Well, we're finally at the last chapter. I just wanna say thanks for reading this story. I hope you guys have enjoyed it.
Chapter 15: A New Leaf
I woke to a bright white light that stung my eyes, like I was staring into the blazing sun on a hot summer day. Shielding my sensitive eyes with my hand, I saw the light poking through the spaces between my five fingers and a huge grin spread across my face.
I did it, I thought. I really did it!
Giggling to myself, I sat up in the hospital bed and began to look over the rest of my newly-returned body. I gazed down at my dull, cracked fingernails and ran my fingers through my tangled auburn hair. Clearly, I wasn't at my best, but that didn't matter because I had my body back; it was mine and very, very human. I'd nearly forgotten how smooth and soft human skin could be.
As I ran my fingers down my right arm, I saw the dark pink scar that marked my right wrist, an old wound from the wolf trap. I knew I had many more scars on my body because the wolves' claws had cut deep, and their teeth even deeper, but that didn't bother me so much. I was glad to have the scars because they reminded me of all that I'd gone through. Most of all, they reminded me that I'd survived.
I smiled. I couldn't have done it without him: Kiba ... My eyes passed over to the vacant chair that stood beside the window. To my eyes, it seemed a little crooked, like it had been moved around, but perhaps that was just my imagination getting the best of me. Still, I wondered if he had visited me, if anybody had visited me, if Yuzu and Youji or my parents had. In my heart, I really wished that Mother had come to see me at least once, but I knew better than to get my hopes up.
But someone must have visited me because there was a small vase of bright, beautiful flowers sitting beside my bed. I grabbed the vase with both hands and brought it to my nose, inhaling their sweet, floral scent, and then I let my fingertips brush against the petals, savoring the feeling of the velvety petals against my skin. They were from Yamanaka Flowers, that much was obvious, but the sender remained a mystery until I saw the tiny card tucked away inside the vase.
Get well, soon, Ikuko! We're all praying for a fast recovery!
~ Rock Lee
"Of course," I said, grinning. "He's really too nice for his own good."
I had just finished setting the flowers back down when the door opened and Shizune walked into the room. "Ah, you're finally awake," she said with a smile on her face.
I nodded my head. "How long have I been asleep?"
"A couple days," she answered. "You were in pretty rough shape when you got here, but you recovered quickly. I was surprised."
"I see ... Thank you for taking care of me."
"Oh, no need to thank me. I hardly did anything." Then she turned towards the doorway. "Isn't that right?"
Into the room walked someone I was not expecting to see. After all the horrible things I'd done to her, all the horrible things I'd said, she was the very last person I ever expected to help me. And yet, there she was, the girl with the obnoxious pink hair and unnaturally wide forward, Sakura Haruno. But she looked so professional today, so confident. I had almost forgotten about her talents as a medical-nin. Yes, she had certainly come a long way since her Academy days.
And what had I accomplished?
"How are you feeling?" she asked, smiling warmly at me. Her eyes carried this friendly glimmer that expressed a sincere willingness to forget our past and move forward.
Surprised by her compassion, I felt my cheeks begin to flush. "F-Fine! I feel fine, thank you."
"Good, I'm glad. You had everyone pretty worried for a while."
"Everyone?" I lunged forward, like I was about to jump out of my bed. "Did I have visitors?" I asked, and perhaps I sounded a bit too eager.
She nodded her head. "Your team visited often, and Lee stopped by as you can see, and Team Asuma visited, and Team Kurenai as well."
But not my parents. My heart sank a little. Of course not.
"Kiba came by himself a lot, you know," she went on. "He sat in that chair all day yesterday with Akamaru. He would have stayed all night, I think, but his mother made him go home and get some sleep."
So, he came after all, I thought as I stared back at the empty chair where he once sat.
"Anyway," Shizune took over, "you are free to leave whenever you're ready. Your friends brought a change of clothes for you during their last visit. I'm sure they will all be happy to see you up and about again."
"Yes, thank you," I said to Shizune as she walked out the door, and just before Sakura could leave too, I stopped her. "Thank you, Sakura; really, thank you."
She smiled. "You're welcome."
I didn't deserve it, and yet she was showing me such kindness. They all were, all the people I used to despise and take for granted. Yuzu should have hated me the most, but still she visited me, and I knew it wasn't just because of some obligation as my teammate. I knew she truly cared because she had given me her own clothes to wear, clothes I used to ridicule because they were old, raggedy hand-me-downs, but now I was so happy to have them.
