around other people. Then again, there was no way to be sure of that, he hadn't been around her enough to know if she behaved that way around anyone else. She wasn't worried about the Kyuubi, was she? No. Not Hinata. Somehow he was certain of that. She just didn't seem like the kind of person who would judge him. He stared at her while he thought, causing her to blush. "I should get going…" He started walking again.
The two were silent after that, until Naruto stopped at the foot of the stairway leading into the Hospital. He had been quiet for a stretch, but his mind had been working. Stealing a glance or two at the girl who was walking beside her, he had come to view her in a peculiar light. To him, for that brief while, Hinata seemed like the pinnacle of purity, someone good and right. It was foolish. He knew that. She was kunoichi, just like Sakura, Ino, and Ten Ten.
If Kurenai's team had gone on the raid instead of Team Gai, Hinata would have returned just as bloody as the rest of them. But, logic didn't matter. Not now. He was simply looking for something pristine, something blameless. Remembering what she looked like when she was younger, and specifically when she had told him that he was a proud failure, he imagined what the girl at the ruined village might look like. He wondered if Hinata ever had a doll like the one he had found.
"Hey… Hinata…" Naruto put one hand behind his head in that usual fashion of his. He winced, since that caused a shooting pain. "Would you… I mean…" He pursed his lips. He was never at a loss for words. Why now? He looked down at the flower. "Would you like this?" He held the pot out in front of him.
"Wh-… Wh-… What?" The offer obviously caught Hinata off guard. "The flower? Me?" It was almost like she had been transported to another dimension. Her heart pounded loudly in her ears. The flower seemed to glow with an unearthly light.
"Do you see any other Hinata?" Naruto made a face. His usual spunk was returning. Had Hinata been struck hard on the head recently? "It's just a flower… you like flowers, don't you?" He didn't feel as cavalier as he sounded. Something inside him welled up. He felt his throat grow tight. "You have to promise to take good care of it."
"I will." With a supreme effort, Hinata reached out and took the pot. She hadn't felt this fortunate when she was handed her Leaf forehead protector, or when she was issued her chuunin vest. "I promise." She looked down at the flower. Unable to help herself, she watered the soil slightly with her tears. "Forever."
"Huh?" Naruto frowned. Why was she getting so emotional? Maybe it's one of those 'time of the month' things. Yes. That had to be it. But, he felt a great sense of accomplishment, somehow. That, and a great relief. It was like a huge burden had been lifted off of his shoulders. "OK. Whatever."
Naruto said his farewell, and went inside to the triage area. Sakura was already there, and seemed rather unhappy with him, since he had taken his sweet time reporting. Her scolding could be heard halfway across the first floor of the building. When she asked about the flower, her teammate turned rather obstinate. Payback's a bitch. He wouldn't tell her. That naturally set things off.
Hinata made her way home swiftly. Passing through the gate to her ancestral home, she hurried over to a special private garden, one that the family retainers were not allowed to tend. Carefully, she dug a hole in the soil, next to a flower she had planted on the day of her mother's funeral. That's the way things should be. There should be happiness and sadness in life. There should be hope.
After watering the new addition, she stood a while watching it. Then, satisfied, she headed in for supper.