Chapter 20: In Which It Ends
The supreme happiness in life is the conviction that we are loved — loved for ourselves, or rather, loved in spite of ourselves.
~ Victor Hugo
The thin man standing on top of a large plateau was not alone. Although one had to look very hard past the absurd dress of the man — a long, black cloak decorated with red clouds and an orange mask swirled with black lines that all circled toward the singular, round eyehole — to see his companion, a creature that vaguely resembled a man but for his lack of legs as his body seemed to sprout from the ground. Half the creature's body was a pasty while, like chalk, while the other half was black as ink, divided directly down the bilateral line of the creature's body.
"Shimura Danzo is dead." The harsh voice escaped from the two-toned creature.
The man cloaked in black only inclined his head slightly.
"How interesting," he said in a tone that suggested he was nothing more than curious.
"It appears he died during Orochimaru's final attack on Konohagakure." The new statement came from the same two-toned creature, but its pitch and tone had changed entirely.
"Due to a piercing Lightning jutsu through his heart," the harsh voice clarified from the same mouth.
The man in the cloak turned his mask over the imposing view before him, looking down into a valley full of long, wild grasses.
"Indeed," noted the man calmly. "Did you witness the entire event?"
"No," said the creature with two voices. "Only the final part."
"Enough to know his killer," the other voice jumped in. "Uchiha Sasuke is aware his brother was under orders."
The man looked away from the edge of the plateau and stared fully at the creature beside him.
"And how did young Sasuke react to this knowledge?" he asked.
"He killed Danzo."
The masked man tilted his head, almost as if he were rolling his unseen eyes.
"Obviously," scoffed the man before his voice became intent once again. "But he does not blame the village now for the deaths of his family?"
"He did not appear to," answered the segmented creature.
"He was more concerned over the host of the Kyuubi," offered the creature's second voice.
The man nodded.
"His bonds have not yet been severed," he said with an air of realization. "And with the death of Danzo, his hatred has burned out."
There was a beat of silence on top of the rocky plain.
"The village may discover now who it was that gave Orochimaru access to the Yonbi," suggested the white-and-black creature half-merged with the ground.
The cloaked man shifted beneath his cloak, folding his arms across his chest.
"Orochimaru is dead," he declared. "And even he did not know where the statue resided. Konoha will discover nothing if I do not wish them to."
Sakura strode down the pristine hallway of the hospital with a shallow box of bandages in her arms. The hospital seemed almost quiet as she walked. At least it was quiet when compared to the last few days. Sakura paused in front of the door to the room she was assigned to check next and heard an animated voice coming from within.
"See, this is orochi-teme losing his head," said the voice. There was a pause and then— "Hey, of course I got good handwriting! I learned calligraphy, y'know."
Silence descended once again, but Sakura could hear the rustle of paper from inside the room.
"Well, Fukasaku-jiji, the old toad, he taught me when I was learning haiku," continued the voice. "He said it would help with writing seals if I knew kanji. Don't laugh."
Sakura didn't hear any laughter, but she supposed it was past time for her to intervene anyway. She slid the door open with one hand and entered the room. Sai, still dressed in the simple hospital shirt and pants, was sitting up in bed and grinning widely. The only sign of his continued need for the hospital were the white bandages around his neck.
Naruto sat on the foot of Sai's bed with his legs crossed while a red coat hung off the end of the bed. A scroll sat on top of the covers between the two young men, and Naruto was pointing a fude full of ink into Sai's face with a very put-out look marring his usually cheerful visage.
"Frikkin' bastard," grumbled Naruto. "You think you could do any better?"
Sai deftly plucked the brush out of Naruto's fingers as he gave his visitor a cheeky grin. Sakura stepped forward, her shoes clacking against the linoleum of the hospital floor.
"Naruto, don't pick on Sai," she ordered.
Naruto tilted his head to look at Sakura with his bottom lip sticking out.
"Sakura-chan, not you, too!" he whined.
He didn't look very surprised to see her, but Sakura chalked that up to his full — and speedy — recovery.
"What are you doing here?" she asked as she set down the tray of fresh bandages on the table beside Sai's bed. "I thought you were still recovering."
With only five days separating the citizens of Konoha from the attack that Orochimaru had launched on the village, Naruto, by all rights, should have still been on bedrest if he wasn't still in a coma. Besides the severe wound in his chest, Naruto had also come in battling the damage from his suicidal jutsu — just like he said, destruction on a cellular level like his Rasenshuriken had done. The field iryou-nin had had to restart his heart twice.
