The young woman sank to her knees at the base of a tree, breathing hard. Etsuko knew she would have to keep moving if she wanted to survive the night, but at the moment her legs wouldn't support her weight any longer. The night was cold and the air stung her lungs and she tried to bring her short, ragged breaths under control.
She needed to be calm and focused to make it through. No matter how hard she tried to shut them out though, images and memories kept seeping into her thoughts. Her brother's dying screams echoed in her mind so clearly she half thought she might really still be hearing them. She could still see their faces, twisted in rage and pain. Bloodied and broken bodies she had run over and past in her attempt to escape. Images of people she had grown up with and known from earliest memory, fighting and dying.
Trying to redirect her thoughts, the woman wondered how long it had been since her settlement had been discovered and attacked. It felt as if it had been hours, perhaps days since she began running. Time seemed to be behaving oddly. One look at the position of the moon told her it was still deeply night. Not even a hint of dawn. It seemed impossible to believe that not even this single night had ended yet, and almost as impossible to believe that she'd likely been fleeing for her life for nearly two hours. She had traveled far in that time; speed was one of her gifts.
Weariness began to settle into her muscles. Knowing she couldn't possibly stop for the night, the girl took a deep breath to clear her mind. Calm, focused. Survival needed to be her foremost- no, her only- thought.
There were no sounds in the night to suggest anyone had followed her this far. But if anyone had pursued her, and if they had had even a little training in their life, tracking her silently would have been an easy task. There was no way to know if she had been seen escaping into the forest. As careful as she had tried to be, she was sure she had left a trail to follow. There hadn't been time cover her path. Even if no one had been following her initially, it was too risky to assume they would miss her trail in the daylight. Their goal was clearly to destroy her entire family. It was probable that they would search the surrounding area for any who had escaped once they had finished off everyone in the settlement. It was a measure of her shock how little emotion she felt at that thought. Every last person in the settlement had been family, or as good as.
At least this was the driest time of the year. Most other times the ground would have been soggy, and even a child would be able to follow her footprints. She had to be grateful for every advantage she had, no matter how small.
Knowing it was too dangerous to stay in any one place any longer than to catch her breath, Etsuko brushed her now-tangled silky black hair off of her face and pushed herself to her feet, needing the support of the tree to do so. It was harder than she expected; her muscles ached in protest, already beginning to cramp in the short while she'd been resting. She forced her weary body to take one shaky step forward. Then another. It didn't get easier after that, but at least she was moving. The initial adrenaline had long ago worn off, and she could feel every ache, scrape and bruise. She'd already used more energy than she should have coming this far, but she made herself keep moving.
I can't have been the only one to run. Others must have survived this long too. I'll wait it out, and then I'll find them. She forced herself to believe she wasn't the only one. It was the only thing that made her want to live to see morning.
Initially, when war and fear had swept the land and massacres of those possessing kekkei genkai had begun, her family had been lucky. Their particular ability had no visible physical manifestation, so to anyone looking it would not be apparent that members of her family indeed possessed an advanced bloodline. It was the only thing that had allowed them to escape notice during the beginning stages of the purge. Collectively, her clan was not large compared to some of the others being sought out. This had made it slightly easier to leave Kirigakure without detection and move to a safer place. The other thing that had been in their favor was the fact that they were not particularly known for being war lovers, unlike like the most notable Kaguya clan. Being loyal to the Mizukage, they did what was needed when asked, of course, but never particularly went looking for battle. Thus, they were not among the first to enter the sights of those seeking out and destroying anyone with a bloodline limit.
There had been some confusion over where to go. Homeless, and fearing for their lives, her family should have gone as far away from Land of Water as possible, and as quickly and humanly able while still taking care to hide their trail. However, the thought of abandoning the land they had sworn to protect with their lives, leaving the only home they had ever known and becoming wandering rogues was apparently a thought too bitter to be considered. Besides, it would have been very difficult to find transportation off the island undetected.
