Ch. 16: The Value of Freedom
With a sigh, Tsunade brushed aside the loose strands of hair falling in her face as she leaned back in her chair. It had been a long day.
"Tsunade-sama?" Shizune approached, nearly causing the other woman to jump in surprise, "Your coffee." She nodded graciously and accepted the cup with both hands, enjoying the aroma. Shizune waited a moment to let Tsunade indulge in its warmth before pursuing any further questions.
"How does it look for everyone?"
"Hmm…Some are better off than others," Tsunade replied evenly, "We're just lucky more people didn't get caught up in this mess."
Yes, the explosion set off near the front gates injured only a few. Luckily, those members of the Akatsuki responsible had only been mere underlings and were quickly disposed of by a few jounin. Those Leaf shinobi could be sent home after a quick visit with her. However, it seemed the big brass had only meant for those weaker ninja to be cannon fodder, a diversion. Or so they tried. That explosion went off assuming the higher-ups would be alive to do their jobs. Regardless of the Akatsuki's failure, it still managed to put some of Konoha's shinobi against some less-than-promising odds.
Tsunade's day had nowhere else to go but down from there. Of the shinobi that were brought to her with critical injuries, it was a sheer miracle she brought any of them to stable condition. Which wasn't much. She wished she had enough energy to heal them completely but those kids were all in such miserable shape that she barely had enough chakra to keep any of them from going into cardiac arrest. Even with the wounds closed, it was difficult to say if they would all make it. For her to have this much difficulty in medical treatment was a small sign of how intensely each had fought out there.
It had been a long day.
Sounds came back first, almost like listening underwater. Then came light, blinding and blurry. It took several moments and much blinking to discern the shapes hovering about. Finally, voice was found and made itself known.
Iruka was startled by the sudden noise and found Naruto's tired eyes looking up at him. With a relieved sigh, he took a seat at the edge of the bed by the boy's side. "How long've I been out?" he sounded drowsy, medicated.
"It's been a couple of days."
"Oh." Naruto stared out the window for a moment, trying to sort out everything in his mind. He knew a lot of things happened, though most of it wasn't so clear. He got the impression, however, that none of it was pleasant.
"Sensei…I think I did some bad things."
Iruka frowned at that. He should have known Naruto would think everything was his fault. "They managed to crack the seal…You're hardly to blame for any of this."
"It's hardly gonna look like that to anybody else. The blood's on my hands," Naruto could barely contain his self-loathing as he gripped the sheets in tight bunches, "Especially now that Sakura-chan and that jerk Sasuke are—"
"They're alive, Naruto."
His eyes widened in absolute shock. There was no way they could have survived.
"But—but they fell! And Sasuke was bleeding pretty bad--!!"
"It's true they were in bad shape but you're not the one who did it. It was the Nine Tails. And those two know better than anyone that you wouldn't do such things to another person."
Naruto didn't look so convinced; his guilt was threatening to swallow him whole. No matter what Iruka said, even if they were alive they would never believe him. Why didn't Hinata finish him off when she had the chance?
What the hell had he been thinking with her the other night? It probably wouldn't be worth trying to sort it all out now, not after everything that happened. She was the one who ran him through with the sword. It was safe to say that things with her, like with everyone else, was destroyed. He'd burned all his bridges this time.
"It doesn't matter if it wasn't 'me.' The only thing they'll remember from the fight is my face."
"Perhaps the time has come to tell them the truth."
Naruto gave him a look of sheer disbelief. All the people from his past, the ones he grew up with through his academy days right until now…Everything between them was so horribly tense. If he were to tell them his horrible secret, if they knew of the demon he carried…He'd rather die than face the rejection.
"Sakura isn't so different now…" Iruka spoke uneasily; he never thought a bright student like her would have willingly done such a terrible thing to herself, "Kakashi thinks it was a phoenix."
"Sakura-chan's a demon, too?"
"Sakura has a demon. Neither of you actually are ones," Iruka paused. It pained him to even think of the other one, what had happened to him, "Only Sasuke transformed himself into something terrible."
"Was it really worth that much? His mission…"
"Hmm…I suppose that's something Sasuke will have to decide for himself, now that he achieved his vengeance."
Naruto shot up in bed, his face drained white. Sasuke got his revenge? His only goal in life was complete??
The man who hurt Sakura had been there at the fight and he never even knew. Yet Sasuke was still able to fight and kill that man, despite how horribly Naruto had wounded him.
Iruka wasn't even able to call after him as Naruto bolted out of the room.
Sasuke watched her. He'd been watching her for a while now. It wasn't out of any great admiration or infatuation, only an almost unsettling fit of curiosity. Of necessity. Somehow he felt if he looked away, the image of her in his mind would slip away forgotten and irredeemable. Perched upon the windowsill, the choppy sunlight cast golden slivers through the blinds and distorted her features. Though it made her face harder to place, something about the light made her appealing. Just a little.
"There a reason you starin' at me that hard?" Yanagi puffed away on her tobacco.
"I don't think I'll remember who you are if I look away."
Yanagi finally climbed down to face him, to face Sasuke. Or rather, to face what should have been Sasuke. Even after his wounds were mostly closed up, he held all the color of a corpse lying stiffly on the hospital bed. Perhaps that, too, was somewhat of a false statement. Half of his face was not bleached, but was covered in the scrawled tattoos of the curse seal. The markings drew down along the left side of his body and were concealed beneath fresh bandages. Hidden.
"Guess it's just a matter a' time…"
…Before it eats away at you completely.
"Probably," Sasuke murmured, testing the phantom sensations in his consumed hand, "Do you know what's next, Captain?"
Yanagi raised an eyebrow, analyzing his words carefully. She grimly hoped he was being general. She couldn't say what would actually happen to Sasuke. She didn't have much knowledge at all when it came to this sort of thing. He really could make her feel very foolish.
"Grass Village," came her clipped response, "Ya gonna be able ta fight, with your arm like that?"
"I don't know."
The creases on her weathered face became more defined as she observed him. It was strange, really. Through the course of three years she had managed to take a wounded child, make him something akin to greatness, only to find everything back the way it had been at the beginning of their journey.
"You need painkillers?" she asked coolly, not at all concerned. She was never concerned.
"Being like this," he eyes the left side, eyed his flexing fingers that moved without his knowledge of their moving, "It feels like…paralysis."
