Thanks for all the great reviews! Without any further ado: here's the next chapter.
What Might Have Been - Chapter 2
From far away, he watches the boy. Finally, they have arrived at their destination, a large training camp somewhere near the eastern border. The ground is brown and hard, occasional dry shrubs marking that not all life has left this land. He hides himself beneath a carefully crafted genjutsu because he doesn't want to draw attention to himself.
Through forests, he had no trouble keeping up as the trees are his home. Gradually though, the land has flattened to grassy planes, and he has fallen farther behind. Sun is a country of many facets.
On several occasions, he has been forced to track day-old spoors because his starved body had refused to work properly. During especially cold nights, he wraps himself in the boy's blanket because he doesn't own any clothing. But he still has kept his vow of never eating, never drinking. As he needs more chakra now, the beast will weaken faster, and then, he will finally be allowed to die.
The soldiers have collected almost a hundred boys from different villages, herding them away in several of their oxen-less carts. In the training camp, they join up with hundreds more of them.
They are being outfitted with two standard uniforms, a dress uniform, a rations package, two knives, a gun, and ammunition. None of them has any idea how to handle the weapons.
He has found out that the oxen-less carts – cars – need wood to function because every evening during their travels, ten boys had been sent to gather old and dry branches for the engines. Although they had pretended to be cheery and brave, he had smelt the fear on them.
Eavesdropping on the soldiers in the evenings, he has overheard that he is in Sun, quite a big country compared to most of its neighbors. The only ones of a size worth mentioning are Metal to the north-west, and Spirit to the south. And of course, Wind to the east. During past decades, Sun had been to war with almost all of them. And that has taken its toll on the population. None of the new recruits is older than fifteen.
The beast within him growls. He ignores it in favor of the pale, bloody body sprawled in front of him.
There was a surprise attack on the barracks, Wind soldiers seeking to take out all new recruits in one swoop. He had been too far away to help. When he had heard the noise of big explosions, he didn't look immediately because he had felt no foreign chakra. When he had remembered that he hasn't felt any notice-worthy chakra in a long time, not even from trainers and older soldiers, it was too late. On his arrival, the camp already was in shambles, the fires dying.
A heavy smoke-screen obscures the camp, making it hard to breathe. Many of the recruits are dead; the survivors are groaning. Nobody takes notice of him in their confusion.
The boy has been caught in the crossfire, a bullet to his stomach, one through his arm. The pale body lies limply in its own blood. If he doesn't do anything, the boy will die.
Fortunately, the abdominal injury hasn't torn any organs or major arteries, but the bullet is still in there because there is no exit wound. He knows he has to remove it. Finally, he decides on a lightening jutsu, one that he has learned during his three-year travel with Jiraya. A long sequence of hand-seals later, he builds up a strong magnetic field in his left palm, and the deformed projectile reacts.
As soon as the bullet leaves the boy's body, he rips a few strips off the blanket the boy had gifted him with, and lets his chakra flow through the fabric in the way he had been shown so long ago. He has never been a medic, but his former teammate had taught him a few tricks. The very same teammate he had killed.
The beast within him growls again, and he wraps the strips around the boy's wounds. He stays until he can see Sun reinforcements searching for survivors. Then he vanishes into the shadows once again. The healing chakra he has infused the cloth with will make sure the boy lives.
But from now on, he will stay closer.
Underneath his concealment genjutsu, he is watching the boy, maybe fifteen years old by now, toss and turn on the hard-baked soil. The boy is huddled up against the wall of a trench he is sleeping in. Comrades are resting left and right, some of them keeping night watch. For the moment, everything is quiet. Too quiet for ears that have gotten used to constant gun-fire and explosions.
The recruits fresh out of training have been sent as reinforcements to the troops guarding Sun's borders from invading Wind attackers. Today was the boy's first real battle, and he had been forced to watch his brother die right next to him. The boy had almost been splattered with his brother's brains.
From the recruits' training he has already surmised that they have forgotten about the use of chakra, but seeing a whole battle without chakra has shown him its bloody reality. They had only fought with guns and tanks, hiding in trenches dug painfully into hard earth, and shooting everything that moved.
None of them had used taijutsu. It had been a long-range battle.
None of them had used ninjutsu. There hadn't been any genjutsu, either. Merely bullets and grenades and faceless masses pitted against each other.
But it is healing jutsu he has missed the most. Any injuries are treated with knives, prongs and disinfectant, and then left to heal on their own. Nobody has tried mending tears with chakra. Instead they are sutured closed.
That time during training, when he had dressed the boy's wounds, the medic that had taken care of the boy had scowled at the slightly dirty bandages, saying something about 'unsanitary' and 'a wonder he hasn't gotten any infections'. They had never noticed that the chakra within the strips had prevented any infection and accelerated recovery several times.