The family had hidden themselves well, in a more forested part of the island away from ports where there were no large settlements, and very few people ever even traveled. All the major roads were many miles away. Perhaps they had hoped the hysteria would eventually wear off and they would be able to return to Kirigakure.They stayed in a hastily constructed and hidden settlement for many months, and were just beginning to feel relatively safe again.
There had been no warning. With a twist in her stomach, Etsuko remembered the faces of her cousins who had been set to guard that night. They must have been killed before they even had chance to raise alarm. At least it was quick…
For the first time, she felt a pang of shame. When the attack had come, everyone had grabbed the nearest weapon and rose to fight their attackers. Some fought even in their bedclothes, having no time to dress properly. But I ran…
The last clear words she remembered hearing had been those of her father telling her to run as fast and far as she could. He had shoved her one way, and then run another to fight alongside her elder brother. Without a second thought Etsuko had run, being pursued by screams from voices she knew. The kind of screams that could only mean death. Only now did she think she should have stayed and fought. I would be dead like them now if I had. She was young, and had never come close to matching the skills of anyone in her family. If they had fallen, there was no chance she would still be standing if she had stayed. But I abandoned them.
She tried to tell herself that she had run because she knew they were outnumbered, because she knew that the family would be destroyed to the last person if they all stayed and fought. She tried to tell herself that she ran because she knew escape would be the only chance anyone had of survival. But she knew she had run out of fear, and the shame was heavy enough that it almost weighed her feet to the ground.
She gave herself a mental shake and forced herself to move at a faster pace. I have to be alive if I want to find whoever's left… there has to be someone left. The alternative was too horrible to consider.
An icy breeze swept past, lifting her hair and touching her cheeks. For a moment she relished the sensation. It told her she was still alive. Fleeing as she did, she had had no time to clothe herself properly for the chilly whether that came with this time of year. She was grateful for the cold however, since it kept her alert. The night was clear, and the slender moon gave enough light that is was easy to keep her bearings. She had traveled far enough by now that she didn't recognize the land, but at least she knew she wasn't going in circles.
The pace she set for herself was hard, but she kept it up through the night, forcing her thoughts to focus solely on moving forward. She succeeded in making herself numb to everything else, and registered surprise when she noticed the black night sky visible through the treetops had turned to the pale gray of early morning. She tried to keep moving, but by midday she had slowed considerably, and her weariness was making her careless and clumsy. Even she had to admit she wouldn't be able to get much further in this state.
She stumbled along until she found a sheltered dip in the ground mostly covered from sight by a scraggly bush. Dropping into the place, she covered herself with leaves and forest debris. If no one was looking too carefully, they wouldn't be able to spot her. She had barely finished the task before she was gripped by the deep sleep that utter weariness brings. A sleep mercifully too deep for dreams.
This pattern became routine. She traveled as far as she could until she had to stop from weariness. She would only sleep for a few hours at a time, she couldn't risk any longer. Getting up after those hours was as hard a thing as she had ever done. Every muscle in her body was cramped and sore. They screamed at her when she forced them into motion again.
Eventually, the hours passing began to mean as little in her mind as the miles that she was crossing. She lost all concept of how far she'd traveled, or how long it had been. It occurred to her that she had only the vaguest plan of what she was doing. Finding a boat that would agree to take her out of the Land of Water was the only thing she could figure to do. She didn't know how easy it would be to find one. With a grimace she realized it would be virtually impossible with no money. If it came to it, she would steal a small boat and go to the closest island- she wouldn't feel safe until she was officially miles away from the Land of Water. She knew she would return eventually to find the other survivors, but that would be a long time from now. Beyond that, she had no plan. Nor could she think of one. She supposed she'd make one up when she got there.
It was a few hours after dawn. The sun was already beginning its ascent, but hadn't made it far enough to take the edge off of the morning chill. The young woman had been asleep in a hollow created beneath the roots of an old toppled tree. She had been asleep. There was a fraction of a second when her eyes fluttered open and she wondered why she was awake. Then her blood froze at the sound of footsteps that rustled the blanket of dead leaves on the ground.
