The young woman stood alone on a rocky outcropping, peering through the perpetual rainfall towards the broken shell of the distant village. The lights had stopped flashing from within the place some time ago, and she could only assume that meant the inhabitants had somehow found a way to subdue their captive jinchuriki, and their distraction had therefore reached its end. That hadn't been supposed to happen so early. It wasn't been part of the plan. Soon, the survivors would deploy to scout the area for remaining hostiles. She had to leave before they found her.
Five more minutes. She would wait just five more minutes on the offchance that one of her teammates had survived. Surely they were worth risking that much.
She stood still and quiet in the rain for a long while, her whole body growing tenser and tenser as the moments crawled by, not really counting the seconds as they elapsed. She waited as long as she could; longer than she should have; only admitting defeat when she began spotting far distant forms of search parties fanning out from the husk of the hidden rain. She turned, trying to force herself not to cry, and heard a quiet voice from below, snapping her head towards it immediately.
"Shera... here please. Need help."
As the voice spoke, Shera glimpsed something; a slight ripple in the air; a distortion that, as she watched, began to resolve itself into the hunched form of a man, clutching a severed arm in his one remaining hand.
"Shera," Master Tobi murmured again. "Help... Can barely move."
Within a second, she was by his side, ducking under his intact shoulder and wrapping an arm around his waist to support him, before setting off at a sprint.
"What happened?" She asked, her voice low. "Did they beat us?"
"... No," Her master managed after a time, his voice growing more and more quiet by the moment. "We won... got what we came for... They're strong, though... Poisoned my arm... Didn't remove it fast enough... Need to rest."
Shera nodded at that, the chattering of nerves in her mind calming a fraction. She focused on her running.
Carrying her half-paralyzed master on her back slowed her a great deal, perhaps even too much. At her present speed, their safe house was a solid twenty minutes away. She doubted she could keep ahead of the search parties for that long. She pushed the thought from her mind. If it came down to a fight, she would do what she could. Nothing would hurt Master Tobi while she still lived. He was worth that much, at the very least. Her protector. Her savior.
"... Master," she asked into the silence. "... What happened to the others? Are they-"
"Dead," her master managed. "... It's a shame... but they did what they had to... It's for the greater good, Shera, I promise you."
Shera nodded quietly. A part of her wanted to grieve for her fallen friends; she crushed it. If Master Tobi said it must be done, then it must be done. For the sake of a better world.
She kept running.
Everything was aching.
That was the first coherent idea that presented itself to Naruto's mind as he slowly awakened. Everything, from the tips of his fingers, to the soles of his feet, was aching. It was enough to ruin what little comfort his mind drew from the softness of the pillow beneath his head, or the warmth of the small figure huddled next to him atop the sheets. For a moment, he wondered if he'd died; then he realized that if this was the afterlife, then his body wouldn't be in such a sorry state as he currently found it in.
After a long few minutes spent trying to force himself to fall asleep again, he gave up, and grudgingly opened his eyes.
The room was pitch dark, but that didn't really bother him. One of the first things he'd ever discovered about the Rinnegan had been how they rendered light optional. He recognized it. Haku's bedroom. His eyes shifted down to the figure curled up against him, and he let out a sigh. Haku. He'd really survived, then. Good. The other boy was laying atop the bedsheets, his eyes closed and his head resting gently against Naruto's ribs. He tried to smile, and managed a grimace as the movement redoubled the aches in his face. Seriously? Why were his lips tired?
The other boy looked to be asleep, but one never could tell. He was a ninja, after all.
"Haku?" He asked. "You awake?"
"Yeah," the other boy replied quietly. "Yeah, I'm awake. You doing okay?"
"Feel like I got hit by a paper bomb," he admitted. "Otherwise, can't complain. Are the others okay?"
"Yeah," Haku shifted himself slightly on the sheets, pressing a little closer to his boyfriend's side. "They're okay, mostly. Nagato lost an eye, Sakura's pulling her hair out over that toad she summoned, and Sasuke's probably still hugging her; he kinda thought she died for a while there. We won, though. That's the big thing."
Naruto took a deep breath, forcing himself to hold it in his lungs for a moment before slowly breathing out as he thought back over the three or four frenzied minutes of the fight, the details of it draining sluggishly back into his brain. Then a thought occurred, and he felt himself grow cold.
"H-Haku," he mumbled, his voice quavering slightly. "I... I killed them, didn't I? The jinchuuriki."
Haku didn't respond to that at first, tilting his head slightly to look his boyfriend in the eyes.
"First time?" He asked with a note of sympathy.
For the longest time, neither of them spoke. Naruto felt Haku's arm drape itself over his chest in a half-hug.
"... It doesn't go away," the pale boy murmured. "The guilt, I mean. It stays. You just have to remind yourself of why you did it and the people you were trying to protect. If you do that, I promise, it'll stop hurting so much after a while. If it helps... the second time is easier."
Naruto didn't know what to say to that, staring down at the other boy for a moment, before he sighed.
"Sorry. I'd almost forgotten. You're so gentle... It's hard to believe you used to kill."
Haku let out a tiny laugh at that; a bitter one.
"Ninety eight," he said, no longer looking at Naruto. "Thirty four targets, twelve ninjas, fifty one guards, and-" His voice caught for a moment. "-And one little boy. Master Zabuza said that if I could do it without crying, then I wouldn't have to kill the sister, too."
Naruto stared at Haku for a moment, then opened his mouth... before closing it again. He had nothing. He raised a hand to the smaller boy's shoulder and gave it a little squeeze.
"... You know that's not you anymore, right?" He asked. "I don't think you've ever been a killer."
He felt Haku shudder slightly at the words, before the older boy spoke, his voice barely audible.
"It's what Zabuza said I was. What does my new master think I am?"
Naruto bit back the objection that rose in his throat at being called the other boy's master, and considered his answer. This felt big. He wasn't entirely sure why, but he knew this conversation mattered. He thought of the few months he'd spent with Haku in the year since they'd met, and tried to remember the other boy at his happiest. Then it hit him. He chuckled; it hadn't been as hard a question as he'd thought.
"I think you're a gardener, Haku," he murmured. "Built to help things grow."
Haku didn't respond to that. He just felt the other boy's breathing grow a little sharper against his chest, and felt the tiny pool of moisture soaking into his shirt, trailing down from Haku's eyes.
The sun rose largely unnoticed above the village of rain. Most of its occupants hadn't slept, working in shifts to pull survivors from the wreckage of the blasted wall, ignoring the rainwater pooling slowly around their ankles and the shards of glass that slashed at their feet. They worked in silence. Most had done this before. As for the young and those who had lost friends. Well, as they now knew, that was the beauty of life in the land of rain. No one could ever see the tears.
Under the frail light of that unimportant dawn, a flock of waterbirds flew in almost every direction, each bearing a simple message.
'A summit is called by the free nation of the Land of Rain. Prosecution to be heard for crimes of war performed by the village of the hidden cloud. Release of the Matatabi in an unsolicited attack.
Expected remuneration: The head of the current Raikage.'
AN: Okay. So, yeah. I fell off the horse a bit there. I was gone way longer than I thought I'd be. Stuff happened. Apologies for the lack of line breaks in this one. The software was being weird. Hope you all enjoyed, and can forgive me my hiatus. I would say I'll be back for real this time, but I don't want to accidentally lie again. I guess we'll see.
If anyone's interested, my WebNovel's still a thing and you can check it out for free over at touchwebserial dot com, and I recommend that you do so. Kay. Thanks, guys. Bye!