This is, by far, the longest chapter I've ever written for this story. With good reason. We're at the end of the line, folks. This is it.
A note about how this chapter is constructed: anything written in the present tense should be considered as happening "now," by which I mean when Naruto and Sakura are older. Anything written in the past tense should be considered as happening in the past. Anything written all in italics is a part of Naruto's journal.
I won't bother you with extensive blathering here. We'll save that for afterwards, shall we?
Let's get down to it.
Instead of answering with words, Naruto pulls himself to his feet. Sakura pulls after him like she thinks he's going to walk off again without saying anything. "Naruto!" she calls out, desperately. "You—you just said that you would…!"
"I know," Naruto says, gesturing for his oldest friend to stay where she is. "I will. But not out loud. I can't…I can't say it out loud." And with that, he makes his way to his tiny little bedroom, where he keeps his desk; which is where he keeps the little journal that he's been writing in. He picks it up like it's a book of scripture passed down in his family and meant for only a chosen few to even know about, much less read, and heads back out to Sakura, who's turned around and looking over the couch for him.
He sits back down, with a person's distance in between them, like he's waiting for someone else to sit down, and hands her the book. "It's in here. Everything I know. Everything I've been able to figure out. Some of it I learned from Jiraiya, some of it from my father. Some of it's just theories I've slung together when I can't sleep."
Sakura takes the journal like she thinks it's a holy artifact, too, and sets it into her lap. She looks up at him. "This is your private journal, isn't it? Are you sure…?"
Naruto shrugs and makes a dismissive flip of one hand. "There's nothing in there that you don't know already. Know how I've said sometimes I'm an open book? Still am. But if you don't mind, I'm gonna head out and do some stuff on my own while you read that. I don't mind you reading it, but I don't wanna just sit here twiddling my thumbs while you do it. I'll be back later tonight, if you have any questions. I can't guarantee I'll have answers for those, but…well. You know."
He stands up, and leaves the apartment.
Sakura waits until he shuts the door behind him before lifting up the cover of the book in her hands.
I've never been much of a writer. Hell, I've never been much of a thinker.
But I feel like if I don't figure out what I think about the crap that's been going down around me for the past couple years, if I don't write it down and put it in some kind of order, then I'll never be able to sleep again. I'm having enough trouble sleeping as it is, and I don't need any extra baggage. If anybody reads this, it'll be Haruno Sakura. If you aren't Haruno Sakura, then you'd damn well better be important. If you're neither of these things, and you plucked this off my dead body or something, well, whatever. I guess that doesn't matter, either. I would lay an eternal curse on your head or something, but I'm too tired.
Anyway, if you are Sakura, then I'm sorry about what you're going to read in here. It's not going to be pretty, and it's not going to do any good. I hope I fought tooth and nail to keep this information away from you. I swore to myself, pretty much the first day I heard Kakashi say "I won't ever let one of my comrades die" that I would protect you. Even if you never acknowledged how much I care about you, I swore I'd show you by keeping danger away from you.
The information in here is dangerous. So I'm sorry.
But here we go.
"All I'm saying, kid, is I wouldn't trust their word. They gave in way too easy."
"Sensei, give them a bit of credit, won't you? The Uchiha are one of our oldest and most prestigious clans. We can't just dismiss their integrity out of hand. They're some of our most talented shinobi."
"Precisely! What's the first thing a talented shinobi learns how to do? Lie! Lying isn't done just with words. It's done best with smiles, and bows, and grave promises, and pretty much everything I saw them do out there while you talked out your ass about unity and devotion and protection!"
It had been long enough that Naruto considered Namikaze Minato a mentor, the same as Iruka or Jiraiya or Kakashi, and he realized as he listened to the two of them argue just how surreal it was. One of the things he'd noticed over the course of his training was that he tended to gravitate toward rather carefree ninja. At least, they seemed that way. Naruto had more than enough reason to question just how honest Jiraiya's smiling, perverted clown act was; he probably used it as a cover-up, so that people didn't suspect him of being intelligent in any way.
Having used that same strategy himself on any number of occasions, Naruto thought of himself as something of an expert on it.
And Kakashi? Well, Kakashi was six kinds of crazy on his best days, and who knew with him? Seeing what he'd been like when he was younger, it was difficult to reconcile; which meant that the smiling and the chuckling and the irresponsible tardiness pretty much had to be an act.