Naruto bounced on the hospital bed so that he settled in more comfortably.
"They just told me I could go," he announced. "I'm visiting Sai. See?"
He held up the long scroll so that Sakura could study it. A large portion of the paper was covered with what looked like random doodles, a child's depiction of a great battle between a man with a knife and a giant snake with a human face instead of a snake's face. Sakura would have laughed if it wasn't for the very neat and very precise kanji down the side of the scene, describing the events like on the old painting of samurai battles.
"I'm telling him about how I kicked hebi-teme's butt," Naruto crowed triumphantly.
Sakura pursed her lips together to avoid noting how Naruto's kicking of butt had also included putting himself in a coma.
"Wasn't there an important event going on today?" Sakura tapped her chin thoughtfully, enunciating each word carefully as she watched Naruto for his reaction.
Naruto's eyes suddenly widened as his head snapped around to look for a clock. Seeing none, Naruto frantically looked out the window as if he were going to read the time from the length of the shadows on the ground.
"Oh, shit! I'm gonna be late!"
Naruto leaped off the bed, snagging his red coat as he stood. He shoved his arms through the sleeves of the coat as he darted out the door.
"Thanks, Sakura-chan," Naruto called over his shoulder before he completely disappeared.
Sakura stared at the empty doorway for a moment, marveling at how quickly Naruto could move sometimes. But she supposed it was to be expected when one of Naruto's precious people was involved.
"It's kind of scary how much he hasn't changed," Sakura murmured, more to herself than to Sai. Although she was confident Sai would at least know what she was talking about.
Sai's only response was to scratch at his temple as if puzzled before he tapped gently at the scroll Naruto had left on the hospital bed. Her eyes traced the dark mark under Sai's finger, a neat, perfectly formed kanji.
"Yeah," she sighed with a smile. "I suppose in some ways he has, too, hasn't he?"
Sai smiled up at her, looking pleased with his communication. Sakura straightened her back professionally and reached for the bandages around Sai's neck.
"Let me check your stitches."
Sai held still with his chin slightly lifted as Sakura unwound the white bandages from his neck to reveal pale skin. On the very front of Sai's neck, a design like a wire fence circled around the lump that was over his vocal cords. Naruto had made the seal as soon as he had woken to hear that Sai's throat was damaged because of Danzo's seal. It was another testament to how Naruto both had and had not changed. He had never been able to do this kind of seal-work before, but he still rushed to aid his friends.
"You can close your eyes now."
Sasuke obeyed, knowing the statement was more a command to deactivate his doujutsu than anything. It was somewhat of a relief to let the chakra stop its surging to his eyes; it seemed ever since the battle, every time he tried to activate his Sharingan, his eyes would start to bleed.
Sasuke raised his head and saw Shizune, who was frowning somewhere in the direction of the small table near Sasuke's hospital bed. She looked both concerned and very deeply troubled. Kakashi, who had taken a lazy position leaning his back against the wall by the door to the room, had his hands in his pockets. His visible eye showed no signs of worry, but Sasuke did not feel comforted by that. He already knew what was going on.
"I have the Mangekyou," he stated.
"Yes." Shizune nodded shortly.
"But I never—"
Sasuke had been barely thirteen, but he still remembered that burning — the desire to kill his best friend just so that he could gain a power that had made his brother a madman. Funny how Naruto never talked about that time.
"From what I can tell," Shizune began explaining when Sasuke didn't continue, "the technique was implanted into your eyes, possibly as far back as four years ago."
Four years ago? What could've caused—
"Itachi?" Sasuke suddenly blurted out as he realized just what was happening four years ago.
Itachi had tapped him on the forehead, just like he used to do.
"Sorry, Sasuke, there won't be a next time."
"Why would Itachi give Sasuke his greatest doujutsu?" Kakashi called from the wall.
"From what I understand of Mangekyou, it can only be activated by killing someone close to you." Shizune shuffled a clipboard into her hands and glanced over it. Sasuke wasn't sure what she would be looking for. Statistics on how his technique was developing, perhaps?
"Or understand yourself to be responsible for their death," Kakashi added. "The direct cause."
His voice was solemn as it rarely was. Sasuke realized that he had never asked Kakashi how he had gained his Mangekyou, the one that granted him the power of Kamui. Sasuke raised his right hand and traced the contours of his cheekbone under his eye, half-expecting to find blood on his skin.
