Before we begin: If you're clicking on my story for the first time, thank you for your interest. To those of you who've been with me since the beginning or joined in the middle, I am humbled by your attention and appreciate you guys for sticking around.
Thanks for all the follows, favorites, and reviews! You guys are awesome!
This will be a longer story than usual because I wanted to go deeper into the thinking and development of the characters. Plus, I just couldn't stop writing...
Part 1: Seventeen, Rebuilding Konoha
Chapter 1: Broken Pieces
Grief was a funny thing.
Hinata Hyuuga let her tears flow, uncaring. There was no point, even the heavens were weeping, pouring over the Konoha mourners dressed all in black. Set above a rectangular box, the unsmiling photograph of Neji looked back at her. She looked beyond his coffin and saw all the others arranged in perfect symmetry before the gathered crowd.
She couldn't hear it, but she knew she wasn't the only one crying.
She'd lost her strongest ally in the battle to find her own strength. Now she was alone. She continued to let her grief flow, letting the tears and the rain run down her cheeks. Yes, grief was funny. Even in the midst of her sadness, she felt pride for Neji. His death had been his choice. He had chosen to give up his life for a cause he'd believed in, and that made her happy. He had achieved his freedom, his escape from a destiny he had never chosen.
Still, she wept.
Naruto Uzumaki, hero of the Great Shinobi War, stood beside her, looking at the rows and rows of black-covered coffins and felt his heart ache. It was heavy, but in his mind, all he could think of was: Thank you.
He looked at the three coffins closest to him: Neji's, then at Inoichi Yamanaka's, then finally at Shikaku Nara's. He then looked beyond these three, at all his fallen comrades, his fellow shinobi.
He made a vow.
Thank you all for your sacrifice, for your gift.
I won't forget. You're all part of me now. I'll carry you with me until I die.
"Ouch!" Naruto howled. "Granny! That hurts!"
Lady Tsunade Senju ignored his complaints, grabbed his shoulder, and jabbed the prosthetic into his upper arm. She performed some complex medical jutsu, gathering her chakra and letting it flow into the seam where muscle met synthetic fiber.
"Argh!" he yelled as he felt the pain of the procedure. His nerves were tingling and fire spread throughout his body.
She glared at him then flicked his forehead with a finger.
Naruto flinched, expecting the full force of her power, strong enough to launch him back against the wall. Instead, though, her touch only hurt a little, but he still felt a throbbing against his forehead.
She brushed at the blond hair that fell over his eyes, almost gently, then released the arm she'd just adjusted.
"There, all finished," she said.
He realized now that her flicking his forehead had been a way to distract him from the pain. He hadn't even noticed that she'd finished and had completely attached the prosthetic to the rest of his arm.
Naruto looked down and flexed it experimentally. After a moment, his fingers moved on command. He wiggled them and they moved a little bit slowly.
"It's going to take some time to get the synapses of the nerves fully connected, so you'll have to do the hard rehabilitation that comes with it," Tsunade said with a hard look into his eyes. "Don't skip the exercises. If you do, you won't be able to completely control the movements of your arm and your fingers. That means you won't be able to make perfect seals for ninjutsu."
Naruto grinned back at her, blue eyes excited. "I won't! This is pretty cool!"
He gave another wiggle and he could sense that his fingers seemed to be obeying his commands faster.
She huffed, but she was glad to see the usual bright expression on his face. He'd been gloomy for the last few days. Tsunade worried for this boy who'd carried the weight of the world on his young shoulders. She knew that his mental state was at a delicate stage. After every war, after the carnage, survivors usually had to deal with the broken pieces that needed to be put together.
Naruto looked up to see the Fifth Hokage gazing at him with a serious expression on her face. "Something wrong, Tsunade-sama?"
She laughed, her golden eyes easing a little. "Why are you being formal all of a sudden?"
He frowned. "Well, you're looking more grim than usual so your wrinkles are more obvious, more crinkly."