Yanagi said nothing to that. She busied herself with disconnecting his limbs from the strange beeping machines and confusing tubes. Yanagi had never been treated at a hospital for any of her wounds. It was always locals that she took advantage of to help with her injuries, until she was old enough to take care of herself. An environment like this only gave her a sense of unease and mistrust. Even when Tsunade treated and bound the stab wound in her chest, it had made her uncomfortable. Yanagi had been left to her own devices afterwards, mostly consisting of keeping watch over that idiot Uchiha.
She could do without this place.
"You knew my broth—Itachi. Before," Sasuke trailed off and received a vague affirmation, "You used to be friends?"
"He used to be a lot of things."
"Why did everything change?"
She heard his other questions. Of course she was just like Itachi in many ways. She was a murderer and had no reason to feel upset or remorseful about that. Naturally, they were both intrigued by the other. However—
"He was a man waitin' his entire life for his killer. Was only a matter of time before he tried to make me that person," Yanagi exhaled heavily, smoke curling around her hazy features, "Somehow, I just couldn't be."
She pointed at a particularly ugly scar between ribs. It was an older scar, stretched out from signs of growth and age.
"It ain't much of a surprise though. I think it was fairly obvious he'd chosen his death long ago. Before this wound."
You've grown strong, Sasuke.
"I guess so…" he croaked, "There was no avoiding it."
"Ya shouldn't sound so bleak," Yanagi chided, though her voice sounded somewhat distant to him, "You've had your vengeance. Ain't ya a little bit happy 'bout that?"
Sasuke sat up; his movements were somewhat rigid. Somewhat mechanical. When his eyes focused on her form again, she finally found a part of him staring back. Something more than the emptiness – a deep sense of resignation. She did not find it to be at all welcoming.
"I don't feel anything."
"At least you's still alive," Yanagi spoke in a rushed murmur as she made way to the door. All without looking back. Never turning back.
" 'Still alive'…huh?"
Sasuke vaguely recognized someone else was with Yanagi at the threshold, someone who was watching him. He stared for a moment. And then another. He felt something pull at the muddled fragments of memory as he tried to piece everything together in his mind.
"Iruka-sensei told me you were alive, so I—He said you avenged your family—I, um—"
"Idiot," Sasuke mumbled, "Since when did you have so much trouble speaking?" The simple banter seemed familiar and put him at ease. They used to speak to each other more fluidly, without the strange stiffness of formality that seemed to be floating over them now. This was just theater now. They no longer knew how to relate as they once had. A lack of connection, a lack of remembrance. The bonds were snapped.
"What will you do now?"
"I'm leaving," Sasuke answered, more interested in seeing if he would be steady on his feet than answering questions.
"You completed your goal!" Naruto shot back, "Why the hell would you leave now?"
"I gave my word," he replied, remembered. She had left the room, but he could still remember. "Nothing binds me to this place, anyway. There's no point in staying."
"But this is your home!"
"There's no one waiting for me at home," Sasuke's voice bordered on a growl as he pushed past Naruto, "I won't return to this place again."
Sasuke stepped out into the hallway with full intent of stalking straight from this hellhole through the gates of this village. Never turning back. His senses were fuzzy and his mind was numb and his insides felt twisted but at least he could leave on his own.
And for Yanagi.
Perhaps not so much "on his own" as he'd like to believe.
"She would wait for you!" Naruto shouted down the hall, catching the attention of bystanders, "Sakura-chan would…"
Sasuke jolted to a halt and remained rooted in place, without motion. Without sound. Quietly feeling out the words, quietly recollecting her face. There was something stark and honest about those memories, something even the curse seal hadn't yet the chance to strip away from his mind.
Naruto couldn't find anything to say to that. What could he say to something like that? In all his life, he never once heard Sasuke acknowledge Sakura's feelings. The bastard knew she was sincere and he was still going to leave her behind regardless. He really could be cruel.
"We still haven't settled things between us," Naruto mumbled, "I didn't want it this way."
"You really are an idiot," Sasuke glanced over his shoulder, the pale half of his face showing, "There's no need to drag out this rivalry. You surpassed me years ago."
Naruto wholeheartedly refused to believe it. Sure, he could hold his own against Sasuke back when they were kids. Back, before he left. But there was no way the genius from the most prestigious clan--
That no longer exists.
--Lost to him. To Naruto, the village idiot--
Who holds the unfathomable power of the Nine Tails.
"So you're just gonna let it drop?" Naruto retorted, feeling his desperation swell, "You're not even gonna bother chasing me?"
"There's no reason. I was strong enough to…" There was no need to say the rest. Even Naruto could understand that. That's why he kept quiet when Sasuke turned away.
He couldn't help but sigh. With the light pouring through the doors ahead, he almost thought he could be free. But Sakura always had been a terribly stubborn girl. It was sort of funny that he could recall her so much more clearly than Naruto. Even more so than Yanagi. What a ruthless woman she could be.
"So…you're leaving now?" her voice was a sturdy brick house built on quicksand.
I thought you could use more rest.
How far will this take you from here?
This really is goodbye.
"Sasuke-kun…I'm really glad I got to see you again," she fidgeted at the hem of her hospital smock. She kept her eyes averted. She knew the seal had stolen some of him and that wasn't how she wished to remember him. "And—And I'm glad that you're free."
Sasuke visibly flinched at that word. Free? Was that what this was?
"Am I?" he spoke blandly, softly, "Am I free?"
He didn't need to look at her to know she was nodding fervently. Somehow he could sense her every movement, even if she was wrong about this. With the curse seal taking over, he knew there would be not even a bittersweet celebration for his so-called victory. He couldn't enjoy a drink due to his lost sense of taste. Every sound he heard echoed muffled and every color muted. He couldn't really feel half of his body anymore. He lost it somewhere along the way.
Though some part of his mind believed it could register the perfume Sakura used to like still clinging to her somehow—a phantom sensation.
"I won't forget any of this, Sasuke-kun," Sakura continued, "None of us were perfect but we survived. I swear I won't forget it. And I won't forget you."
"It would be better if you did," Sasuke answered, never turning back, "There's no longer reason to remember me, or what happened to you because of me. You've been avenged. That should be enough."
"This wasn't just about you," Sakura kept her voice composed despite her shaking hands, "We all made mistakes and endured a lot for our choices. But we learned and grew from it. Together…Like old times."
" 'Old times'…?" Naruto echoed softly. It had been a long time since the glory days of Team Seven. And those times were coming to an end, as soon as Sasuke walked through those doors and out of their lives forever.