He doesn't know what he should think of this world without chakra. He doesn't know what he should think of this time that sends young children to war with almost no training.
He watches the boy toss and turn, and finally, he casts a small sleeping genjutsu over him. Perhaps that way, the boy will rest better. There is nothing he can do to ease the boy's mind.
He has lost count of the weeks, months the boy has been fighting a war for his country. Sun has awarded him the rank of captain for that. The boy's formerly innocent features have matured, a stronger chin, cheeks loosing their chubby padding. But the eyes are the ones that have aged the most. They have been hardened by watching death all around him. He can't remember when the boy has smiled the last time.
Hiding himself behind bushes, he slowly trails along with the boy's division. They are moving farther up north, where forests reach almost to the border. This is where Wind has been attacking most viciously. Wind has very few burnable resources, so they anxiously try to get any wood they can. Even if it means invading a neighboring country.
They currently are walking through dense underbrush and weeds, vegetation that looks as if there had been a big forest fire several years ago. All trees are barely more than saplings, so quick-growing bushes have taken over. There is enough cover for him, so he doesn't even bother using a concealing genjutsu.
Suddenly, a shot rings through the air, quickly followed by three more. He is close enough to see the division's commander and two colonels break down with a clean headshot. Another is injured critically. All soldiers in the vicinity throw themselves behind cover, trying to make out where the shots came from. The first lieutenant colonel goes down. Apparently, all high ranks are targeted to increase confusion.
The beast is growling. He doesn't have any problems with locating the assassin, the bullets having given him enough indication as to where the sniper is hidden. Almost on their own, his feet pad soundlessly over twigs and greenery, his arms guiding branches silently around his body to make him flow through the woods like a wraith.
From behind, he catches sight of the assassin, a medium-sized man with camouflage-colored clothes. The man lies upon a rock, calmly adjusting his rifle to focus upon his next target. He has chosen an excellent vantage point: cleverly hidden by foliage, yet having almost clear view of the whole trail. None of the soldiers is even close to locating the danger they all are in.
Ghosting closer, he follows the sniper's line of sight – only to come up with a familiar, messy, black mop of hair.
Once again, the beast surges abruptly from its confines, and this time, he agrees with its anger.
When he can think clearly once again, he realizes that he is unfamiliar with his surroundings. He isn't anywhere near the assassin anymore. And he is wearing clothes.
Ever since his old ones had fallen off his body from old age, he hasn't made any attempts to look for clothing. The blanket the boy – young man – had gifted him with had been enough for him.
Now though, he can feel the chafe of loose, camouflage-colored fabric against his skin, and it doesn't feel bad. The shirt hangs from his bony shoulders, and a strip of blanket is holding up his pants. He must have discarded the muddy remainders of his blanket somewhere along his path.
He looks around and sniffs the air. A stale scent of fear and gun-powder lingers in the woods. He can't have run too far then. Almost absent-mindedly, he picks the blood from under his fingernails while he stretches his chakra sense.
The boy's division, maybe an hour away to the north.
Soundlessly, his presence vanishes from the small clearing, leaving behind only a few rustling leaves.
The beast's growls have become steadily more insistent. He knows that he will have to make a decision, soon. He cannot live off the beast's chakra forever because even its seemingly unlimited resources are getting thin.
From what he has overheard, he has been waiting for death for almost three centuries, and three hundred years of keeping a malnourished, failing body alive has weakened the beast considerably. Not to mention all those times he has used its chakra without giving his body anything to replenish it with.
The boy, no, the young man, is almost twenty, and he has been watching over him ever since he was recruited into the army. He has risen quickly in ranks, having gained the title of colonel and his own brigade of men.
Others call the boy 'Akira with the golden luck' because he has survived so many ordeals others have not. Strange miracles also tend to happen in the golden boy's vicinity. Several enemy troops waiting in ambush have been found dead, mauled by vicious animals. Other times, enemies simply looked at him and his men without seeing them.
They are the only brigade in the army that has won more battles than they lost.
The beast within him growls again. He knows that if he wants to continue watching over the boy – young man – he will have to give up his death wish.
For three hundred years, the beast has been suffering together with him, and sometimes, he can feel its worry. For a creature that is nigh immortal, it must be disconcerting to watch more and more of its power bleed away uselessly until it is no more than a shadow of its former glory. Perhaps it is time to visit it once again within its sealed cage.
Biting into an apple, he watches the parade from one of the surrounding roofs. Soleil, the capital of Sun, glows brightly in the afternoon light.
