She was covered with the dust of books, a film of grit lying like a second-skin over her exposed arms and hands. It was oddly comforting, a shield against the outside world. She practically bled ink and she smelled of aged paper, stale yet inviting. It was her natural state. At the nearby work station, bits of paper were strewn about almost like confetti after a village parade. It was a showcase of her profession, of everything she ever worked for.
While the ninjas had their throwing stars and kunai, she—Okuda Chisato, that is—had books and paper. And it was clear, through the meticulous methodical organization of those archives, that she was truly dedicated to her vocation. It has been said that only insanity or love could lead to that kind of careful cataloguing.
Perhaps it was more the latter.
Who could say for sure?
The items contained within that archive were commonplace, for the most part. They were mission reports, missives from the capital, and a whole lot of clan histories. Most of those histories had been collected by Chisato herself in her bid to protect the oral storytelling of her village. They were carefully handled, painstakingly transcribed and recorded by hand. They were nearly all written in her formal script, preserved for the ages. By her estimate, there were over three hundred recorded stories in that particular section of the archive alone.
That number was growing every day.
The permanent ink stains on her fingers were evidence of her constant struggle toward the maintained literary heritage of the village.
She was an archivist, a librarian, a researcher.
It was said that Okuda Chisato "bled ink."
Like authors keep bits of paper with frivolous notes, Chisato kept each piece of paper that was provided by the donors. Every letter of eviction, every love note with sweet nothings scribbled during spare moments. Some were from the battlefields of the Second and Third Great Ninja War. Some from the founding of the village itself. Especially the love notes. Always the love notes. She kept everything she possibly could. Such was her conviction. There was no such thing as an 'unimportant' document. All of it contained a story to be told.
That was her upmost belief.
Every person holds a story.
As she was reaching for a file at the crest of the bookshelf, she felt a cool hand rest upon her shoulder. Chisato let out a yelp of surprise. So lonely was the job of the village archivist that she rarely received visitors. And she was no kunoichi, so she had not sensed the presence of another person in the room until it was too late. The hand pushed her back down while another reached up to grab the file with ease.
When she turned, she was face-to-face with her husband. She was tall for a woman, thick and solidly built. She stood eye-to- eye with him, something that he loved. Despite his impressive muscles and his meaty presence, she did not cower. She instead puffed out her chest. "You scared the daylights me, Keisuke!"
"Sorry, sorry." He chuckled. "You know, you'd have to see daylight every once and awhile to know what it is."
She never could quite understand what he found funny most of the time. He was just naturally happy and cheerful. His endearing smile rarely left his face. It was a permanent fixture, a constant. As constant as the trees around the village. Even at the young age of twenty-five, he had laugh lines that patterned his face. Many of his friends and family said that he was the "happiest man alive." He often attributed that to his sweet wife.
She knew he had been happy since birth and never fell for the endearments.
Whenever that easy grin departed though, she always knew that the situation was dire. When he handed her the file, his crinkled eyes glanced downward. His expression grew a tad more serious. "You should be more careful in your condition, Chisato. You're already going against the doc's orders. This is about as far from 'taking it easy' as one can get, you know?"
Chisato gave him a look and he immediately held up both hands in surrender. He nervously laughed off her glare, one of his hands reached up to tug at the lobe of his ear. It had always been his nervous habit, tugging at that meaty part of his right ear. Running her tongue along her teeth, the archivist shifted her heavy weight from one leg to the other.
No matter how she stood, her body was uncomfortable. Her lower back ached terribly. Her feet throbbed from her almost-constant standing and she could feel the child within her moving around. It seemed the child would be like her father, enthusiastic by nature. When she ran her hand over the thin fabric that rested over her stretched skin, she could feel feet pressed against her palm. There was a distinct pressure in her pelvis, which she had been ignoring all day.
She was thirty-three weeks along.
"Do you have a reason for coming down here, Keisuke? Not that I don't love seeing you, sweetheart, but you hate it down here." She maneuvered herself around him, brushing against his thigh as she did so. He laughed at her cheeky smile. "You do not normally brave the catacombs in the middle of the day, if you can help it." She glanced back and her gaze skittered over his attire.
