Well, I finished it. It took a long time, but finished it. I don't have any good excuses. It is what it is. For anyone who gets the alert and cares to see how the loose ends were resolved, please read on to see how this overlong story wraps up. This is the final chapter.
Yukio waited two weeks. Sakura hadn't specified how many weeks he needed to recover, so two seemed like a good time to start training again. He limbered up, doing his usual stretches, and then moved into his regular morning workout: running laps at the school yard, pushups, pull-ups, the monkey bars, squats, crunches, consecutive high kicks with weights, then target practice with his kunai, balancing exercises, forms, and more laps after that.
Afterward, he lay on the ground, staring at the blue sky above, breathing hard. His heart felt fine, but his thoughts floated in a haze of disquiet.
It wasn't going to be enough.
Whenever he closed his eyes, all he could see was Itachi's Sharingan, the two tomoe swimming around each other like black koi fish in a red water pool.
Rock Lee was training. He was in the middle of one thousand kicks, snapping his leg against the padded tree at exactly the same spot one thousand times. If he missed a kick, or missed the spot, he would have to start over. These days, he hardly ever missed anymore, though. He had to make longer and more strenuous routines to make up for it.
He was starting the 800s when he was interrupted.
He turned, somewhat pleased at the thought of having to start over from the beginning, and addressed the Genin who had shouted his name so insistently.
"It is rude to interrupt a Jounin in training, young Yukio," Rock Lee admonished him.
The kid was breathing hard, sweat shining on his face, dark hair damp about his forehead, but his eyes were alight with the energy of youth.
"I want you to train me," Yukio gasped between breaths.
Rock Lee stared at him.
He had not had many personal exchanges with Yukio. The boy was popular with the other students and very talented—skilled in Ninjutsu and Taijutsu, particularly for his age, and decent with Genjutsu, though he did not seem to have a passion for illusions. Everyone knew he would be a star Shinobi someday; if he could learn proper discipline and respect, he might rise very high.
"Me?" Rock Lee said incredulously.
He had always assumed that if he were to take on a student, to form that almighty bond between student and teacher, that it would be with someone like himself—a loser with no talent and little ability that he could transform into a genius through hard work, the way Guy Sensei had done with him. He had searched for such a student, but had not yet found one willing to endure the rigors of his style of training, who wanted it with the Will of Fire. He toyed with the idea that perhaps he might even have son, but even if he met the right girl tomorrow, it would be at least a few years before he could start training a child of his own. In the meantime, this…this was unexpected.
"Why?" he added.
"Because you're the best," Yukio said, as if surprised that there was a question. "You are a master of the eight chakra gates! Your Taijutsu can stand up to the Sharingan. That's what I need!"
Rock Lee stared at him. "The Sharingan?"
"Taijutsu!" Yukio said impatiently. "I have to keep up with Itachi."
"Ah!" Rock Lee said in a sudden burst of understanding. "A rival. You need to master Taijutsu to keep up with your rival, who has a Sharingan!"
"That's what I just said!"
Rock Lee nodded wisely. "I too chose the owner of a Sharingan as my rival," he said, clasping his arms behind his back and nodding. "But though I became a splendid ninja, I was not able to defeat Sasuke—unless you count the first time we fought, when he was not prepared, but that match was cut short."
Yukio looked absolutely desperate at this news.
"However!" Rock Lee added, whipping out one arm and holding up a single finger wrapped in white strips of cloth. "I also have not had occasion to fight Sasuke recently. Who is to say how that match would fare? Moreover, you are young. I started with less talent than you have now, and Itachi has less training that you do, so perhaps, with continuous hard work—"
"I can work hard," Yukio blurted. "As hard as I have to. Harder. What do I have to do?"
Rock Lee blinked.
This is it, he thought with some surprise. This is the overflowing fountain of youthful energy I have been seeking in a student! It is not the student I expected, but even so... Surprise was overrun by a spouting well of joy. Why should he not teach someone with natural talent?
"You must run ten miles," Rock Lee said, "without stopping. If you stop, you must do twenty."
Yukio nodded. He was poised on the balls of his feet. He looked ready to go right now.
"And when you are done warming up," Rock Lee continued, stretching his arms side to side. "Return here and we will begin your real training."
Juo spent thirteen nights in a Konoha holding cell. It was a pleasant prison, as far as prisons went. He would know; it was not the first prison he had seen.
He didn't try to break out. He didn't complain. He was polite to the guards. Occasionally, he asked when retribution for the transgression of the Grass would be decided upon, and when his trial and execution could be arranged. These requests—he was told—were passed directly to the Hokage, but nothing came of it.
He spent his time in meditation, cross-legged on the dusty floor, staring between the bars of his holding cell in silence. He ate and drank what he was given and made no trouble. His thoughts were always on the Grass, and on the companions who had followed him into failure. He was told they were being held peaceably in similar cells, though not near enough where he could speak to them. He only hoped they would not also have to die, though he knew they would be willing if it meant the rest of the Grass Village would be spared.
When he was not worrying, Juo's thoughts turned to the foreign woman, Lucia Van Alstyne, and the feel of the coin purse she had pressed into his palm. It had been an ordinary purse, but the memory of it was burned into his mind like a brand. Against all expectation, she—who had been touted by her own people as a greedy harlot—had paid her debts on their bet, even though the boy had been maimed and the girl kidnapped and almost killed. He could not quite riddle her out.
He was thinking on this when the Hokage's advisor came to see him.
Juo remembered Shikamaru. He was difficult to forget, despite looking as if he ought to be forgettable. Everyone knew of him. His clan was well-known, but even more well-known was his strategic mind and how close he was to the Hokage's ear. Juo contemplated his approach with interest.
Shikamaru squatted before his prison cell, looking at Juo from between the bars.
He and Shikamaru regarded each other for a few moments in silence.
"Still want to die?" Shikamaru asked him.
"That isn't quite what I requested," Juo responded.
Shikamaru nodded, looking around lazily. "Yeah, I know. You want to take the blame for the Grass, but it amounts to asking for an execution."
Juo said nothing. That was true.
Shikamaru frowned slightly.
"Here's the thing," Shikamaru said. "The Hokage isn't really interested in blame and punishment. He wants to make certain that something like this never happens again."
Juo felt a chill creep over him. Would the Leaf raze the Grass? Would they kill everyone, down to the last child? That was the only way to be sure that something like this would never happen again, and he knew such a thing was not beyond the Leaf. He had hoped the Hokage—by reputation—was not that cruel, but when it came to protecting his own people and ensuring peace for thousands, what was the disgraced, dangerous, and inconsequential Grass village?
Shikamaru scratched his head behind his topknot. "By all reports, the Grass Shinobi look up to you a great deal. Killing you, even by your leave, isn't going to satisfy anyone. I'm sorry, but an execution is out of the question. A martyr is the last thing we need."
Juo closed his eyes. Regrets swam before him, so numerous as to be uncountable.
"What the Grass needs is leadership," Shikamaru said. "Naruto wants to know if you are interested in that job."
Juo's eyes snapped open. At first, he thought Shikamaru was mocking him, but the Shinobi's expression was too calm. He just sat there, crouch, regarding Juo impassively.
"You can't be serious," Juo said at last.
"So you aren't interested?"
Juo's mouth went dry. He could not wrap his mind around it. "You aren't going to destroy the Grass?"
"Not if we can govern it instead."
"You mean to rule over us?"
"We mean to stabilize you," Shikamaru said. "I hope you can understand our position. We do not wish to subjugate the Grass Village, but neither can we ignore it, not in its current state. The Grass is in shambles; its people are desperate and have no leadership."
"And you want me to lead? Me?" Normally, Juo was not one to waste words by asking the same thing twice, but he had to be sure. Shikamaru did not have a reputation for foolishness—quite the opposite, in fact. But how could this be a genuine offer? The Grass had gambled and lost. They had been conquered. Juo himself had been the one to break faith with the Leaf. He had kidnapped a Leaf Academy child, the daughter of a famed Shinobi and a very important client. His actions—if not on his orders—had brought the two villages to battle. "How can this be so?" he demanded. "I do not understand."
"Naruto is a special Hokage," Shikamaru said dryly. "You must have heard the stories. To get where he is today, Naruto had to find an answer an impossible question: How do you stop hatred? His solution was actually fairly simple: You stop hatred by treating Shinobi—all people—as human beings, individuals with dreams and fears, successes and failures, joys and pains. Naruto lives that solution. It doesn't matter whether the Shinobi are enemies or allies. It doesn't matter what they have done. No Shinobi feels that he is a tool, or trash, when Naruto looks at him, and since he became Hokage, the rest of us follow his example."