It was easy to fake being happy. It was next to impossible to fake being sad.
Again, Naruto thought of himself as an expert in that category.
The whole point of it was, watching Jiraiya and Minato argue with each other—a serious argument, not just halfcocked banter—was one of the strangest experiences Naruto had ever had; he didn't know whose side to be on.
His teacher's…or his father's.
So he just listened, and absorbed, the way nobody thought he was capable of doing.
"I'm not going to pretend that it didn't go a lot easier than I expected," Minato said, "and I'm not naïve enough to not be suspicious of any battle won without some sort of haggling or bartering going on. But would it kill you to be optimistic for once?"
"Probably," Jiraiya snapped back, and the way he said it told Naruto—and thus Minato—that he meant it. Naruto had never thought of the old sage as a pessimist, but he was a warrior, and he'd been in his fair share of skirmishes that ended as graveyards. It seemed like Naruto himself was the only ninja in Konoha's history to actually get away with thinking the best of people.
Statistically, he should have been dead about seventeen times by now.
Minato surely knew what Jiraiya meant, but by the look on his face he wasn't interested in hearing it. He rolled his eyes and turned his back on his old teacher. "…A leader can't afford to be cynical, Sensei, and you know that better than any of us. Maybe advisors and councilors can, but not the one on top. A Hokage can be nothing less than an idealist."
"Be an idealist!" Jiraiya snapped. "Please, for the love of God, be an idealist! But don't pretend the Uchiha problem's been solved, because it hasn't. You must have seen the way they looked at you. They think you're a pushover. They think you're a child. Until the day they actually see that damned hat on your head, they won't listen to a word you say."
Minato growled, grumbled, but eventually it was obvious that he didn't have an answer.
The old man was right. The Uchiha problem wasn't solved. That's how the story goes, because that's how politics work, but it's not the truth. The truth is, the best my father did by talking to the Uchiha about their "concerns" was delay the inevitable.
The Uchiha weren't concerned with the well-being of Konoha. Not really. They were concerned with their standing in Konoha, which is a fancy way of saying they wanted more power than they were being given, which is a fancy way of saying they wanted the local government to leave them the hell alone.
Jiraiya never really said much of anything to me about his theories on the Uchiha Incident. But from what I picked up, I think he was suspicious. He thought that the truth was a bit more nefarious than "a rogue member of the clan went batshit and murdered them."
Jiraiya thought that that rogue member was ordered to murder his clansmen. The Uchiha were valuable, or actually the sharingan was valuable, but better they end up purged than an enemy. If you think about the way it went in our time—Sakura, I'm talking to you—it makes sense. Itachi was ANBU, remember? Who better to be a double agent than a double agent? Jiraiya said the first thing a good ninja learns to do is lie, and Itachi was a damn good liar.
But then things are different now, aren't they? Itachi wasn't responsible for the Uchiha Incident, was he? We stopped that from happening with our stupid loyalty.
Like I said, I don't know much about what happened, but here's my theory: thanks to our influence on Itachi when he was a little kid, the higher-ups didn't think Itachi would make a good candidate for such a delicate mission. Sure, Itachi's still a good ninja, still a loyal follower of the Hokage, but he's not an unquestioning one. We taught him to ask questions, to doubt. We taught him to be skeptical.
So, imagine our Itachi. He gets an order from on high to infiltrate his own family, and to "act as necessary" if they get too uppity. You think he's gonna do it? I don't. I wouldn't, and I did my damnedest to teach that kid to think like I do. See, we thought we were preventing the whole massacre by making nice-nice with the kid, and maybe we did. But not for the reason we thought.
We tainted Konoha's perfect little soldier.
They needed someone else. They needed someone moldable. Someone conflicted, and violent. Someone that the clan trusted, but who didn't necessarily trust the clan.
Sasuke, our Sasuke, was the closest they could get their hands on.
Sakura sets the journal down and stares up at the ceiling. She doesn't want to believe what she's reading. She wants to think that Sasuke was a great number of things, but he wasn't a traitor. He spent his entire life trying to seek honor for his family; why would he perpetuate the Uchiha Massacre, when that very event was the one that ruined his life?
What Naruto seems to be suggesting here is that…that…Sasuke replaced his brother, and slaughtered the entire Uchiha Clan on his own.
Except, this time it was different. This time, three members were left alive, instead of just one.
