Back when I first started writing this, I asked myself two questions; what would the long term effects of the Kyuubi's chakra really be- and what if Sasuke never came back?
You know, I never thought- well, clearly, that's nothing new- but I never thought it would end like this.
Sorrows and Rejoicings
Naruto could make out the dim, hulking shapes of the hospital machinery in the darkness of the room; here and there a red or green light blipped, little visual cries for help sounding from the depths of the machine. The steady hiss and shush of the respirator kept him company in the dark.
His arm ached a little in the place where they'd taped the needle; otherwise, he felt fine, really. Tired, though. Too tired to sleep, and too tired to stay awake much longer.
The room was lonely; he hadn't wanted to die like this, flat on his back in a hospital bed, too tired to move.
It was cancer, and something like chronic fatigue, caused by the strange mixing of human and inhuman chakra in his body. It was a little like Sasuke's curse seal, they'd told him, only no one had really known the outcome of sealing such a powerful demon into a mere human. Everyone knew what the curse seal would do to Sasuke. Tapping into the fox-demon's chakra had only quickened the inevitable, and by the time he realized there was anything wrong, it was too late.
Tsunade had yelled at him for not coming to her when he first started feeling sick; he knew it was bad when she apologized for yelling, and refused to meet his eyes. Sakura had done her best to hide the fact that she was crying, but in the end she'd broken down. He'd held her as she cried, when she made him promise not to give up, no matter what.
Knowing he was going to break another promise to her had hurt more than the realization that he was going to die.
He sort of wished Sasuke were here, so he could have someone to be angry at. He couldn't blame Yondaime for sealing the fox inside of him, and he couldn't blame the fox- Naruto knew far too well what it felt like to be blamed for something that wasn't his fault. The kyuubi didn't begrudge him chakra anymore when he needed the strength, but a human body couldn't reverse the process of making chakra- he couldn't turn the foxes' spirit into stamina and strength.
If Sasuke were here, they'd yell at each other. Sasuke would say that there was no way he could be rivals with someone so weak, and he would say that Sasuke was just bitter because Sakura liked him better now, and he'd always be stronger, no matter what, and neither of them would mean it but they'd yell anyway, just to remind themselves and each other that they were still alive.
He missed that a lot, sometimes.
He was still alive in the morning, and every day was like that, now- "Today is August Twenty-Seventh, and the Sixth Hokage is Still Alive and Feeling Well Enough to Eat Breakfast." He didn't eat much, but it made Sakura smile. She didn't smile enough anymore, not the way she used to. None of his visitors ever did.
Kakashi-sensei had stopped coming to visit after they'd removed his left eye. The cancer was insidious, appearing in the strangest places all over his body, without warning or pattern; he'd felt his vision going before they'd realized what was happening. The healers had removed his eye to keep it from spreading to his mouth, or his brain, or his skin. They were removing him, piece by piece; eventually there would be nothing left. Just a lot of quiet, blinking machinery and a battered hitai-ate hidden under the pillow. He wasn't allowed to wear it anymore, but he hadn't let them take it away; he needed something to hold onto at night.
Iruka-sensei still visited every day after his classes. He used to talk about his students, and how none of their pranks had ever measured up to Naruto's, how the old man at Ichiraku was worried about going out of business without his favorite customer. Naruto used to laugh along with his old teacher, but now he barely had the strength to grin most of the time. Iruka came and sat by his bed anyway, and tried not to cry.
Neji and Hinata saw him every day, too, to check over his body with their Byakugan. They never looked directly at him, but they would stand by the window together, and Neji would comment on the view of the village from the window. Hinata would tremble a little and cover her eyes to hide her tears. They'd tried sealing off the kyuubi's chakra with their knowledge of opening points, but that had only aggravated the cancer. Naruto had lost a lung to that, and Hinata still hadn't forgiven herself.
He didn't mind, not really; he'd been bedridden by that point anyway, and it had been worth the pain just to seem them standing next to each other. Neji smiled more, with the branch house dissolved, and Hinata stuttered less, with Neji's acceptance.
An envoy from Sand had come when it became clear that there was something seriously wrong. The Kazekage herself had come directly to Naruto's room, flanked by her brothers. She was always veiled, but Temari's eyes were still sharp and unfeminine above the mask. She'd come with treaty agreements, determined to cement the peace between Sand and Leaf for generations to come. Naruto had asked why, but she hadn't answered; he didn't miss the way her eyes flickered to her youngest brother.
Gaara stayed after the other Sand nins left, officially as a peace offering of sorts, unofficially because Gaara didn't want to leave Naruto alone. Naruto pointed out that he wasn't alone anymore, but Gaara merely replied that "alone" was a relative thing.
After a while, he grew accustomed to the nurses complaining about sand on the floor; Gaara didn't talk much, but he listened, even when Naruto didn't have anything to say. In the end, though, there was only so much they could do for each other; Gaara's demons, both literal and otherwise, were too different from Naruto's.