And, as always, Kakashi kept watch over his students in the distance. He could even see across the hall as Ino cooed over the resting Shikamaru. At least there was some measure of happiness to be found in this lousy place.
"Is it really a good idea to let him go like that?" he asked the person leaning against the wall with him.
"Would you tell him 'no'?" Yanagi replied, exhaling her smoke.
"He's going to die out there."
Kakashi raised an eyebrow. Only a little while ago, she'd chase off anyone who tried to give Sasuke a paper cut. Now she was cold and uninterested as he was heading towards his death.
"It's gonna kill him anyhow, ya know. At least if he leaves now, it gives those other kids some hope that Uchiha might be alive years from now…If they don't see it happen," Yanagi explained, "It'd be pathetic ta watch him waste his last days in a place like this, anyway."
She was compassionate, more so than he ever expected of her. He shouldn't have been so surprised, really. Beneath the dirt and damaged skin was a woman who, above all things, was merely rather unfortunate. Kakashi wondered what sort of woman she might have been if raised under the care of this village.
"If he goes, then at least it's his own choice now."
There's no road laid out by Itachi.
Yanagi kept her face even. She killed the chill in her bones before it ran its course through her body.
His own choice…
"I—I guess nothing I say really matters to you, right?" Sakura faked an air of nonchalant humor, "But I hope you've found your peace."
"Maybe," Sasuke began unexpectedly, "Maybe you can sleep a little easier at night now."
Because I never will.
"I'm surprised you could tell," Sakura admitted. She knew that between her meticulous care to hide her insomnia and Sasuke's apathy, it was highly unlikely he would have noticed. But she supposed she should have expected it from the "Uchiha Genius." Somehow now that she was on the same level with the boys, she was sure she understood the isolation a little more. She wouldn't have enjoyed being called a genius for what she did with her power, either.
"Of course I noticed," Sasuke replied plainly, glancing back at her, "Your eyes never lie to me."
It was the Sharingan eye watching her, the possessed eye. The lost eye. The lost part of Sasuke he let go of for his ambition. The part that, in some way, was lost for her sake as well. She couldn't run away from this. She couldn't forget this sacrifice. She had to remember him this way, the true way. She steeled her hand and rested it against his bandaged arm. Cursed arm. Sasuke's arm.
"Good luck, Sasuke-kun," Sakura smiled warmly, making her own sacrifice.
"Sakura," he looked towards the door. Towards freedom. Never looking back. His other hand, the untainted one, covered her fingers absently. "Thank you."
Her bewilderment gave Sasuke opportunity to unfasten her fingers from his arm and perhaps their hands lingered together longer than necessary before he slipped out beyond the light. Perhaps.
Yanagi strolled past Sakura, ignoring her prettiness, before disappearing outside and came up along side Sasuke. She didn't need to say anything. Silence spoke volumes for them, or at least it had when Sasuke was Sasuke. But things were different now. He was different now. Nothing held him to this world except for his oath. He swore his loyalty to the Aohi and to her.
He accomplished his goal and climbed out of his cage only to find himself in a room with no windows and locked doors. And Yanagi held the keys. Even she, in the end, stole his freedom. It didn't really matter, she supposed. His freedom meant very little to her own survival. If keeping him bound to her kept her safe, then that was what had to be. But she'd promised him freedom, hadn't she? Just how considerate was she being to make him die in some stupid war when his battle was over? Though not much for scruples, he hadn't betrayed her and that earned some sort of compensation to keep things that way. It was purely a matter of principle. Maybe she should offer the courtesy Itachi had sought from her long ago, now that she had the strength for it.
Perhaps, peace for him was…
Catching a glance at his profile, she almost choked in surprise. His china white skin had been returned to its flawless form. There was no sign of the curse seal anywhere. Only dark eyes focused on the narrowing tunnel. He was still walking towards his grave.
All her drive seemed to drift away from her like smoke. No, he wasn't like Itachi. He didn't truly wish for…Yanagi had no words to offer, not even his last rites.
Naruto didn't know what to say now. She was the girl he'd sworn to protect, to make smile. Through with all the hurt he put her through, he wasn't even sure there were words to make everything better. Almost willing to just turn tail and walk away from it all, he couldn't help but glance once more at her. Something that possibly qualified as a laugh floated from her direction as he watched her shoulders quiver.
"I can't believe," Sakura clasped a hand over her mouth, catching her tears and hiding her awkward smile, "The old woman was right, after all."
Naruto could only nod vaguely. He didn't really know what Sakura was talking about but he wasn't really interested in hearing the back story. He was surprisingly tired, despite his wounds being closed. It was a soul weariness, the type that used to keep him awake at night. It had been easier to ignore when she comforted him and let him pretend everything was all right.
But then again, he was the one who instantly tried to fill the hole with someone else when she was gone. He only ended up hurting yet another person, rather than helping any of them. After all, it wasn't like he was able to support Sakura the way that guy could.
Sasuke, you're wrong. I'll never catch up to you, not where it counts.
Naruto shuffled off in the other direction, never turning back.
Her voice caught him by surprise and stopped him dead in his tracks.
"Are we…still friends?"
The word "friend" was a jolt to the system, and not so much in the way he had anticipated from her. It hurt to let his lips curl upward, but it was a different hurt than from before. It was the transition that hurt, not the way either felt towards the other. Change was never easy but with it came strength and if there was anything Naruto held pride in, it was growing stronger. He could run at these growing pains head-on if he had to.
"Dummy," he gave his infamous fox grin, "What are you still doing here?"
Sakura blinked wildly. That hadn't exactly been what she expected. If he was going to say no, the least he could do was be cold. Though, perhaps this was just part of her punishment.
"How come you're standing here talking to me and not chasing after that idiot? He's gonna end up doing something stupid if you leave him alone for too long."
Naruto--!! All along, you've…
"It's not my choice to make," Sakura admitted thoughtfully, "There are things that can be changed, and things that can't. He has to walk his own path. But someday, if he should return to this place, we'll welcome him with open arms. Right?"
"Can--Can we have ramen then?"
"Of course," her smile was honest, yet somehow unfamiliar. It had been too long.
Sakura went her own way, leaving Naruto to his own devices. Outside the sun was high and bright overhead. People changed but at least the sun was still warm.
"Everyone's gone their separate ways, it seems."
"I guess I owe you an even bigger apology than Sakura-chan," Naruto turned to face Hinata.
"It couldn't be helped," she replied blandly, "The Akatsuki were using you as a pawn. You're hardly at fault for what happened."
"…That's not what I meant."
