An Uchiha Christmas Carol

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Part IV

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He tried to pull air into his lungs. At first, he couldn't breathe at all and his chest tightened in response. But, in an instant, he could. He sucked in oxygen like a man starved and his eyes flashed open very suddenly. Light flooded his senses. Labored breaths and a few coughs expelled from his throat as he stared up a blurred, orangish-brown image before him. Gradually, he blinked a few times and lifted his hands to rub his eyes.

A soft, cool temperature hung in the air, wafting over his skin as he focused his vision. A moment passed and he realized he was in a bed. That which he stared up at was his own ceiling. Slowly, he sat up, causing the sheets and blanket to fall away from his body and pool about his waist. Short strands of ebony barely drug themselves over his cheeks and he rubbed a hand down his face.

He could breathe again... The darkness... it was gone.

He swallowed. His eyes narrowed.

The sheets were tossed aside with a quickness, left in a disarrayed mess on the mattress and half on the floor. He reached for the door to his room and pulled it open quickly. As someone passed his door, a dark haired shinobi, he called to them, "What morning is it?"

The man stopped and blinked at him warily, as if unsure if he should answer or not. Sasuke must have been looking fairly impatient, for he spoke quickly, "December twenty-fifth, Sasuke-sama... Why?"

Sasuke's eyes narrowed again, but, he didn't respond. He shut his door and turned to stare at his room. The expression on his face was unreadable, incomparable to any real understanding of emotion. It was not that it lacked emotion; more that, it was like he couldn't decide which emotion to express, which thought he aught to think.

His hand came up and brushed hair out of his eyes. "I still have time..." he whispered to himself. And then, a small, smile erupted before he shut his eyes.

"Time is all I have after all, right Obito...?"

___

"Where are you going?"

Sasuke turned away from the snow covered road before him. his head gradually tilted to look over his shoulder with one eye at the ashen-haired medical ninjutsu user. He said nothing as his hand settled on the the sheathe of Kusanagi. His thumb curled over the hilt and his fingers gently caressed.

A gentle, tension-laden breeze passed between the two, forcing the boughs of the leaf-absent trees above to creak in protest eerily.

The stare down lasted a good minute before Sasuke simply smirked and shut his eyes. He continued walking. "You don't have the ability to stop me, Kabuto. And you won't." In an instant he'd assessed the situation and what would result.

He could feel his eyes boring into his back as he continued his slow trek. "Your master doesn't have anything left to offer me."

"And what of Itachi? Your revenge?" he asked offhandedly.

He stopped. The wind rustled his strands as he considered an adequate reply. "Hm.." he nearly released a small laugh, smiling at his newfound knowledge. "Suddenly... it's no longer as important as I imagined it to be."

He considered continuing his trek, even going so far as to begin the movement of his right leg. But, a thought struck him. He paused once more and said,"Do tell your master one thing for me..."

"Oh?"

"He'll soon find himself will fewer places left to hide. And when he does... Uchiha Sasuke will be there." He felt Kabuto's eyes on him even as he went on. He remained poised and ready even after he got a good five miles in distance between he and the medical ninjutsu user, just in case. Though, he never did go after him.

Perhaps he'd been wrong.

It seemed Kabuto did have some idea of what self preservation actually was.

___

Several days later...

"Hokage-samae!"

Tsunade, the Fifth Hokage, or as her good friends call her---The Slug Princess, jumped at the sudden outburst in her office. The sake cup in her hand went flying up, up, and over her chair to crash on the floor behind her, shattering into a million, alcohol-laden pieces. Surprise first came over her features before true fury set in. Her jaw tightened and her hands moved into fists.

The Jounin before her immediately realized his mistake and cowered humorously towards the door he'd just opened. "Forgive me--." He stopped as soon as she slammed a hand onto her desk, shaking it, though not breaking it, thank Kami. He assumed she couldn't be too upset then.... hopefully.