She had always been good at keeping hidden and remaining unseen. It was her greatest talent as far as ninja abilities went. But with a sinking feeling and a rush of terror she realized the skill would do her no good now. Looking out from her natural hollow, her deep brown eyes met icy blue ones looking directly down on her.
She had no weapons with her, save a small kunai she always kept tucked in her right boot. There had been no time to even grab her pouch when she fled, and felt naked under the man's stare, being virtually unarmed as she was.
"I'll not hurt ya girl. Don't look so frightened."
She flinched at the sound of the voice before she realized that the words had been said gently. Taking her first real look at the man, her tension eased a bit. His face was heavily lined, and beginning to droop in places, though she could tell it had once been rather angular. His hair was still full, but so filled with silver she couldn't tell what color it had been originally.
Her hand had crept down to the kunai in her boot. She loosened her grip, but did not let go.
"Are ya hurt? What's happened to ya?" He had an odd way of twisting some words; an accent didn't know.
"I-" she began, but cut off in surprise at how raspy her voice sounded. "I am fine" She hadn't spoken in quite some time, and had found little to drink. The voice didn't sound like hers even in her own ears.
The older man looked down at her and twisted his mouth. He looked like he was considering her. He shoved his wrinkled hand downward and spoke quickly, as if embarrassed by the gesture and the words.
"I don't know what kind of trouble you've gotten yourself into, and I don't know that I want to, but you sure look like ya could use a warm meal and a bath, miss. There's a small place not far from here."
Etsuko stared at his hand for a moment as if it were a viper sticking it's head into the space. Her stomach was hollow with hunger. It felt as if a dozen or so small creatures were gnawing to get out of it. Wild growing fruits were hard to come by at this time of year, and she hadn't stayed in one place long enough to set snares. Not knowing if she was being utterly foolish or not, she removed her own had from around the kunai in order to grasp his.
He pulled her out with surprising strength for someone of his age. She just managed to bite off a groan that tried to force its way out from the pain of moving after being curled up in such a confined space. After a stumbling step to regain balance, she tried to brush all the leaves off herself, but gave up when she saw the number clinging to her clothes. She could feel them tangled in her hair as well. She was grateful she couldn't see herself right now. She was probably unrecognizable.
She was shocked to see a horse hitched to a small wagon not fifteen feet away. Her fallen tree was right beside a tiny wagon path, big enough for only the smallest of carts. She mentally chastised herself for not looking around last night. She had been tired, and the hollow was a perfect place to stop. Except for the fact that it's right in the middle of a damn road!
The man was already returning to his spot at the front of the cart.
"Get in if you want a ride. If not, I'll forget I ever saw ya. Won't mention it to a soul"
After a second of consideration, she pulled herself into the wagon flat. He didn't even look back before making a clicking noise to his horse that set it in motion. A few minutes of silence stretched on. Etsuko was still tense, wondering if she was being a fool for trusting the old man. Her suspicions grew with each moment of silence.
"Where ya from?"
Before she had a chance to think up a good answer he spoke again.
"No, no. Don't hafta tell me if you don't want. Don't know who ya are or what ya been through but you have the look of a person who's had it rough. Just hold on a bit. We'll get you cleaned up soon."
He never turned to look at her as he spoke, and the words came slowly, as if he wasn't sure of himself. Maybe he was simply a man of few words. Maybe.
Had it been any other time, and if she hadn't felt on the brink of starvation and collapsing from exhaustion, she knew she would never have trusted herself to a stranger this way. There was no way of knowing where he was taking her.