"Doesn't that lead to a weak rule?" Juo demanded.
"No," Shikamaru said. "Treating Shinobi as people doesn't mean Naruto doesn't hold them accountable. On the contrary, they are held more accountable. Naruto has high standards for Shinobi."
"But you aren't going to kill me?"
"We don't think killing you is necessary or helpful in this situation," Shikamaru said. "But if we had decided to kill you, you would be treated like a person, all the way to your grave. As it stands, we think holding you accountable for the choices you have made means something different than death. That is why we are having this conversation."
"What about my companions?"
"We don't wish to kill them either."
"And my village?"
"When we look at the Grass, we see people who were poorly guided by corrupt leaders. We don't believe your people need punishment; not all of them anyway. What they need is to be shown a better way to live."
Juo didn't have words, but he began to understand Shikamaru's—no, the Hokage's-intention. He wasn't being let off. Both Juo and the Leaf wanted the Grass to have a future. The Hokage had a vision for what that future should be. That meant the Hokage had a purpose for Juo, and it would not be an easy thing.
"So," Shikamaru said, pausing for effect. "Are you interested?"
Juo tried to think. Surely there was someone better, someone he ought to recommend over himself, but no one came to mind. What he thought of instead was the youth, Chuunin like Kaia, full of fire and grief, and Genin like her sister Saiya, spirited but naïve. He thought of how little they knew of the world and how unfairly they had been used. He was not a man given to emotion, and didn't show it now, but he was momentarily overcome with the enormity of what was being asked of him.
"I don't know if I can do what you are describing," he said at last, deciding he must be honest. "I am a relic of an older world and understand this new world less than most. I am not a man accustomed to forgiving enemies or being forgiven by them, nor do I have experience treating any Shinobi, even myself, as human beings. That is why I am respected by the Grass. Shinobi like me are the reason we have failed to adapt."
Shikamaru nodded, as if this was exactly what he had expected to hear, but he did not get up and turn away. "Are you interested?" he asked, as if Juo had not said anything at all.
"I want life for the Grass," he answered. "Yes, I am interested, but I do not know the way."
"Well," Shikamaru said with a deep sigh, "Naruto believes that you can learn, and what Naruto believes in, I am willing to try. Think of it this way: If an old relic like you can learn, so can the rest of the Grass. I think, actually, that that is the core of the Hokage's plan."
Lucia stood by the widest window in the Hokage's office, letting sunlight bathe her face and neck as she stared out over the red tile rooftops of the Leaf Village. Behind her, Ino was arranging flowers-white lilies, yellow roses, and daisies-in a ceramic pot on a table where an envelope sat, stuffed with papers. Lucia always associated white lilies with funerals, which perhaps was appropriate, but Ino insisted that the flowers meant peace and sympathy. Lucia supposed that was appropriate too.
"Are you okay?" Ino asked her as she finished her work, tossing the remains of leaves and stems in a can under the Hokage's desk and tucking the sheers in her belt. She did not touch the papers. "I'd think you would be so angry."
Ino was referring to Gehard, who was scheduled to leave tomorrow. Lucia had requested to see him before he left and the Hokage had arranged it. The Shinobi, including Naruto himself, were fetching him now.
"I am not angry," Lucia said truthfully. "I am ready for all of this to end."
Ino gave her a sympathetic look. She had offered to be present when she heard that Lucia would be talking to Gehard. Lucia was not sure she needed the comfort, but she was not sure she didn't need it either, and Ino had been a friend to Lucia in a way she had never had before.
"What do you think he'll say?" Ino asked.
"Whatever he thinks will do him the most benefit," Lucia said with a sigh. "I hear he is complacent enough as a prisoner."
"Oh yes," Ino said, rolling her eyes. "If by complacent you mean making demands to see you nearly every day and complaining about everything—his cell, his clothes, his food, nothing meets his expectation. He really seems to think we should care."
"I mean he has not made any serious trouble," Lucia said.
"No," Ino agreed. "I guess not. But how could he really? The weakest of the Genin could overpower him."
Lucia supposed that was true.
A knock came at the door.
Lucia turned to look. Naruto, looking every inch the Hokage in spite of his youth, walked into the room in full formal attire. Embroidered red flames blazed along the hem of his white cloak, clashing spectacularly with the bright orange jacket he wore underneath. He took off the Hokage hat as he entered and handed it to Ino.
Gehard came in behind him.
Her husband had certainly looked better. Gone was the dashing man who had once so brazenly displayed a loathsome mix of power, popularity and irresponsible behavior. In his place stood a frightened, dusty, travel-stained man in foreign, once-expensive-looking clothes that had seen better days. The pair of Jounin assigned to deliver him to the Higher Houses—Shino Aburame and Kiba Inuzuka—came in behind him, masked, hooded and silent as hangmen.
For his part, Gehard seemed to be doing a decent job of ignoring the terrifying escort. But when he saw Lucia, he swallowed visibly and his eyes darted away from her face.
Lucia, as always, was impeccably dressed. She had chosen her clothes carefully—a pair of spotless white silk pants and a matching halter top that shimmered faintly in the sunlight. She was also wearing expensive jewelry, something she had refrained from doing before in Konoha. A necklace of hand-wrought diamond-encrusted beads threaded on a glittering platinum chain hung around her neck. Diamonds hung from her ears in cascading drops all the way to her shoulders. Her hair was elaborately styled, as she might have worn it back home, but with gold tooth combs from these lands, set with gold-wrought birds and pearls.
She had the pleasure of seeing jealousy in Gehard's eyes. He hated her. Hated her and admired her. He was frightened of her too. None of that surprised or upset her. Without giving him more than a glance, she seated herself at the table where Ino had been arranging flowers. Ino moved to stand behind her. Gehard sat across from her, guards at either shoulder. Naruto stood between them as mediator.
"You look well," Gehard said bitingly, implying something, she supposed, about their differing circumstances.
She did not rise to that. "I have agreed to see you," she said, "because there is unfinished business between us. I would like to conduct that business now."
"Very good of you," he said acidly, "to see your husband."
"You don't want to remain here," she said. "You would not even if the choice was given to you."
"No," he said flatly. "And why you would choose to baffles me. To live here, in a squalid village full of criminals—I do not understand what has happened to you."
"You never understood me. Let's leave it at that. I am told that you have asked to see me every day since you were brought here. Why?"
"I am your husband," he said. "I demanded to speak to my wife. Why should that be questioned?"
"Speak to me about what?" she asked. "Now is your chance."
"Everything," Gehard said, snarling as he looked around the room. "All of this. You can't really mean to do what I have been hearing. You can't really mean to ally yourself with these—" His gaze twitched to the Shinobi surrounding him. He did not finish his sentence.
"I see," she said regretfully. "I thought you might have wanted to apologize,"
"Apologize?" he said. "To you?"
"Yes," she said, "or at least to Rina, but no matter. I don't need it. What I need from you is your signature."
He fell silent, looking cagey.
She picked up the envelope from the table and withdrew a sheaf of documents. She set them in front of Gehard and placed a pen beside his hand. "All the documents have been drawn up."
He stared at them, unmoving.
"I would want my lawyer to—" he began.
"But you won't get that," she said. "There is nothing devious here. These papers, once signed, will be a legal contract relinquishing all rights you have over anything of mine. They will replace all previous papers, including our prenuptial agreement, rendering us fully and forever divorced."
He didn't respond.
"You can have the house," she said quietly. "If you want it. I certainly will not need it."
"I won't be able to afford it," he said, "as you well know. I will not be able to pay my debts, not if I sell every last scrap of furniture and the house too. You will make me a pauper, Lucia."
She said nothing. It was useless to argue that Gehard had made himself a pauper, playing fast and loose with money that was not his to burn. It was useless to argue that remaining married to her for some profit he thought himself afforded was insanity. It was useless even to say that being given the house meant he could sell it and live quite comfortably if less lavishly. He wouldn't see it that way.
"I won't sign," he said. "I don't want to divorce you. This is—" He looked around him, eyeing the Shinobi guards behind him particularly. "This is coercion."
"It's not coercion. It's defeat. You lost," Kiba interjected flatly. "You should be counting your blessings that you weren't gutted and left to—"
"It's all right," Lucia told the Shinobi guard calmly. "This was not unexpected." She leaned forward, regarding Gehard coolly. "He's correct, though. This is not a negotiation. You have nothing to barter with. There will be no legal battle, no settlement. The purpose of this is to be free of one another. Don't you want to be free of me?"