Light gray flak jacket, form-fitting clothing that helped with his infiltration missions. Metal arm guards rested over his forearms. His mask was hooked onto his belt, a Bear peering back at her with intimidating red and brown markings. Her lips pursed and she turned back toward the work station. She nervously set about fiddling with the papers that rested there. That mask of his always made her uneasy.
"I didn't expect you to come by while you're on duty."
"I received a mission today." There was a sudden and undeniable weight in his voice and the air in the archive seemed to shift. Chisato felt a chill run down her spine. Her husband rarely used that tone of voice. She slipped the file onto the desk and waited for the inevitable. She was far from uninformed and she was far from ignorant. She knew what mission he had been assigned. She just prayed against reason that she was wrong. "Minato requested that I serve as a guard. Tonight."
And there it was.
Chisato turned on her heel and forced down her instinctual reaction.
If she were any less of a person, she might've told him to deny the Hokage his wishes.
If she understood her husband a little less, she would have shook her head and told him that he had to look after his own family.
After all, his child was due to arrive in only a few weeks.
What if something went wrong? What if he never got to see his baby?
However, Okuda Chisato knew the situation and she knew her husband. It was his duty to protect the Hokage and the Hokage's kin. It was Keisuke's duty to protect Kushina and her as of yet unborn child. From that alone, it was her—Chisato's—duty to support her husband in that mission, by any means necessary. Even if she felt it was too dangerous. Even if she wanted to keep him to herself. It was her role as the wife of a ninja. Her hands fisted at her sides and she nodded her head. "Is there anything I can do to help?"
Keisuke shook his head and the room seemed to grow even heavier. "It's my squad that's been called as guards. Minato knows he can trust us beyond all others. We're the first line of defense." His fingers fiddled with the mask on his hip. Chisato glanced to his shoulder, becoming entranced by the swirling tattoo that rested there on his thick bicep. She could remember when he got that tattoo, when she had traced her fingers over it in bed the following morning. He was so proud of his promotion. He was so proud to serve the Hokage—No, not just the Hokage. Okuda Keisuke was proud to serve Minato.
They called him "Captain" due to his experience in the field and he took his role seriously. He was well-respected. Earned his position through hard work and gumption. Years and years of missions, and now, he would be leading one of his most perilous tasks yet. And there was nothing she could do but support him. Nothing she could do. A thrill of fear lurched in her stomach and she thought she would throw up. Her hand absent-mindedly fell to her belly.
"You should go to the compound," Keisuke said after a moment. "There's no guarantee that things will be safe, you know? We both know how disastrous this could be." The threat went unspoken, but Chisato knew better than most what would happen if the demon got free of its bonds within Kushina. Oh, she was far from uninformed. She had seen such things before, the disasters that followed the loosing of the titans. "If you go to the compound, you should be safe. Besides, I would bet that Chōza would like to see you. We haven't had time to go to dinner lately."
In the blink of an eye, an arm was wrapped around her shoulders as he stood behind her, his other hand snaked down to rest on her stomach. She leant her head back against his shoulder. Something in her felt ill, sick. She worried that this would be the last time she would be held by him. She wondered if this would be the last time she would feel the warmth of him behind her. "Look—Look out for them, Keisuke. Minato has his hands full." She turned her head and pressed her lips against his cheek. She spoke as calmly as possible. "I am with you. Always."
"Love you," he murmured in return. He pressed his lips to the swirling pattern on her cheek and then, quite suddenly, Chisato was alone in the archives once more. He was fast, impossibly fast. For a single moment, she regretted that she never became a ninja like her brother. If she had, maybe she could have done something more.
The strength in her body seemed to leave her and she stumbled over to a nearby chair. It let out a metallic wail as she fell into it, her head was held in her hands. To herself and to the stories that surrounded her, she let out her worry in tearful gasps. Somehow, Chisato knew that she would never see her husband again.
Call it intuition.
Call it foreboding.
A pain erupted in her stomach then and she sucked in a gasp, hands flying down to rest on the lower side of her pregnant belly. Her thickly shaped brows pulled together as she held her breath. It was impossible. Too impossible. She sucked in a gasp as it throbbed.
She was only at thirty-three weeks.
It was too early.