The ride was not comfortable. The wheels seemed to catch every rock and root, and she was jostled around quite a bit, which did nothing for her sore muscles and bruises. But she was weary, and the continuous clop of the horse's hooves was soothing in a way. She lay down and closed her eyes for a moment. I'm a fool. Trusting my life to a stranger just for the promise of food. It'll be my own fault if I don't live to find the other survivors... There are others. I'll find them. Sleep took her without warning, bumpy ride and all. The old man glanced over her for a second, then turned his eyes back to the narrow road winding between the trees and muttered softly to himself.
She didn't know if it was the fact that the wagon had stopped moving beneath her that woke her, or it had been the soft sounds of normalcy that she now heard all around her. A few days ago, she would never have considered that such sounds could be taken for granted. After hearing little more than her own hard breathing, her feet crunching leaves and the sound the wind makes howling through trees, this place she was in now was filled with noise. Keeping her eyes tightly closed, she listened. Footsteps. People walking in couples or small groups, talking softly amongst themselves. The occasional lone person here or there, simply going about daily business. A door being closed over there. A wheel on some sort of cart squeaked just a bit as it was pushed or pulled along. Laughter a short distance away. Laughter…
The sounds were so commonplace they could have been heard almost anywhere. For the briefest of moments, lying there with her eyes closed, she imagined she could open them to find herself home. It was a good moment. The best she had had in a long time.
The reality of her situation rushed over her, dropping on her like a weight and chilling her deeper than any snowstorm could have.
The sights that greeted her when she did open her eyes were unfamiliar, but not in the least threatening. Small houses made of rough wood were scattered around. The land she could see beyond them looked as if it were used for farming. It was a small place, and quiet. People walked about on daily business, and not one looked in her direction.
Nevertheless, the girl shifted her position in the flat so that she could reach her boot, taking comfort in the fact that the kunai was still there. She knew perfectly well that if she were attacked, her tiny kunai would be like a twig against a steel sword. But at least she had it and could feel it solidly pressed in her palm.
The old man wasn't in sight, though she heard what she thought was his voice, leaking out of house nearest to where the wagon had been left. She couldn't make out any of what he was saying, if it was his voice at all. There was another voice too, in the same location. It was higher, had a sterner edge to it, and it often cut off the deeper voice of the man.
As the girl gently lowered herself down out of the wagon bed, the door of the house swung open with a loud shriek of hinges. A large bulky woman with hard eyes and more white in her hair than any other color appeared, fists on hips. As soon as her eyes fell on the girl however, her face lost its sternness. Her forward advance stopped, and she looked for a moment like she was reconsidering her actions. Then the older woman shook her head.
"All that talk of finding ya out in the middle of nowhere, but he didn't tell me how bad off ya were… Well, in the house with ya."
Etsuko found herself being half shoved through the door, which screeched closed behind her. She was led to a chair by a small table. Some small and wrinkled fruit was placed before her, which she hurriedly began to consume. At the moment, the slightly old fruits tasted better than any meal she'd had in her life. The older woman had busied herself putting water to boil for tea.
"Jirou, go rub yer horse down before ya forget again."
The older man, Jirou, didn't hesitate before heading out the door. It had no sooner swung shut than two hands slammed down onto the wooden tabletop in front of Etsuko. There was nowhere to look other than into the face of their owner. The eyes that met hers held no threat, just heavy suspicion.
"Now listen," she began in a voice that said she was not to be interrupted, "these are hard times, and no person with half a brain lets strangers who wander in our of nowhere just stay under their roof. No matter how pitiful they may look. I hear you wouldn't tell my fool husband where yer from or how you got to be such a mess, but ya better get ready to tell me. He was a fool for not leaving you where you were, but he's always been too soft for his own good." There was a moment where the woman's eyes weighed her, and her lips thinned. "I wouldn't be able to sleep tonight if I turned you away without a meal." Her nose wrinkled. "And a bath." She shook her head again and her voice regained its firmness. "You'll get yer meal and your bath, but I can't have any of this silent stuff. Now you'll tell me who ya are or you'll be sent out of here so fast you won't know what happened at all. War, you understand. Hard times. Don't see fighting out here, but war brings the out the worst in people." Her feet shifted and her hands found their way to her hips, telling Etsuko that she was expecting answers now. And good ones.