He looked sullen. He was probably thinking about his many mistresses and how he could possibly keep up the charade of not being able to commit to any of them when he no longer had a cold wife to use as his excuse for everything. Some of them had money even, but that might not do him much good.
"I want to be free," she told him. "I don't want to spend one more moment thinking about you."
His jaw tightened. A man like Gehard had little beyond pride to sustain him, and he was clinging to that, wounded though it was.
"I don't want you to spend any time thinking about me either," she said, just as quietly. "It is no part of my vengeance to make you miserable. My battle is with the Higher Houses. I just want you to be gone. I never want to hear your name again. Do you understand me?"
He was watching her closely, trying to guess her intent, handsome features serene. She didn't blink.
"How much will that cost?" she asked him. "What will satisfy you? I want you to name a price."
The question clearly startled the room. Ino gave an audible gasp. Naruto shifted and threw her a sharp glance. She ignored the Shinobi. They didn't understand her world. Her attention was on Gehard.
He weighed her noiselessly, but she could see the wheels in his head turning, trying to guess at a number that would be as high as she would pay without being so high as to be impudent enough for her to rescind the offer. She, of course, had already decided what that number would be. She had to pay him enough to get on with, enough to embarrass him, so that he would not want to come back with his hand held out, but not so high as to tempt him to suffer embarrassment a second time.
"You can't possibly pay him to divorce you," Ino objected, crossing her arms. "After all he put you through? After what he did to your children?"
"I meant what I said about wanting to be free," Lucia answered. "And I never will be if he feels I owe him something for his pains, however mistaken. How much will it take, Gehard? Be wise. You only get one chance. If I hear a whisper of you ever again, I will have recompense. Do you understand?"
Gehard nodded. If he showed up again, in any way, she would ruin him, utterly and forever. He knew she could do it. She had done it to others, people she arguably had less reason to despise. That she made an offer at all was generous. He knew that. He might hate her for it, but he also would not refuse, and if she had gambled correctly, he also wouldn't get in her way when she went after the Higher Houses. That was important.
"You're quite cold, you know," Gehard said. "You kidnap my children, force me to come after you—you knew I would have to come—You put me through hell, Lucia. I never wanted to be here. There was a better way to do all of this."
"How much?" Lucia repeated. She didn't have the energy to refute such nonsense.
Gehard uttered a number. The number made Kiba whistle.
"Outrageous," Ino said flatly. "You could feed and outfit the whole village off of that for a year!"
"Done," Lucia said. "That will account for the amount your father paid my mother to marry me. I will also pay your expenses home, with the luxury you are accustomed to along the way, so long as you go and do not come back. Not ever."
Gehard was quiet for a moment. "What about Rina?"
"You relinquish all rights over her," Lucia said. "Rina is not yours, not biologically and not in any other way. After what you did, you will never be allowed near her again. You certainly cannot contest that that is the best thing for her."
Gehard looked unhappy. "I know you don't believe it," he said, "but I care for Rina."
"I do believe it. She was your little doll," Lucia said. "She cares for you too. If, someday, she wishes to see you again, that is up to her. But that day is a ways off. If she chooses such a thing, I want you to remember that she will not be the same girl she is now. If you ever meet again, Rina will be more dangerous than you can possibly imagine."
"You ruin everything you touch," Gehard said.
"Only you would think that a woman with power to protect herself is ruined," Lucia answered.
Gehard didn't answer.
"Sign the papers," she said.
She watched with an impassive expression as he signed. As the pen scratched against the paper, something that had been tightly wound inside her chest stared to release. The sensation was like a wind rising on a still day. It seemed to her that before that moment, all the days of her life had been windless.
Itachi leaned against the wall in the hallway, eyes closed, listening to the melody that drifted through the corridors. He had forgotten what music sounded like.
Rina had been playing the piano all morning, every morning, for days on end. She was creating something. She was writing a song that he had never heard before, and though it was not finished, the pieces he caught when he snuck into the hallway without her being aware stirred him close to tears.
It had a melancholy, haunting melody, poignantly phrased with a grand and sweeping chorus. Itachi felt himself pulled in by the sound of it. He sat in the corridor, listening, just outside the little storage room in the basement of the Hokage's administrative building where the piano had been set up.
After a few bars, Rina stopped playing. He heard the sound of scribbling and muttering. She was still composing. Then she began to play again, trying out the variation.
If she noticed him when he entered, she did not let him know it. Her eyes were closed, her fingers moving across the keys like ripples on water. He watched her play, her expression intense, sitting straight-backed in front of the piano. Nothing communicated emotion like music.
"Gehard is leaving," Itachi said when she closed her verse. "Do you want to say goodbye to him?"
Rina shook her head. She did not stop playing, launching again into that grand chorus that was like tears flowing in a larger, majestic waterfall.
"Are you sure?" Itachi asked her. "He was more of a father to you than he ever was to me. He was selfish and cruel and he almost got us all killed, but on some level, I think he meant well. You'll probably never see him again."
She stopped playing. The music cut off abruptly, mid-chorus. She paused, hands hovering over the keys.
Slowly, she nodded, her fingers curling. Even more slowly, she got up, sliding off the piano bench. Her features were scrunched and she moved stiffly, uncertainly. He understood. This was a hard thing to have to resolve all at once. In truth, it probably couldn't be resolved—not fully—maybe not ever. But they could at least say goodbye.
He walked with Rina to where Gehard was waiting just outside the building. His mother was there with Ino and Naruto and two Shinobi Jounin. Gehard looked up when he and Rina emerged from one of the side doors of the building. His expression was glum. He looked like he swallowed stones for breakfast.
Rina didn't say anything for several long moments, fingers twisting in front of her, but then she nodded slowly. She looked up and met his eyes. "They say you're going," she said. There was a long pause while they looked at each other. Then Rina dropped her eyes. "Goodbye," she mumbled, then she turned and vanished back inside the door they had just come out of.
Gehard looked after her, a pained expression on his face, and then turned to Itachi. "I barely recognize you anymore," he said. "You've changed."
"The eyes?" Itachi guessed. One eye was still stuck as a Sharingan, and always would be as far as he knew.
"More than the eyes."
Looking at this man, Itachi struggled to remember what he had been afraid of. Was it really less than a year ago that he had been thrown to the ground, his sister struck, his mother threatened, and he had felt helpless? It seemed like something that happened in a dream. Or to someone else.
"We won't see a lot of each other in the future," Itachi said.
"No," Gehard said.
Itachi wasn't sure how to read his stepfather's face. Was Gehard relieved? Insulted? Afraid?
On impulse, he stuck out his hand.
Gehard blinked in surprise. He hesitated, but then stepped forward to take it. They shook.
Gehard didn't say anything.
Their hands came apart. Itachi turned and left.
His mother watched the exchange without saying a word.
Itachi traced his steps back to where he had found Rina, thinking she might have gone back to play, but the corridor was silent now. No music came from the storage room. As he got closer, he heard another sound.
He approached quietly, looking in from the doorframe.
Rina was there, sitting on the bench, arms wrapped around her body.
She was crying over the keys.
"Rina," he whispered.
She choked on her tears and wiped her hand across her face.
"It's okay," he said. "You can cry. I just—I want you to know that you're not alone. You're never going to be alone. Mom and I are not going anywhere. I know I was busy a lot before, but I'm going to spend more time with you now."
She peeked at him, pulling her hands down partway to reveal her dark eyes, like twin pools of ink. "Itachi?" she said quietly. "Will you go with me to ask the Hokage something?"
"What?" he asked, puzzled.
"I want to perform something."
Itachi looked at his sister questioningly. "Perform something? When?"
"Tonight," Rina said, her pale round face as serious as winter. "For the whole village."
Itachi stared at her for a while, unsure how to respond. Gehard was being escorted out of the village. He had heard that Juo was leaving too. Perhaps tonight was a good time for something festive, if the information could be spread quickly enough.
He paused in his thoughts. Rina was still looking at him expectantly, dark eyes hopeful. What was he thinking? Of course the information could be delivered quickly. These were Shinobi.
"Let's ask the Hokage," he said.
Sasuke hadn't seen much of anyone since Konoha's return from the Grass. He had taken pains to make it so, keeping out of public gatherings and leaving his home before dawn most days to spend his time in the wilds around the village. Sometimes he spent the hours training. Other times he spent them staring.