Tsunade glared and a vein twitched along her brow as her lips curled into a frown best given right before she was going to punch that good for nothing pervert Jiraiya through a wall. How had anyone even found her? She assumed the last place anyone would think she would be was in her office on a holiday. Bars, sure. A home, maybe. Some hell hole on the wrong side of town, duh. But here? Either this guy was brilliant or a complete idiot.

"What do you want?" she snapped. "It's a holiday. I'm not working right now..."

"But... Hokage-sama..! Kakashi-sama told me to..." he edged, fear causing him to stumble on his words as he shook.

"Spit it out."

He swallowed, causing his Adam's apple to bob once quite noticeably. "My Lady... Uchiha Sasuke has returned to Konoha!" he blurted.

Immediately, her disposition changed and all anger left her as her body slackened in shock and her eyes drew wide. "..What?"

"Uchi--."

"When?!"

"Just now, Tsunade-sama. He's being detained at the gates by Kotetsu and Izumo until you arrive."

Her eyes narrowed. There was no way those two Chuunin could have been capable of holding him...

"He willing gave himself up, Hokage-sama. He wants to speak with you."

Before her thoughts got the better of her Tsunade shook her head as if trying to focus. She wouldn't get any answers just standing there. With quick strides, Tsunade moved from around her desk.

"Hokage-sama?"

She swept past him without a second look and headed for the stairs. "I'm on my way. In the meantime, contact Haruno Sakura and tell her to meet me in my office immediately. After that, get someone to send a messenger bird to Jiraiya with the most complex seal you can manage. We don't need this getting out."

"Yes, Hokage-sama," the Jounin nodded vigorously. "But, what do you want the letter to say?"

She stopped and turned, nearly causing the shinobi to run into her. "That Uchiha Sasuke has returned to Konoha."

___

The day Sakura met Uchiha Sasuke for the first time was the day she started caring about how she looked. No, not entirely true. All little girls with some idea of what they are and at a certain age begin to care. Hopefully, at any rate. But, there does come that turning point where they start to care about what boys think... sometimes... just one.

Sometimes.

She didn't lie to herself anymore. She'd been an idiot school girl crushing on a dark eyed, dark haired, fairy tale ideal. She didn't love Uchiha Sasuke. She loved the idea of him. She loved his secrecy and his enigmatic nature. There was just something wholly unobtainable about him, maybe...

The day Sakura realized she didn't really love him at all... was the same day she also realized she couldn't live with any other man. Sasuke dared to show her a glimpse of himself no other person had seen for, perhaps, a very long time.

So now, faced with him, staring at her across the office of the Hokage, she wasn't quite sure what to do.

Her eyes softened as Tsunade passed by her, chakra bracers in hand. They'd either come off or were soon to go on. She wasn't sure. She all but ignored her shishou as the woman sat down behind her. All she could see was him at that moment.

"Sasuke..." she finally whispered, moving to cover her mouth in disbelief. Then, suddenly, her eyes hardened. Her frown became prominent through tears and her hands drew to fists. She surged forward and held no regret as her fist slammed into his jaw. She felt no pain as blood from his mouth hit the floor from the force of her blow.

"You bastard.." she whispered angrily. "You stupid... stupid... bastard...!" she cried. She couldn't stop herself from hitting his chest over and over again, the sides of her coiled hands pounding half heartedly into his flesh in some attempt at easing her anguish. Anguish he had caused.

She felt his arms come around her slowly as she shook in both anger and pain, as he stopped her from continuing. His words, soft in her hair, were enough to take away all the fight she had left, breaking her in their simplicity, "I'm sorry... Sakura..."

___

One month later...

Uzumaki Naruto hated sitting still. He hated waiting. He had no patience whatsoever. He disliked listening to useless textbook drivel and words he didn't know existed. If someone had asked him to sit in on a court proceeding he would have said no immediately. But, it's hard to say no, to not be interested, when the person on trial is your best friend... one that's been missing for almost four years of your life...

