The Slave of Sound
The march to Sound had been brisk, efficient, almost furious. The return to Konoha was much more subdued. They were returning home in defeat. They straggled back aimlessly, slowly, uncaring of bandits or missing nins or any harm that might befall them. Numb and broken, they drifted home. The Sunans went with them. They would return to their own home after accompanying their bewildered comrades in arms to safety, even though they were in no better shape.
It had been a week since Naruto and Sasuke died. The Konohans and Sunans had done what they could in the turmoil of the Sound Nation after the loss of their brilliant if twisted leader. In the ensuing scrabble for supremacy, one voice spoke clear and heartfelt in the gloom; warm and strong and sure.
DeKrisso, though old and bent, was still hale and possessed a wisdom beyond the lot of humankind. The other Sound combatants listened to his quiet voice, listened and harkened. What had happened that terrible summer day a week ago, left everyone changed forever, and in the ensuing calamity that followed, people were unaccustomedly pliant. DeKrisso would rule Sound wisely until a strong and true candidate could be found, tested, and assume the mantle of leadership. DeKrisso had signed the contracts and treaties, and had ratified the scroll Sasuke had given Neji.
Everyone was lost in their own thoughts, their own pain upon their return to Konoha.
Kakashi, a loner by choice and lifestyle, had been devastated once more. He'd never passed any genin before Team 7, and knew he would never even test a team again, much less pass one. He'd lost all of his students. Naruto had spent the last years of his short and miserable life in debasing and tormented bondage. Sasuke had been lost in the darkness and had committed unspeakable atrocities. And Sakura… She was like a ghost of her former self; silent, eyes wide and lost and bewildered. It was as if she'd lost something intrinsic to herself when she watched the life fade from Naruto's eyes. Left to her own devices, she would wander like a child, looking for someone she would never find again. He dreaded breaking the news to Iruka. The chuunin would be as even more devastated than he was. He had practically raised Naruto and had loved him like a son.
Neji and Shikamaru were silent. This was nothing new, as both men were habitually quiet. Consistently unmoved by life's little foibles; at least outwardly. Or they had been. Now they were prone to stop what they were doing, look around blankly, and sometimes leak unexpected tears quietly before drifting on. They would gather themselves in the days it took to reach home, but they would never be the same again. Fate was a troublesome thing, on that the two quietly agreed.
Konohamaru was bitter and disillusioned. How could Naruto have died? How could he be gone? He'd been going to save him! He was going to bring his precious person home, and make him whole once more. But he'd been less than useless. Naruto was gone, and the boy would grieve and mourn for him for the rest of his life. He stayed away from everyone, reserving his wild tears for the privacy of night and solitude. Those around him worried for him. He wanted nothing to do with anyone. But after Sakura had wandered away one too many times, he huffed with annoyance, tracked her down, and then spent his time holding her hand, talking quietly to her about Naruto. In their odd companionship, he found a measure of peace, and she seemed to revive a little.
Gaara and Kankuro seemed the most unchanged, but it was deceptive. Though Kankuro had not been as close to Naruto as his brother, he'd been immensely impacted by Naruto in his life. To have the bright and untrammeled spirit so broken, then killed so ignomiously was something he could not overcome quickly or with ease. Gaara displayed the same placid veneer as ever, but the eyes once so murderous, then so lurkingly warm after Naruto's advent, had lost some of their brightness, had dimmed with a loss that could never be replaced. He drew closer to his wife, and seemed a little more demonstrative than before. Life was fleeting, and it seemed the good die young, and the best and most loved were lost too soon. He would treasure what he had, and hold it close to his heart. How he loved his wife, and was not afraid to show it now, in his subdued way.
Hinata was changed the most. Instead of shrinking into herself, considering the degradation of he who had meant so much to her, in the depths of depravity and vengeance she herself had descended into. But the latter had somehow strengthened her. Though she would frequently shudder when she would remember what had happened deep under the soil in Sound's royal gardens, it had lit a fire in her being. By descending into the darkness and the blood and the pain as had the two men she loved above all others, she had refined the steel within herself in the fires of hell. Never again would she be too weak or too timid to do whatever it took to protect her most precious people. But she had given her heart once and it had been lost. Never again would she love so innocently. What she had with her husband was just as fierce as what she'd felt for Naruto, just as passionate, but her innocence was gone forever. And she would grieve for that as long as she did for Naruto. But if there was something she'd learned from the blonde, both in Konoha and in Sound, was that precious people were just that, precious, and must be protected at all costs.