Hinata let the silence simmer for a bit, let the wind talk for them. It was time to get right to the point, even if it was him. They were beyond the fear now. No sense in being shy.
"We…We were both very drunk the other night. No one is to blame for that, either."
"Is it okay? To leave things like this."
"What do you want to come of this?" Hinata played the aloof card. If she were distant, it would hurt less.
Naruto wasn't sure how to answer the question. What, exactly, did he want? Attention? Sex? …Acceptance?
He swallowed hard and braced himself. Maybe it was time people knew the truth.
"I'm the fox demon, you know."
"I know. Jiraiya-sama told me," Hinata answered, "But that's not what I asked you."
"You—you don't care?" Naruto knew he was shaking. This had to be a trick. Even though Hinata wasn't that kind of girl, there was no way she could brush off what he said so easily. "Didn't you hear what I just said? I'm the—"
"So what?" she answered briskly, "You were the fox the other night. And you were the fox during our Academy days while you were pulling pranks. Knowing now what you've been all along doesn't change who you are or what I've thought of you."
"I've—I've watched you for a long time now, Naruto. I've always a-admired your strength and I think I was able to change from watching you grow as a person."
Naruto braced his hand against the wall, his head felt light and dizzy. He knew he was a little slow and often had difficulty noticing things but he really could be an idiot.
"I'm very tired from everything so I'm going to get some rest before my next mission," Hinata turned away, "Goodbye—"
Naruto grasped desperately onto her wrist, but couldn't raise his eyes when she glanced back at him with a quizzical expression.
"Na, Hinata," Naruto murmured, praying her eyes wouldn't notice his flushed face, "Do you think, maybe we could, try together…to…um…"
Her hand slithered away from his grip, leaving him hanging in disappointment before her fingers intertwined with his. They didn't need to say it aloud to make it official. Slowly, and a little awkwardly, they were going to try.
Yes, we could try together…
Despite her earlier misgivings, Yanagi eventually stopped complaining and allowed herself to be spoiled with a decent meal and some necessary supplies. Or at least she stopped complaining about the food. She had yet to cease tugging at the collar of her shirt, however. It was a bit stiff from disuse but at least it was dry and not a hole to be found in it.
"Not that it's my business," Yanagi peered down at the deep hue of the fabric, "But why do you got a lady's shirt like this, anyway?"
"It was my mother's."
No further explanation was necessary. She hardly felt embarrassed for asking, even if it was probably a sore subject for him. That was Yanagi for you, though. Her questions were always exact and she always expected the response to be the same. Small talk was never something she really favored. Especially now that the gates were looming in the distance, it was a time for planning battle strategies and not for mindless chatter.
Even so, her mind was buzzing with thoughts that had no place or familiarity. Somehow the world she once knew had changed after she arrived in this village. Or, perhaps, she was the one who changed. Her stride became a shuffle and her shuffle became still. A few steps later and Sasuke, too, came to a stop.
"What're you fightin' for?"
"I promised you, didn't I?" he answered wearily, "I'm not gonna back out now, if that's what you're afraid of."
Yanagi was wrong. The door had been open all along, but Sasuke was too damn stubborn to walk through it by himself.
Was he really going through with this for her sake?
"Ya know you prob'ly gonna die if ya go," Yanagi's voice became hard.
"There's not much I can do about that now," he answered grimly, "I sold my soul to get here. Nothing I've done will go by without a price."
She smacked him hard enough to force him off balance, indigo eyes now piercing daggers. He did, however, manage to look rather surprised anyway.
"I thought you was a man of your word."
"I almost gave my life for ya."
Self-sacrifice was always rather noble in principle. But this was something more than dying for a cause. Members of the Aohi were selfish. People without any remote sense of ethics or morals, so long their choices kept them alive. Yanagi, more than anyone, wouldn't care who died if it meant she would live. She would likely kill him if it meant her safety, and yet—
"Why did you do all of this for me?"
"We had a deal, didn't we?" Yanagi took an irritated drag, "I'd buy your freedom and all ya had ta do was stay alive. Now you ready to go and die stupidly, throwin' everything I did for ya back in my face."
"But what about the Akatsuki? The Grass Village—"
"I said I'd set ya free. I said I'd teach ya to deal with the curse a little better. I never promised ta keep ya by my side."
Sasuke visibly paled. After everything he went through, he thought he at least could rely on Yanagi to be there.
"What are you talking about?" he covered his uncertainty with anger, "But you need me—"
"Need you?" Yanagi echoed, "I'm much stronger than ya, especially now that your body is such a mess. What would I need ya for?"
Yanagi shifted her travel pack against her shoulder and moved past him. Hopefully he would get the picture.
You've grown strong, Sasuke.
He spun her around and noticed how surprised she managed to look before kissing her.
"What the hell're—" Sasuke cut her off again, holding her upper arms tightly while his mouth was pressed against hers.
"Don't do this to me," he murmured harshly, not letting go, "Don't you dare say you don't need me."
Don't tell me I'm worthless.
"I'm not going to be left behind again."
Don't abandon me.
"I can't fix this. But'cha already know that," Yanagi pushed him back just hard enough to put some space between them. She could see the futility in his actions. This wasn't at all about her or the Aohi per say, so much as what that aspect of his life meant to him. She knew what he really wanted to say.
I don't want to be alone anymore.
"I thought we had a deal, Captain," his fists were shaking at his sides, his eyes kept averted, "I doubt my leaving was part of our agreement."
"They say real freedom," Yanagi paused, heavily contemplating her words for a change, "Is having a place to return to."
"But what does that mean?" he was losing his patience and his temper now.
"You idiot," Yanagi mumbled, "You's already free."
"What are you talking about?" he shouted, "How has anything changed!?"
"Because ya still got someplace to call home!"
Sasuke was just stone-still frozen. Yanagi was actually angry with him right now. She was always so cool about everything, but not now. Then again, she never tried to leave him behind before. Now she stood before him with her fists balled up at her sides and her face all scrunched up to contain her simmering temper. Had he been this much of a burden to her all along?
"But what about you?"
"What about me?" Yanagi smoked leisurely, watching the gray disappear in the blinding sun.
"When will you be free?"
Yanagi turned away from him. She'd already wasted too much time and effort having this cyclical argument with him. "I got only one path in front a' me. I'm off ta fight again."
He encircled her from behind this time. He certainly wasn't handling this with the composure she expected of him. "Stay."