"My eyes were sealed after . . . that battle." Sasuke didn't want to mention Itachi's name again.
Shizune nodded, and she would know. She was one of the iryou-nin who initially worked on suppressing Sasuke's doujutsu once he had returned to Konoha.
"The technique could have been repressed because of that," she said thoughtfully.
"But then why did it show up after so many years?" asked Kakashi.
Sasuke almost tuned them both out as his hands fisted in the sheets of the hospital bed. Flimsy things felt like they were going to tear beneath his hands.
"The technique may have been triggered by the sight of Danzo's Sharingan," Shizune supposed.
"The one that matched Uchiha Shisui," Kakashi clarified as Sasuke closed his eyes again.
But Shizune would probably be angry at him for ruining hospital sheets. As if the hospital wasn't fully stocked with enough extras to cover every bed in the place twice over.
"Yes," said Shizune. "I'm not sure, but Itachi might have implanted the Mangekyou with the understanding that the sight of another Mangekyou would trigger it into awakening."
"How did Itachi know about Danzo's eye?" Kakashi asked.
"He wasn't planning for Danzo," Sasuke said suddenly. He looked at his hands curled into the sheets instead of at the people in the room. "He knew I'd want to face Madara if I was left alone."
Hadn't he demanded that Itachi give him an answer when they fought? Itachi had answered him, certainly, but he suspected Itachi had only done so because he didn't think his little brother would ever succeed at killing Uchiha Madara.
Sasuke kept his eyes down despite feeling both Kakashi's and Shizune's acute attention on him. Finally, Shizune shifted and tucked her clipboard under one arm.
"I'll leave you to rest," she announced more to the room in general than to Sasuke. "I have to report this to Tsunade-sama."
"Be careful." Kakashi opened the room door for her. "The ANBU haven't been completely purged yet."
Shizune only nodded on her way out. No one was quite sure how deeply Danzo's organization had penetrated Konoha's ranks. Sasuke heard the door slid shut behind Shizune. He heard Kakashi's soft footfalls as he moved closer to the bed. But he didn't look up from his hands.
"He told me Itachi did it to protect me," he murmured. "He murdered everyone else so that I could live."
"Danzo said that?"
Sasuke didn't answer Kakashi. He wasn't sure he could. But Kakashi only hummed thoughtfully.
"Was he telling the truth?" Kakashi pressed.
Sasuke felt his chin pulling its way to his chest. His head felt unusually heavy.
"It doesn't matter," he said.
Even if Itachi did sacrifice the Uchiha Clan for Sasuke, it didn't change what he had done. Sasuke's entire family was still dead. And now, it seemed more and more like it was their own fault, their just punishment for betraying their own home.
"Whether he was or not, I don't want the Uchiha Clan to have a legacy like that," Sasuke declared, lifting his chin just enough so that he wasn't staring at the sheets any longer. "Or like mine."
With the shadows of Danzo's speech in his head, Sasuke was more than well aware of the whispers of traitor that tended to follow him around. Maybe he really did deserve that. He felt Kakashi take a step closer to his hospital bed and finally met the man's one-eyed gaze. He was surprised when the crinkles around Kakashi's eye suggested a smile.
"You defended the village not only against Akatsuki but also Orochimaru, Sasuke." Kakashi tapped Sasuke on the shoulder. "I think the next generation can be proud of that."
Sasuke turned away and looked out the window. It was sunny over Konoha, he noted, as he heard Kakashi walk out of the room.
Tsunade looked at the man in front of her desk, careful to keep her expression subdued and neutral.
"Have you determined what happened with Danzo?"
Ryoichi-sensei didn't even nod.
"From what we learned during the autopsy, I believe the claims that Danzo was a silent partner to Orochimaru are valid," the research doctor answered.
There were two other witnesses to the report. An ANBU guard stood by the right side of Tsunade's desk. Usually she would protest such an obvious show of protection, but she needed someone in ANBU to bear witness to what crimes Danzo had committed. That would also provide what agents of ROOT were left in ANBU with a definite word of their leader's death and how Konoha officially viewed him.
Meanwhile, Shizune stood next to Ryoichi, staring at her aunt in all but blood and misplaced time. As professional as Shizune was, Tsunade could tell that something had disturbed her. Maybe Danzo was more like Orochimaru than Tsunade had ever suspected. Surely, no one would suspect that he would join in Orochimaru's attempts at biological engineering.
