Well, here it is: the last chapter. The delay in posting this resulted from the fact that I had to re-write this chapter. I'd originally written a short epilogue and was going to post it with a preview of the sequel to this story. Once I thought about it, I realized that canon is so far removed from what it was when this story and the sequel were planned that it wouldn't make sense to write it. Besides, as disappointed as I am with how the manga is going, I'd probably not want to write it anyway.
Thank you all for your support through the years it's taken to complete this story. Enjoy!
Epilogue: Full Circle
It is only in the giving of oneself to others that we truly live.
Ethel Percy Andrus
Six months later
The hospital was less crowded these days, but there were enough injured left from the invasion of the village to keep Sakura working double shifts. Being busy distracted her from the litany of items that came up and the sometimes hopeless feeling that overcame her when looking at the destruction and all of the rebuilding that they still had to do.
Sakura was about to enter a patient's room when a familiar white-haired man caught her attention.
"Hey, Kakashi. What brings you here?" she greeted when he had gotten close enough.
"Do you have some time? I wanted to run something by you," he replied.
She peeked inside the room and saw that her patient had his own visitor, so she would have had to come back anyway. She waved at both men and closed the door behind her.
"Sure, come down to my office," she told Kakashi and led him to her home away from home. Once she'd cleared some space and they had both settled on either side of her desk, she spoke. "What's up?"
"Civilians don't normally provide aid during wartime, but I was thinking that we might start a training program where each region of the village has its own first aid responders," Kakashi explained. "That would free up the medical ninja to take care of the wounded in the battle field while assuring that civilians also get the treatment they need."
Sakura considered that for a moment. "It sounds like a good idea, Kakashi, but civilians don't know how to heal the way we do."
Kakashi chuckled. "Of course not; I was thinking more along the lines of bandaging cuts, setting bones, things like that. Triaging the wounded so that the medical ninja could focus on only the worst cases first." Kakashi paused, and his one visible eye glinted with mischief. "I'm sure a highly trained medic like you can teach someone how to bandage cuts."
Sakura's cheeks went red at the unexpected compliment and she smiled. "You're such a charmer," she teased. "It sounds like a great idea and I'll be happy to run it up the chain and see what happens."
"Good. Thank you."
"What prompted it?" Sakura asked.
Kakashi's eye darkened momentarily and he looked away, choosing to focus on the overflowing bookcases of her office instead. He didn't speak for a while, and when he did his voice had lost the teasing edge it'd had earlier.
"When I was fighting to defend the main gate, one of the ninja I was with, an old colleague from when I was in the ANBU, was injured. The medical ninja that had been dispatched with our squad was sent to one of the civilian areas to treat several civilians who refused to evacuate with Sasuke. If she'd been with us, that ninja would have been treated and saved. Instead, he bled to death because we couldn't stop fighting to treat him."
Sakura could feel the emotions churning through Kakashi and she was honored that not only did Kakashi feel comfortable enough to tell her the story, but that he trusted her enough to let his guard down.
"I'm sorry, Kakashi," Sakura said. "Losing someone is hard, but it's ever harder when you know and work with them. I'll see what I can do about getting this training program approved and going."
"I knew you would," Kakashi said, once again his cool and collected self. "If there's anything I can do to move it along or provide support, let me know."
"I will. How is the rebuilding effort going?" she asked.
"It's going as well as it can be," Kakashi replied. "There was a lot of damage to certain areas of the village and no damage to others, which is good. It's just going to take a while to be back to normal."
"If there is a normal," Sakura said.
Kakashi smiled under his mask and the two shared a moment of companionable silence. "So, how is our newly-minted genin?" Kakashi asked.
It took Sakura a little bit to realize who Kakashi was referring to. The words "genin" and "Sasuke" just didn't go well together.
"He has good days and bad days," Sakura replied after a long sigh. "Sometimes he's content and friendly as if he didn't have a care in the world and other times he's reclusive, mean, and distant. You never know which you're going to get."
"I've noticed that too, though he seems happy enough to avoid me most of the time," Kakashi said.
"I think he still feels guilty over what he did to you," Sakura said. "He respects you a great deal, Kakashi, and I think a part of him thinks that you are better off not talking to him."
"What an idiot," Kakashi said. "I'll put a stop to that in no time. How are you coping with everything, Sakura?"
Sakura had to chuckle at that. "I work long hours and keep myself busy. Don't get me wrong, I'm happy to have him here, but he's not the easiest person to deal with. Even Naruto with his ever present optimism gets frustrated and irritable once in a while. Speaking of which, I'm meeting them for dinner. Want to join us?"
"Not today," Kakashi said, "but we'll have an opportunity to celebrate soon enough. I'll see you then."
"I'm going out on a delivery, Inoue-san," Sasuke yelled into the back room as he pushed the load out of the shop. "I'll be back in an hour."