"Stay in Konoha," he murmured by her ear, "The Leaf will likely grant you amnesty. You don't need to run anymore. You can--"
"I'm a criminal, Uchiha," Yanagi stated flatly, "I can't unmake my choices in life. I, too, gotta face the consequences and see this through to the end."
Sasuke couldn't hold onto her anymore. There was nothing he could do to make her stop. Anything more and she would likely knock him out flat.
"What am I supposed to do?"
"What else? Go home."
Was it really that simple? Just "go home"? Home to the agony of an empty house, where he would waste his days? Surely Yanagi would be kind enough to let his death be swift and relatively painless on the battlefield.
I don't want to be alone anymore.
"If ya hate bein' indebted ta people so much, what've ya done ta pay her back?"
The jolt from her words almost knocked the wind from him. Of all things, he really didn't think Yanagi would bring that up.
"I was the cause of a lot of grief for her. It's not something to be revisited."
"She almost gave her life for ya, too," Yanagi reminded him, pulling up not so much recent memories but images of a violent hotel room from years ago, "Will you really leave things the way they are?"
"I avenged her. There's nothing more I can do."
"She can save you," Yanagi's words hung heavy in the air, heavier on his mind, "Don't think I didn't notice what happened at the hospital today. You's in debt ta her again."
"I don't know if it was Sakura that made the curse go into recession," Sasuke admitted, denied.
"Ya can't forget about her and ya know it."
Sasuke didn't bother arguing with her. She knew him better than he knew himself. She always had been aware that Sakura could always find her way into his thoughts, despite his best efforts to do away with those memories over the last three years.
"I made a promise. I would help you defeat the curse seal," Yanagi ground out her cigarette, "So go keep your word."
She could sense his hesitation. The poor, pathetic kid was such an emotional sap sometimes. Now he was approaching from behind again. He always was dense when it came to listening to anything she said—
Yanagi stiffened and reluctantly attempted to relax as she felt something cool secured around her head. Her calloused fingers brushed against the etched metal and cool silk of the forehead protector, causing her to whirl around in question.
"Yanagi," Sasuke extended his hand, "Don't ever change."
She took it with a bit of hesitation and shook back. There was a point in life where both might have clung to the other after a long day of struggling that faded into a drunken, hazy evening. Now the distance between them was swelling. No matter how close, they could never reach each other again the way they once had.
"It's time to live for yourself now, so don't take the freedom I'll give ya for granted, Sasuke."
Yanagi pulled away and Sasuke watched her fade with the Uchiha symbol marking her back as she disappeared into the distance. It wasn't until she was gone and the gates slammed shut that he realized she had finally called him by his first name. It wouldn't be until later in life that he realized she had just vowed to continue her quest to keep her promise.
Yanagi had only the road before her, only the road that loved her. It was the return to gray skies and mundane battles. Gone was her long-time rival, gone was her long-time companion. The wind was kind enough to kick up the dirt path and cover her skin with ageless dust. She vigorously rubbed her face with the back of her hand as her tears left tracks down her smudged features.
"You's a fool," she choked softly, "You always been a fool."
What troubled her more than anything was by now she could no longer tell if she was crying for him. Or, perhaps, she had been weakened enough by him so that, for the first time in her life, she wept for herself.
He ran. He couldn't explain the sense of urgency pulsing in his veins. It seemed there was more to it than trying to outrun his sense of loss. Everything he had ever known was gone. The family he loved was dead. The woman that stripped away every ounce of dignity and carefully built wall that surrounded him earned his hard-bought trust. And walked away with it.
He had nothing to fight for anymore and nothing certain to return to. It had been ten years since he last lived without gut-wrenching ambitions. But before that, he had been an ignorant child. Now that everything was over, how was he supposed to just go back? There was nothing familiar anymore. Even if she was waiting for him, she too, was different.
If she was waiting for him.
I hope you've found your peace.
I won't forget you.
Sasuke frantically threw open the door to his house and raced in, not caring that it was unlocked. He already knew why it was open. Or so he believed the reason to be. Instincts were funny that way.
The noise startled Sakura and she pulled back from her task, leaving a few stray tears scattering through the air. "Wha—Why-I--" Sakura stuttered.
"What are you doing here?" Sasuke blurted out, his breath a tad ragged after racing back.
"I—Um—" Sakura struggled to compose herself, "I heard they might finally try to sell off the property around here. And I didn't want your things to just get thrown away. So I…"
Sasuke took note of the cardboard box that Sakura had been filling. He vaguely found it amusing that it only took her a few hours to bring herself to this place. Even though he told her it would have been better for her to forget, Sakura took the first chance she had to surround herself with everything that reminded her of him. She always was amazingly stubborn.
"Did—Did you forget something? Supplies?" Sakura tried to make herself seem busy, distant.
"Oh…Is Yanagi-san waiting outside?"
"She's gone," Sasuke replied plainly and something twinged inside at the thought.
" 'Gone'?" Sakura echoed, "Where are you meeting her then?"
Sasuke scrounged up a cigarette, hoping it would settle his nerves. The rapid unraveling of his world was enough to make the curse seal burn beneath his skin. Smoking would be a decent distraction for now.
"I'm not meeting up with her," he answered, "She left."
He watched the confusion in her features shift into full bloom. She was a smart girl but had more than enough reason to be skeptical. Why she was even here tending to his things, he just couldn't fathom. She was cynical enough now to actually believe he hadn't intended to return to this place.
"Sasuke-kun?" There it was. The faint sliver of hope glistened in her eyes. Jade eyes. Sakura's eyes.
"I…I'm home," he murmured. Sakura concealed her disbelief behind clasped hands. Was she dreaming? It couldn't be real, could it?
But here stood before her a weary man, one who endured so much pain and hardship. After spending all these years running from home, running from everyone and from himself, he finally had enough. He finally returned to them.
Even in her dazed state, an anxious smile tugged at her lips as she stared up at him. It had been too long.
Both moved through their deep state of numbness, every breath feeling more surreal than the last. Sasuke didn't bother to put up any sort of protest when Sakura suggested he get some rest. He had years to catch up on and, in all honesty, he wasn't all that sure what he was supposed to be doing with his time now anyway. As he stared up at the unchanged ceiling, he couldn't help but be aggravated by the silence, the stillness. There used to be soft breath near his ear and now there was nothing and his bed felt cold. Yanagi really was a bitch right to the very end.