"It seems Danzo tried to combine his DNA with that of the Shodai Hokage," Shizune explained with a slight grimace on her face. "But without the proper genes, he lost control of the bloodline and was forced to cut off his own arm."
Tsunade almost grimaced along with her first apprentice. Senju Hashirama had been her grandfather, and she still remembered the times he would sneak away from the tower where he worked to visit his family, or when Tobi-oji-san would scold him for not taking his job as the leader more seriously. It had been hard enough when she learned of the clone that Orochimaru had created in the man now called Yamato. She hated what Danzo had done to his former mentor.
"I see," Tsunade murmured professionally. "And his eye?"
"The eye is a match to Uchiha Shisui," Ryoichi said. "Some witnesses who saw him in battle reported his entire right arm was supplanted with stolen Sharingan."
"Some witnesses" translated to Uchiha Sasuke, who was the one who had reported on Danzo's dead body in the end. Up until yesterday, Kakashi had been the only known survivor of a Sharingan transplant, and Tsunade had to wonder what Kakashi thought about that. Granted, Kakashi didn't have quite the connection to Uchiha Shisui as the younger generation had. But, Tsunade still remembered the trouble Kakashi had had directly after that mission that led to his new eye. The Uchiha did not let their eyes go lightly. For Danzo to have the eye from a man who had died one day before the Uchiha Massacre . . .
Tsunade would have to consider that after Uchiha Sasuke made his full report. And wouldn't that be a fun time.
"Shizune." Tsunade turned her attention on the young woman. "Did you compare Danzo's DNA to the study you did three years ago?"
"Hai." Shizune nodded sharply.
The study had been one of genetic manipulation based on the DNA of the Oto-refugee Juugo. They were lucky to have it, Tsunade knew. The only way they had so much cooperation from the young man was because he listened to and obeyed only Sasuke.
"The techniques used to implant and combine Danzo's DNA structure were identical to those used on Juugo-kun as well as what we've seen of the bodies of the Oto soldiers."
Tsunade frowned at Shizune's report. Beside the iryou-nin, Ryoichi-sensei almost slumped.
"So, Orochimaru was responsible . . ." he supposed from the information he had.
"Responsible, perhaps, but I highly doubt Danzo was unwilling," Tsunade interjected.
Danzo had, after all, been concerned primarily with strength. If not his own, than with the strength of Konoha. Tsunade didn't know whether to feel relieved that he hadn't used one of Konoha's own citizens in his experiments with the Mokoton and Sharingan, or disgusted that he had suffused all that power into his own body until his very genes rebelled against him. Tsunade blinked instead of shaking her head, but then she raised her eyes to the two reporting shinobi.
"And the cause of death?" she asked.
For the first time in the report, Shizune looked hesitant instead of disgusted.
"A wound through his chest with a matching hole on his back," she finally said, much quieter suddenly. "The edges of the wound still retained electric burns."
"He was stabbed with a Raiton jutsu?" Tsunade concluded.
Shizune froze in place but managed to give a solemn, silent nod. Realization came rather swiftly for Tsunade. Sasuke had been the one to report that Danzo was dead after being engaged in battle. There were rumors that Uchiha had once again turned on his home before Orochimaru's dead, that the grip Orochimaru had on the young man had never fully dissolved and it was only after Orochimaru had been killed that Sasuke could be trusted not to attack the village itself. Although Tsunade was fairly confident that Sasuke wouldn't be so stupid as to launch an attack on Konoha, he was fully capable of using the overhanging chaos quite to his advantage when battling a single foe.
Sasuke would never forgive someone who took away his friend, no matter what he might say to protest the idea.
"Well, obviously, Orochimaru never intended to go through with the partnership he established with Danzo," Tsunade declared resolutely. There was absolutely no give in her voice. "And it wouldn't be the first time he killed his teacher."
Tsunade growled out the last part, thinking of Sarutobi-sensei and a funeral she had declared she hadn't cared about. Until a bratty kid in a ridiculously orange outfit had dared to bet against her.
"I believe one of the Oto jounin was skilled in Raiton."
Ryoichi-sensei spoke so calmly that Tsunade was half-convinced there really was such a person and Ryoichi wasn't just lying out of his ass.
"Witnesses will place him just outside Konoha to the west," Ryoichi continued, "where Danzo was fighting."
So, everything was wrapped up perfectly. All Tsunade needed was a bow.