He knew one thing though... he was starting to hate that guy called the prosecutor... He had nothing but bad things to say that did nothing but piss him off. Several times, Sakura had to forcibly shove him back into his seat and clamp a hand over his mouth when he wanted to say something in Sasuke's defense.

They hadn't called him to the stand yet. It didn't look like they would...

"The court calls Haruno Sakura to the stand."

The pinkette looked over at Sai to his right and mouthed, 'Watch him.' before getting up and moving to take her place next to ba-chan. Naruto frowned at that and gave the ink user a glare.

"Do you swear to abide by the shinobi code and tell the truth as best as you know it to be during these court proceedings, lest your honor forthwith be tarnished in the eyes of your peers if you should be found otherwise?"

"I do," she whispered.

"Then you may start with your open opinion as to why the accused should or should not be spared judgment today."

Sakura sat with her chin held high and her hands in her lap as she looked out at the courtroom. Her eyes briefly landed on Sasuke before she started to speak. "Uchiha Sasuke broke shinobi code when he left Konoha. He abandoned his village... he joined up with a man who killed the Third. Although, I'm not sure you can call that creature a man, given what we know about him. He nearly killed Naruto in the Valley of End, my teammate and good friend."

Naruto blinked. What was she doing?

"Aside from the physical crimes he has committed... he's also hurt quite a few people emotionally. My team the most directly out of all others... He held no remorse the night he left me, on a park bench, when I tried to convince him to stay. He has always been bent on a path laden with revenge, blood and the destruction of his brother. And by leaving... we weren't good enough. We were not capable of helping him do what he wanted to accomplish..."

Kami, she was worse than the prosecutor!

"However..."

Naruto shifted in his seat, watching her closely.

She sighed, smiled softly, and addressed the court once more. "Uchiha Sasuke is also a man who has shown a great deal of character. While on my team he supported us, saved us, and operated under orders smoothly with little to no question of duty. He is also a man with a great deal of weight on his shoulders. It is hard to imagine, for any number of us who didn't deal with the loss the Kyuubi caused years ago, what it is like to lose so many loved ones in one night... one moment. The impact it has on a person, on Sasuke himself, should deeply be taken into consideration...

"If you want my opinion... then yes, Sasuke should bear the weight of his crimes in some degree. Not death, I ask you. He is... remorseful for what he has done. He came back and gave himself over to custody willingly without argument. Consider, that this has been the first time in recorded Konoha history that a missing nin has ever willingly returned to face judgment... Think on that while you consider the outcome of this trial..."

Naruto smiled, beamed, as she finished. He watched as the prosecutor and the defender asked her questions, called out objections and otherwise went on with the proceedings. Eventually, both he and Kakashi were called to the stands at one point. Court lasted for a good five hours. Five hours he thought really were unnecessary. Anyone that knew Sasuke or knew of him could see the only crime he was truly guilty was leaving Konoha. He saw it that way...

He sighed as Tsunade announced that she would retire for an hour with a panel of advisors both made up of the council and high ranking shinobi. Six hours in total? Gah, he was never going to another proceeding again if he could help it. He supposed though, if he were to obtain the title of Hokage one day... he'd be doing a lot of it... ugh.

He sighed as he stepped outside the courtroom to get some fresh air with everyone else. "Sorry," he muttered as he bumped into someone. They turned to face him with raised brows.

"Oh, hi, Asuma-sama, Kurenai-sama... " he gave a wane smile.

"Hello, Naruto," Kurenai offered with a smile next to her smoking fellow Jounin. "How are you?"

Naruto shrugged, hands in his pickets as he looked back at the courtroom doors. "I've been better..."

Asuma nodded. "Can't be easy watching your own teammate on trial."

"It's not... but I guess I kinda expected that to happen... At least they waited until after the holidays were over... man, that would have blown.

"Say... what do think they'll do?"