Another cramp made her shudder and Chisato's eyes went wide with realization. Taking a big gulp of air, she glanced around to the scroll that she kept for emergencies. It sat at the far edge of the workstation table. Her gaze skittered toward the elevator and stairwell entrance.
There was no way that she would make it up the archive stairs and she felt certain that she would be unable to stand with the intensity of the pain. The elevator was too far away. Gritting her teeth, she flailed her hand toward the scroll—her fingers scraping against the red and green parchment.
Grunting, she extended herself a little further and was able to wrap her fingers around it. Her shaking hands set to untying the knot and she let the scroll fall to the floor. There was a small explosion of smoke.
It was Keisuke's summons. An emergency scroll. The Bears protect their own. The tip-tap of claws could be heard before Chisato felt the world begin to tunnel. Her heart felt as if it were beating at twice the speed it should have been.
"Shinrin," she wheezed. The pain was growing too quickly.
What if she couldn't get to the hospital in time? She was meant to go to the compound, to see her brother and his family. To be secure with them until her husband returned from his mission. What about— She grimaced, trying not to bite her tongue as the pain lanced up from between her legs.
The baby— coming. Now. Too soon. Far too soon. She couldn't feel her legs. "Shinrin…"
No! She couldn't let this happen. She was stronger than this.
She would have to fight it, fight until she could get to the hospital.
It was so sudden.
The small bear pawed at her shoulder. Its head flicked to the right and the left, gray fur catching the lights. "Lady Chisato! What's wrong? Where is Lord Keisuke?"
"G-Get someone. A-Anyone. Please."
The cub ran.
The night was warm and humid, strange weather for October. Such an atmosphere had ANBU Bear on edge. He wasn't concerned so much with the goings-on inside the cave. That much would be in the trusted hands of the Hokage, Lady Biwako, and Taji. He had no doubts that Minato would do everything in his power to see the birth (and the seal) safely through. Not only that, Kushina was far too stubborn to die during childbirth. Still, he would be lying if he said the screaming didn't leave him wincing on the inside. Outwardly, though, he was completely emotionless—as any good ANBU should be during a mission. An errant thought made him wonder if his wife would cry out like that. He would never be able to bear his Chisato screaming like that.
It was the only thing that he was dreading about becoming a father—the pain that Chisato would have to endure.
Jumping onto a rock outcropping below, he dropped into a crouch. "Sense anything, Jackal?" All wayward thoughts of his little family were pushed from his mind.
"Negative." The ANBU subordinate responded, glancing toward the squad leader. "Orders?"
Bear stood up and glanced about at the dark scenery. It had been an hour since he had sent Stag to run the perimeter. Considering that man's Swift Release, he should've been back long ago. "I want you to run the perimeter. Keep yourself well hidden, Jackal, and see if you can find Stag while you're at it." The white-haired ANBU disappeared. Bear glanced back toward the three other ANBU under his command. One stood atop the pagoda, acting as a lookout. Hyuuga's always had been good for that position. Two others flanked the entrance.
A new—even more pained—scream rang through the air. Sighing, he turned back around and looked out at the forest. It was lucky that he had placed a barrier of silence over the entire two kilometer radius. Anyone with ears would be able to find them otherwise.
Hell, Iwagakure would be able to hear that kind of noise.
Yes, he hoped Chisato wouldn't scream like that.
He could handle a lot of terrifying things, usually with a smile on his face. But he certainly couldn't deal with that. And his wife would want him with her at the birthing.
Several minutes passed without incident, but it was that very silence that had Bear feeling even more uneasy. Once again, he pushed the thoughts of his wife from his mind. He was being extremely unprofessional this evening. Maybe, just maybe, it was the feeling in the air. That tenseness that promised disaster. When he was younger, Bear's father had taught him a parable about such atmospheres: You must be aware, son, that it is often that from the calmest weather that the fiercest storms arise.
The air was too still, too calm. Something was wrong.
His head snapped fifteen degrees to the right. There it was. He could sense it.
"On alert." He stated in a low voice. The ANBU stationed behind him tensed at the sudden order. "Chakra presence in the tree line. My two o'clock." It was such a small amount of chakra that one might have overlooked it as an animal at first. Perhaps it was a signature meant to be overlooked. The kind adopted by infiltrators and spies. The feeling of it however, was so sinister that it inspired waking nightmares. Killing Intent. It left as quickly as it came, but it would've had any other shinobi shaking in their combat gear.