"We'll lay Shimura Danzo to rest in the public cemetery," she announced. "But he will not have his name on the Memorial Stone. He betrayed the village to Orochimaru and desecrated the memory of the Shodai Hokage. He does not deserve to be remembered with Konoha's greatest heroes: those who were willing to give their lives to protect us."
No one argued.
Yoshi took a large boulder from Isamu and rolled his eyes when he felt the weight. Isamu was insisting once again on pushing his limits. Yoshi heaved the rock away from the pile and turned back to work.
"Come, my beloved team!" Lee-sensei shouted. "We shall demonstrate our Flames of Youth by rebuilding the ruined wall!"
Yoshi rolled his eyes at his sensei's familiar antics. Kaoru, on Lee-sensei's other side, hid her head as she blushed. Yoshi suspected that was only because of the other team's presence. He had seen her gaze up at the Kumo shinobi on her other side with rapt awe. Although, that might have been because of his dark skin tones. No one had skin like that in Konoha.
Yoshi ignored the way the dark-skinned man and woman looked at each other and went back to his task of shifting the rubble of the eastern wall away from the boundary of the village of Konoha. The Kumo kunoichi on his left side worked hurriedly, her dark skin glowing slightly in the sun. Meanwhile Isamu, standing on Yoshi's right, grunted every time he picked up a chuck of rock. That, Yoshi suspected, had something to do with the kunoichi working between Isamu and Lee-sensei. Or rather, the size of the kunoichi's breasts.
"If we fail to get this wall completely rebuilt by sundown, we shall walk around Konoha on our hands!" Lee-sensei pumped one fist into the air as he grinned.
"Hey!" Kaoru's head snapped up as her blush receded with her look of indignation. "Don't volunteer us for your crazy ideas, Lee-sensei."
Yoshi glanced at the dark kunoichi beside him and rolled his eyes.
"He's always like this," he muttered, hoping that was enough to explain Lee's eccentric behaviors.
The kunoichi — Karui, Yoshi thought her name was — only smiled.
"He doesn't rap, does he?" she muttered back.
Yoshi tried to picture Lee-sensei, in his full jounin uniform, which tended to be green, and orange leg warmers standing on stage and performing for a crowd — most likely about the Flames of Youth and their importance. Yoshi pressed the heel of his palm to the center of his forehead and tried desperately to think of something.
"No," he growled with his eyes squeezed shut.
Isamu let out a loud laugh that seemed to escape him despite all his intentions of showing off. He quickly subdued his expression as he glanced at the blonde Kumo-nin between him and Lee-sensei.
"That would be kinda cool." Isamu shrugged as if he had only given the idea a passing thought.
"Not that cool." Yoshi scowled at him.
Isamu shot him a glare that clearly said he had things under control and didn't need any help from his eye-rolling teammate. Yoshi pushed a new boulder into Isamu's hands impatiently.
"Hurry up, Isamu," he commanded. "Hinata-sama said Neji-san may have some time to train with the Branch genin if we get done early."
Isamu stuck his tongue out at Yoshi when the big-breasted kunoichi was facing away. The kunoichi tilted her head slightly and looked down at Yoshi.
"You are a Hyuuga?" she asked.
"Do you know we are from Kumo?"
Yoshi gave a pointed look at the hitai-ate that was tied around the woman's waist like a belt. The simplistic moniker of clouds floating in the sky was clearly visible. Slowly, Yoshi lifted his eyes back to the lady's stoic face.
"Yeah," he said. "It's not that hard to figure out."
The Kumo kunoichi stared at him with a blank look on her face. Yoshi tried not to blush as he turned back to the ruined wall and kept shifting the large chunks of concrete out of the way. He wished he knew at least one Doton jutsu. The Jyuuken wasn't very useful in situations like this.
"I would think you might have good reason to hate us," noted the blonde kunoichi.
Yoshi glanced up and tried to think when he had ever been to Kumo before. He didn't have any stupid rivalries with any foreign nin; not even Isamu counted as his rival, whatever Isamu said. Lee-sensei wouldn't even allow his team in the Chuunin Exams for at least another six months. He wanted them to have a year of experience before they tackled a test that large, he had said.
But then, there was something about the clan's history that involved Kumo, wasn't there? Yoshi didn't remember the details, but maybe the kunoichi had been old enough to remember something like that.
"I know that Kumo was after the Byagakun, but that was before I was born." Yoshi shrugged. "You haven't ever done anything to me."