"Hoshiko. My name is Hoshiko, ma'am." Her voice still sounded strained, but she believed she pulled off the lie well. She had decided on that name in the wagon. Not that she thought her real name would mean anything to these people, apparently secluded as they were. It was still no excuse to be careless.
The woman looked as if she were waiting for the other half of the name. When it didn't come, her lips thinned more, but she didn't comment on it.
"Well Hoshiko, tell me then how you came to be wandering around in those woods. You're not from here, and the next closest place is miles away. Your clothes say you came farther than that still."
Etsuko stared hard at the table, saying the words aloud for the first time. It made it more real somehow. It took all her effort to make the words come out at a volume above a whisper.
"The war…. My family was killed in the fighting. I fled. There was no warning. I didn't have time to think, or prepare. I just ran, fearing I'd be found too. I didn't know where I was going. That is how I came to be wandering in the woods." It was the truth, but she wasn't about to tell who her family was. She still stared at the table, but she heard the scrape of another chair being moved, and the groan of it being sat in. A cup of steaming tea was pushed into her hands without a word.
Jirou's voice preceded the squeal of the hinges as he reentered the room.
"Killed in the fighting? Then they were part of the war. You come from a shinobi family?"
Her hands tightened on the cup. She hadn't meant to say they were killed in fighting. The next words came from her mouth before she could stop them. "Kekkei genkai… That was who killed them. They were not part of the war, merely caught in it. There was no chance against those monsters..." The lie was to protect herself, but it hurt her deeply to speak the words and call her own people monsters.
Jirou spat, earning a hard look from his wife. "Those Kekkei genkai bastards. They're getting the right idea now; get rid of every last one. It's because of things like this." He nodded toward Etsuko. His voice was angry. "There are some tools that just shouldn't be loosed in war."
Etsuko's hands clutched her cup so tightly her knuckles were white. Her shoulders shook too, though she kept her head down so they wouldn't see the fury on her face. Tools? We are not merely tools of war! We did nothing wrong. I am no tool!
"Jirou be quiet, you're upsetting her." Her shaking must have been taken as grief. The wife laid a comforting hand on her back.
She told herself that Jirou didn't know any better. This place probably got all it's news through word that had traveled through many mouths. Nothing good was being said of any person with kekkei genkai now, and if he was relying on what he heard, he probably thought these people were more monster than human. He might not know they were human at all. It would probably be hard to find someone in the whole Land of Water that didn't agree with him. If they knew I was one of them, what would they do with me?
They didn't make her speak anymore, and she was shown to a bath, where she soaked for what seemed like hours. The steaming did wonders on the knots in her back and shoulders. It couldn't warm her completely. There were things on the periphery of her thoughts that she still stubbornly refused to dwell on, and an icy twist in her stomach that no warm water could ease away. She heard the pair talking softly in the other room, but didn't bother trying to make out what they were saying. She should have been focused on assessing her situation, but the warm water on her skin felt good after so long.
Once the warmth began to go out of the water, she got out regretfully and dried off. Some clothes had been left for her. They were far too large for her fairly slight frame, but they were warm and clean. She looked for a brush to complete her normal grooming ritual, and found one left for her on a small stand by a mirror. She combed until the brush ran cleanly through her still damp stringy dark hair without catching.
Setting it down, she picked up the mirror. The corners of her mouth drooped in a slight frown. The face was hers, she knew, but different too. It was slightly thinner than it had been, making her cheekbones more pronounced. But that change was slight, the main was in her eyes. They looked different. They looked dulled to her now, and had a quality she couldn't quite name that seemed to say they had seen something they should not have. Disgustedly, she put the thing down and walked back out to the main room of the house. She was greeted with a smile from the wife warmer than she would have thought possible. Her eyes held too much pity; Etsuko couldn't meet them.