Something inside him had changed. Was changing. It was something small, almost imperceptible, but it was close to his heart, and as it shifted, it was like the ground giving way beneath his feet. It was changing him from the inside out, as completely as he had been changed when he first came back to Konoha.
It frightened him.
"Brother," he whispered to the nothingness. Nothing answered.
There was no ghost. There never had been. There was only the leaves dancing in the trees, and a soft wind on his face. The gnarled roots of the trees dug into the soil, drinking deeply of the earth. The sun was warm. He was alone in the glen.
A crunch sounded…feet breaking leaves. Then a voice calling his name softly. A woman's voice. Sakura?
He rose to see Lucia emerging from behind a tree. She saw him and looked momentarily startled, as if she had happened upon a stag unexpectedly. "Oh," she said.
"How did you find me?" he asked.
She grunted. "Not easily. I've been looking for over an hour," she said. "But Naruto said you spend your time out here and gave me some guidance."
Sasuke was silent. So Naruto was keeping an eye on him. Typical.
"What do you want?" he asked her.
"Two things," she said. "First, you should return to the village with me. Rina is going to be performing something, and she specifically asked for your attendance."
"Performing?" Sasuke asked. "What is she performing?"
"She's written a song," Lucia said. "Come and you will see. She would like for you to sit with us."
Sasuke nodded. He could do that. "And the other thing?"
She turned her head, dark hair spilling down her bare shoulder in a cascade of curls. She reached for a sack hung at her side and withdrew a canister and two round cups.
"I wanted to have a drink," Lucia said. She was dressed in white silks but seemed to pay her clothes no heed as she sat on a fallen log. She looked at him expectantly. "With you."
Sasuke wasn't sure what to do or say, so he did the conventional thing. He walked over to sit beside the woman who was pouring him a cup of what looked to be sake.
"What are we drinking to?" Sasuke asked.
"Does it matter?" Lucia asked. She tapped her cup against his in a kind of salute and downed the whole thing in a swallow. After a moment of silence, she spoke. "The end of an era," she said. "Or new beginnings perhaps. A chapter has been turned."
The thing inside Sasuke that had changed stirred at this suggestion. He downed his cup. Lucia refilled it, and her own. They drank again.
"I also wanted to talk to you," she said. "I think… I think there has been a lot of misunderstanding between us."
Sasuke didn't say anything, but he nodded.
"I wanted to tell you cleanly," she said. "I loved your brother, as much as it was possible to, given the circumstances."
Sasuke said nothing.
"I should have said so the moment I was sure, but I thought you would despise me for it," she said. "I thought he was a vicious murderer. And I thought it wasn't my place. There was a lot I didn't understand."
He looked at the ground. "There's still a lot that you don't understand," he said quietly. "It took me years to put the pieces together. I supposed you want to know the whole story."
She refilled his cup. The clink of the canister against the rim interrupted him.
"I do," she said, "but not today. Didn't I say we were celebrating?"
He looked up at her.
Her eyes shimmered with a feeling that was all too familiar to him. "The life I have been living for ten years is over suddenly and I'm a little raw yet. And anyway, I would prefer to be all together when you tell it."
"All together?" he asked, blinking.
"Me, you, and the children."
"Because we are a family," she said. "Whether you recognize it or not, that is the truth. You are their uncle. Regardless of what you think of me, that makes you family."
He regarded her in silence for several long moments. She sat on the log beside him, dressed all in white silk, her dark hair bouncing around her shoulders in curls. The attitude he had sensed from her before, aloof and cold, was less present now than it had ever been. She was like a statue of ice that had been melted into warm rainwater.
When he spoke, his voice was somber. "I misunderstood you too," he said. "Willfully at times. I thought you were a user. My brother was all used up, and those that did the using are dead, so I wanted to despise you. But I was wrong. I think you were fair to him, and…" he paused. "I think my brother loved you."
Lucia's head snapped up.
Sasuke met her eyes. "If he had the capacity, if it was possible for him, then I'm sure he loved you."
Lucia did not reply, but she didn't need to. Sasuke's words had a visible effect. Her eyes darkened, becoming like still pools glistening with reflected light.
"He knew about the children," Sasuke said quietly. "He meant for you to have them. He must have loved you."
"I should have saved him," she whispered.
"No one could have saved him."
"How do you know? I could have taken him away, beyond the reach of your wars, where there are medicines, luxuries. It was in my power. With my resources, I could have-"
"He wouldn't have accepted that. There was nothing you could do. He loved me too. He loved our parents. It didn't change anything."
She was quiet. "I don't like this feeling," she said at length.
"I don't like it either, but I've lived with it for so long now, I hardly notice anymore. You'll come to accept that there was nothing you could have done, that his choices were his and not yours, and that the memories worth remembering are the ones you want to remember."
It was odd. Sasuke was speaking to Lucia, but he wasn't really speaking to her. It was almost like he was talking to himself, and more strangely, advocating for himself, in trying to help her. The feeling was peculiar. And it made him feel better than he had felt in a long time.
"Itachi didn't want to be saved," he continued. "What he did to the clan, to himself, to me-He knew what would happen. He was ordered to do it, but he also chose to do it. He really believed it was for the best. After that, he didn't want anything from anyone."
Lucia turned her head to the side. Her voice had the effect of cool water poured over a fevered head. "He wanted peace."
"For others, yes."
"And I think he wanted us both to live," Lucia said. She drank from her cup and then stared into it. "To live. Not just survive."
Sasuke pondered her words for a few moments. He felt odd. Maybe it was the sake beginning to affect his senses, but he felt as if he was just seeing things clearly in a way he hadn't for a long time.
He wanted me to live.
"I can drink to that," he said quietly.
She poured him another cup.
"I don't think I've ever seen this much stuff," Haro told Itachi.
Itachi just nodded. Most everyone had heard about the arrival of his Aunt Cecile and the wagons full of his family's things. Now all of those things were in his house—piles and piles of it. His aunt, her husband, and their servants were renting a house on another street, as the house could not contain them. Itachi's room was full of boxes. There little rental house was bursting with belongings far too numerous and ornate for its rustic walls.
"Are you going to sell it?" Amaya asked, peering with interest at Itachi's guitar.
"Some of it," Itachi answered. "I don't need most of this, but mom wants to keep some of the heirlooms that were passed down in her family. We're going to move."
"Where?" Ayame asked.
"The edge of the village," Itachi said. "We're going to build a place. She hasn't decided yet exactly, but it will be somewhere quiet, away from the crowds and overlooking the woods, near Sasuke's place."
"Build a house?" Haro mumbled. "Sounds expensive."
Itachi flushed. Since the mission, he had quite suddenly and very famously become the richest kid in the village. He wasn't sure he liked it. He was not ashamed of it, but he had grown accustomed to having to fight for recognition amongst his peers and was worried that things would change. But there was no help for it. His mother wasn't going to be able to pretend to be destitute anymore. His only saving grace was that the people of Konoha did not seem able to conceive of exactly how wealthy his family was. They knew what rich families were able to afford in their village and the surrounding areas and just assumed he was like them. The notion that all of Konoha could fit in his mother's pocket was incomprehensible.
I'll have to manage it someday, he thought. Was it better to hope she spent most of the family's wealth on her vendetta against the Higher Houses? He wasn't sure.
Fortunately, his mother was not bent only on vengeance. Building a new house was her smallest project. She'd been spending a lot of time with the Hokage, talking through plans for the expansion of the village and restructuring of Shinobi offerings and training. He'd also heard that she'd donated a considerable sum to a bewildered, but delighted petitioning group from outside the village who has passed through seeking support from the Hokage to improve road conditions and construct way houses for weary travelers. He suspected she'd done that in honor of his father.
Haro was touching his guitar. "I heard your sister's got a…" Haro frowned. "Some kind of instrument? I saw a group of Shinobi moving it into the arena. They're erecting a platform too—the one they use during the Chunin exams."
"A piano," Itachi said. "It wouldn't fit in the house on top of everything else, so we had put it in one of the storage rooms in the administration building. I went to ask the Hokage about allowing Rina to perform and he sent some guys to move it into the arena. Rina has been there all day preparing," Itachi said.
"What is she playing for this concert?" Amaya said. "Everyone's been talking about it all day. I don't think Konoha has ever had a concert."
"I've only heard pieces of it," Itachi said. "I'm not really sure."
"Is she going to be okay performing in front of everyone?" Amaya asked. "I would think that would be scary for her."