It took a moment for Yoshi to realize that all work had stopped around him. All three of the Kumo-nin were staring at him now, and even Lee-sensei had ceased his frenzied work — Yoshi didn't think the man had a setting other than frenzied — to smile proudly at Yoshi. Yoshi blushed. He wasn't even sure what he had done that was so good.
"Samui-san." Lee-sensei turned to the blonde kunoichi with the large chest. His voice was much softer and more serious than it usually was. "In Konoha we are taught that hatred leads only down a dark path of destruction. Our greatest tool is the strength that comes in defense of our comrades."
The kunoichi stared at Lee-sensei blandly for a moment, but then she tilted her head and looked a little more friendly than her cool demeanor suggested she could.
"You love your team, Lee-san?" she asked.
Lee's fist soared into the air, and Yoshi hid his face into one palm.
"Of course!" Lee-sensei shouted. "My beloved students are burning with the Eternal Fires of Youth!"
Yoshi really wished Lee-sensei could hold off on the declarations of flames and fires and anything having to do with Youth when foreign shinobi were around. He kept his head down as he made his way back to the pile of rubble at the base of the ruined wall and knelt down beside a particularly large boulder. The Kumo kunoichi, Karui, crouched on the other side of the boulder, obviously ready to help him lift it.
"Don't worry," she murmured with a smile. "Our sensei would always say things in rhyme. All the greatest shinobi are slightly mad."
Yoshi only nodded as his muscles worked to lift the boulder with Karui's help. He didn't think her adage was particularly true. After all, Neji-san was the strongest shinobi in the entire Hyuuga Clan, and he was perfectly sane.
Kaito bowed politely — it seemed only right to do so in front of the two men and one lady in green vests — and reached out to take the metal band from the man with the scar across his nose. Mako had said that Iruka-sensei was probably the nicest one, and the man's smile seemed to justify that title.
"Thanks, Iruka-sensei," Kaito said with a smile.
"You did very well on all the tests, Kaito-kun," Iruka-sensei said with a wide grin. If Kaito didn't know better, he'd say the man was proud of him.
"You're to report back here tomorrow with the rest of the graduating class to get your team assignment," said the young woman with the green vest.
Iruka-sensei shooed Kaito out the door as the other man strode to the classroom door to call out the name of the next student. Kaito forced himself to walk calmly down the hallway toward the Academy door. It wasn't like he was excited or something.
Outside, Kaito saw Daisuke, the energetic Academy student that had helped out him and Mako a few days ago. The boy was holding his new hitai-ate on his forehead without tying it securely, and he bounced up and down while a middle-aged couple smiled down at him. They looked like the perfect family.
Kaito looked up and saw Mei waving her hand vigorously over her head as she grinned. Mako stood beside her with a silly little smile on his face, like he was trying too hard not to grin, and sensei was standing behind both of them with his arms crossed over his chest. His face was free of any mask or disguise, so that his blue eyes were showing under blond hair. He still had the red and black coat he liked, though.
"Hi, Naruto-sensei." It seemed only right that he call his sensei by name, Kaito thought, but only because sensei smiled so widely when he did.
"Let's see that." Naruto-sensei reached out to take the metal hitai-ate from Kaito.
Kaito handed his new badge over as Mako watched intently. Sensei used both hands to tie it firmly around Kaito's head, positioning the metal plate directly over his forehead. Then the man leaned back and surveyed his work with a smile that was a little different than the wide grin Kaito was used to seeing on sensei.
"It looks good on you, Kaito," sensei declared.
Sensei was proud of him, Kaito realized suddenly. He stood up a tad bit straighter.
"Hey, we match now!" Mako jumped forward and slung one arm around Kaito's shoulders. "Now we can be a team and go on missions."
Kaito smiled at the thought. It felt like he had always been training with Mako — that stuff when he was still in Ta no Kuni didn't really count because he wasn't with sensei yet. But now they could work together on missions, fulfilling the same goal.
Sensei folded his arms across his chest again and peered down at his two students.
"Teams are made of three people," he said with his smile gone. "Even if you two are on the same team, you'll have another person with you."
Kaito glanced over at Mako.
"Yeah," Mako said reluctantly as Kaito nodded.
He knew teams were supposed to be groups of at least three. It worked like that everywhere, even Ta no Kuni. Which meant that Mako and Kaito would have to work with a stranger for a while. Something heavy landed abruptly on Kaito's head, and he looked up. Naruto-sensei was bending over, resting one hand on the top of Mako's head and one on top of Kaito's head.