ANBU Bear was no other shinobi. He didn't quiver. He just continued to stare in the direction of where the signature had last been felt. It appeared again and again, dancing all about the tree line. Bear fisted his hands at his sides.
"He's toying with us." Wolf commented, darkness dancing around his feet. "I can feel him in the shadows. He's waiting for us to make the first move."
"Do not leave your posts." Bear ordered in response. "Under no circumstances are you to allow this enemy to pass. Am I understood?" He shifted his weight, ready for whatever came out of the woodwork. With a smooth motion, he withdrew his short sword and prepared for an incoming attack. "I warn you. Leave this place at once. You will only receive one warning."
A figure stepped out of the shadows. Those shadows, under the direct control of Wolf, tried to keep him from moving. They were shaken off like nothing. This made a lance of uncertainty cut through Bear's chest like a kunai. Wolf, otherwise known as Nara Shikaru, was one of the most powerful Naras the village had to offer. Perhaps the smartest as well, apart from his brother, Shikaku. For Wolf to lose control like that, the enemy's power must have been unbelievable. The clouds above moved just enough to allow moonlight down on the scene. Wolf's shadows faded away.
The man was masked, wearing a black cloak that hid his body. A hood covered the back of his head. Only one eye could be seen. That eye gleamed in the shimmering moonlight, a menacing red color. Bear recognized it immediately, of course. Anyone would recognize that eye. An Uchiha. Behind his back, the squad leader signaled in code for the others.
Level Four—Hostile. Extreme caution.
"I will ask you once. Will you please move aside?" Such manners didn't seem to fit the situation. It was like the cat before the fish, one can never let their guard down in the presence of a known threat. When the ANBU guards did not move, the masked man shrugged. "So be it then."
"Wolf, Bull. Maintain positions. You know what to do." The formation changed as he ordered it. One of those under his command dropped down to the water in front of him. "Cougar." The ANBU Cougar charged.
The battle lasted less than ten seconds. Really, it couldn't be called a battle. It shook Bear to the very core. To see Cougar, who was the best taijutsu specialist in the village, taken out with one single punch to the chest? Frightening didn't even begin to describe the terror that he felt. A friend of nearly ten years had just been killed in front of him in the most brutal way a man could be murdered. Hyuuga Hotaka's heart was thrown toward the forest for the animals to eat. His body dropped into the shallow water at the edge of the bank, blood diffusing in the lapping water. Bear didn't even want to think of the man's family, of his younger brothers.
Wiping his hand off, the masked-man shook his head. "And this is the extent of Konoha's premier ANBU? Such a disgrace."
Bull started forward, but Bear held out a hand. "No, don't fall for the bait."
His attention went to the observing enemy nin. "You killed Stag and Jackal?" The opponent did not answer. Confirmation. Three of the best ANBU within less than an hour? Three of his good friends gone in such a short amount of time. This man was S-ranked or worse. The newly gleaned information did not bode well. With a hand signal, he motioned for Bull to warn the Hokage.
Before the larger ANBU could even turn to do so, the unknown ninja appeared in front of him. Bear started toward the defense of his friend, but the very fabric of reality seemed to bend. Bull disappeared a moment later and the swirling of reality was pulled back into the mask. It was frightening, sickening. Space-Time was under this man's control. That could mean only one thing. Bear just prayed he wasn't right about his guess. When Bull was spat back out again, his body was mangled and torn. It was almost as if Akimichi Daiki's skin had been peeled off, leaving only his muscles visible. It did not bear looking at. Bear steeled himself as he did during times of war.
He felt sick.
Bull had been his cousin by marriage.
That man had been family.
"Who are you?" The ANBU Captain questioned, slowly collapsing the silence barrier. If he could negate it entirely, then the Hokage would hear the proceedings outside of the cave. He could get some warning before all hell broke loose. He wondered though if Minato would be able to hear anything with Kushina's screams covering the sound of battle. Best to bide his time. "You're stronger than anyone I've encountered before. That's saying something. I've fought some pretty impressive enemies."
"Mm, a compliment." The man said in a pleasant tone. "I thank you, Okuda. If you step aside, I will not kill you forthwith."