It had been so long since he last truly slept. The nightmares and recollections were still there but the threats were empty. The past was irreversible and his future was too uncertain, so much so that a nightmare could never seem nearly as intimidating. Groggily he awoke to sunshine that blurred in the early morning fog. Had he really slept that long? Not that he was in a rush to be anywhere at the moment, and his body ached as it did on most mornings, but he somehow couldn't lie peacefully in bed even though he finally had the chance.
He stumbled dumbly through his once familiar house, mindlessly rubbing at the curse seal to ease its sting. Combat not included, the curse was always most debilitating first thing in the morning. Making his way towards the kitchen, he could smell freshly cooked fish. Some part of his clouded mind almost believed he's just awoken from the most horrid of dreams and that his mother had breakfast waiting for him.
Entering the room, he found his meal as Sakura poured some tea.
"I thought you might be hungry," she mumbled before she continued to pick at her own food.
"I didn't know you were still here," Sasuke stated plainly. She flinched slightly at the sound of his voice but didn't say anything in return and so Sasuke took his seat in silence. Though somehow he couldn't help but feel guilty, knowing that Yanagi and many other Aohi were starving at this very moment. Grass Village wasn't that far from here. How was the fight going, he wondered. Was the village saved already? Or was it a victory for the Akatsuki? He cut the train of thought off when he felt the seal hum with activity again. It had cooled somewhat when he came into the room but he refused to believe Sakura had anything to do with it. If that were the case, these negative thoughts wouldn't be upsetting the curse as much as they were. Now matter how much conviction Sakura might possess, it couldn't make his rage subside so easily.
"You had a companion by your side through these long years," Sakura spoke up and Sasuke paused in poking dispassionately at his food, "After all that time with someone by your side, I thought it would be lonely for you to wake up alone."
Sasuke set down his chopsticks, obviously dismissing himself.
"I'm sorry—I didn't mean to upset you," Sakura managed to spit out, already cursing herself and her misplaced words. It had been so long since she had even heard her inner voice…
He couldn't outwardly say why he was so angry with her reasoning. Perhaps it was because she was just so perceptive, he realized. But this was his life now, the life he had chosen. Gone was the bottom-of-the-barrel lifestyle he had scraped together for the last three years, which had still been better than the meaningless existence he'd struggled through for the seven previous. This was going to be different, and while unable to attain the dream from before ten years ago, it was supposed to be okay now. Yet it all seemed so impossibly hard.
Guilt aside, he should have at least been allowed to enjoy his hot meal now.
Wordlessly rising from the table, he slapped his hand over the mark with a muttered curse in accompaniment before crouching down again. He carried this curse for five years now and "recession" or not, there was no way his body got off clean after the years of abuse he dragged it through. And yet, somehow, the hurt felt different from before. Somewhat unsubstantial, somewhat unnecessary.
Had he not been at such an overwhelmingly drained state, he wouldn't have been caught off-guard by her approach. Sasuke racked his brain for any words that could drive her away but found himself lacking.
She can save you.
He may have found a lot of what Yanagi said to be true and full of wisdom, but he was never one to blindly follow anyone. The Captain was an extraordinary human being but was far from infallible. Whatever dues he owed Sakura, he paid by coming back. He was going to stay in Konoha 'til the end of his days, 'til the curse seal ate him whole. It was the best he could do. He knew what Yanagi had implied and that was not something he had in himself to give.
"I know you haven't really had a chance to let things sink in," Sakura's voice was soft by his side, "But I can't sit quietly and watch you torture yourself like this. It—it's okay now…So don't hurt yourself anymore."
She pried his hand out of place and pressed her own palm against the searing flesh. Cursed flesh. Sasuke's flesh. His knee-jerk impulse was to pull away and curse at her for getting near him. If their record was anything of importance to her, she should have remembered how dangerous he could get when she was close. Or so he had been. Her hand rubbed soothingly against the mark and he felt strangely warm, nurtured almost. As if energy were flowing into him, like chakra…
"What are you…"
"My dumb choice wasn't so dumb in the end," her voice tried to maintain the distance, clinical, "The power of the phoenix—It has great healing capabilities, so far as mystical afflictions go. Tsunade-sama says that with a little bit of training, I'll easily surpass what even she can do with that sort of treatment."
She can save you.
Perhaps infallible was the right word, after all. Somehow Yanagi's instincts let her find the one thing, the one person, who could keep the seal in check. It wouldn't heal completely, and he was sure both Sakura and Yanagi alike must have realized that. But this would be enough to get by. Because he had to survive and keep his promise. And now—
"I don't know what I'm supposed to do now in return," Sasuke admitted grimly, "I'm not accustomed to undeserved kindness."
Sakura's hand paused as she pondered the thought. What could she ever ask of him in return? He survived his mission and was home now. To require anything more of him would be selfish on her part. However…
"Be content with your life," Sakura finally answered, "That's all I could ever ask."
Awkward as it was, he couldn't stop himself from bringing her close into his embrace. "Is it really?" Sasuke's voice was small and uncertain against her shoulder, "Is it really okay now?"
Sakura sounded her affirmation, biting her lip in attempts to hold back her tears as she clung tighter to him. Her fingers wound through his dark hair, memorizing its texture, as this was likely a last time. She wouldn't be so foolish as to get her hopes up again. If she learned anything from Sasuke, it was that his tenderness was always fleeting.
"Sakura," He somehow pressed her closer still, so very faintly trembling against her.
She stiffened in his arms, almost waiting for the dream to end. This calm simplicity was so foreign to both of them, almost to the point of being unsettling. Please don't let me wake.
Feeling a little bolder than was probably of any use to either of them, Sakura leaned forward and pressed her lips against his forehead, her mind swimming when he didn't pull away. His pressed against her back and caused Sakura to unexpectedly flinch, a hiss of suppressed pain sneaking through. Sasuke realized he shouldn't have been surprised as he was. After the hell of fighting and considering how stiff and sore his own body was, it wasn't much of a shock that she likely felt the same.
"My body hasn't adjusted yet," Sakura murmured, "To the seal Kakashi-sensei placed on me."
Show me how much you changed. Show me how much more you became like me.
"Eh?" Sakura's face flushed. Was he serious? She recalled his ease around Yanagi, clothed or not, and decided that sort of thing probably didn't embarrass him the way it did her. She didn't find any change of expression in his features and accepted that his request was out of genuine curiosity over the seal. It was something he could relate to and that was a rarity in this world. Who was she to deny him such a connection?
Sakura turned away from him, her body burning with shyness as she slipped her dress down to her waist. "I—I'm sure it's not much to look at," Sakura's voice wavered, her hands gripping nervously at her rumpled fabric, "Probably just some scrawled characters or something, huh?" Sakura couldn't speak anymore after his callused fingers brushed against her skin.