The shirt and pants were mismatched and stitched all over, but when I looked at them, I didn't think of Yuzu's meager status; I thought of all the love and care that Yuzu's mother had put into those stiches. Her clothes never looked like much to me, but I knew Yuzu cherished them, so it meant a lot for her to loan them to me now.
The shirt was too big for me, but it was too big for Yuzu too, looking more like a dress than a shirt. Before, I would have refused to wear such a shabby looking outfit, but today I had no complaints. I was just happy to be back.
I walked through the hospital, ignoring the constant stares I received. Whether they were for the outfit or my situation, I couldn't be sure, and I didn't care. Some were whispering too, making up rumors about what had happened to me, like I had been kidnapped or had run away. Nobody had mentioned me being turned into a dog, though, and for that I was grateful because that would have been much too hard to explain and very embarrassing. I thought I was going to be able to avoid the truth entirely, but then I ran into Hana Inuzuka. From the look on her face, I knew she had been told the truth, and it made me a little uncomfortable to be around her, but I was glad to see her because there was something important I wanted to ask her.
"Ikuko." She seemed surprised to see me. "I didn't think you'd be up so soon. How are you feeling?"
"Great," I said, shifting awkwardly. "I'm great."
"That's good. I'm glad you're all right. We all are."
I could feel my cheeks beginning to flush as I prepared to ask my question, but I wasn't sure how to word it. "Umm Hana, I was wondering if I ... if you would ..." I took a deep breath. "Please, accept me as your apprentice!"
Her eyes widened. "What? You want to be a veterinarian?"
I thought hard about it. "Well, I'm not really cut out to be a ninja, and I just ... I thought maybe I could help, and after all that has happened ..."
"It's hard work, you know," she said, but I knew what she was really saying: that I wouldn't try hard enough, that I would get bored and quit. I guess I couldn't blame her, though, given my history. I was just about to back out when I heard her say, "But if you're willing to put in the work, I will accept you."
My face broke into a grin. "Really?"
"Yes," she replied with a smile, "but on one condition: promise you'll talk to Kiba. He's been so worried about you."
I nodded my head. "I will." Though I have no idea what I'm going to say to him.
I wanted to see him; really I did, but I was just so anxious about it all. There was so much to say, and I didn't know how to say it or where to even begin. Whenever I thought about confronting him, my chest would start to tighten, making it almost impossible to breathe. I just wasn't ready to see him yet, so as I left the hospital, my panicking eyes were flickering back and forth, hoping not to find him waiting for me. Thankfully, he wasn't there, but I did see Yuzu and Youji walking toward me.
"Ikuko!" Yuzu happily cried as she ran up and threw her arms around me. "I'm so glad you're okay! I was so worried about you!"
"Yeah, you really gave us all a scare," said Youji, but I could see that his smile was forced, and I remembered what he had said at Ramen Ichiraku, that he didn't want me to come back at all. I wanted to prove him wrong, show him that I could be a good friend to Yuzu, like she deserved.
"Thank you for the clothes," I said to Yuzu.
She smiled bashfully. "I know they're not as nice as yours, but ..."
I shook my head. "They're perfect."
We left the hospital together, all three of us, and as we walked down the road, we met up with Lee and Neji. Lee was carrying a small bouquet of red flowers, another gift for me, no doubt. When he saw me, his face broke into a huge smile.
"Ikuko-san, you're finally awake!" he cried enthusiastically, but then he quickly caught himself and toned down his excitement. A deep blush spread across his face. "I'm glad you're okay. Here, these are for you."
He handed me the bouquet with trembling hands and mumbled something I couldn't understand. He was so nervous, almost like he was afraid that I would knock the flowers away and reject him. In the past, I would have, but today I did something that shocked everyone: I walked right past Neji, didn't even look at him, and placed a soft kiss on Lee's cheek.
"Thank you," I said with a smile as I pulled away, and Lee's face was about as red as the flowers in my hand. He tried to say something, but the sudden shock kept him from forming coherent words. Thankfully, the big smile on his face said enough.
I draped my arms over Yuzu and Youji's shoulders as we continued down the road together. "Where will you go now?" Yuzu asked me.
The one place I'm afraid to go. "Home."
I certainly didn't want to go home, but I knew I was going to have to face my mother eventually. Yuzu and Youji were kind enough to walk with me to my house and provide support, but I had to do the rest on my own, so we soon parted ways, and I continued on alone.