This time, she really did flick him back with one finger and her usual force. Caught unaware, he flew back off his chair and landed with a splat on the opposite wall of the hospital room.
"I've allowed you to call me Granny and Grandma all this time. But if you mention wrinkles again, I will kill you," she said with a growl, but she ruined the effect with a chuckle. "I guess you're alright."
"Not really," he said with a muffled groan, his cheek pressed against the floor. He sat up then stood gingerly then glared at her. "I just got out of the critical care unit, but you're so ready to put me back in it!"
She sat back in her chair overwhelmed by the sudden urge to cry as she watched him turn around and move his newly-attached arm in a circle a few times. He then bowed his head, looking for the sandals that had flown off his feet when she'd sent him flying.
She sighed. Oh, my boy. You've kept your promise and stayed alive all this time. You'll be a great Hokage someday. Right now, though, there are still some things that are unresolved in you.
Tsunade knew firsthand the effects of surviving a war while seeing others die before your own eyes.
Not being able to save people hurts.
"Naruto," she said.
"Huh?" he said as he looked up at her, a startled expression on his face. He'd just got done putting the sandals on his feet.
"If you feel like you want to talk about anything, you come to me, okay?" she said after a pause. She smiled. "Anything. I'm not Hokage anymore so I'm free."
He grinned at her, understanding. "Yeah. I will."
She shooed him away. "Well, you're done now, so get out of my sight."
"Grandma Tsunade, thank you," he said as he paused at the doorway.
Tsunade blinked back tears as she watched him walk out. She sighed then snorted at herself for being so sentimental. Naruto wasn't the only one who'd been gloomy these past few days. She shook her head and stood up.
This was no time to mope around. Konoha had to be rebuilt—and there was a new Hokage who needed some guidance. She was going to have to tell him where she kept the bottles of sake she'd stashed, hidden away from the watchful eyes of Shizune. He was going to need it.
Naruto had known, of course, what Tsunade had intended. She'd meant well, but he just didn't feel like talking right now. He just wanted to let things settle in his mind, in his heart, first. He'll deal with everything his own way. But he was really happy to hear her reaching out to him.
A rumble inside his stomach made his lips twitch. "What is it, Kurama?"
"That makes her the third person today to say that. Hmph!" Kurama growled. "It's not like I'm not here."
Naruto laughed, silently carrying on the conversation with the Fox Spirit in his beast plane. "Hehe, Kurama, are you jealous? Are you actually concerned for me?"
There was another rumble. "Hardly. I just want other people to stop bothering my jinchuuriki."
Naruto smiled. "Thanks, Kurama. But it was nice of Shikamaru and Kiba to try to cheer me up, though."
Earlier, the two had stopped by at the hospital to see him on their way to their latest mission.
He sighed. "Especially Shikamaru."
Shikamaru, who'd lost his own father, had offered him comfort. But Naruto didn't know how to deal with it, how to accept sympathy and kindness from his loyal friend when he'd wanted to say something about Shikaku's bravery to his son. It was awkward. He still felt guilty even though it hadn't been his fault at all.
"Naruto!" Sakura suddenly called out as she walked towards him. Her pink hair was tied up in a ponytail, her green eyes gleaming. She was wearing the white lab coat she usually wore when she was at the hospital.
"Sakura, you working today?" he asked her.
"Yes," she said. She glanced at his arm and smiled. "I'm so glad Tsunade-sama finally finished the arm. That's good, right?"
"Mm! Yeah!" he held it aloft, the bandages new and pristine.
"I just wanted to see the arm for myself," she said after inspecting it. She then looked down at the chart she was holding in her arms. "Okay, I still have a lot of patients to see so I'll talk to you later? I think you've got to start training with your arm this afternoon. I'll discuss it with the specialist so we can come up with a schedule for you."
She turned and walked away.