"It's hard to say with Rina," Itachi said. "She has performed in front of people before and has always done well. She actually struggles more face to face than in front of a large crowd."
"Huh," Haro said. "I suppose you'll be sitting in the front row with your mom?"
Itachi nodded, puzzled by the question. "Probably."
Haro turned to Amaya. "Do you want to go and sit with me then?" he asked her.
Amaya blinked. There was a short pause during which Haro's face was so perfectly controlled that it might as well have been carved from marble.
"Sure," Amaya said finally. "I mean yes."
Haro just nodded, not quite looking her in the eye, trying to look cool.
"Well, I should go," Amaya stammered. "I don't want to be late for dinner and I need to pick up some things from the market. I—I'll see you two later."
She scampered off, beating a straight path to the market.
Itachi raised an eyebrow at Haro. "What is that about?" he asked.
"Her father's been having dinner with her every night since the mission," Haro said. "She seems happy about it."
"That's great, but not what I meant."
Haro flushed slightly. "Oh. Well, you know," he said ruefully, rubbing the back of neck and avoiding Itachi's eyes. "We're just spending time together, but it's good." He seemed happy. "So I'll see you at the concert then?"
Itachi smiled. "See you are the concert."
When Itachi had asked his question, Naruto had merely grinned and clapped his hands. "We'll do it tonight!" he exclaimed. Naruto clones had been dispersed throughout the village to inform them of a special event, and word of mouth covered anyone who hadn't heard directly from the Hokage.
Now, with dusk settling over the village, Shinobi and Konoha citizens alike thronged the streets leading toward the arena. The seats were already beginning to fill.
He sat with his mother in approximately the same seating they had when they had watched Naruto battle Sasuke in this same arena. Amaya and Haro sat together on Itachi's right with Amaya's father; Haro's family was elsewhere. Itachi's mother sat on his left. The Hokage sat in the row in front of them with Hinata, Ino, Chouji, and Sakura.
A Naruto clone was also down in the arena, talking to some workers who were milling about the platform. It was little more than a square box erected in the middle of the arena upon which the piano sat alone. Sasuke had not shown up yet, but there was a seat for him beside Itachi's mother.
It was an odd thing for Itachi. He had fought Yukio's team in this arena, and he had seen Naruto fight an exhibition match against Saskue here when he first arrived in the village. He knew the Chunin exams took place here also. He was not sure that the arena had ever been used for anything other than fighting.
The piano was certainly a strange sight for the villagers and was eliciting a lot of comments and speculation. The crowd was buzzing about it. They didn't have pianos here. Most of the music produced in this area of the world came from flutes and percussion and some simple string instruments, and there wasn't much of that in Konoha.
"Where's Rina?" Ino asked, turning her head to look at his mother. "I don't see her." Her baby was on her lap, fast asleep.
"She's down there," Lucia murmured. "In the alcoves."
"Aren't you worried about her down there by herself?"
"No," Lucia said. "Rina has performed in front of crowds before. She has grown up a little recently and she has prepared for this. I expect her to do very well."
Ino turned to Sakura. "How about you?" she asked. "Are you doing all right? How are you feeling? Still no morning sickness?"
Sakura shook her head. "None, but I'm not concerned," she said. "It's different for everyone."
"Lucky," Ino muttered. "I was nauseous with this one." She hugged her infant close.
Sakura turned to smile at her, but her smile looked a little sad.
"What about—?" Ino began.
Sakura interrupted her with a flat look. "If you mean Sasuke, it's okay," she said. "I can hardly expect to avoid him as long as I remain in the village. If I was worried about it, I wouldn't have sat here."
"So you are still thinking of leaving?" Ino asked. She looked crestfallen.
"I think it's the only way," Sakura said. "I just need to move forward."
Some time passed in awkward silence as everyone stared at their hands.
Itachi didn't understand it. He knew his uncle loved Sakura. Everyone knew it. And she was pregnant with his child and obviously deeply in love with him. Why couldn't they work it out? He knew it had to do with his uncle's lost family, the ones that had perished at Itachi Uchiha's hands, and the loss of Itachi Uchiha himself. Sasuke couldn't seem to let go of those feelings and they were poisoning his ability to be with Sakura. It seemed awfully unfair—the whole situation.
"Is he even going to show up?" Ino muttered suddenly, looking around the arena with a frown on her face.
Itachi had stopped looking for his uncle. Being anxious about Sasuke didn't seem worth the effort. Sasuke would come when he wanted and sit where he wanted. His mother and Sakura didn't seem concerned about it either.
More time passed. The crowd was starting to get restless. Itachi didn't know what the Hokage was waiting for. It wasn't like there was much to prepare with the piano. It had been transported and tuned hours ago. Rina was ready, he was sure. He could imagine her standing in the darkness in the wings, taking deep breaths and staring at the piano on the platform with shining eyes.
Abruptly, Sasuke was there.
Itachi hadn't seen him coming or heard him arrive. One moment the seat beside Itachi's mother was empty and in the next Sasuke was easing into it. He sat rigidly, eyes staring straight ahead. Itachi's mother didn't speak to him or give him any significant looks, but they sat together peacefully, which said everything that needed to be said.
Sakura turned her head once to look at Sasuke. There was a crease between her brow, but she did not frown or say anything either. Sasuke felt her eyes and looked at her too. There was something in his expression, tender and aching, that made Itachi's breath catch. He seemed like he wanted to speak to Sakura, but he didn't. He just sat there, looking at her with that agonizing expression, until their whole box felt like being inside a tension bubble.
The tension eased when Naruto's clone bounded up to the platform and waved his arms. The crowd buzzed louder at first and then quieted.
"We have a special treat tonight," the Hokage said, his voice booming without the need of a microphone. "Our very own Rina would like to perform something on her instrument as a thank you to the village." He paused, looking into the alcove. There was a moment of silence and then Naruto smiled warmly. "Okay, she's ready. Everyone, please welcome Rina." He gestured, extending his arm to the steps leading up to the platform, and then vanished in a puff of smoke.
There was applause. Rina appeared as they clapped. She looked so small from Itachi's vantage point, all alone in the vastness of the arena. She was wearing a purple dress that had come with the wagons. It had lilac flowers embroidered along the hem and crawling up the sleeves. Itachi thought he had seen that dress on Rina maybe once before, back home, and knew it had been her favorite at the time—the type of thing she had been loath to leave behind when they fled to come here. And now she had to back. She had everything back. More.
Show them, Rina, he thought. Show them what they saved.
The applause died down. In silence, Rina took the stage.
Her small figure climbed the steps to the wooden platform. She made her way across the floor to the center of the stage. She did not walk immediately to the grand piano. Instead, she walked to the front and looked out over the crowd.
Her eyes scanned the sea of people, all staring down at her from on high. Itachi wondered what that must be like for her, looking straight at the rows and rows of humanity. There was no fear or nervousness visible in the way Rina held herself. Itachi had seen her perform many times. Afterward, she would say she felt a little nervous, but that wouldn't stop her. It was intimate conversation with people she did not know that she approached with caution, always watching before speaking, sometimes for long spans of time.
"Thank you," she said.
Her small voice carried across the stadium, clear and piping as a bird's. She did not elaborate. She did not mention that she had been kidnapped. She did not mention that Konoha had saved her life, and her mother's, and her friends. But somehow her silence conveyed all of that. Her thank you hung in the air like a struck bell. The longer she was quiet, the deeper her words seemed. The watching crowd was utterly silent in response, absorbing it like a sponge.
"I have written a song," she continued, and lowered her eyes. "It is about my family."
Itachi blinked in surprise and sat up straighter. He knew she had composed something, but…
"It is about my mother," Rina continued, "my brother, Itachi, and my uncle Sasuke." She paused briefly. "And his brother."
Itachi looked at his mother. Her eyes had widened.
Sasuke looked even more struck. He sat with his back straight as an arrow—unnaturally straight—his eyes drinking up all the light. He looked like he might burst into movement any moment, tense as a coiled spring, but he did not move.
Rina said nothing more. She walked away from the audience, toward the piano. The silence that followed her was almost palpable, pregnant with tension. Murmurs moved through the crowd in quiet ripples. Itachi saw Sasuke's fingers clench against his thighs.
Either Rina didn't notice the tension or she did not care. She walked to the piano. She sat down lightly, settling herself on the bench like a feather, the lavender skirts of her dress spilling out around her like the petals of a flower. There was no music sheet. Whatever she was about to play was something she had memorized.
There was an elongated moment of silence while Rina sat on the bench, back straight, staring at the ivory white keys in front of her.