Kurenai sighed and touched her hand to her kips as she glanced at the courtroom. "Who knows... It seems both sides have a strong advantage... the prosecution claiming he should punished severely for going rogue and the defense claiming he didn't have to come back if he didn't feel at fault... or remorseful.

"It's very had to say right now..." She frowned.

"Kid should be demoted back to Genin and given probationary work..."Asuma offered. "Seems a waste to execute him. I understand the trust issue though..."

Naruto nodded. "Yeah, me too sorta... I can see how people would worry if he wanted to run off again or do something that might jeopardize the village..."

"You don't think he would, do you?" asked Kurenai.

Naruto shook his head. "Sasuke doesn't need to pull those kinda tactics if he really wanted to do some harm here... he'd just do it. He's perfectly capable of it... No, I know he's back for good." Naruto smiled then. "I have to believe that."

Both adults smiled at Naruto's optimism. It was a shame not everyone shared it... One could only hope the results were good... for both Sasuke and Naruto...

An hour passed by rather quickly. Talking helped do that. Everyone followed in suit back to the courtroom and took their seats just as Tsunade took her place at the front. She waited, with linked hands on the table, for everyone to sit and be silence.

"Alright..." she spoke, shuffling her papers before she began to address the crowd. "This wasn't an easy case... There's a lot of hurt feelings involved, not to mention the highest crime to be committed in a shinobi village...

"Uchiha Sasuke... Stand please..."

The sound of the accused chair scratching against the wooden floor echoed in the room.

"There's been a lot said about you, brat," she snapped irritably. "You left your village, became a missing nin, joined up with an S-class criminal and as the prosecutor has brought up, there is no telling the crimes, the amount, you have committed against our village while under his order...

"You've done your fair share of hurting people as well. Your team most notably. You nearly killed one Uzumaki Naruto while fighting him in the Valley of End... I know because I did the repair job," she snapped again, obviously frustrated with his actions.

Naruto began to frown, once again wondering if there was any real hope of Sasuke surviving this. Would it have all been for nothing? His searching... his promise to Sakura?

"However..." she edged, shifting in her seat. "Before I pass judgment... I would like to hear what you have to say for yourself..."

Naruto's worried eyes passed over to the Sharingan user as he waited to hear his part in all of this.

Sasuke placed his hands behind his back and took a small breath inward. He would not be afraid. For once in his life... he would be honest with himself... and those around him.

"When I left Konoha, I was angry. I was angry at myself. I was angry as my lack of progression. I was angry at my brother...

"I took all of that anger out on everyone else---my friends, my teammates... my sensei... I assumed that no one understood me, that no one knew what it was like to be where I was... where part of me still is.

"I was wrong." As this was said, a great many people started whispering.

"Order!" Tsunade snapped and the crowd hushed. "I will hear what he has left to say..."

"I shielded myself away from the pain everyone felt when I left. I ignored theirs and assumed mine was greater. I assumed nothing else mattered by my own. It was so easy to do this, not really seeing what those people around me felt... by ignoring it... I only made it worse.

"I understand now what a great thing it is... the effect one person has on so many. How one drop in the pond can turn into a rippling effect of millions..." he sighed as he said this. "I do not ask to go without punishment, Hokage-sama... After all, one cannot learn if one does not endure... what I ask for... is the opportunity to show that I have and will learn from what I have done and the crimes I have committed...

"However... if death is the true outcome of my return... then I will take it without question..."

Tsunade and the court stared on at Sasuke, watching him intently. A long moment passed. Thoughts, hundreds of them, passed about in heads. Tsunade saw this as she gave a long look around, touching base with each person in the room.

"Very well..." she said finally. "It is the judgment of this court, Uchiha Sasuke that..."

Naruto held his fingers crossed as he waited with bated breaths, as Sakura gripped his arm so tightly he knew it would bruise.

"...that no crime goes unpunished."

No!