Gaara left, and Naruto wished him well, even though he missed the redhead's presence at his bedside. It had been good to talk to someone who didn't have tears in their eyes all the time; even if Gaara had been so inclined, life in the desert had trained him out of wasting water on frivolous things.
Ino sent him flowers every day, either coming herself with bouquets of daffodils and sweet smelling almond blossoms, or sending Shikamaru or Chouji in her stead. Chouji always brought food with him, too, and Naruto would thank him even though he never had the strength to eat it. Sometimes he played go with Shikamaru. Sometimes Shikamaru let him win; after he lost the use of his right hand (some sort of nerve damage, they said, we don't know what caused it), Shikamaru almost never let him lose.
He was too tired today, though; he thanked Ino for her flowers and Chouji for the food, but fell asleep before Shikamaru finished setting up the board. He woke up briefly to say hello to Hinata and Neji. They still refused to look at him.
It was better than nothing- better than being completely alone. He had to keep telling himself that. He had his good days, days when he had enough energy to sit up, and laugh; he would get better eventually. He would get up eventually; he couldn't stand the thought of dying in bed. The memorial stone on the edge of town only recorded the names of those shinobi who fell in battle; he had sworn, once, that his name would be numbered among those honored there. Even if he hadn't known what it meant at the time, a promise was a promise. He didn't break promises (unless he made them to Sakura, who forgave him even when he couldn't forgive himself); that was his ninja way.
He was so tired though. He slept through Iruka's visit and Sakura's tears, right on into the next day. He dreamed of foxes, and the sound of wind through leaves.
"October Tenth, and the Hokage Is Still Alive, We Think. We Don't Know For Sure Because He Won't Let Anyone Into His Room."
Naruto knew there were ninja lined up outside his door to congratulate him on turning thirty-two, but he was sulking, and seeing people just made everyone sad, and then they'd start crying. Naruto wondered if they'd let him pass a law about that- no crying in the Hokage's presence. But then everyone would just say they were tears of joy- they were so happy he was still alive, so happy he'd woken up today- and he wouldn't be able to stand it. So, bed-ridden or not, dying or not, he could still melt the locks on his door with a well-aimed blast of demonic chakra. It was only his physical abilities that were compromised, after all.
He listened to the sounds of Sakura herding the crowds elsewhere, yelling at them to mind their own business and leave well enough alone. He allowed himself a half hearted chuckle when she knocked on the door with a fist that could put holes through six inches of steel and shouted that he had another three hours of sulking, and then she'd break the door. He was proud of her; she would survive as the last member of Team Seven, because she'd always been strong in her own way.
The window snapped open with a sudden, cold gust of wind. He could smell the heavy, wet scent of autumn in the air, thick with dead leaves and wood smoke. He turned to the window with a sigh, and froze.
"Well, this is a surprise. I'd heard rumors, but I hadn't believed them." The voice, low and familiar, fell upon Naruto's ears like a knife.
He felt the kyuubi uncoil inside of him, felt the depleted remains of his own chakra feeding off the limitless reserves of the demon. Now he was angry. Still too tired to do much about it, though. He glared at the man in the window. "You look like his brother. Same eyes."
Orochimaru smirked with Sasuke's face from the windowsill. Naruto wanted to rip it off, but he couldn't even lift his now-clawed hand. "Itachi was powerful, but he was always so...narrow minded. That was the problem with the Akatsuki: so much potential, but such poor execution." He even sounded like Sasuke- or rather, his voice did. The words were all wrong, and the tone was too smug, too confident to belong to the boy who had doubted himself to death. In Naruto's mind he'd never stopped being that boy, his twelve-year-old rival who had stood shaking in the Forest of Death while Sakura screamed at him for being a coward, the boy who took a rain of needles to save his stupid teammate for no reason that anyone could see.
Naruto was tired, and seeing Sasuke's face hurt. It always did, no matter how many times he'd seen it before. "What do you want?"
"To confirm the rumors. To see you myself."
"To kill me?" Part of Naruto was almost hopeful; he wished the missing nin would try, just try. He wasn't still Hokage for nothing, after all.
"You'd hardly be a challenge, and I've already got the mangekyou sharingan."
Naruto thought about that for a moment. "Kabuto."
He was rewarded with something very close to pain flashing across Sas- Orochimaru's face. Naruto sneered. "You murdered the one man who was completely loyal to you- or maybe it was the other way around? He was the only one you never sent against me, after all. And for- what, exactly? Power? Immortality? You're wearing out that body pretty quickly- are those wrinkles I see?"
"They are not." The childish retort, snapped in Sasuke's voice from Sasuke's face, stopped Naruto's breath for a moment. They both looked away, composing themselves.
"You've seen me. I'm dying. But if you wanna make sure, come a little closer."
Orochimaru smirked and sat in the chair by the bed. "Empty threats. You were the only man with a hope at taking me- now, I am invincible."