Once outside, he carefully maneuvered the wheeled cart full of wood over the rough terrain of the street and slowly made his way towards the main gate. His delivery would help rebuild the area around the hokage tower, if he ever managed to get it there. The civilians he encountered on the way gave him a wide berth, shouting insults at him as he went. They were still afraid of him, but anger was more desirable than fear and they knew that he wouldn't do anything to them. The more daring of the lot threw rocks at him, but he easily avoided those. Sasuke would love to say that their actions didn't hurt, but all he had to remember was that he brought all of this on himself and keep going.
It had been a rough six months. Nightmares of Orochimaru taking over his body again kept him awake at night, and the nightmare of everyday life in Konoha didn't do much for his waking hours either. Tsunade had been right in saying that no one would work with him, so he'd been told to keep working with Inoue-san until the rebuilding effort was complete and they had missions again. Sasuke didn't mind. He found that he liked making things. It was a pleasant change from all of the things he'd destroyed during his life.
Sakura and Naruto were sticking to him like glue, which was sometimes irritating. They knew him better than anyone else and could pick up on his change of moods fairly quickly. On the few occasions that he had been crippled by flashbacks of his time as Orochimaru, they'd been there with unwavering support and reassurance. He was grateful for them and their loyalty. Sasuke knew that he'd never be able to repay them for that, but he'd vowed to try.
The friendly call brought Sasuke to a halt. The cart, unfortunately, decided not to stop with him and it took some effort to get it under control. When he turned, he found Kan-san running up to him.
"You're a little early today," she said and offered him the bento box she was carrying. "It's a good thing I had this ready."
"You don't have to do this, Kan-san," Sasuke said as she pushed the box into his hands. "I can go home and eat."
"Nonsense," she said. "If it were up to you, you'd never eat. Besides, you saved my family and helped rebuild my restaurant. The least I can do is feed you."
Sasuke took the bento from her and she beamed. He'd been assigned to help rebuild the restaurant district and one of the first restaurants to be rebuilt was the one from which he'd pulled the wife and husband out of the rubble. She'd introduced herself then and was one of the few people who didn't treat him like the other villagers. She'd started making lunch for him a few months after the incident and came to meet him every day to give it to him. He'd told her repeatedly not to, but she wouldn't listen. Kan-san's husband was another matter entirely, but Sasuke was glad she'd persisted. The woman was kind and had a pretty smile. He wouldn't admit it to anyone, but he enjoyed the daily chats.
"You're too skinny as it is," Kan-san continued.
"You like to exaggerate," he told her with a smile. "Thank you for lunch."
"Take care of yourself," she said as he got the cart moving. "I'll see you tomorrow."
Sasuke waved as she returned to her restaurant and continued to the main gate feeling a little lighter, and hungrier once he'd gotten a whiff of what she'd put in the box. If he finished the delivery quickly he'd be able to go off to his favorite perch and enjoy the food.
"That's it, guys. I think we're done!" Naruto said to the army of clones he'd created to help build the frame for the house he was working on. "Good job."
"Yeah!" the clones replied.
"I don't think I'm ever going to get used to seeing that," Shikamaru said as he finished his own piece of the frame. "Having one of you is bad enough."
Shikamaru got to his feet and dusted off his clothing. He stretched while Naruto dismissed his clones. Naruto had learned so much about carpentry and building in general from his work on the village and from hanging out at Inoue-san's shop in the past six months. He'd taken what little free time he had and, with supplies from Inoue-san's shop, he and Sasuke had almost rebuilt the Uchiha neighborhood. It was still creepy, and no one was really going to move in there, but at least the buildings looked good for the one and only inhabitant of the place.
As for the rest of the village, 80% of the buildings had been rebuilt and occupied again. Everyone was still cautious and apprehensive, but they'd gone back to their regular lives as much as possible. Naruto knew that it was going to take a long time for that feeling of safety they'd enjoyed before to return.
"So how are things?" Shikamaru asked. "I hear it's been a little rough having Uchiha back."
"You're bringing Sasuke up willingly, Shikamaru?" Naruto asked, suspicious. He and Shikamaru were still great friends, but the one thing they didn't talk about was Sasuke.
Shikamaru shrugged in that typical "this is such a bother" fashion that only Shikamaru could successfully pull off. "He's not going anywhere and I'll eventually get saddled with him on a mission or something. I might as well know what to expect."
Leave it to Shikamaru to be so logical about everything. "Sasuke's fine," Naruto answered vaguely. "There are ups and downs."
"What kind of ups and downs?" Shikamaru pushed. "Has he gotten violent with you or Sakura?"
Naruto had to stop for a moment and think about how much he really wanted to tell Shikamaru. Not that there was anything bad to tell, but Naruto had found that the villagers and the majority of the ninja in the village tended to take Sasuke's smallest misstep and want to turn it against him. Naruto didn't want to think that Shikamaru would do that, but he'd become paranoid as of late and didn't want to take any chances.