The smell of food taunted her, and made her stomach constrict. When the wife- Megumi, she finally introduced herself, muttering something about her horrid manners- set a plain bowl of steaming stew before her. Etsuko dove into it, not in the slightest concerned about her own manners.
For all her talk of strangers under the roof, Megumi showed her to a padded mat in a small corner that had been supplied with a pillow and some folded blankets. Just for today, the woman had said. They would figure something out once she'd had proper rest. But somehow, nothing was said the next day about leaving the house, or the next either. The mat was still there, and generous portions of warm food seemed ready on request. The couple didn't pressure her to provide any more of the story of where she came from; they probably thought she was in too delicate a state to speak of it.
Etsuko planned to leave on her own after a few days of rest. After all, she wouldn't find the other survivors if she stayed in this tiny farmers village. Somehow it never quite seemed the right time to leave though. She began to help Megumi around the house doing simple things. Megumi didn't need the help, or course. She had gotten along just fine for years on her own. She didn't refuse it either though. The simple tasks were something to focus Etsuko's mind, and she was grateful for them.
Somehow, months passed and it became time to tend to the fields. Etsuko helped here too, telling herself that she would leave once the bulk of the work was done. Over the time she was there though, she began get comfortable in the small place. She learned the names of the others in the small village, and became used to being called Hoshiko. It was surprisingly easy to pretend she had not come from a ninja family, and hide the fact that she had training as well. She had only ever been average in most areas of her training, and had already known she probably would not pursue being raised to higher levels of training.
She still believed there were survivors, or at least she told herself she believed it. One day, she planned to find them. She never developed a plan to look though. Even when word reached the small village some months later that a clan of kekkei genkai had been found and disposed of completely- word reached this place slowly- she did not give up hope. If they had missed her, others had been missed too, surely.
The full force of the grief came eventually; after all, denial never works forever. The nightmares had come too. No matter how she hoped the things she had seen would become hazy with time, they did not. There were many nights she woke in tears. It's the kind of thing that never leaves a person completely, even if they manage to move past. Somehow it was easier for her to come to terms with it in this place, where she had food and shelter and work to keep her hands busy and mind focused. The pain of it eased with time, but never completely.
She was well accepted among the people for the most part. They were a close-knit group, and a stranger in the midst had caused some stirring at first. They knew her 'story' though, and for the most part let her be in the beginning. Time and familiarity eventually made 'Hoshiko' a fully accepted person in the village, and she became one of them without ever really noticing the transition.
In time, she managed to catch the eye of one of the villages' young men, only a few years older than she. He had hair of a dark brown, and eyes of a similar color, and she enjoyed his company. He made her laugh in a way that she hadn't laughed in years, and brought back a smile that she had thought lost for good.
Once, at a time when her help wasn't needed on the farm, she had journeyed back through the woods she came from. It took her days of walking and searching to find the place she fled from, and even then she almost didn't recognize it. Charred wood and stone was all that was left, already being reclaimed by the earth. She hadn't expected to find anyone there, of course, but she had to see it for herself. It was only the makeshift settlement they had built when they fled from their actual home. She considered going to her own home, in Kirigakure, but it had been so many years she didn't remember in which direction it lay. She didn't expect she would find anyone there anyway. It had probably been burned too, but even if it hadn't, any of her relatives who had gone back would be dead by now, killed by those who still feared them.
The fear of the possessors of kekkai genkai never left. It appeared as if the purge of Land of Water had been successful. All that was left of them were horror stories of their deeds in war. If any, from any clan, had survived, they had either fled to other lands, or were living in secrecy as she was.
She had come to that conclusion long ago. If- that word was still hard to think- if there were survivors from her family, they had probably fled to some other land. She had no way of knowing where, and they would have no way of knowing she still lived in Land of Water. Finding them, if there were out there, was unlikely. It had been hard to give up the only dream she ever really had, and recognizing it was foolish to still believe it was possible to find anyone left alive. She still told herself there had been survivors, but by now it was out of habit, and she didn't really think she believed it anymore.