Bear snorted, trying to hide his lurch of raw fear. He, being a shinobi, was well-aware of his own limitations. True enough, he was an expert in his skill set. He was able enough to rise to the rank of ANBU Captain, something that had been preached as "impossible" since his childhood.
Okuda Keisuke was no pushover though. He was strong in his own right, but he also knew a lost cause when he saw one, especially one that put his own limits to the test. Still, that didn't give him any doubt in his words as he spoke them.
There was one man that he would give his life to protect above all others and, at that moment, Bear knew that he was the only thing keeping that man and his family safe. If he failed in his duty to protect the Hokage, he would never forgive himself.
"I'd rather die than betray my Hokage to the likes of you," Bear growled. He prepared himself for an attack, crouching into his particular taijutsu stance. His knees bent and his elbows rose.
The masked man shrugged again. "That can be arranged, too."
Muttering under his breath, he turned to share one last look with Wolf—Shikaru. Back in the day, they had been teammates. Team Five. It seemed that they were finally going to die together. He supposed it had been a long time coming.
"Hold him off as long as you can, Wolf. Die trying. Do not help me. Those are direct orders."
I wish you the best.
Nodding, the Nara positioned himself directly underneath the pagoda, the last line of defense.
"Tch, you don't need to tell me that, Bear."
Good luck, my friend.
Stepping forward, the Okuda tried to keep the negative thoughts from his mind. Inside, his best friend—for that was what Minato was to him— was becoming a father. Kushina was suffering through what had to be a terrible birth. If the roles were reversed and he were the one with a birthing wife, Minato would have done the same. He would have given anything to protect those important to him. Little Naruto should be welcomed into the world by both of his parents, not by some psycho with a mask. If it took his life to see that through, then it was a duty he accepted. No matter the cost.
A hand extended outward, tossing the sword he held away. Kenjutsu was not his strong point, never had been. There would be no sense in wasting time with it. His skill lied mainly in ninjutsu. He would use that to hold off his enemy. Launching into a series of complicated hand-seals, he dropped the silence barrier entirely. The wind began to twist and crackle with energy as he prepared. Over Kushina's screams, he doubted the sounds could be heard. It was the best he could do.
His arm blocked a quick blow and he leapt to the side, avoiding every hit that the man aimed. Once he had the masked-man far enough from the cave entrance, he made a dragon seal.
Out of the clouds above, a column of clouds and wind dropped over the opponent. With quick motions, Bear threw over one hundred kunai into the swirling vortex. It was his deadliest attack and the most expensive in terms of chakra.
The masked-nin looked unruffled as the tornado died away. "Storm Release, eh? How quaint." In a fluid movement, Bear was knocked backward, splashing into the thin water. He couldn't even figure out how he had been hit. The movements were just too quick. It was disorienting. Especially since he often sparred with Minato. This man would give even the Hokage a run for his money. Maybe even a run for his life? No, Bear wouldn't allow that to happen. "You're brave. I'll give you that much. If a little reckless—"
Grinning, though the man couldn't see it, Bear pushed himself up and leapt away into a graceful backflip. Underneath the water, where he had laid just moment before, the rocks began to glove a faint red color. As the tags exploded, the fabric of reality ripped open again and swallowed what would have been a massive blast. Nearly seventy explosive tags and there was not a sound issued. The man must've realized that the barrier of silence was gone. Bear cursed to himself and readied for another attack. The masked man only turned slightly to face him before blinking out of existence.
Performing another dragon seal, Bear avoided a killing blow to the chest with a quick sidestep. His fingers twisted into various seals and water shot up into the air as a wall rose from the ground. It was another barrier, on that blocked ANBU Wolf from view, as well as the cave in which his friends were located. It was like a black and crimson veil had been dropped over the scene. That barrier was his strongest on hand and Bear could feel the cost of it in his chakra reserves. He was starting to get weaker and weaker.
So many years he had striven to become a good ninja warrior—a good, skillful shinobi.
Was this the extent of all that work?
Could he not even save his friends?
What about Chisato? What would become of her if this masked man released the Kyuubi?
"You are quite skilled with barrier techniques. Something learned, perhaps? Cannot say I'm surprised."