Then she began to play.
Itachi had heard Rina play before, but most of Konoha had not. Most of them had never heard a piano before, or any instrument with such breadth of expression. Rina's small fingers danced across the keys and music poured forth, following her moving hands in a cadence of lifts and drops, the notes ringing clear and the pauses in between pregnant with portent. Itachi couldn't say what the song sounded like, only that it was saturated deeply in emotion, smooth and violent at the same time, with a melody haunting but beautiful. It was a sad song, a strong song, a song of endurance, of temperance, of hidden secrets and kindness and bitter truths.
Of course it was.
It was about the family. The emotions that came upon him in listening to it—from the first few measures—was as pure and stark as daylight. Music, he realized, especially music like this, was a language—a language without words, a language that spoke straight from one heart to another, in such a way that the meaning could not be misunderstood.
Rina had found a way to voice every quiet whisper in her heart—to say all that she felt and all that she observed of others' feelings—to say it sharp and true, without shuffling, without avoiding eye contact, without regret or remorse or dissembling. It poured forth like a waterfall.
The song had several melodies, each played distinctly at first, and then interwoven. Itachi heard himself in one of them—a steady, clean melody that recurred again and again, predictable and infallible—always there. He heard what he felt must be his mother's melody—certain, but quiet, with undercurrents of harmonizing sadness running through every measure. When that melody wound into his, or Rina's, the only word he had to describe the sound was "devotion."
And then the song shifted, entering a second movement. Itachi didn't know what Konoha knew about composing music, but he knew this movement to be about them, or about their coming here. And then Rina started playing Sasuke's melody.
He had expected something cold, dark, stormy, or even harsh, reflecting the way Sasuke had treated them upon meeting. But it wasn't like that. Sasuke's movement was like the deep ache of an old pain. It was sad. It was strong. And it was isolated. It reminded him of a river at night, dark water softly surging, running away and away but never getting anywhere.
Itachi snuck at peek at Sasuke as he listened. His uncle sat on the other side of his mother. He sat stiffly, every muscle straining, eyes intent on the little girl playing on the stage. The expression on his face—deeply and uncharacteristically expressive, all the lines of it etched with sadness-was enough to make Itachi look hastily away.
The music changed again.
It was his father's theme. He knew it instantly. It had some in common with his own. It harmonized with his mother's. It…
Sasuke got up.
Itachi turned to gape as his uncle left his seat and strode away up the aisle. His mother put a hand on Itachi's wrist to stop him from speaking. She had not turned her head. She did nothing to acknowledge or draw attention to Sasuke's leaving.
The song went on.
Itachi listened, slowly relaxing again into the music. Eventually, Rina the song came to an end. The ending was neither climactic nor abrupt. There was a cadence that seemed to suggest an end and a continuance at the same time. The last note rung out, vibrating through the air. It was followed by silence. Rina lowered her hands, pulling them off the keys, and stood.
His sister looked startled, like a fawn caught on its feet in the forest. After a moment of staring, she curtsied, bobbing down instinctively as she had been taught all her life, her face bright and clear and stained with pink.
She straightened and ran off stage.
Sasuke did not leave the arena.
He ran up the aisles, between the rows of benches, ignoring the startled looks of the ninja listening to the song, their faces a blur.
He made it to the top of the arena, behind the seats, and stepped into the shadows of the columns that supported the overall structure of the arena. There was no one back there. There was nothing but darkness.
He sank to his knees, the song still ringing across the arena, penetrating his ears, his skin, his mind, his heart.
The stadium was emptying. Itachi had spent the last twenty minutes standing beside his sister, watching Rina be congratulated and peppered with awed, respectful questions by grown Shinobi with knife scars on their faces.
She had stammered herself breathless and eventually stopped talking, only able to respond with shy nods and smiles. Her admirers eventually seemed to realize she was overwhelmed. They took their leave pleasantly.
"You did wonderful, Rina," Itachi's mother murmured.
His sister's face glowed like the moon. She pressed her face into Itachi's shoulder and let out a happy sound somewhere between a laugh and a mew.
"You really were," Itachi told her.
They were some of the last people to leave the stadium. Rina walked beside Itachi, quiet and happy.
As they passed through the main exit tunnel, a shape burst out of the shadows. Itachi stopped in surprise, recognizing the shape as Yukio.
"That was incredible!" Yukio said. He didn't address Itachi. He fell in step beside Rina. She looked startled, twisting first toward Itachi and then back to Yukio. "There was this part," Yukio said, "where the music—". Yukio carried on, fumbling in his descriptions, not knowing the terminology. Rina's cheeks were flushed pink and she stared at Yukio adoringly.
I don't know if I like that, Itachi thought.
He looked to his mother. She was eyeing Yukio with careful speculation, but her expression betrayed no sentiment.
"I'm organizing a game tomorrow," Yukio was saying to Rina. "Do you know how to play Split?"
Rina shook her head.
"It's easy," he said. "It's the Genin mostly, but some Academy students as well and we could use a few more people. I thought you and your brother could round out our team."
Rina turned to Itachi, her eyes shining.
"Um," Itachi said. "Sure."
Yukio walked with them all the way home. By the time they reached the front porch, Rina still hadn't spoken a word. She followed their mother to the front door, tailing her like a duck, but where Lucia went inside immediately, Rina hesitated, looking back at Yukio and Itachi. Night had come on, to the point where Yukio was little more than a silhouette framed by a sky smattered with stars.
Biting her lip, Rina went inside. Yukio stepped forward as if to follow her. Itachi grabbed his sleeve. "What are you doing?"
"What do you mean?"
"Why are you cozying up to my sister?" he asked. "You never cared two ticks about her before."
"I saved her life," Yukio said, turning his face away.
Itachi blinked. That was true, but...
"It's been hard for her to make friends, right?"
"What does that have to do with—"
"Because she's a little weird?"
Itachi gripped Yukio's arm. Yukio was so…. But no. Yukio was blunt and tactless. But he was not wrong.
"It's going to continue to be hard for her," Yukio urged. "Being a musical genius will just make it worse. But if I'm friends with her, everyone I know will like her, and I know everyone."
Avoiding Itachi's incredulous expression, Yukio stooped to pick up a smooth stone. He tossed it into a potted plant sitting on a doorstep.
Itachi was flummoxed. Yukio seemed so earnest, even a little nervous, as if worried Itachi would disagree. "Well, just remember she's my sister," Itachi muttered. "Be nice to her."
"I just said I'd be her friend," Yukio said. "I'm always nice to my friends. And I do like her, genuinely, if you are concerned about that. Really. It's kind of hard to stop noticing interesting things about her when you to know her a little, you know?"
Itachi had just been reconsidering, thinking that Yukio's acquaintance might be good for Rina, when Yukio had to go say a thing like that. Something about it bothered him. He didn't like the idea of Yukio liking Rina too much.
I'm going to have to be friends with Yukio, he realized.
There was no way around it that he could see. And not just amiable. Friends. The thought bothered him naturally. He was less irritated by Yukio after the mission, but he did not expect a 180 degree change in Yukio's character. He had hoped to set grudges aside but hadn't anticipated becoming particularly close. Yukio was still the same, still aggressive and brash, still thoughtless and impulsive.
The thought of Yukio becoming close with Rina alarmed him. Yukio would influence Rina. He wouldn't be able to help it. They were so different. He was everything she wasn't, everything most kids wanted to be. And he had saved her life. Best not to forget that.
He couldn't ask Rina to stay away from Yukio and couldn't expect her to obey him even if he did. He would have to just keep an eye on it. Being friends with Yukio was the only reasonable course of action. He needed Yukio to respect him. Fear him a little even…
I can't quit training, he realized.
He hadn't wanted to, but he had taken some comfort in the thought that it was less important now that he was openly his mother's heir. He could have done more accounting, less shuriken training. But he couldn't slack off now. He had to get ahead of Yukio. He would always have to be ahead, just in case, for Rina's sake. Yukio being Yukio would make that a challenge. Was it even possible?
I have the Sharingan, he thought. Even with Yukio's years of experience, even with his crazy drive to outstrip everybody around him, I should still…
Yukio clapped him on the back, startling Itachi out of his thoughts.
"Tomorrow, okay?" he said. "I'll get the kids going and then swing by to pick up you and Rina." He flashed a grin at Itachi. "Maybe afterward we'll fight?"
Itachi just stared at him.
But Yukio merely waved and darted off, leaving Itachi standing on the front porch, staring after him in perplexity. He thought about how different things were now to when he had arrived here.