Slowly, I approached the door and knocked three times. When Mother opened the door, her eyes went right to the bouquet of flowers in my hand. "You brought me flowers, I see."
You don't deserve flowers, I thought, but like a fool, I handed them to her anyway, and then I obediently followed her into the house like I had done so many times before. She walked straight into the kitchen and prepared a vase for her flowers, but I went no further than the entryway.
"I'm afraid most of your clothes have been sold," she said indifferently.
To pay for your new lifestyle. Is that another brand new dress I see, Mother?
She came out of the kitchen with her newly-filled vase and placed it on the end table in the living room. "Yes, that's just lovely. I would offer to buy you new clothes, but I find your new wardrobe quite fitting. Charming, actually. Those stains really bring out the brown in your eyes."
Her insults were hard to swallow.
She turned away and started walking back to the kitchen. "Get out of those clothes, now. I won't have my daughter looking like a beggar. You've disgraced me enough with all those ghastly rumors floating around."
I stayed perfectly still. "Is that all you have to say to me?"
She stopped for a moment, but she refused to look at me. "What am I supposed to say to you? You were gone, and now you're back. Am I supposed to hug you, kiss your forehead, and tell you how much I missed you?"
"I want you to care!" I shouted. The tears were stinging my eyes, but I refused to let them fall. "You're my mother."
"I never asked to be a mother, least of all yours," she said with a groan, like it was so exhausting just to form those words. "I never wanted to be a mother, never, not even when I became one. When you disappeared, it was the happiest day of my life ... and now you're back. Forgive me for not weeping with joy."
"You never wanted me," I concluded, "and you never loved me?"
Her voice was cold. "Not once."
A tear slipped down my cheek, and I wiped it away with the back of my hand. "Okay," I muttered, and then I turned around and started toward the front door.
"If you leave now," Mother strictly said, "you will never be allowed home again. Never."
My hand lingered on the door handle. "When has this ever been my home?"
I wanted her to stop me, yell at me, say anything, but she did nothing; she just walked back into the kitchen, so I walked out the door and never looked back.
I tried not to cry; over and over, I told myself not to cry, but when I saw Yuzu standing there with that sad, sympathetic look on her face, I broke into a fit of tears. She was right there to comfort me, as any good friend would, and she even let me cry on her shoulder.
"It'll be okay, Ikuko," she said, gently rubbing my back. "I'm here for you. It'll all be okay."
"Thank you." And I'll be there for you, too. No matter what.
Yuzu had offered to take me to her house, but there was something I had to do first. In search of the perfect thank you gift, I went to Yamanaka Flowers. Now, I had never been in that flower shop, particularly because Ino worked there, but they had the prettiest flowers in the village, and I wanted to find something special. As soon as I entered the shop, however, I deeply regretted it because Ino was the first person I saw.
"Can I help you?" she asked, and I almost turned right around and saved myself the trouble, but her tone was pleasant and professional, something I hadn't expected from her. In fact, I half expected her to kick me out when she saw me.
"I need flowers," I said, "to thank someone."
She nodded her head. "Okay, well, let's take a look around and come up with some ideas. Do you have a preference?"
"Umm, not really."
I slowly followed her around the shop, completely baffled by her behavior. Why was she being so nice to me? Why wasn't she saying nasty things or making fun of me? She had heard the rumors, no doubt, and those would have provided the perfect ammunition for revenge, but she wasn't firing anything at me. Was she willing to declare peace between us? Perhaps now was the time for me to make amends with her.
"Ino," I said, "I'm ... sorry for giving you those fake nutrition bars, but you really should have known it was a trick. I mean, they were practically all sugar."
Her eyes began to narrow, and I gave a nervous laugh and muttered, "Sorry. Hard habit to break."
Clearly, I still had a lot of work to do.
But Ino smiled. "We have some really lovely daisies. Would you like to see them?"
I smiled back. "Sure. Thanks."
My classmates were truly amazing people, I realized as I walked out of the shop with my bouquet of flowers. If Biyoku hadn't cursed me, I would have never known. She was absolutely right; she had given me a very special gift, one that I would never be able to fully repay, but I was going to try anyway.