They had all been changed forever, had lost something more precious than the breath of life, and would miss and grieve for it as long as they lived. Life would never be the same again. It would never be as innocent, as flavorful, or zestful as it had been before.
Or so they all thought.
Less than a day from Konoha, they were still as lackluster as when they had started this nightmarish trek. The days had blurred into a gray streak of gloom. But despite this, they dreaded returning home. The tale would have to be told, and more hearts would break, more lives would be changed for the worse forever. They dreaded this with every fiber of their being. Nothing seemed to matter any more. The only thing that meant anything to them was continuing the nightmare from which none of them would ever awaken, and pass that nightmare onto more innocent souls. They shuddered at the thought.
Giggling was heard through the trees. They paused, the sheer joy and innocence of that sound smote them, and then they cringed. It was the laughter of a child. One of their own, obviously, since they were so close to home, but soon that laughter could change to tears, once the news they brought with them was revealed. Though a part of them longed to seek out that innocence, they wanted to put off destroying it as long as possible. The moved on slowly.
The giggling came closer. Stalking them, teasing them with what they would never know again. There was something so joyous, so infectious in the children that moved ever closer to them with every passing moment. They smiled weakly, and slowed their steps.
The giggling exploded into delicious laughter, from the throats of more than once child. They stopped, somehow unable to move forward, to leave that scrumptious innocent glee behind. The leaves rustled around them. There was the sound of flying footsteps, shrieks of laughter, smothered giggles and the panting of children lost in play. They were frozen in their tracks, slight bemused smiles on their faces, heads tilted to the side as they absorbed the sounds.
A gold blur shot across the path before them, bright and beautiful and pink and young. The child paused in his flight, the crashing of another child close behind him, and looked upon the weary hopeless travelers.
Shock crashed through them with the force of a tsunami.
It was a boy, no more than ten. He was long and lean and glowed with health and vitality. His feet were bare, caked in dirt, and his still slightly knobby knees bore grass stains. His black shorts were stained and torn, his orange tank top littered with leaves and tiny twigs. His shock of wild blonde hair made their hearts throb, as did enormous blue eyes, which shamed the sky above. Eyes that were wild and free, innocent and carefree.
But what made their knees weak, their minds frayed, were the six whisker marks that adorned those glowing pink cheeks. An unmistakable stamp.
Sakura gave a strangled noise in the back of her throat, and took a helpless step forward. In her diminished capacity, she instantly recognized and accepted what the others could not.
It was impossible, but with he whom they all mourned so greatly, they had long ago learned nothing was impossible. It was preposterous but who was more preposterous at times than him? It was miraculous, just like a newborn demon carrier that would live to make the whole world love him.
AN… At long last, The Slave of Sound is finished. I am both shaken, and relieved. It was a long and mostly wrenching journey, and I am glad and sad that it is over. I can only hope I feel the same with the next and continuing journey of this tale.
I have no idea where all this came from. As I told some of you, from the moment I began the first chapter, it took on a life and a will of its own. I was helpless before it, and was only along for the ride. I had no idea I was capable of such darkness, nor why I was compelled to write a story of such grief and sadness. But even during my long dry spell of writer's block, I returned to what I had written again and again. It haunted me, and I knew I had to follow where it would lead. And I did.
My thanks and gratitude to all of you on this ride with me, for putting up with my foibles, my spells of inactivity, and over all, the strange darkness of this story. Everyone who has reviewed as been more than kind, all things considering. And you have been absolutely supportive with your reviews. I have tried not to let them go to my head. And all of you, each and every one of you, inspired me to continue and finish this tale. And I am grateful.
As promised, there will be a sequel. I have already finished the prologue, and most of the first chapter. And it will be, as aforementioned, as light and passionate as this one was dark and grief stricken. I look forward to continuing to please you in all my works, but most especially with Innocence From Ashes. Watch for it.
All my love and gratitude…