"Therefore... you will be stripped of your shinobi rank and status for six months and be placed on labor probation. After which, you may reapply to take the Genin Academy test with the possibility of returning to your team. Your behavior will greatly effect that possibility. For eleven months you will not be allowed anywhere without an escort of no less than Veteran Jounin status. After that... you may have the opportunity to take the Chuunin exam..." She smiled and lifted the anvil, slamming it down loudly. "Court dismissed!"

Mutters of distaste erupted from a few people; but, for a good sixty percent of the crowd, there was no other reaction aside from raw joy. Shouts, whoops of happiness, far overshadowed any grumpy response...

___

Eleven months later...

"Damnit! Do you know where I put my red shoes?"

"Which ones?" a voice called from outside the closet door.

"Um... the ones with the heels..."

"Ah... well, no... I don't." he could hear the frown crossing her features just then.

"Damn..."

Some more shuffling of clothing was heard. A few boxes fell. The sound of her curing in frustration made him smile.

"Don't you dare laugh!"

"I wouldn't dream of it.." he murmured back loud enough for her to hear from where he sat on the bed, ready and dressed to go.

"Finally!" When the door finally opened, shoes on her feet, Sasuke's eyes took her in appreciatively.

"You know..." he edged.

"What?" she asked, fear written across her features. Then she looked down at the red dress with the flare skirt and straps over the shoulders.

It had a nice tightness in the hips, he surmised to himself.

"Is there something wrong with it? A stain?" she looked almost frantic.

"Oh, I'm just not sure we should go out... I don't know how well I'll be able to keep their hands off you..."

She frowned, a hint of a smile there. "You bastard." She playfully slapped his shoulder with her bag.

He chuckled, standing and dropped a kiss her on her forehead.

"You had me worried."

He chuckled. "Ready?"

"Sure."

Lights filled the room. A flare of jubilant decoration rose from every crevice. Wreathes, holly, tinsel and garland in varying colors reflected off the lights crossing the dance floor. People danced, laughed and conversed. The atmosphere was what it was every year---full of life, love and forgiveness. Drinks were passed, toasts were given and the regular hints of worry and fear were absent from the evening air.

"Kakashi-sensei!" a shout from one young blond expelled from across the room as he sighted the ashen-haired Sharingan user.

Kurenai chuckled at the former ANBu's bored expression. "Really, Kakashi, can't you put that book away for one night?"

Asuma grinned, toothpick betwixt his lips. "That would be like trying to pry teeth out of the Kyuubi."

"Kakash-sensei!" Naruto cried again. All three adults could clearly see the demon container dragging one, poor Hyuuga Hinata behind him in his wake through the crowd. "Merry Christmas," he finally exclaimed when he reached them with a beaming smile.

"Merry Christmas," Hinata murmured.

"Same to you," Kurenai said with a smile.

"Hm.." Kakashi offered as if he was too busy to be bothered to reply.

Asuma laughed as Naruto rolled his eyes. But, it didn't last long. Again, he was smiling away. "Hey, where's Masa?"

Kurenai smiled. "Well, actually, Shikamaru said he couldn't be bothered to go anywhere tonight and offered to stay at home with him. He said he might show up later with him though."

Naruto nodded. "Makes sense."

"Merry Christmas," someone offered next to Naruto rather suddenly as she appeared.

"Sakura-chan!" Naruto shouted as she took her in a hug. "Hey, bastard," he said with a grin after releasing her.

Sasuke nodded and offered a small smile as well wishes were passed around.

"Someone say my name?" a droll tone offered next to Sasuke suddenly.

"Shikamaru!" Kurenai exclaimed as she took hold of her baby boy. The lazy genius passed him over with no trouble at all. "I didn't think you were ever going to show up."

He shrugged, looking wholly uncomfortable in his tux. "Ino said if I didn't she'd throw a fit... troublesome..."

Asuma chuckled as Sakura cooed over the baby. "Sasuke, come look at him," she whispered.

He hesitated at first.