Naruto rolled his remaining eye and stared resolutely at the ceiling. They were both bluffing like mad, and they knew it. "Geez, can't you come up with any better lines than that? Loser." His voice had dropped to a whisper, lessening the effect he was hoping to get out of the words. He lifted his good (so many things were relative, now) arm and smiled slightly. "You wanna learn a new jutsu, snake-bastard? C'mere and I'll teach you my Rasengan."
"Ku... Still a brat. Jiraiya taught you well." There was something almost affectionate in the way Orochimaru bared his fangs at Naruto.
He let his hand drop, too tired to hold it up any longer. Jiraiya had been dead for years, after taking down two members of Akatsuki. Orochimaru had brought up Naruto's old teacher on purpose. "Quit laughing like that, you freaky snake-bastard- and keep your fucking tongue in your mouth. I hate it when you do that, it's disgusting. Bad enough that I had to see you do it in that old form, but seeing Sasuke do it? Just- fucking disgusting." His voice broke on Sasuke's name, and Orochimaru laughed again, but it was Sasuke's laugh, not the snake-chuckle, and Naruto almost wished he had the strength to die.
"You miss him so much. Ku... It must be so painful, having a heart- he didn't, you know. That's why he left you and came to me." He leaned over the bed and licked his lips. "Maybe I should put you out of your misery?"
Naruto snarled. "Fuck off, snake-breath. You can't kill me. You're not Sasuke."
"But you're wrong." Orochimaru stood by the window again, face expressionless. "I am Sasuke. He's not really dead, you know. His feelings, dreams, desires... they live on in my subconscious. A will as...dedicated as his cannot be completely subjugated, not even by me.
"But maybe you are half right...I can't kill you. Enough of him survives in me to let you live." He grinned and let the end of his tongue uncoil between his teeth. "I don't mind; it would be kind to kill you now."
"Bastard." It was too easy to use Sasuke's old nickname when speaking to Orochimaru and that, like everything else, hurt. At this point, he knew the only thing keeping him alive was the fox demon's chakra and his own sheer, stupid, limitless stubbornness; Orochimaru knew it, too.
"I think he is glad he isn't alive to see you like this. He was strong, but he had peculiar weaknesses. This would have killed him." Orochimaru licked his lips again, and paused on the windowsill. Naruto looked away, scowling. "Before I took his body, I gave him one request, anything he asked. I even offered to leave Konoha alone, so he could die knowing it would not be his own hand that caused the fall of his village.
"He asked that I kill Itachi- not to avenge his clan, but to ensure your safety."
When Naruto turned his head, the window was empty. He shifted his gaze back to the ceiling, feeling tired and empty and angry; he listened to the quiet hum of the machines around him and waited for sleep. It was a long time in coming.
Two weeks after his thirty-second birthday, and over a year since he'd been confined to a bed, the Sixth Hokage died in his sleep, early in the morning; the funeral was held a few days later. Afterwards the legends had it that the nurses found him with a smile on his face; in reality, his face had gone slack, but his fingers were wrapped tight around an old hitai-ate which no amount of force could make them release. He had named no successor and was the first Hokage in recorded history to have died a relatively peaceful death; because of this, tradition dictated that his name would not be carved on the memorial stone.
Regardless, the funeral was well attended.
It was, perhaps, the most well attended funeral in the history of Konohagakure; the last score of years had earned them many allies, and it seemed that all of them had turned out to express their grief in person. The streets around the tiny altar with its incense, pictures, and little offerings were filled a hundred deep with black clad figures from half a dozen different villages. Children wept openly, and many of the adults joined them; those that didn't hid their faces anyway, overcome in quieter ways. It went without saying that every able-bodied citizen of Konoha appeared to pay their respects to their most beloved leader since the Fourth.
There were a few faces conspicuously missing, but no one had the heart to point them out. It was quietly understood that those closest to the Rokudaime would mourn in their own way.
While the rest of the town gathered at the foot of the mountain, a small group of people gathered around an obelisk on the outskirts of town, wearing mourning colors and their hitai-ate around their necks.
They had all paid their respects in the form of small offerings (a cup of instant ramen, a potted plant, a necklace, a forehead protector) and whispered promises (spoken just loud enough for the dead to hear). Naruto's most precious people spoke their goodbyes in front of the memorial stone.
Sakura was the last of them to kneel before the memorial stone. She touched its smooth, polished surface with chakra-bright fingertips and traced two names into the rock. Her hands were steady but her eyes were too bright. She left behind two names and all the memories of her childhood; when she was finished, she walked away, surrounded by friends and family and teammates. None of them looked back.
The sun was setting as they returned to the village; the light slanted over the trees, illuminating the faces on the mountain and the pathway home with its incandescence.
Bah. Bloody ending.It's still not right, alas; I kind of just want to chop off the whole last section. Someday, if I fall and hit my head on something very hard, I may expand this into a multi-chapter angst-fest that explains everything. I'm talking severe concussion, here; I'm so sick of the way this piece refuses to be finished. (And when I say I am sick of it, I mean it's my baby and I love it, but I hope any comments I receive will be as harshly critical as a knife to the gut.)
Thanks for reading, lovelies.