"No, it's nothing like that," Naruto answered carefully. "We train together and that's about all of the violence I see from him. He takes his frustrations out on his training grounds."
Shikamaru's eyebrow rose at that. "Is that why you two avoid the public training grounds in favor of the Uchiha training grounds?"
"No, that's not entirely why. It's just easier," Naruto replied.
"It's easier to avoid everyone else, you mean?"
Naruto sighed. "Yeah, something like that."
Shikamaru watched him, and Naruto had to fight the impulse to fidget under the scrutiny. His friend was loyal to the village, but Naruto suddenly realized that Shikamaru was his friend in the same way Naruto was Sasuke's friend. He was asking about Sasuke because Shikamaru knew that he was important to Naruto despite how he felt about it personally.
"They treat him like they used to treat me. It bothers me because I know what it's like to live with that kind of hatred and rejection."
"Sasuke brought this upon himself, Naruto. You didn't do anything wrong to deserve what they did to you. There is a difference."
"I know, and I also know that Sasuke's choices brought him to where he is now. Logic doesn't make it any easier to deal with."
"I hate to admit that I've been monitoring him carefully and haven't seen any signs of him going rogue. If anything, I'd say that he's more in tune with the village and his fellow ninja, and even the civilians, more now than he was back before he defected. He doesn't have that anger that used to drive him."
"Vengeance is a cruel master, and it was all he knew back in the day. It's not something he has to do anymore," Naruto said.
"Let that be a lesson to any of us who lose comrades or family members. Revenge will only destroy you in the end," Shikamaru added.
Naruto's face broke out into a grin, unwilling to ignore a perfect opportunity to tease his friend. "Shikamaru, you're not changing your mind about Sasuke, are you?" Naruto coaxed.
"I don't like him," Shikamaru said stiffly, "and I don't understand why you and Sakura continue your association with him, but he hasn't given me a reason to be hostile."
That was as close to an admission as he was going to get from Shikamaru so he might as well quit while he was ahead. "Are we still on for drinks tomorrow night?" Naruto asked.
Shikamaru grinned. "Same time, same place?"
"Yeah. See you then," Shikamaru said and left the work area for the day.
Naruto looked at the clock on one of the shop doors and started to make his way towards the center of the business district where he was meeting Sakura and Sasuke for dinner. He was the first one there and took some time to examine his surroundings. The buildings were slowly being inhabited again and the merchants had begun to sale their wares once more. The village would recover, but Naruto didn't think that it would ever be the way it was before. There was always a price to pay for peace.
"Hey, Naruto," Sakura called as she made her way towards him, "ready for dinner?"
"I'm starving!" he replied as he caught sight of both of his friends approaching together.
Sakura was radiant in a red shirt and pink shirt, with the black Konoha forehead protector holding her hair back, as always. Sasuke had made a little bit of money in the last six months and had bought himself some clothes that actually fit. He wore black pants and a navy blue, long-sleeved shirt. His forehead protector was wrapped around his left arm and Naruto had to admit that the sight of the hardware brought a smile to his face. He still had Sasuke's original one, the one he'd scratched when he and Sasuke had fought at the Valley of the End.
"I don't need to ask where you want to go, right Naruto?" Sasuke stated.
"Is there anywhere else in this whole village that serves ramen as delicious as Ichiraku?" Naruto countered. "Besides, I get one free bowl every visit now that I helped rebuild it."
"It's a shame you don't eat just one," Sasuke said. "You could save yourself a lot of money."
"Stop it, you two. Sometimes you act like children," Sakura scolded as she led them out of the business district. They'd walked a few steps when a woman's voice stopped them.
"Sakura, how are you?"
The trio turned to see Asami standing outside of her restaurant. She had a tentative smile on her face but avoided looking at Sasuke.
"I'm fine, Asami," Sakura said, her voice hard. "If you don't mind, we're on our way to dinner."
"Why don't you eat here?" the woman asked.
"We've had this conversation before. I'm not eating here without my friends."
"I know," Asami replied. "Why don't you all eat here?"
Sakura turned to look at Naruto and Sasuke, surprise on her face. Naruto wasn't sure how close Sakura and Asami had been before the woman had refused them service, but he had noticed that Sakura seemed a little sad every time she came by the place.
"Naruto wanted to eat ramen," Sakura said, uncertain.
"Its fine, Sakura," Naruto said. "We can eat ramen later."
Sasuke shrugged. "It's fine with me."
Asami led them into the restaurant, which had suffered minimal damage during the attack, and gave them a table towards the back where they'd have privacy. She handed out menus and said she'd be back in a bit to take their order.
"That's weird," Naruto said as he watched the woman move away. "This place has never wanted to serve me either."