"Oh, come on, Uchiha... he won't bite." Kurenai grinned as she offered him up to Sasuke unwillingly.

At first, he felt wholly out of place while Kurenai helped him adjust his hands and arms to the right place.

"There, support his head... see... good," she whispered as she released the baby swathed in red and white.

The dark eyed Uchiha cautiously looked down, his face blank of almost anything but uncertainty. Masa's hands were small as he reached for his face. His eyes seemed tiny-looking behind his squinting lids. He weighed... so little. The feeling of holding something so small.. so weightless...

All thoughts left him as he held his breath when two, tiny hands finally caught his cheeks and the baby laughed, brilliantly, up at him. He wasn't entirely sure about the joke.... whatever it was... but, the feel of such little things holding his face, such a little face smiling at him with all the innocence in the world to offer in a tiny bundle... it humbled him in a way he'd never known... Amazingly... the child wasn't even his.

The flash of a camera caught him off guard. He frowned at Sakura who was grinning madly at him.

"I'm sorry," she allowed softly as she lowered the portable device, "but, it was too perfect for words."

"He likes you," Kurenai said in amazement with a cheeky grin. "Masa-chan is very picky," she explained.

With another soft smile, Sasuke handed the boy back to his mother.

"Sasuke, would you mind coming with me to change him?" she asked next as she took him and the diaper bag from Shikamaru.

He blinked at first. But then, the look in her eyes told him she wanted to speak with him. The diaper change was just an excuse. "Alright," he agreed.

"We'll be back," Kurenai, said.

"Better be," Sakura chimed up. "I want a dance."

"I won't keep him long. I promise," she replied over her shoulder as they walked towards the restrooms.

The walk was short. And quickly enough Sasuke found himself opening the coed bathroom for the genjutsu user. Once shut he stood back as she pulled down the changing table. "What do you need me to do?" he asked.

"Nothing," she replied. "I just wanted to tell you something... that's all..."

He nodded as he watched her change Masa, pulling the dirty diaper off.

"I never got to thank you for what you did... a few months ago..."

"What was that?" he asked.

She smiled softly. "Asuma told me, you know... how you volunteered to go on that mission with him... He said Tsunade later told him she didn't want you to go.... but you wouldn't let up...

"I know that without you... my husband wouldn't be alive..."

Sasuke stilled.

She turned to looked at him after placing a clean diaper on Masa and tossing the dirty diaper and baby wipe in the trash next to the station. The baby was securely strapped down and unusually quiet as she did so.

"I don't know why you did it... but, I don't care..." Her hands took his. "Thank you," she whispered. "From the deepest part of my heart and my family's... thank you, Uchiha Sasuke...

"Whenever someone speaks ill of you, I want you to know, I will defend you. You're a good man..."

"I--."

"Shh.." she interrupted with a smile still on her face. "I just wanted you to know. That's all." She gave one finally squeeze of his hands before releasing them and removing Masa from the station.

Again, he held the door open for her, mystified and heart overflowing with disbelief. The expression of uncertainty with a hint of curiosity held true in his eyes even after they returned.

"Dance with me?" Sakura asked cutely.

"Sure," he agreed with a smile before taking her out on the floor for the next song. Soon enough, they fell into the turns as he held her securely to him, flush.

"Do you know... I fell in love with you on this very floor?" she asked.

He smiled. "I do."

"Oh? How?"

"Because.... that's when I fell in love with you." The blush that carried on her features was gift enough for him, gift enough to last him a lifetime. The quiet that instilled itself within them both as they held one another and moved slowly carried a warmth he never wanted to release.

Sasuke, long after that, after many years and many children later, never let the truth the spirits left in him that night a year ago leave. He wasn't like Gai in his exuberant jubilance; but, many people said long after that... that Uchiha Sasuke was a good man indeed... one who never overlooked the happiness of another person or the anguish of his fellow man...

Merry Christmas.

...The End...