With my flowers, I went to Biyoku's hut, a place I had visited so many times that I knew the way by heart. In fact, I could have probably found it with my eyes closed. But the hut I stumbled upon was not the same hut I had visited before. It looked like the same hut, but it wasn't, not really. The place was rundown and overcome with moss and vines, as if the forest had swallowed it up. When I entered through the broken door, I found nothing but dust, cobwebs, and a dirty fire pit that looked like it hadn't been used in years.
"How is this possible?" I wondered as I looked around in shock. "She was right here, I know it!"
Slowly, the truth hit me.
"She was a ghost," I whispered to myself, finding the words hard to believe, but they were even more impossible to deny. "She was a ghost." Chuckling quietly, I dropped the bouquet of flowers into the fire pit. "Rest in peace, you old bag, and thanks."
A ghost turned me into a dog. I laughed at the thought. No one's ever going to believe that.
And now there was only one place left to go. It took a lot of convincing, but I ultimately decided to visit Kiba's house. The whole way there, I was trying to figure out what I was going to say once I saw him. There was a lot to say, too much, and I wasn't sure if I had the strength to say it all.
When I finally reached his door, I just stood there like I was paralyzed. You have to talk to him, Ikuko! You just have to! Taking a deep breath, I placed my knuckles against the door and knocked three times. I had put a smile on my face because I wanted to look my best for him, but that smile faded when I saw who was behind the door. It wasn't him — it was his mother.
"Hi," I said awkwardly, "is Kiba home?"
"No, I'm afraid he's not." Her eyes were as hard as ever.
"Oh." I shifted my weight back and forth between my feet. "Okay then."
I expected her to just close the door in my face, but she didn't, and so we both just stood there in an awkward — very awkward — silence. Of course it was awkward! What were we supposed to say to each other? There was a lot of tension between us because, well, her ghost mother had turned me into a dog, and I had personally destroyed most of her furniture. We probably should have been clawing each other's eyes out by now.
"I'm sorry for the bedding," I finally said. "And your chair. And your table. And your slippers."
I bit down on my lower lip. "Yeah, you blamed it on Mogu, but I was the one who chewed through them." I tried to smile and act innocent, but it really wasn't working. "I was a little angry at the time. I don't even remember why, to be honest."
I thought she would get mad at me, but she didn't — actually, she started laughing. It was a deep, boisterous laugh, one that would normally terrify me, but today it made me join in.
"You have an amazing family," I said suddenly, and she seemed taken aback by my words, but I continued, speaking right from the heart. "And you're a really great mother. I know I didn't deserve it, but I want to thank you for taking me in and caring for me. Really, thank you."
For the first time, I saw her eyes soften. "You're welcome, Ikuko. Kiba should be home soon. You can come inside and wait for him if you'd like."
I shook my head. "No, that's okay. I don't want to intrude or anything. I can just wait outside."
I took two steps back, and upon the third, I felt something nip at the bottom of my shorts. It was a quick, playful bite, not strong enough to bring harm but strong enough to get my attention. When I turned around, I saw Mogu up on all fours, tail wagging furiously, ready to play with his long-absent partner. As I came down to pet him, he jumped at me and started licking at my cheeks without restraint.
"Ah-haha-ha!" I landed on my butt, and he pounced onto me, continuing his slobbery assault. "Nice to see you too, Mogu. And here I thought you wouldn't recognize me."
After a while, he finally calmed down long enough to let me pet him. "I guess you haven't found a home for him yet, huh?" I asked.
Kiba's mother leaned against the doorway and smiled a large, knowing smile, like she knew something I didn't. "Oh, I think we have."
Mogu nudged my hand with his nose when I stopped stroking him. "Me?" I couldn't believe it. "You mean me?"
She nodded her head. "I think it's always been you."
I looked at Mogu, who was now sitting beside me, and in his eyes I found the same blissful contentment that I always saw, like he was happiest by my side.
I stood up, and he matched my movements perfectly. "So you want me, huh?" I asked, and he barked once, as if shouting, "Yes!"
"Okay, Mogu, it's you and me then."
For a long while, I played with Mogu in the yard. Now, it certainly wasn't my idea to play; I was hoping to just rest beside a tree and relax while I waited for Kiba, but just as I was getting comfortable, the attention-hungry puppy started jumping all over me. Then he grabbed onto my sleeve with his teeth and forced me to my feet. After picking up a wet, partially chewed stick from the ground, he came and placed the stick at my feet.
"This will take some getting used to," I said, but I picked up the stick and threw it across the yard.