Little Sasuke, the boy named for his own older self; Itachi, the soldier tainted by compassion; and Obito.
In short, Sakura realizes as she finally thinks about the man she has idolized for so long, the only three members of the clan that her Sasuke ever trusted. Ever…liked.
"You know what they're planning. What they're…going to do."
Uchiha Sasuke would never have been mistaken for a trusting man. He was, in fact, one of the most thoroughly pessimistic men that the Hidden Leaf had ever managed to create. He didn't trust his friends, nor his teachers, nor even himself. And he certainly didn't trust the man speaking to him right now.
"Get to the point."
"The point, Sasuke, is that maybe your self-loathing runs deeper than you think. Maybe you hate the blood in your veins. The crimson in your eyes. Maybe you hate the fire that you so masterfully handle. Maybe…you hate the Uchiha, for being so weak."
"You like to think you're mysterious and prophetic," Sasuke growled. "It doesn't work on me."
"Come now, Sasuke. Give me some credit, won't you? Think about it. I've seen the way you look at that boy. The one called Itachi, the prodigy. Your…elder. Is he not? I think he is. Jiraiya told me about the little trick he pulled to get all of you here. Time travel. But you know, time has a way of fixing itself. I should know. I've studied it for a long time."
For as long as he lived, Uchiha Sasuke would never be able to force the image of Orochimaru out of his nightmares. When the serpent sage himself made manifest in front of him, Sasuke was the precise opposite of surprised. The man-turned-creature looked…younger. But at the same time he didn't. Orochimaru was timeless, like the shadows at the edge of his sanity, and that white-tinged face would never look natural.
Orochimaru gestured grandly around himself; like his former teammate, the man was nothing if not theatrical. He said, silkily, "Do you know, I have even talked to myself? I know that I don't make the most straightforward company, from personal experience. But that is neither here nor there, nor now nor then. Just think about the sentiment for a while, won't you? Think about it honestly."
"…You want me to ask myself if I hate my family."
"I do. Very much so."
"I'm not interested. I didn't come here to play word games."
"Fine. Let me do the thinking, then. I've spoken to Jiraiya, to myself—and wasn't that a special kind of tea party—and even to your teacher, about you. I've learned about your history. Think about how your family treated you. Or, rather, how they didn't treat you. Were you not just the proverbial second fiddle? A potential replacement, just in case Itachi didn't turn out quite right? They placed their bets on him. And why wouldn't they? You, too, looked up to him. Idolized him. Hoped to one day be good enough to lick his boots."
Sasuke's mind wrestled, but he wasn't able to come up with any argument to this. He knew the way of men like this; they started with the truth, then slipped ever so seductively into lines of thinking they wanted their victims to travel.
The rogue Uchiha kept his lips closed, and chewed on his thoughts, while he waited.
"Cast off to the academy with barely enough private tutelage to count as an afterthought. Certainly you were more advanced than your—ahem—peers, but did they ever give you the kind of attention that they gave to your most esteemed elder?"
"The Uchiha are an ancient family," Sasuke rumbled. "Placing your most important resources on the firstborn son is ingrained."
"And who but that firstborn son ever had the common decency to at least pretend otherwise?"
"Itachi could afford to be gracious. He already had what he wanted."
"Did he? Come now, Sasuke, don't be so obstinate. You know what I mean to say. There was never a single member of your family who even acted like they wanted you. Except perhaps your mother, but when did she ever fight for you? When did she ever call your father to task for his favoritism? Words are hollow without acts to fill them. What loyalty do you honestly owe to them? What did they do for you to foster such an emotion? Why would you force yourself into such a desperate state, for their memory? Are your feelings so unconditional that you would lie to yourself? The living deify the dead. Strip them of their wrongs, as though simply by virtue of not breathing they are worthy of special consideration."
"He betrayed me."
"He let you live."
"Is that supposed to be a favor?"
"More of one than he offered anyone else that night. Why is that, I wonder?"
"It doesn't matter."
"Sasuke, you are the most talented Uchiha since Itachi, and you obviously believe yourself to have more potential than he, else you wouldn't be spending so much time and energy exhausting yourself to defeat him. Quite obviously, no other Uchiha was capable of that, as they are dead. You have faced him multiple times and lived, have you not?"
"He was playing with me."