I think I'll try out for Chunin this year, he thought.
Smiling, he turned and went back inside the house he shared with his mother and sister.
The day after the concert was sunny and bright. The gardens on the outskirts of Konoha were just beginning to bloom. Tiny light green buds poked out among the leaves of the perennials. There weren't many flowers yet, but there would be soon.
Sakura didn't know what she was doing there. She had wanted to be alone, but she did not want to be indoors. She didn't want to work. And she didn't want to see anybody. The very last place she wanted to be was the hospital.
It was going to be hard to leave it all behind, even for a short while. Her work was here. Her friends. Her life.
She touched her abdomen, fingers light against her clothing. She still wasn't showing. Her body seemed to like being flat, but it wouldn't be long.
I can't stay, she thought resolutely. I will love Sasuke forever, whether I want to or not. If I stay-
There was no sound, but she felt the approach. And she knew who it was.
Sasuke stood there as if her thoughts had summoned him. He was so tall and broad shouldered—it always surprised her a little, as if part of her could not forget the way he was when they were kids on Team 7 together.
The expression on his face was different. She was used to cold eyes and unknowable thoughts. But this was a long face, etched deep with emotion, with eyes that stared at her as if she were the only thing in the world, as if the garden around her were some hazy dream.
"What's wrong?" she asked him.
"Ask me," he said. "Ask me right now."
"Ask you what? I don't understand."
"Ask me how I feel about my brother, about how I feel about you. Ask me."
She just stared at him.
He started speaking without her asking anything. "I'm sad," he told her, "I've been so sad and so lost. But it's not because my brother is dead. It's because I was forgetting him."
"Forgetting him?" she whispered, bewildered.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I've used you. Even when I didn't mean to, when I didn't even know I was doing it, I used you. I am sorry."
"Sasuke, we've been through all of this," she said quietly. "Many times. I know how hard things are for you. I know I've been too accommodating. We both know each other's weaknesses. We've both exploited the other at times. I just want—"
"I've pushed myself into darkness," he said. "These past few months—years maybe, I'm not sure. I've been doing it on purpose. I've been pushing you away because I thought—I thought that was the only way to hold onto him. I wanted to keep things the same. I didn't want to lose anything. I was afraid of moving forward because it meant moving on."
She didn't answer. She couldn't answer. She felt the urge to cry and forced it back. It was true. Everything he was saying.
"Sakura," he said. "I'm trying to say that I know how to love you. In order to have a future with you, I have to accept that I have already moved on. It has already happed. I just had to accept that I will—that I am already forgetting my brother."
Her eyes widened. "But I'm not asking—"
"It's not something you should feel guilty about," he said. "It doesn't have anything to do with you. That's the point. The truth is… the truth is that I have been happy. I've been happy here in Konoha, with you, for many years. I didn't think I could be. I didn't notice that I was. What I noticed was that I was forgetting Itachi, and that made me push you away."
"Sasuke, I don't understand what you are saying. You want to forget your brother now?"
"I'll never truly forget him," Sasuke said. "I'll never forget what he meant to me. That's impossible. But I have forgotten a lot of other things, small things, some big things, things that I never thought I would. Do you know it's getting hard for me to remember his face? Lately, when I think of him, I see the boy instead."
"The boy? Your nephew?"
"Yes," Sasuke said. "And when I hear his name, I think of him first."
"Itachi," Sasuke whispered, as if testing him.
"My nephew. It's not exactly like I have really forgotten. It's hard to explain. The feelings are still there, but the memories are hazy. I don't recall everything with the clarity that I used to."
"And that saddens you," Sakura murmured, looking away. "I understand. What does it mean?"
"I feel like I'm the verge of something," Sasuke said to her. "I wanted to see you, in order to confirm the feeling." His tone of voice was harsh, but not with her. There was a thickness to it, as if the words were pushing through some kind of barrier and coming out with more force than intended. "It means that you don't have to go to Sand—not if it's to escape me. I want you to stay. I want you to be with me."
"We've been through this, Sasuke," she began.
He interrupted her. "I don't mean it to be like before," he said quickly, interrupting her appeal. "I want to be a family. You won't be second. You won't come after Itachi. Not anymore. That's over."
She stared at him.
It was what she had wanted him to say, what she had imagined him saying to her, almost word for word. Had he really said it? It felt like a dream, a hallucination. She closed her eyes. When she opened them again, he was still standing there, his brow knit, watching her.
She shook her head, feeling as if there were cobwebs in her ears. "You're just saying what I want to hear, to prevent me from going. I don't want you to forget your brother to appease me. I don't want you to resent me. I can't live like that. This child—"
"I don't know what I can say that will convince you," he said, "maybe nothing, but I'm willing to spend the next eight months proving it if you let me, and the next eighty years after that."
"Optimistic," she muttered in reference to the lifeline, and then realized how significant that was. "Wait. What?"
His dark eyes stared into her face, like twin pools of deep, even black. The guardedness she was used to seeing in those eyes was absent. They were not open eyes, not innocent like young Itachi's, but they weren't cloaked either. Her breath caught.
"Something must have happened," she said. "Something changed, or…something is different. It isn't me. Nothing has changed with me, with us. What-?"
"It was that woman," he said. "Coming here like she did, stirring up all my anger, all my bitterness, forcing me to confront things I wanted to leave buried. And those children—I never thought I would have a family. I didn't want one again; I didn't know if I could take it. But I do. I am. It wasn't my choice, but they are here. I don't know if my brother did it on purpose. But whatever the reason, it is what it is. Nothing has changed, except that I have realized I…" He paused, emotion creeping into his voice. "I don't want them to go. And I don't want you to go. I don't want to live in the past anymore. I want to live together, with you, with everyone."
"And I want to meet him," Sasuke said quietly. He avoided her eyes, his voice thick now. "Our baby. I want to say all other the things my father never said to me. And you too. You—you are precious to me, Sakura. I know that doesn't surprise you. It shouldn't anyway. But I lost sight of it. I lost it, but I don't want to lose you. I promise you. I'll be worthy of that feeling."
There was silence between them, stretching like a sigh. Sakura could hear the sound of the creek, the buzzing of flies, the chirping of crickets. Sunlight blazed down from a bright blue sky, but it had rained in the morning and the air around her still smelled damp and rich with life. She felt herself sway, the blades of the grass itching her ankles.
"Say something," Sasuke whispered. There were stress lines around his eyes. H
Say something? She couldn't think.
"I…" she stopped. Her fist clenched, tightening into balls. "I'm afraid that you will take it back. That my happiness—"
He came closer and she trembled with every footfall. His arms came around her. She was visibly shaking. He wrapped her in a close, but gentle embrace. As she rattled against him, he whispered in her ear. "I'm not going to take it back."
She hated that she was shaking. She wanted to be composed. She wanted to be calm, regal, but she couldn't stop it. It wasn't fear. It wasn't excitement. Her body trembled with emotion so deep she couldn't identify it.
"I think it's going to be a girl," she blurted.
He smoothed her hair. She felt the back of his fingers against her cheek, trailing to her chin. He tilted her face up to look at him, and then leaned in to kiss her. As he pulled back, he smiled.
"What do you want to name her?"
Sasuke stood behind the glass, out in the waiting room, watching the medical staff mill around on the other side. He wasn't sure how he felt. He knew he should feel excited, but that was difficult when there was so much fear crowding out everything else. It was like the last gulp of air before a sudden drop. But there was nothing he could do about it.
Just don't show it, he thought.
There were comfortable chairs lining the far wall, but he couldn't sit down. He couldn't do anything. He took measured strides back and forth across the tiled floor. They were long, purposeful strides, but they lacked actual purpose. He couldn't stop. If he stopped, he would start shaking.
Naruto came in a few minutes later. "Ready, daddy?" he asked.
Sasuke felt his chest constrict. "No," he said truthfully.
"Any word yet?"
Sasuke shook his head.
Sakura was insistent that Sasuke not be in the delivery room with her.
"Hey," Naruto said, clapping him on the shoulder. "Take a breath. Everything's going to be fine."
"I'm going to go mad," he said.
"You're going to be fine," Naruto told him. "Really. Sakura is going to deliver the most beautiful baby you've ever seen."
Ino opened the door.
Sasuke felt a wash of heat roll through him. "Is she-?"
"Not yet," Ino said to him. "I was told Naruto was in here."
Naruto's face brightened.
"Good," she said. "Sakura wanted to know if you had come." She smiled at Sasuke. "She's worried about you."