Seeing the charred ruins before her made it solid and definite. There would be no more to her life than this. It wasn't an entirely sad thing, as it once would have been. She had grown happy in the village, and seemed to have found a man that made her laugh. She smiled to herself, thinking of his face. He had made her an offer the other night, beneath the stars. She couldn't bring herself to accept without coming here first.
With a sigh, she looked at the place one last time.
"I'm going to say yes," she spoke to the rubble. "It may not have been what you wanted for me, but I have found a way to move on. I am safe. And happy. I am Hoshiko now. They'll never know who I am… I hope you will be happy for me."
She turned to leave, but paused, looking at the ground. The soil was bone dry; there hadn't been much rainfall recently.
She looked around, knowing there was no one near, but still nervous anyway. Carefully, she turned back to the rubble, and stepped lightly to what she estimated to be the center of the charred area. She bent down, and touched the earth with her fingertips. Concentrating hard, she felt for water beneath the surface, and found it far down. She began to will it upward, to the surface. It was slow, and hard, requiring every bit of her concentration and energy, but soon the bits of visible soil under the debris began to darken with moisture. Her fingers sank into what was now soft mud. Letting out a heavy sigh, she looked around. All the ground she could see in the charred area looked damp now. Satisfied, she made her way back out of the place, taking more care so her boots didn't slip in the mud.
This place shouldn't look this way forever. Things should grow; reclaim it. Someday, you won't even know anything ever happened here. It was the first time she had used her talents with water since she fled years ago. It was the last time she would do so in her life. She left then, hoping the green things already growing would be able to thrive with the help she had given. That had probably been the greatest feat she had ever performed with her abilities, and a sad smile just touched her lips as she walked back into the trees.
After a few days travel back to the village, Hoshiko arrived, and immediately sought out her man to accept his proposal. They were married on the first warm day of spring. They acquired a small house and plot of land of their own and made their way by farming as the other villagers did.
Eventually, Hoshiko became pregnant. She hadn't expected the joy it would bring, though it did limit some of her activities, and they needed help on the farm for a few months. Jirou and Megumi were only too happy to provide what help was needed. They had come the think of Hoshiko almost as their own child, and seemed to refer to her unborn child as their first grandchild. It made her smile to know that in a way, she had found family again.
After they had cleaned him, and wrapped him tightly in a warm blanket, they gently placed the boy in Hoshiko's arms. Her face glistened with sweat, and she was tired, but she had never been happier in her life. The little baby boy- her son!- yawned sleepily and then laid still in sleep, his tiny chest rising and falling.
Her husband was leaning over them both.
"He looks like his mother," he said softly. Hoshiko didn't really hear him; she was busy running a finger over the baby's chubby cheek. She felt as if her life had just begun again, and seemed certain that the reason she had been born was to bring this child into the world. He would have everything. She would cherish him, and protect him from harm. He would never know of his heritage, and would live a life free from any of the suffering she had seen. The possibilities for his life were endless. This was the beginning for him, and for her too. This was her reason to live; to give this boy the best life a boy could have.
Snow gently drifted down outside to add to the banks that had already built up high during the winter, but inside the room was warm. Hoshiko brushed the boys forehead with her lips, kissing gently so as not to wake him. His little hand grabbed a few strands of her hair that were near, and his fist closed around them. She smiled.
"Haku" she whispered softly to him. The kanji mean 'white.' White like a blank page. White like a layer of freshly fallen snow. To her, it meant hope and possibilities; a fresh start. It promised a pure beautiful life ahead, for them both.
Miles away, a place once blackened and barren from being burned was now covered in a thick blanket of snow. Dozens of small, petite white flowers had pushed their way up through the barrier, and opened, despite the freezing cold. It was not the time of year for flowers, and any passerby would have found the sight strange to behold. No one ever passed by in that part of the country though, and there was no one to see the way the moonlight shone off of their petals, making them almost seem to glow in the night.