He felt something hit his chest suddenly and he was tossed backward, tumbling over the water to make sudden contact with the newly-formed barrier. It shattered like thin ice and he careened about thirty feet beyond a silent Wolf. A stray thought occurred to him then. His barrier would not weaken like that unless…Unless…He weakly forced himself into a standing position and appeared in front of Wolf again with a flicker. That blow had been mortal, he realized. He could feel it now. His body's senses were catching up with the injury. He was on borrowed time. Not much longer.
Minutes, perhaps. Only minutes.
His arms began to tingle, a chill settling in his toes. His fingertips…he couldn't feel them.
"You're still standing." The masked man observed, sounding vaguely impressed. "That is quite a feat, Okuda. You should be proud. You are either strong or stubborn."
Bear was fighting to remain conscious and upright. If he failed in this mission, even the genius Nara wouldn't stand a chance to hold this enemy off, and then Minato and his family would be in danger. They would be completely helpless to an attack. To his last breath, Bear steeled himself, he would protect his friends. Minato had saved his life more times than he could count. This time, he would return the favor. Gathering his chakra, the ANBU Captain prepared for one last push, one last ditch effort. His lips curled up into a smile and he forced out a chuckle. That son of a bitch had no idea what was coming his way. After all, he didn't earn his rank as an ANBU for nothing. He had worked hard to earn that position.
If anything, Bear—Okuda Keisuke, that is—knew he was going to go down fighting. He'd fight to his final breath.
That was his Will of Fire.
With a speed that only a desperate man could possess, he sealed his clan's most powerful technique. "Good luck, Wolf." The Nara nodded and the sequence was complete. The rush of wind raced outward from the Okuda, effectively pushing the masked attacker out and away from the cave with a reddish-purple energy. Lightning crackled with it. Overhead, thunderclouds swirled ominously. This was the pinnacle of his strength, his last attempt to protect his Hokage.
Somewhere in his mind, he wondered if history would remember him.
He knew that it wouldn't.
History never remembers the unnamed soldiers.
Bear fell to his knees, shame cutting through him like a blade. He didn't have the strength. The water splashed with the sudden impact of his collapsing body. Like a sling-shot, the technique collapsed inward. Bear fell forward onto his hands and knees, breathing heavily. He had always dreaded the day when he would hear his own death rattle, the sound of blood in his lungs.
He never thought he would die like this—at the hands of such a nemesis. The evil chakra appeared right before him, but the energy to fight was no longer in him. He had nothing left, no energy to keep fighting. One of the downsides to such a powerful attack, it drained too much chakra.
A foot came out of nowhere, kicking him from the water into the air. And the masked man jumped up with him. With one glowing hand, Bear's stomach was punctured. The same hand, in rapid succession, hit several of his vital organs. He was repeatedly stabbed. He could feel bits of himself being pulled away with each jab. Never had he believed he would die in battle. Foolishly optimistic. That's what Minato had always said. Still, Bear thought he would live to see his own grandchildren someday. Finally, the hand was withdrawn from his right lung. A moment later, he fell back to Earth.
He didn't even feel it when his body hit the water.
Somewhere in the mist, he could hear his final barrier seal being broken. It caused his body to lurch as blood flooded the back of his throat. Wolf was completely open to attack. Bear could hear the Nara fighting with all he had—trying to keep the opponent at bay. Shikaru…His last living teammate…With as much strength as he could muster, he rolled to his stomach and tried to move toward the fight. There was a last ditch effort. The masked man had Wolf by the throat.
Then, everything went eerily silent.
His head fell forward into the water and he felt himself somewhere else, distant.
He prayed that Minato and his family would survive, that he wouldn't meet them in the afterlife too soon. He prayed for his wife, that she would survive with their baby, who was due in a month's time. His little Miho, his little sweetheart. He'd never get to see her.
He hoped she looked like her mother.
A smile pulled at his lips, but he was too weak to sustain it.
He heard an infant's cry and the world went black.
The hospital was in disarray, absolute chaos. There was an overflow of critical injuries, far too many for the hospital to manage. Triage was set up in the emergency room and an overflow was set up in the evacuation facilities. Hospital staff had never seen such a large scale disaster and many were unpracticed, fresh medic-nins who had never truly seen such widespread devastation.