Honestly, I hated fetch, as both a dog and a human, but Mogu seemed to love it, and that was all that mattered. Seeing him so excited just to chase around a smelly stick, it made me smile and appreciate the simple things in life. Mogu had more fun with a dirty stick than I'd ever had with a room full of dolls and toys, and that said something.
But I still hated fetch.
"Okay, last one!" I called as I took the stick from him and threw it as far as I could. "Go get it!"
Mogu ran after it, but it wasn't Mogu who came back with the stick — it was Akamaru. The gigantic dog who used to make me cringe was bounding towards me with the stick in his mouth, and Mogu was trailing behind him.
When he reached me, Akamaru dropped the stick at my feet, and I started petting his back. "Hey, Akamaru," I said. "Where's the fleabag, hmm?"
As soon as those words came out of my mouth, I saw Kiba walking toward me with his hands shoved in his pockets. He had been training — or playing — with Akamaru, I knew, because I could see the dirt and sweat on his face, and there was a tiny rip on the knee of his pants. In the past, I would have been disgusted by him, but now I didn't mind so much. Actually, I kind of liked it.
"What are you doing here?" he asked. "I figured this would be the last place you'd wanna be."
My heart started racing. "Well, I just came to say thank you."
"Thank you? I thought you hated me." A tiny smirk started to crawl up his face.
My cheeks flushed. "Yeah, well, I guess I don't hate you as much as I thought."
"Oh, really?" He smugly crossed his arms over his chest and said, "You know, that's probably the worst confession I've ever heard."
I clenched my fists tightly. "Oh, and you've received many, have you?" My heart was pounding, my face was burning up, and Kiba was just standing there with this cocky smirk on his face. To hide my blushing face, I turned away. Ugh, he's such a jerk!
"I ran into Yuzu," he said, catching me off guard. His arrogant tone had completely disappeared, and now he sounded completely sympathetic. "She said you had talked to your mother."
"Yeah." I tried to play it off as nothing, act like it didn't bother me, but I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes before I could even finish my sentence. "She said she never wanted me." My voice started to break as I choked back the tears. "She — she said she never loved me."
I moved to wipe the tears from my eyes, but before I could lift my hand, I felt a pair of strong arms wrap around me, pulling me into a tight embrace. Kiba held me close to his chest, and I felt completely safe.
"It's okay, Ikuko," he said just low enough for me to hear. "You're gonna be okay. I won't let anything happen to you, I promise. I'll protect you."
Then I felt something warm and soft on my forehead. When I realized what was happening, my eyes widened and my heart started to race. It was the first time anybody had ever kissed me. Was this what a first kiss felt like? It wasn't as dramatic as in my dreams. There were no big speeches or grand gestures of undying love. Just a pleasant warmth that radiated throughout my entire body. It was unlike anything I've ever felt before.
Blushing, I buried my face into his chest, and he ran his fingers through my hair, twisting my auburn locks around his finger.
"I knew you liked me," he said after a while, and I didn't have to look at him to know he was smirking.
Now I wanted to smack him. "Shut up."
That made him laugh. "So would you like to stay for dinner?" he asked. "I think I still have your food dish, actually. I'll make you your special dinner, just like old times." He ruffled my hair with his big hand, and I playfully slapped it away.
"Hey, stop treating me like a dog!"
But he wasn't listening. He started walking toward the house, saying, "Come, Ikuko! Come! Come!"
Inside, I was fuming. Oh, he's such a ... I started to think, but then he turned around and smiled that perfect smile that made my knees buckle, and I forgot all the insults I could have thought.
When we entered the house, Kiba asked his mother, "Can Ikuko stay for dinner?" Then he stopped and smiled mischievously. "Say, Mom, Ikuko will be needing a place to stay for a while ..."
She caught on right away. "Don't even think about it."
"Why not? After all, she is a member of the Inuzuka family now, isn't that right?" He shot me a quick wink, urging me to play along.
"That's right," I agreed, joining right in. "You did say that."
She shook her head back and forth so much I thought she was going to give herself whiplash. "No — No — No, that was different. She was a dog then — and — No, definitely not going to happen. No way."
Kiba placed his arm around my shoulder and pulled me down the hallway with him. "Come on, Ikuko, I'll show you to your room."
His mother started frantically chasing after us. "No! Don't even ... Kiba, don't even think about it! – She is not sleeping in your room! ... Kiba! ... Ikuko! ... KIBA!"