Naruto quietly watched her go, glad that she was doing fine and keeping busy. She seemed okay. There was no need to worry about Sakura, for now. He headed towards the exit. He was still wearing his hospital clothes, but he just wanted to go outside. The weather was nice and he didn't want to stay cooped up indoors.
He felt like going for a walk.
His legs stopped suddenly and he looked up in surprise at the unusually warm sun blazing down at him this November morning. He hadn't realized it, but he'd unconsciously been walking towards the cemetery. He heard a voice talking, the words carrying through the air.
It was clear and soothing, and Naruto found himself listening intently to it.
"...should see what they're doing now at home. Father's trying to talk to everyone to get rid of the Main and Side branch thing. It might take a while, but I'm going to help him, so don't worry."
There was a little laugh. "Hanabi's driving me insane, though. She's been pestering me so much recently, but I think it's her way of showing how much she's worried about me."
It was Hinata. Naruto found himself hiding behind a tree as he watched her fuss with the sunflowers she'd laid over Neji's grave. She was sitting on the grass, facing the headstone, her arms wrapped around her knees.
She sighed. "I wish you were still here, but I'm going to continue to get stronger. I'll make you proud. There's lots of rebuilding happening so there's not a lot of time to get actual training in. I'm helping with—"
He must have made a sound because she stopped speaking suddenly.
"Naruto?" she said into the air, her ear cocked in his direction, but her back still turned away from him.
He stepped away from the tree and she finally turned to him with a smile.
"Hey, Hinata. How'd you know it was me? Byakugan? I didn't mean to eavesdrop."
He came and sat next to her, looked at her, then at the name on the gravestone: Neji Hyuuga.
"No," she said. She was still smiling as she shook her head at him, her lavender eyes gleaming and her long dark hair danced briefly with her movements.
"No byakugan and no, you weren't eavesdropping. It's becoming a bad habit for me, I think. I just can't help it. I guess I just wanted to let him know how things are going. I still feel him here, you know." She tapped her chest with a small hand.
Hinata looked at his face, the surprised expression written on it, and laughed. "Oh, no! Now you're going to think it's another habit that makes me even weirder."
He flushed. "Did I really say that?"
Her eyes merry, she nodded. "Yeah, but we were twelve. So I can forgive you." She left it at that and was kind enough to drop the subject. Instead, she pointed to his arm. "I'm glad it's done. Sakura told me you were having it attached today. How does it feel?"
He held it up and wiggled his fingers. "It's going to take some time to get used to it. There's still some delay when I ask my fingers and my wrist to move. Grandma Tsunade said I have to do some exercises for it to be fully functioning, though."
"Hmm," she said. "More work for you, but I think you'll get it done in no time. It shouldn't be a problem; you always rise to the occasion."
Naruto felt a thrill of pleasure in her unwavering belief in him. "Thanks, Hinata," he said. "I hope so, too."
Hinata gave him a quick side-wise look but didn't say anything. She turned back to Neji's grave, no longer smiling, but her expression was calm and pensive.
He noticed that she hadn't really answered his earlier question, but he let it pass. How'd she known it was him who'd been hiding behind the tree if she hadn't used her byakugan?
They sat in silence for a long time, neither Hinata nor Naruto willing to break it. He found the quiet of the moment restful as a feeling of peace wrapped him in its warmth. He realized that this was exactly what he needed, the serenity, the space, to just be.
All the worries of the morning disappeared as Hinata's undemanding presence made him feel at ease. He was glad that she didn't seem to want to talk, either. Instead, she kept her arms wrapped around her knees, lost in thought, and moved her head to the side from time to time.
Eventually, though, Naruto plopped down onto his back on the warm grass with a sigh. Just then, his stomach gave a loud growl, signaling that it was time for lunch. Hinata laughed, the sound carrying through the air, as he flushed again.
"Ugh, bad timing, but I'm hungry!" He laughed, too. "Do you want to go get some ramen with me, Hinata?"
She beamed at him, a slight flush on her face. "I'd love to."