"No matter who your teammates are, you two know the rules," sensei said.
"Yeah," Kaito replied, determined to make his sensei proud again. "Those who don't protect their teammates are even lower than trash."
Sensei's smile widened slowly until he was grinning just like normal.
"That sounds familiar to me," noted a calm voice.
Kaito glanced over his shoulder as sensei straightened, lifting his hands off of the boys' heads.
"Iruka-sensei!" Naruto-sensei called happily.
Iruka-sensei from the Shinobi Academy was walking through the straggling families still hanging around and congratulating their kids. Iruka smiled and nodded at sensei, who was smiling almost wider than Kaito had ever seen.
"Naruto." Iruka's eyes flickered down to where Mako and Kaito stood side by side. " You've come to see your student, I assume."
"Yeah," sensei said, his chest proudly thrust out. "I got good kids, ne?"
That was Kaito's cue to stand up straighter. Mako tilted his head just enough so that the sunlight caught the metal of his hitai-ate. Kaito was too happy to scoff at Mako's obvious showing-off.
"You do." Iruka-sensei nodded solemnly. "I'm very proud of you, Naruto."
Kaito watched sensei stand up a bit taller and lift his head the same way Mako was. He wondered if every teacher could do that with their students, make their spines go straight in an instant.
"Thanks," sensei murmured.
"But if you ever do something so blockheaded as that stunt you pulled ever again, I'll make you scrub all five faces of Hokage Mountain until there's not even a speck of dust left on the rocks!"
Kaito drew back from Iruka-sensei, shocked at the sudden transformation of the kindest sensei in the Academy into what seemed like a seven-foot-tall golem with a voice that could be heard all the way across the village. Even Naruto-sensei shrank backwards as Iruka yelled.
But then, Iruka-sensei smiled again at Naruto and nodded, as if he knew his message had been taken to heart. Once again the smiling teacher, Iruka turned around and gave a friendly wave to Daisuke and his family. Kaito glanced beside him, glad to find Mako in the same state of apprehension as he was. Mako caught Kaito's eye and shrugged off the way his shoulders were hunched up.
"He's a whole different kind of scary," Mako defended himself.
"Yeah," scoffed Naruto-sensei from above their heads. "Be glad I'm not a mean sensei."
Mako looked like he wanted to say something to that — Mako usually had something to say about sensei's teaching methods. But Kaito watched the way sensei rubbed his palm against the back of his head, and he elbowed Mako in the ribs. Naruto-sensei didn't seem to notice the boys' actions as he clapped his hands and rubbed them together eagerly.
"Now, I think this calls for ramen," sensei announced.
Just like that, the atmosphere shifted into celebration again. Mei, who had stayed perfectly quiet through Iruka-sensei's visit, now jumped up and pumped one fist in the air.
"Yay for Kaito!" she shouted.
Kaito almost rolled his eyes, but then a pair of skinny arms wrapped around his neck as Mei latched onto him. She stretched on tiptoe so that her lips could reach his cheek, and she made a kissing sound as she gave him a peck. Then, Mei ran ahead down the street, half-skipping on her way.
"Hey," Mako called. "I got a headband, too, mei mei. Don't I get a kiss?"
"Shut up, idiot," muttered Kaito as he rubbed his cheek, already feeling his skin heat up.
He glanced over his shoulder at sensei, but the man was only staring after his kids with his head tilted, as if he wasn't quite sure what to do with the scene. Blushing even more, Kaito scowled and faced forward again, pretending he didn't hear Naruto-sensei chuckling behind him.
Shikamaru blew out a stream of smoke around the lit cigarette between his lips. Temari didn't comment on his habit as she walked beside him on their way to the main gate of Konoha. It was past time Temari and her team had to return to Suna. Temari's eyes flickered to a section of the wall, where a large chunk of concrete had crumbled to the ground inside the village.
"Gaara's already said he'll help with the reconstruction however he can," Temari noted.
Shikamaru nodded. Messenger hawks had been sent between Suna and Konoha at an alarming rate during the last week. Tsunade and Temari had been in charge of most of them, but Shikamaru had occasionally been called on for his own information on Orochimaru's levels of attacks and strategies.
"Sand has been very kind allies in this war," Shikamaru felt he needed to say. Just to acknowledge that he had once again been saved by Temari's good timing.
Temari snorted, a very un-ladylike sound from someone who could stand with the best of Suna's soldiers.
"Allies, my foot," scoffed Temari. "If it weren't for that blond idiot, we wouldn't be allies in the first place."