Why was he responding to this? Why was he opening his mouth and speaking to this madman? What good was it to know you are being manipulated, if you allow yourself to be manipulated? This verbal fencing was doing no one any good.
"Semantics. You faced him and lived. By default, that puts you above the rest of your family. That is what you hate. You hate that your father, and your mother, and your aunts and uncles, and your cousins, who always thought of you as being beneath them; you hate that they died, while you lived. This isn't survivor's guilt for you. It's disgust, that the greatest clan in Konoha could not muster enough strength to fight back against one of their own."
"No. That's the opposite of the truth. You've managed to ascertain my motives roughly as well as I've managed to ascertain yours."
Some part of him doubted.
I dunno how it is that they got to Sasuke, or even who they are, but I'm guessing it had something to do with the fact that he's an arrogant fuck. I love the man like a brother. He's the closest thing to a brother that I've ever had here in Konoha. But he's an arrogant fuck. I watched how he talked to other members of the Uchiha Clan, as time went by. I know you—Sakura again—were more concerned with Itachi, and I don't blame you. We still thought he was the key to everything. But I watched Sasuke, and how angry he got with them as time went on.
The thing is, you never paid too much attention to Sasuke. I know, I know, it sounds ridiculous, but hear me out on this one. What I mean is you didn't dig that much. You liked him. Probably you still like him. Love him. Admire him. The thing is, when you like somebody, and especially when you love and admire somebody, you don't pay too much attention to the darker parts of them. Especially when you're talking about a pretty dark person to start with. You start making excuses for them in your own head, rationalizing away the bad shit they do because you don't want to betray them, even in private.
But I always looked at Sasuke as a rival first, friend second. It didn't take me long to start seeing signs of some messed-up shit in that guy's head. He always had issues, and who could blame him? His whole family got killed, and he was the only survivor. Him and the guilty party. What kind of damage does that do to a guy? Especially a freaking ninja?
But what's he gonna do, here in the past? Hate a little kid? A little kid who looks up to him and calls him Uncle Sasuke? A little kid who listens when he talks and trains the way he says to train? You can't do that. You can't hate someone who treats you like that. It just don't work. Especially since Sasuke always loved his brother more than anyone else, even after the massacre. That's why he never could love anybody else. He still loved his brother, and the emotion never felt right again.
The next best thing for Sasuke was to start blaming the victims. The sumbitches too weak to stand up for themselves, and fight for their own damn lives. You know how people talk about the stages of grief? And how one of 'em's anger? That's all Sasuke's ever had. Anger. Anger at himself for being too weak and trusting. Anger at his brother for being a backstabbing fuck. Anger at his family for abandoning him.
When you're seriously pissed off, or grieving, or both, logic takes a back seat. It stopped mattering to Sasuke that the Uchiha left him because they were murdered in the dark. What mattered to him was that they left him.
That anger was all the upper echelon needed to get its hooks in.
"Hokage-sama. Please, forgive me. I'm sorry to disturb you so late. But…I wanted to ask you about something."
Sakura still doesn't know how to carry herself around this man; Namikaze Minato will always be a figure of legend to her, and even though he has been her leader for years now, and she has spent more time with him, face-to-face, than she ever did with Tsunade, she still can't banish a certain giddiness and a sense of…displacement when she speaks with him, like she is outside her own body, observing.
Minato is older than the man she met so many years ago, but in many ways he looks exactly the same. He is, perhaps, the most fundamentally pleasant man she has ever met—unless she counts his son.
Minato grins when he realizes who it is that has been knocking on his door, like she is a daughter that he hasn't seen in months. "Sakura. Glad to see you're back." He doesn't ask if she's had any luck, because he knows that if she had finally managed to track down Tsunade, that would have been the first thing she would tell him. He gestures, welcoming her inside. "Come in, come in."
Kushina is already sleeping, and Sakura is sure that little Naruto is, too. She doesn't have to ask why Minato is awake. Horrendous sleeping habits are such an ingrained part of being the Hokage, from what Sakura understands, that it's almost a prerequisite. She spies the man's private desk, set into one corner of the front room where she currently stands; it's scattered with scrolls and maps; if she had a more fanciful imagination she might wonder if he were hunting for treasure.
Little Naruto certainly seems convinced that this is the case.