The traumatic injuries were disturbing to even the most experienced of doctors—missing limbs, blast-like injuries, partially torn bodies, and crushed bodies. Some were deemed lost causes, as is natural for any sort of triage situation. Whole families had been killed, entire clans wiped out of existence.
In a small corner of that overrun hospital, a little infant girl lay alone in a tiny bed. Her eyes were closed and her chest struggled to rise and fall. Her skin was a pale pinkish color, thick black hair peeking from under her light pink toboggan. The bed was covered by a plastic dome-like structure, something that was placed half-hazard over the little baby to keep her warm and to keep the air oxygen rich. The sounds of the world, of the chaos outside, felt distant there. It was the best the doctors could do in the middle of a crisis.
A nurse entered into the dark room, holding the door open for a man as he stepped inside. Light and sound filtered into the room from the tumultuous hallway. His expression was grim as he looked to the woman who lay still in the large bed at the center of the room. Her limbs were lying at her sides, her hair still matted to her forehead from the stress of labor. He could still see ink stains on her fingers from her work in the archives. The distinctive swirl markings of his clan tinted her cheeks.
The man's exhausted gaze lingered on the eerily still form of his sister, a sick feeling entering his stomach. She was too young to die, only twenty-two. Two years younger than him.
His baby sister, dead.
She had been dead for hours, he realized. She had died alone.
Nothing set him more on edge than that nauseating realization. Chisato had died alone. He couldn't imagine her pain or her fear. Giving birth in the middle of a disaster—premature at that.
She had to be so scared.
A high-pitched fussing sound caught his attention and he turned slightly to see a small bed in the corner of the room. His breath caught. How could they—"You…You left the baby here?" He strode over to where the infant was housed, his large hands rising up to rest on the plastic dome. It was a little girl. They had been intending to keep the gender a secret until the birth. It was meant to be a happy occasion. The little girl squirmed, little swirls evident on her cheeks. A sad smile pulled at his lips. She took after her mother. "You left her with her d-dead mother? For how long?"
"We… had no choice. Okuda Chisato died just moments before the attack." The nurse sounded anxious and grief-ridden. Chōza watched her frantic eyes skitter toward the doorway. "If there is nothing else, Lord Akimichi, I must get back to the emergency room. We have far more infants than we can handle at the moment. Most of them will be funneled into the orphanage system as soon as possible." The woman started for the door, obviously readying herself for the onslaught of mayhem outside. He watched the nurse pause on her way out. "She died for a few moments." His brows rose, gaze flickering down to his tiny niece as she took small, quick breaths. He felt sickened. He nearly lost everything of his sister—including her daughter. "That little girl right there is a survivor."
With that, the nurse left.
Akimichi Chōza pulled in a breath and settled his attention once more on the baby—an orphan. Okuda Keisuke had been killed with the rest of his ANBU squad. His body had been found only a couple hours after dawn. And Chisato…Reaching down, he took hold of the clipboard that hung on the edge of the bed and read the notes that were scribbled there. She bled out. His sister bled out after giving birth to her daughter, his niece.
"Miho," he murmured. Tears began to fill his eyes as the stress of the past day began to topple over him like a tidal wave. So many had been lost, but that little name made him feel the first bit of happiness in hours. "They named you after your grandmother, my mom—our mother. Mom. I-I should have known. Chisato always said…She said she would…"
He pressed his lips together and nodded, swallowing down his tears.
This was what Keisuke would want, what his sweet sister would want. There was really no question about it, no inner debate over the merits of what he was about to do. It was natural. Keisuke had been an orphan with no family. This was his course.
This little girl had nowhere to go, but to her mother's family and he would take her in with wide open arms. No doubt entered Akimichi Chōza's mind or heart. His wife would be in agreement. Her kind heart knew no bounds. Their own child was only a few months older. He would gain a sister out of the ashes.
This was one of the easiest decisions in his life, if the heaviest.
"Akimichi Miho," he murmured to the infant. "I'm your Papa now." He glanced over his shoulder to his sister's body and then his eyes glanced toward the window. Smoke was still rising from the ruins of the village. He followed that smoke to the blue sky above. "Chisato, Keisuke…I'll-I'll protect her as my own."