"You have wings."
Tattooed into her flesh was a pair of scarlet-feathered wings covering her back. Detailed enough so that it almost appeared that she might spread them and fly away towards that new life she had also been granted after that man's death. Sasuke wondered if he, too, could go to that place with her.
Shivers ran up her spine after Sasuke brushed aside hair from her nape, his breath a warm ghost against her skin. Her body was so exhausted from everything and wanted so desperately to just give in. But they finally reached a crossroad and she could not let such a choice be so readily made.
"Sasuke-kun?" This is the final jumping point. What do you want from this life?
Who are you doing this for?
She knew he was now rigid from the unexpected question before he answered. "Isn't this what you wanted?"
"Is this what you wanted?"
The silence drifted back and forth between them, heavy with contemplation. No matter how many years or miles passed, at least the silence remained the same.
"You're free now, Sasuke-kun," Sakura remained steadfast, "Don't do this for me or for Yanagi-san or out of any obligation you feel you have. If it doesn't mean anything to you, then there's no point!"
"I used to think of you, during my time away…" Sasuke begrudgingly admitted, "Because there wasn't anything else pleasant to dwell on."
Her shoulders began to quiver, as they usually did around him. Now matter how strong she became, he could rip down all her carefully crafted defenses with a few words. He really was cruel.
"I hadn't planned on returning here or seeing you again, but I think you must have known that," Sasuke began, his voice a low shaking, "I did a lot of terrible things, some of which you know. Most I'd rather you didn't. And yet you've remained so loyal to me—Almost died because of me and for me. Why are you still so devoted to me?"
"Because our years together as a team were the most fulfilling of my life."
Sasuke took a jolt to the senses, an unaccustomed feeling. He'd always known Sakura had been a little different than the other girls in Konoha that were always screaming their "love confessions" to him when they were younger. But today, her words held such a sharp sincerity to them. Or perhaps today was the first time he ever completely acknowledged their honesty.
"Because you always show that at least a small part of you cares for me, and because your happiness means everything to me."
She turned around meekly to face him, though neither held any awareness in regard to her bare chest. If there was anything in this world Sasuke could rely on, it was her eyes. Her chin wobbled as she tried to be strong in front of him, but he wasn't noticing her faults or strengths. Only her devotion.
"Because I could never forget the way you feel."
It takes years to build a city. It takes moments to topple it.
Sakura made no protests when he scooped her up into his arms and had no more arguments when his mouth found hers. Stumbling blindly and entangled to his room, the world faded away and the bottom dropped out. It was a frightening experience, to take that dive. The phantom fears that plagued both their minds were fresh wounds that almost made this moment seem too impossible. Was his mission finally over? Was he here to stay? Was it safe to get close to her, after everyone else had been taken away from him?
She stared up at him quizzically, her hair spread around her and her sweat-slicked skin holding a slight flush. Her eyes searching his, asking the same questions as he did, and most of all wondering if she were dreaming. He found his way inside, etching her look of wonderment into his mind. He leaned in just above her face, trying to absorb all she was through the look in her eyes. "Sakura," he murmured, "I'm home."
Her hands caressed his skin, the nails grazing across now and again. In the gentlest of touches, she could feel his thoughts. In the simplest of phrases, she could hear his confession. And suddenly, this house no longer felt so cold. Nor did his heart.
There was no longer a lost soldier and a girl that made foolish, desperate choices. There was no longer an abandoned child and a lovesick idealist. There was only a man and a woman.
And that was enough.
She lost track of how much time had passed. The days had been filled with muddy trenches and she could taste blood in her liquor and even the piss stank of death. Her fellow crewmembers objected to her continuing active duty, now that she had not an ounce of meat on her weary bones. She imagined months had passed, or even more believable, over a year. But being the stubborn fool she was, she took it straight to the end. Now those days were gone and not a single person connected to the Akatsuki was left alive on this damned earth.
The soldiers were already talking of the "glory days" over a few pints and reminiscing of a time when they actually had a purpose. With everything said and done, just what exactly were they supposed to do? They weren't so ignorant as to see the cancellation of the execution orders as anything but tenuous, at best. When prompted with what their plans as a group should be, their captain gave a lopsided and borderline grin over the rim of her mug. She, of course, told them to live their own way and to not feel obligated to stick around if they could find a better deal, especially one without cockroaches in their beds.
They weren't really that happy with such a choice. They didn't have anything to go back to and needed the Aohi to be their home. And what of her? There was just one final piece of business she needed to clear up. They could make plans for all the adventures they could handle when she returned. Then they could try to find their place in the world. With a final wave of her hand, she exited the bar and towards the road of her most important mission.
It led her to the place she was standing before now. To be honest, she had almost expected something a little more luxurious or foreboding. Though the rumor said Itachi had been much stronger than the man waiting inside. She brushed aside some rain-slicked strands of hair and drew her sword. Here's to promises.
He looked towards the general direction of the noise with mild irritation. What exactly were those idiots doing at this time of night? The door to his bed chamber flew open and in stumbled a figure shadowed by the lightning and candlelight.
"O—Orochimaru-sama…" a guard choked as blood spewed profusely from his mouth before he hit the ground. In return, Orochimaru only raised an eyebrow over the display. Well this was certainly an unexpected turn of events, though perhaps with those mercenaries picking off all those other rogue ninja, it had only been a matter of time before someone else dared to be stupid enough to show up here.
"They say you don't use any jutsu now."
The voice was rough, female coming from the doorway. Her silhouette betrayed a slight and likely bedraggled figure. "And what of it?" he questioned with a hint of amusement. She seemed quite the interesting little fool.
"Good. Neither do I."
Finally in range of the firelight, he found his curiosity piqued by the Konoha headband so brazenly bound in place. He really hadn't expected them to send a team into his own domain. And judging by her likely age, he had the sneaking suspicion she was not a Leaf ninja by any means.
"Hmm, a mercenary?"
"Somethin' like that," she lit a cigarette off the candle flame.
"What brings you here, my dear?"
"You remember a kid named Uchiha?"
Oh, so that's who this was. He'd heard that a few years ago, his prized Sasuke had wormed his way into the rankings with the infamous "Immortal," as they called her. And this must be that very same young woman. How very intriguing.