Sakura lifts up the journal before sitting down. "I asked Naruto, my Naruto, about…about Sasuke. He gave me this. He's been writing about his theories in this journal, and he says in here that the near-eradication of the Uchiha wasn't an act of terrorism. He says all Orochimaru might have had to do with it was to coerce Sasuke into such a state that he would be willing to…to accept the order. He says that the Uchiha were killed on command. Do you know anything about this? Does this even sound…feasible?"
It never did any good to beat around the bush with delicate questions. Sakura has known this for a long time. Sasuke's single-minded determination and Naruto's open-minded ambitions have made for two of the most influential examples of brutal honesty that Sakura has ever had, and both have bled into her.
Minato stares at her for a long time; studying her face, probably. By the fact that he doesn't look surprised, or offended, or even angry, she knows that he does know something. This, more than anything, breaks her heart.
His silence is confirmation enough.
Minato eventually sighs, and says,
"…Have you ever heard of a man called Danzou?"
I'm not going to pretend like I know who it is that finally flipped Sasuke. But I'm pretty sure all it took was one manipulative voice in his ear, and a misstep or two by the Uchiha.
Let's be honest: the guy never was too interested in living a good life. It's almost like becoming an engine of vengeance was the only goal he had in him. Like, he didn't know what he wanted to do with himself until the massacre happened. It's the only thing that made him give a shit about his family. I hope I'm wrong about that, 'cuz by this point there's a little Sasuke running around acting all happy and friendly and whatnot, and I really don't want to see him go the same route as the Sasuke we know.
Here's hoping that having a couple of older role models around will make the difference. Itachi and Obito are still there, and that counts for a lot, I think. Really, it wouldn't surprise me if the part that drove our Sasuke over the edge was living alone for so many years. You know he never moved out of the compound, right? He lived in the same house where his parents died. Probably it helped him focus on his task as an avenger, or whatever it is he used to call himself.
I'm not saying I know for sure that Sasuke was responsible for the death of…well, most of the Uchiha. Hell, a good portion of me hopes I'm dead wrong and that it was Orochimaru. But considering the fact that Obito and Itachi were the only two members of the clan left alive, and they just so happen to be the only two members of the clan our Sasuke seemed to like…
I'm just saying it makes sense. Sad sense. Tragic, fucked up, thoroughly evil sense.
We wanted to stop the Uchiha Massacre, but we didn't. We just…didn't. Jiraiya told me once that he was scared that this whole time travel enterprise was a genjutsu he cast on himself, and that meant that nothing he did would amount to anything because it wasn't real. Problem is, that doesn't explain us. I think the truth is a bit scarier than that.
I think we are in the past, but nothing we do has amounted to much of anything because time doesn't work like that. If someone like Jiraiya or one of us gets it into their stupid head to fix something in the past, time decides to tip the scales again. We stopped Itachi from being the instrument of the Uchiha Massacre, so time found a different solution. Maybe this is all too complicated and I don't know what I'm talking about, but it's the best idea I've got.
Which…I know. Isn't saying much. Still.
"But…none of that explains how he died!" Sakura insists, looking desperate for an answer that would let her sleep at night.
Minato smiles sadly at her. "When your Sasuke went rogue, we had to send someone to find him. Someone who knew him. Someone strong enough to kill him. My council said that I should send you and Naruto to do it. They said you would know best how to approach him. You worked with him for years. But…I couldn't do that. Instead…"
Something clicks in Sakura's eyes. "…Kakashi-sensei. He—he volunteered. Didn't he?"
Minato nods. "He did."
"And he didn't just…disappear. He didn't go off with Jiraiya-sama, or go looking for other members of his family, or any of the other rumors going around the village. Did he?"
Minato shakes his head. "He didn't."
"They…they killed each other."
Minato nods. "That's what I was told. When your commander didn't come back after the first month, I started sending people out to find an answer. It took a long time, a lot longer than I would have thought, but…the bodies were eventually found, near the place where it's rumored that Orochimaru is establishing his own village."
"The Hidden Sound," Sakura murmurs, haunted, to herself.
"What?" Minato asks.
"The Hidden Sound. That's what the village will be called."
Minato frowns, rubs his chin, and nods. "I see. That could prove very important. But…anyway. I didn't tell you or Naruto because I didn't want you to…well. I didn't want to think of you as adults, truth be told. I wanted to protect you. Then Naruto went and found out about Sasuke, and I got it into my head to hide Kakashi from you at all costs." He gestures randomly. "You see how well that turned out."