She's worried about me? Sasuke thought wonderingly. "How is she?"
"She's fine," Ino said. "Nothing to do but wait. Baby comes when baby wants to come."
Sasuke's knees felt rubbery. He'd fought battles that were less exhausting than this, and he wasn't even the one doing the work.
Ino left them and Sasuke returned to pacing.
"Is Lucia coming?" Naruto asked curiously.
Sasuke nodded absently. "After," he said. "The kids too."
Naruto smiled at him.
Sasuke's stomach twisted into knots.
Minutes blurred into hours. Sasuke paced, checked the time, paced again, sat down, walked, and paced again. There was nothing to do. Naruto came in and out of the room. Hinata came and she and Naruto talked quietly for awhile together. Others came, usually with news or questions for the Hokage. It broke up the time a little, and gave him something to listen to, but nothing could distract him for very long.
At some point, he had sat down on the bench, though he didn't remember doing so. Naruto was beside him, hands on knees. The door opened.
Ino stood there again, blue eyes twinkling, blond hair wrapped in a tight bun around the base of her neck.
"Mama's ready for you," she said.
Sasuke bolted upright. He felt the hard tiles of the hospital floor beneath his feet, grounding him, but the rest of the world was a hazy blur as he followed Ino. Naruto trailed him. They walked past white walls and closed doors. They passed a room full of babies.
He paused at the window. On the other side of the glass, he could see two babies, not his own, sleeping. They had been born recently, both boys, one bald as the other with a flop of dark hair. He stared at them, trying to make sense of who they were, of what he was about to see with his own baby.
Ino had paused with him. She saw his expression and gave him a light pat on the arm, and then continued walking. He followed. His hands were trembling.
Warmth emanated from the door to Sakura's room. There was a window beside the hospital bed that looked out on a tree, the leaves soaked from the recent rain. It had been stormy the past couple of days. The dirt streets of Konoha were muddy and covered in puddles.
Sakura lay on the bed, a thin white sheet pulled up to her chin. Her hair was sweaty, matted to the pillow behind her head. She looked tired, but her chakra control was phenomenal. Even as he watched, the color was noticeably returning to her face. Light came into her eyes as she turned her head to look at him. She smiled a tired, but exhilarated smile.
"Where…?" he asked, looking around. She couldn't have just had the baby. She looked too clean. Too perfect.
Then he spotted it.
There was a raised bassinet next to Sakura, a little rectangular box with a soft mattress and hood to block out light. He approached it cautiously.
Inside, laying with eyes closed, was a tiny person wrapped in a pink blanket.
"She's beautiful, isn't she?" Sakura said.
Sasuke didn't say anything. He just nodded. At the moment he leaned over the crib, she opened her eyes.
Those eyes were the most beautiful he had ever seen, like dark opals. They were blue, the color of midnight, and full of wondering, but he suspected they would darken into black Uchiha eyes. He was instantly smitten by them, as thoroughly as he had ever been by anything. He reached into the bassinet to pick her up.
Sakura struggled into a sitting position.
"It's okay," Sasuke said quickly to her in a soft voice. "I've got her." She was a light load in his arms, but he eased himself on the edge of the mattress beside Sakura, the bundle-wrapped baby held softly but securely.
"I love you," he told the baby. He had never been so sure of anything. "And I love you," he said to his wife.
She smiled at him, eyes glistening.
"So?" Naruto asked from the doorway. He was leaning through the opening, hands on the frame. "Not afraid?"
"No," Sasuke said. "I mean, yes, but not in the way I thought."
He bent his head close, until his nose was almost touching his daughter's face and listened to her breathing. She was perfect.
Sakura leaned back against the pillows, relaxing. She still looked tired, but content too.
He heard voices outside the hospital room. Naruto stepped aside and Sasuke turned to see the rest of his family coming in.
Itachi's eye had mended over the months. It looked normal now, with just the faintest hint of a scar from the surgery. He said he could see perfectly out of it with the Sharingan activated, and when it wasn't activated, he could see better than he had, enough to get around. The Sharingan was activated now, three tomoe circling around the pupil. He had gotten the third one recently, after a tied match with Yukio in the arena that had ended with the two of them panting on their backs and grinning like idiots.
Rina, his niece, had grown a few inches. She was still a child, but he was starting to see a hint of the woman she would grow into. She would be a beauty, as regal as her mother, soft as a flower, but deadly too. She had passed her Genin tests and was a marvel in the village. Though she didn't have the Sharingan yet—not as far as he knew; she could be secretive—he had no doubts that it would emerge, and in the meantime, her jutsu were some of the most creative in the village. She only had to see a jutsu a few times to memorize it, without the Sharingan, and the things she thought up were as unusual as they were effective. It wouldn't be long before both she and her brother would become Chuunin, and then Jounin. He had no doubt.
Lucia looked radiant. She was dressed in the local civilian fashions these days, with some embellishments, her dark hair gathered up behind her head and set with bejeweled combs. He had heard she was seeing somebody, very casually, very cautiously—a Shinobi from the Cloud who had come to Konoha as an emissary to the Hokage and had met Lucia in the streets. He had been struck by her, though he still didn't know the whole of who she was. Sasuke wondered where that would go. Wherever it went, he didn't begrudge her. It felt like a good thing.
His family crowded around the bed to see his daughter. Sasuke tilted the blanket wrapped bundle so they could see her face, showing her off.
"She's lovely," Lucia murmured. "As beautiful as Rina when she was a baby. Can I hold her?"
Sasuke nodded silently, overcome by the emotions coursing through him, and passed the baby to Lucia, though he did not want to let her go. Lucia held the child tenderly, as one who had had practice holding babies, and smiled into the infant's face as she swayed and rocked her. Rina was on her tiptoes, looking into her cousin's face with interest. Itachi stood just beside her, patient and calm as he always was. He looked more like Itachi Uchiha every day, physically, but Sasuke didn't think of his brother as much when he saw his nephew anymore. Their personalities had some similarities, but they were very different people. He was looking forward to seeing who Itachi grew up to be.
Sasuke looked at Sakura, into her shining, happy eyes. She looked even more overwhelmed than he felt. And Naruto, standing by the door with his arms crossed, could be described as nothing but smug.
Looking at them all, Sasuke realized…This was what his brother had intended. This was the future he had wished for Sasuke, had created for him.
He glanced out the window. A soft rain was falling, almost like a mist, coating everything in cool droplets. Itachi Uchiha had always liked the rain. It was a natural cleansing agent, uncomfortable at times, but from it new things would grow.
New things will grow, Sasuke thought, looking at his family with a mixture of pride and humility. New things will grow.
This is probably my last fanfic. I am writing original work now and hope to publish original novels in the fantasy genre. Writing fanfic has been a fun diversion these past 15 years (wow, has it really been that long?) and has taught me a lot about writing. Thank you for your reviews and encouragement—I couldn't have learned half so much without your thoughtful comments.
I would love your comments on the final chapter, but I don't expect them given how long I made everyone wait. If you do choose to review, thank you very much! I will surely be delighted. I read and reread reviews all the time.
Here are some answers to questions I anticipate:
When did Sasuke marry Sakura?
A few months after committing to be with her forever, but I don't make a big deal out of it and I don't think they did either.
Did Naruto marry Hinata?
Certainly, and likely with more fanfare.
Is Yukio x Rina a thing?
Yes, but only in my imagination right now. It would happen sometime in the future when Rina is around 16 and Yukio is around 18/19. This could be a whole story as it will be fraught with conflict due to the immaturity of the characters. I would love to write it, but if I do, it will probably be an original work set in an original universe.
Do either of Lucia's children get the Mangekyou Sharingan?
I think they lead happier lives than what would necessitate it, but possibly. They are both capable.
Is Sakura and Sasuke's child named Salad?
I guess so!
Does Lucia defeat the Higher Houses?
Yes, but it's a boring drawn out "business" story with lots of politics and financial deals and so on—not the story I wanted to tell here, and it will take most of her life. Suffice it to say that she gets justice for her parents' murder and scrubs out some, if not all, corruption in the land of her birth.
Does Lucia get remarried?
I don't know. I think she might. I say that she starts seeing someone in this final chapter, which shows that she is moving on and looking to be happy. I think Lucia is the type of person who will make the most out of whatever comes her way and feel blessed with what she has. Whether she marries again or not, she will live a rich life that is much happier than the life she has lived up until now.
Please leave any other questions you may have in reviews or PMs and I will try to answer them.