"If ya don't mind, I didn't come ta talk," she bluntly announced. Ah, it didn't seem he minded the proposition of a good ol' fight, either. And for someone who's arms were supposedly rendered useless, he certainly wasn't going down as simply as she anticipated. Maybe she was getting old.
But after all the research she'd done to prepare of this assassination, no one had been thoughtful enough to tell her that his sword "Kusanagi" actually shot out of his mouth. Jammed through her chest right up to the hilt, a spray of crimson doused the room from the ugly wound. Orochimaru carelessly yanked the blade out and stepped back to admire his work, not expecting her to be alive and certainly not capable of getting a strong grip on his hair. His sword had just been retracted and all the speed and all the talent in the world wouldn't make it fly out fast enough before she removed his head clean from his shoulders.
This was a new kind of hurt, she realized. She stumbled with terrible urgency through the corridors and out the door and into the rain. Every second was soaked in agony as she felt the shadows creeping up around her. After all her hard work, she really hadn't thought it would all end so stupidly. This man wasn't even her enemy. And yet she came of her own accord, out of a sense of duty to see things through to the end.
Every warrior innately knew that if you lived by the blade, you died by the blade. It was just the way things worked. But after all the lives she took, they always seemed to go so quickly. But here she was with doubled over on her knees in the pouring rain vomiting all over the ground, her voice raking her throat to shreds. It was a horrendous experience. She didn't want it to be long. She didn't want it to hurt. She didn't want to die in such a place.
Collapsing back against part of a stone wall that still stood, Yanagi fished out a cigarette and enjoyed the familiarity of it between her lips. She raised her face skyward and let the rain embrace her; the final touch from another old friend.
And when old friends came to mind, she couldn't stop herself from recalling him. From recalling both of them, really. Those stupid brothers.
"I would've liked to have one more drink with you."
Epilogue: The Letters I Never Sent
We should have known something happened that night. Something made him wake in a cold sweat with a terrifying jolt, gasping for air like a drowning victim. His nightmares had become somewhat infrequent and never so petrifying. Without even so much as a curse, he sped down the hall into the bathroom and held on for dear life to the corner of the sink, trying frantically to splash water on his fevered face. Luckily I was there to catch him before he hit the floor with convulsions that bordered on a seizure. I couldn't recall a time in the last few months that I had been so afraid.
"It's gone," he whispered as he calmed into light shakes and clung to me for what must have been hours. It wasn't until the next morning that we concluded without a doubt that the curse seal was gone. Not a recession of any kind, it had disappeared entirely. The unexpected loss had sent his body into shock not so dissimilar from a junkie's withdrawal. Those first couple of days was the hardest but, like a tornado, its signs just vanished completely into thin air.
Relief was our next state, knowing that the only way it could have left was with the death of Orochimaru. I had the slightest of worries that he would no longer want me by his side since I no longer needed to tend to his curse. Those doubts, too, shifted into relief as his affections towards me were not deterred by the change. Though, perhaps, we should have been on our guard for the other news.
A week and some days had passed since the seal was deactivated when it arrived on our doorstep. There was nothing formal or special about the token at first glance. An object hastily wrapped in rice paper had the name "Uchiha" scrawled in what appeared to be a child's penmanship. The item inside was a Konoha headband with a few splotches of old blood crusted on the metal. Sasuke dropped the rice paper.
Uchiha was the only word that woman ever learned to write.
Things haven't been the same since that day. His feelings for me have not faded and he can still find a natural smile when in good company. But in the subtle, I can see the change.
He dreams of her still, I think, and sometimes I find myself jealous. Not in the fact that she is on his mind and partly in his heart, but that she was simply so remarkable a person. I hadn't known her well at all and he rarely spoke of her in any of our time together but I envy her strength in some ways. Though he reminds me that I am me and that in itself is beautiful enough. I am what he wants me to be without having to change myself to fit those needs.
But on those nights when he cannot escape all she was for him and all she was able to change for him, I watch him from a distance. He chooses usually to sit in an open windowsill, despite that it's usually raining on these days. He smokes quietly and indulges in good sake, making a silent offering in her name. More likely than anything else, I imagine he is pondering all the other words she never could write to him. I wonder what she would say?
You're a free man capable of leading the dream life that haunted you during our time together. You can't unlive your life or take back your actions. There's never been a definite right or wrong in any of this so take it all in stride and relish it. So long as you've got a meal in your belly, a roof over your head, and that woman who loves you despite everything you've done and everything you didn't do, you've succeeded. No matter how many scars you earn, there's no such thing as failure unless you lay down. But I know I taught you better than to do somethin' like that. So long as you're at peace now, none of this was a waste.
The Konoha Memorial is something of sacred importance to the Leaf shinobi, for there is no greater honor than at the end of your days to have your name inscribed upon that stone. Now a new hero has found her place. She never learned how to write her own name. She was never even someone you could say was pretty. But Yanagi was gracefully carved there, for no one could ever remember a woman who lived more beautifully than she. She followed her path to the end and found her way back to Uchiha, because wherever he lived was home for her.
And that was good enough.
Author's Notes: I'll start off first by thanking anyone who supported this fic. It was my first shot at fan fiction and it was also an experimental writing style for me, at that. So some of it was pretty good, some of it was a little weird. But now that I finally revised it, I can't really say that it's terrible...
I ended up using Yanagi, a character I've had in my head for an original (non-ninja) story and wanted to try fleshing out her character in this as Sasuke's support. I hadn't expected her to be such a monster of a character. I thought about cutting her out since I don't care for most OCs, but then decided I wanted to try something else. What if I were to take a series of ideas considered "awful and cliche" in fan fiction and breathe new life into them? I used an OC, I had Sakura attacked by Itachi (as twisted as that was), I did a time jump, there was drinking/smoking, etc. But I wanted to prove a point that these are great ideas when used effectively. It seems like most writers here on either put very little effort, grow very lazy with their work, or post every last scrap they've written. I've been writing for a long time now and must have a word count approaching half a million words that will never see the light of day. I'm a huge language dork so unless it's rather good, I don't show it to anyone. So you'll never see a "I know this sucks but read it" statement from me. I know it's hard to find quality writing out there so I definitely don't want to add to the sea of bad writing. I'm far from a perfect writer, but I think I learned a lot from working on this piece.
Despite poor health, I am currently trying to complete a prequel to this story entitled "The Second Birth." It's an attempt to explore the relationship between Itachi and Yanagi, though it would have to disregard the current manga chapters…I hope someday to write another epic about the current manga events.
Hope you enjoyed this. Thanks for putting up with the neverending chapter.