"It's nice to see that some people can change," Sasuke said, a knowing glint in his eyes, but he didn't elaborate.
Asami came back and took their order and informed them that the meal was on the house, to which Naruto whooped in delight and proceeded to order almost the entire menu.
"So today is your last day on probation, Sasuke," Naruto said. "How do you want to celebrate?"
"I hadn't thought about it. I mean, there's nothing really to celebrate," Sasuke said. "I haven't gone nuts and taken out the village yet, which is really what this probation thing is all about."
"So let's celebrate that," Sakura said as she undid Sasuke's ponytail. "Let's celebrate the fact that our evil former overlord here is nothing more than a handsome and talented ninja."
"Stop that," Sasuke said and put his hair back up. "Who says I'm a "former" overlord? Maybe I still have plans for world domination?"
Naruto spit out his water as laughter hit him, and then coughed when some of it went down the wrong way. "Figures," he finally said, "normalcy was never enough for you."
"Why do you still keep your hair long, Sasuke?" Sakura asked, fingering the long strands.
"It scares people," Sasuke replied. "Some of the villagers deserve to be scared."
The team laughed, enjoying the fact that they could joke about the bleak past as they worked through it. Their food arrived and they were eating in silence when a child came running across the room and stopped in front of Sasuke.
"Uchiha-san, Uchiha-san," the little boy said, hopping excitedly from one foot to the other. "When are you going to teach us about the snakes?"
"Kenji-kun, stop that," a woman came up to their table and grabbed the little boy's hand. "I'm so sorry; he shouldn't have bothered you."
"It's no bother," Naruto said.
The woman looked scared, and behind her Naruto could see that her husband and an older child both looked like they wanted to bolt out of the restaurant as fast as possible.
"Kenji-kun, right?" Sasuke asked and the little boy nodded. "If your parents don't object, you and whoever else wants to come can meet me outside of the ninja academy Friday afternoon and we can talk about the summons then, ok?"
"Can I mom?" Kenji asked his mother. "Please?"
The woman looked from the little boy, to Sasuke, and back to her husband.
"I guess there's no harm," she finally said. "Just don't keep them too long."
"I won't. See you Friday, Kenji."
"Bye!" the little boy waved as his family made their way out of the restaurant.
Sasuke had a small smile on his face as he watched them go.
"What's this about you teaching Konoha's children about your summons?" Naruto asked. "I thought you hated children."
"There was a group of children I evacuated and they were very interested in my summons," Sasuke replied. "It struck me that the younger generation was non-judgmental and accepted me simply as the person guiding them out of danger. It won't hurt to educate them a little bit".
Sakura and Naruto were both grinning. "Sasuke has a soft spot," Sakura said. "I think you'll be great with kids."
"As long as he doesn't scare them to death," Naruto added, still grinning.
"Both of you shut up and eat," Sasuke said. "The food is getting cold."
At midnight, the official end of Sasuke's probation, Naruto, Sakura, Kakashi, and Sasuke gathered on the roof of the Uchiha main house. The sky was clear and the moon and stars provided all of the illumination the group of ninja needed. Kakashi and Naruto brought sake, Sakura brought home made snacks, and Sasuke brought store-bought snacks. He was learning how to cook, but so far his attempts had only resulted in burned concoctions that were better off buried for all eternity. The group settled down in a circle, sharing in food and drink and stories. Sasuke learned a lot about his friends during that time and he told them a little bit about what he'd seen and learned while on his own. His instinctive desire to keep information about himself close was hard to fight, but he couldn't really form the bond with the two people he'd sworn his loyalty to if he didn't share a part of himself as well. It hadn't been easy for any of them, and they had stumbled along the way and had fights and screaming matches, but they were learning. Sasuke wouldn't have it any other way.
"Who would have thought that we'd be sitting here someday, celebrating friendships and freedom," Naruto said.
"Life has a funny way of coming full circle, doesn't it?" Kakashi said. "The past teaches us but the future awaits us."
The three younger ninja stared at Kakashi for a moment before bursting into laughter.
"That sounds like something out of a stupid greeting card, Kakashi," Sasuke said. "Here, have more sake."
The elder ninja took the offered drink and downed it in one gulp. Sasuke took a drink as well and let himself get comfortable with the buzz that the drink brought. He had never felt like he was a part of something, not even when he'd originally been on Team 7. Back then, his revenge had kept his walls up, never giving him the opportunity to build a relationship with his team. He now wanted that relationship and was prepared to do what it took to make it happen.
"To freedom," Naruto said and raised his cup.
"To freedom," the others repeated.
They stayed on the roof drinking and sharing stories until the sun rose and it was time to go back to work again.
This officially marks the completion of all of the stories I have posted on this site, so it's a good time to step away from fanfiction writing. Hopefully another fandom will strike my fancy at some point to draw me back into it.