"Hokage-sama…in this journal, Naruto says he thinks time is correcting itself." Sakura lifts up the book in her hands. "He says that's why the Uchiha Massacre happened, even though we stopped Itachi from being involved. He says that's why our Kakashi-sensei…well, died. He says that's why our Jiraiya-sama disappeared. He's probably dead, too."
Minato frowns. "You might be right. I won't pretend I know about time manipulation, but I do know something like this would have to be forbidden, and that might well be one of the reasons."
"If that's true…you might die, too. And Kushina-sama. And…and Naruto, and me, and everyone else we've…everyone else we've saved."
Minato actually smiles. "We're shinobi. Dying is part of the job description."
Sakura growls incoherently. "But that means…! That means this was all…for nothing…"
Minato's smile fades, but only slightly.
He asks, slowly, "…Why?"
The darkness is smothering, but at the same time it's welcoming. Uzumaki Naruto isn't sure what it is that makes this contradiction work, but he does know that it makes him nervous. It also excites him, somehow. He's never been particularly good at understanding his own emotions, and that's made all the clearer by the fact that he can keep these conflicting emotions in the front of his mind without going crazy.
Sometimes it pays off to be dense.
"Sasuke tried to do this to me once. It didn't work for him, either."
The fact that he doesn't flinch when he hears Sakura's voice should be confusing, but it isn't. Naruto expected her to catch up eventually, if he's being completely honest with himself. He wanted her to catch up. Part of him is honestly relieved that she's here right now.
Part of him…isn't.
"What? Leave without saying goodbye?"
"Mm-hm. Where do you think you're going? Off to find a grave to die in? That isn't like you."
Naruto chuckles. "I'm used to facing insurmountable odds, Sakura. People say it's because of my father and me that we averted war. We're so strong, especially together, that nobody's been able to dream about crossing us for years now. But how am I supposed to fight against time?"
"The same way you fight against anything. One punch at a time."
He smiles. Somehow, he knew she would say something like that.
He says, "I'm sorry. I know you wanted to hear that he died with his honor intact. But he died with our commander's blood on his hands. And his own family's."
"Maybe. But he died as a shinobi, and that counts for a lot. He died fighting. You've never wanted to lose to him before. I seriously hope you aren't intending to, now."
"We don't belong here, Sakura. If I'm right about what's going on here, we'll be crushed. There's no fighting it this time. Sasuke tried to fight, and look where it landed him."
"So what? If our crime of trespassing in this time is punishable by death, that doesn't mean we have to walk to the gallows with our heads down."
Naruto's smile widens. "…I'm listening."
"I know what you're worried about. You don't want to be responsible for your parents' deaths. That's what you're worried about, isn't it? They died because of the fox. You're afraid that somehow, no matter what we do, the fox will kill them again. Only this time, you'll be the fox."
The smile vanishes, but Naruto turns to face his teammate, with listlessly neutral eyes.
Sakura pushes ahead: "You're stronger than that, Naruto! You're better than that! You'll find a way to control the demon inside you! I know you will! And even if you don't, it won't be you! I know you. Your father knows you, and your mother knows you. They know, we know, that you would never hurt them willingly."
"I used to think Sasuke would never hurt his family willingly. Look how that turned out."
"You're not Sasuke! You're—you're stronger than Sasuke!"
Naruto licks his lips.
Sakura lunges forward and throws her arms around Naruto's waist. "Of course you are!" she all but screams. "Naruto, you big, dumb, marvelous idiot! Don't you know that? Can't you see that? You've never let anything stand in your way! Not fear, not anger, not grief! You grew up the same way Sasuke did, but all you've ever done is tried to help people! You saved Obito, you saved Itachi! You saved your parents! You took history by the throat and shook it until it did what you wanted! Are you really going to give up now?"
He doesn't have the heart to tell her the truth. He doesn't have the courage to tell her that yes. He's ready to give up. He's wanted to give up ever since the shinobi he called his brother died. A long time ago, in a time far ahead of where he stands right now, he once said to his mentor, How can I become Hokage if I can't even save one friend?
He still believes that.
And he couldn't save that friend. He couldn't save Sasuke from madness. He only drove Sasuke deeper into it. That failure has weighed on him so heavily that it isn't content to haunt his dreams; it walks with him all hours of the day, taunting him, nettling him, choking him.