He has finally cut his hair and gotten himself different clothes, and he sometimes talks to people again.
The beast within him has been quiet for the last few years. It is sleeping, recovering from three hundred years of exhausting its powers. Sad to note that all that had been because of a misunderstanding.
On that fateful day with the Akatsuki, the fox had directed all its anger towards Akatsuki members. But Sasuke, obsessed as he was, had jumped into the fray without thought. He had wanted to kill his brother Itachi himself, so, in his single-mindedness, he had overlooked the real danger. He had been impaled on a chakra-filled tail together with his brother. Sakura had killed herself through chakra-exhaustion, trying to heal Sasuke's fatal wound.
The beast doesn't know what had happened to Kakashi, his sensei, but it cannot recall killing him or Team 8. He believes it.
He almost smiles as he looks down onto the parade uniforms of the Golden Brigade, as it has been named. His young man, almost 24 now, is marching right in front of them, having been made commander of the brigade many years ago.
People are cheering, whistles are blowing. It is a celebration of the likes Soleil hasn't seen for years. All houses have been cleaned from the ever-present soot, and they have been decorated with boughs, ribbons, flowers, and flags. They are gleaming in the sun almost as much as their inhabitants who are wearing their best clothes.
He pretends not to notice that those cheering the soldiers on are women, children, elderly, and cripples. There barely are any men in the crowd; all boys have been recruited as soldiers very early on. And now, the Golden Brigade has returned victoriously. Although there are many smiles, there also are tears of mothers looking for their sons and not finding them, wives searching futilely for their husbands.
The Golden Brigade has single-handedly managed to secure the eastern border from Wind invaders, but there were heavy losses within their ranks. Of five thousand soldiers that were present at the brigade's founding six years ago, only two thousand have returned.
He watches the young man walk up to a grand set of stairs, slowly climbing it while the soldiers behind him have moved to attention position. On top of the stairs, in front of a richly ornamented façade, an elderly, grey-haired man in long, golden robes is waiting. Behind him, in a half-circle, twelve other men are standing in oddly-colored robes. Even from a distance, the chancellor and his council are an impressive sight.
The chancellor is the spokesman for Amaterasu, the goddess of sun and light, and each of the council members represents one of the twelve holy animals. They are the ones who are responsible for leading this country and its armies.
Climbing the last few steps, the young man walks towards the chancellor and bows deeply. He speaks a few words that are carried to the public by huge metallic boxes called 'amplifiers'.
"Your Excellency, your soldiers have returned."
To his surprise, the chancellor bows back. It is not as deep and long as the young man has bowed, but for the spokesman of Amaterasu to show his respect to anyone, something great must have happened.
He takes another bite from his apple. The roof he is standing on is quite far away from the podium with all those important people; however, his eyes are as good as ever, and those amplifiers carry every spoken word to the crowd.
"Colonel Akira Minamoto. We want to thank you and your men in the name of all people in Sun for your heroic efforts. With unrelenting determination, you have protected our lands and our forests. You have given us enough strength to make a stand of our own once again."
One of the councilors in green robes steps forward and bows, first towards the chancellor, then to the young man. He reaches into the folds of his robe and presents whatever he has fond in there to the chancellor. Taking the object into his own hands, the chancellor waits for green-robe to join the half-circle again. Then, the chancellor advances towards the young man and fastens the object on his uniform, right over his heart.
"For those heroic efforts, you are allowed to all yourself General Minamoto Akira from now on."
He can't see the young man's face from his roof because he has chosen his position to keep an eye on the council members. Not all of them look as happy as he cheering crowd. They know it is not a far step anymore from general to councilor, especially when having gained the chancellor's favor. All councilors are appointed by the chancellor; most come from a few select families that have brought forth councilors for generations, but exceptions are known to be made. And being in the council is no lifetime assignment. So they rightfully are afraid of the young, upshot general.
Taking a last bite from his apple, he chucks its core away into a seemingly random direction. Maybe the young man will be able to make his dreams come true after all.
Leaving the dirty roof as unseen as he has appeared on it, he vanishes into the crowd.
Days later, a few children investigate a strange smell from one of the surrounding alleys. They discover a dead man, lying face-down in soot and mud.
After a routine autopsy, the doctors decide that he must have been hit on his temple by a blunt, irregularly formed object, robbing him of consciousness. Cause of death was a fall from several stories, probably a roof. Why the man was on the roof and what he was hit by though remains a mystery. The long rifle on the rooftop had vanished a long time ago, and nobody had taken notice of a smashed apple-core at the crime scene. It had been bloody on one side.
As usual, any comments and reviews are very welcome. Please tell me what you liked / disliked, where you think I should improve my writing style.