But he can't say that. Not when she so obviously needs him to believe.
So he says, "…No. Of course not."
Sakura hugs him. "That's the Naruto I know."
"Maybe all I need is a new mission. Huh? Maybe Team Seven ought to go out and do something productive. What do you say? How about we go track down our teachers together?"
Sakura stares up at him for a moment. "…Tsunade-sama? And J-Jiraiya-sama?"
"Sure. There's never been any proof that our old pervert died, after all. He could still be out there, harassing barmaids. We might be the only ones who could possibly find him. And anyway, the old lady's gonna gamble her way straight into poverty if we don't bring her home, isn't she? Let's go save us some sages."
Sakura stares a while more, then she smiles.
"…Yeah. You're right. Let's do it."
Naruto smiles at the enthusiasm he can see lighting in her eyes.
He can only hope that one day, eventually, some of it might bleed back into him.
"It looks like Sakura enlisted the help of a certain blond-headed firecracker this time."
He stands, swathed in black at the memorial, smiling down at the list of names. One in particular, "Hatake Kimura," stands radiant in his vision and makes it difficult to breathe. But he smiles, and glances at his companion.
"So, Naruto-sama is off on a mission again. Good."
"Yeah. He was gettin' kinda stir-crazy. Always locked up at home. Who knows what he was doing in there all that time. Guy needed some fresh air."
A third figure comes up to them, with slate-grey hair and piercing black eyes. "You'll be late on your first day as a commander. Get going."
He glances over at Kakashi and his smile falters for just a moment before fixing itself on his face again. "I suppose you're right."
Kakashi looks at the other one. "Obito. Come on. We have to find Rin, and report to the Fourth."
"Ain't you heard him?" Obito intones, crossing his arms and looking strangely like his own mother—a thought that wrests his heart from his chest and threatens to strangle it. "He keeps tellin' you to call him Minato-sensei, same as always. He'd like you to just call him Minato, but you've got God knows what stuck up your ass, so—"
He smiles as the pair vanish into thin air, takes one look back at the memorial, salutes, and begins to saunter his way out to the training grounds. He'd always wondered if he was cut out to train a squad of genin. It worries him, when he stops to think about it, that he's going to find out once and for all whether he is.
He walks as slowly as possible, running a hundred possible scenarios through his head. How is he going to do this? What is he going to say to them? How is he going to go about training them? He's taken the advice of an untold amount of fellow jounin, but none of them seem to fit right. This is a fresh squad, still aglow in the aftermath of their graduation. He doesn't want to be too harsh with them. But just the same, he doesn't want to make it a picnic for them, either.
He decides to do what the man he still calls Uncle Naruto would do.
Play it by ear.
He spies them, waiting for him, looking thoroughly exasperated. Namikaze Naruto, son of the Fourth Hokage, is balancing a knife on his nose. Uchiha Sasuke, traumatized but still strong, is staring off into the distance like a philosopher. Haruno Sakura, excited but nervous, is bouncing in place to work off excess energy.
He clears his throat, and his new students all look at him.
Sasuke's face brightens, and his lips curl into an unconscious little smile.
Naruto thrusts a finger in his general direction. "You're late, Uchiha-sensei!"
Sakura stares at the blond like he just insulted a foreign ambassador.
Uchiha Itachi chuckles and holds up a hand in greeting. "Apologies. I ran across an elderly woman who lost her cat up a tree."
Perhaps the only thing about this chapter that looks anything like what I anticipated was the ending. The final scene, right up there, is the only thing I recognize from the outline I had in my head.
This story has gone in directions I never would have anticipated, and evoked things I never would have dreamed. Is it the way it should be? I don't know. Could it have been better? Most assuredly. Was it worth the six-and-a-half years that it took me to write it?
I certainly hope so.
As frustrating as the journey was sometimes, and as abruptly as it has ended, I love this story. There are plot holes, and missing threads, and logical fallacies, and clichés, and who knows what else. I love it anyway.
I hope that you love it, too. Whether you've been with me from the beginning, found me halfway down the road, or just found this story yesterday, I'd like to thank you from the bottom of my heart for allowing me to take you on this little sojourn.
If you had half as much fun reading this story, at any point, as I did while writing it, then I think we're pretty well off.
It's been a long, long road. But here we are.
Have a fantastic day. I hope to see you on the next trip, wherever it might take us.
Thank you again.