Temari waved one hand back in the direction of the Hokage Tower, making Shikamaru glance over his shoulder the same way. She could be talking about Godaime Hokage, but the Suna-Konoha alliance hadn't really solidified until after that mission where Kakashi's team had rescued Gaara from the Akatsuki team that had captured him.
Shikamaru didn't think Temari actually credited Tsunade with the outcome of that mission.
"I'd like to think the Elemental Countries aren't destined to be enemies forever," Shikamaru said lazily. It was mostly a statement meant to probe into hidden meanings, draw out something from her he hoped would explain her words.
"Not if your wanna-be Hokage has anything to say about it."
That had to be Naruto, Shikamaru thought. Temari cast a fond smile up at the arch of the gate as they crossed the threshold where Baki and the other Suna jounin were waiting. Shikamaru studied her face carefully and wished he had slightly more practice reading people.
"Have you talked to him?" he asked casually as his fingers plucked the cigarette from his lips.
"No." Temari shook her head. "But I saw him around the village. I'll have to tell Gaara he's as bouncy as ever."
Shikamaru was glad the other two Suna-nin felt no need to hurry the departure along. It gave Shikamaru the time to notice that the way Temari smiled when she spoke of Naruto was the same kind of way a sister would smile at an annoying younger brother — both exasperated and fond.
"Temari," Shikamaru called with a slight frown, "did Gaara know that Raiden was really Uzumaki Naruto."
Temari only shrugged lightly.
"Why are you asking me?"
Shikamaru noticed that she wouldn't meet his eyes when she asked.
"Raiden was listed as an ally of Kaze no Kuni in your bingo book," he said.
He hadn't thought of it after Raiden had agreed to help Konoha. Really, his status with Kaminari no Kuni had been the biggest surprise because Kumo hadn't been on the best of terms with Konoha for seventeen years. Shikamaru only knew Raiden's status with Kaze no Kuni because he had looked it up in the bingo book that Suna published, which he only had because he had made so many trips to the desert once he became jounin.
Temari shifted the giant fan on her back, wearing it like a thick staff that stretched almost as tall as she stood.
"Even if Gaara knew something like that," Temari hedged, "he wouldn't tell anything Naruto asked him not to."
Shikamaru made a loose fist with the hand that held his cigarette.
"That could be seen as a breach of the alliance." He frowned at Temari as the smoke tickled his nose.
Temari finally turned to face him, placing one hand on her hip as she shifted her weight into an arrogant pose.
"You'd have to prove that Gaara knew about it first," she said with a little smile. "Is your genius brain really going to waste time with that?"
Shikamaru considered this. If he did try to prove that Gaara knew who Raiden was — and he thought he could — the proof would only lead to questions about why Gaara didn't tell Konoha about it. Shikamaru could guess the reason; Danzo had threatened Naruto, and in return, Naruto had asked Gaara to keep silent. If Gaara's truthfulness was called into question, it would reflect badly on the alliance between Suna and Konoha.
"Mendōkusei." Shikamaru placed the cigarette back between his lips and rolled his head back to look at the cloudless sky above him. No distractions today.
"Temari-san," Baki called, apparently satisfied that the conversation was over.
Shikamaru felt a finger tap on his chin, and he looked down again. Temari grinned at him so widely that Shikamaru had a feeling she was darn close to laughing at him.
"Bye-bye, Nara," Temari sang as she waved her hand in an exaggerated motion.
Shikamaru watched her lead her team down the road, walking only until they darted into the forest to travel by tree branches. He shook his head and slid his hands into his pockets as he turned back to the village. He may have been a genius but even he didn't understand why he liked such a troublesome woman.
Hinata sipped at her tea and breathed in the earthy scent of the brewed leaves. The tea shop wasn't one of her typical haunts in Konoha, but it was quiet and the building had escaped unharmed from Oto's attack. It was a good place for Hinata to rest for a moment.
She turned toward the deep voice calling her to see Shino, complete in his overlarge coat and sunglasses.
"Hello, Shino-kun," she greeted.
Silently, Shino padded around the small table Hinata sat at until he stood just over her shoulder.
"The Hyuuga Clan has been speaking of your actions during the attack," he said blandly. "Why? They are impressed with the level of authority you showed."
Despite Shino's nonchalant tone, Hinata blushed and glanced down at her teacup. She had known Shino long enough to distinguish a compliment from him.
"Thank you," she murmured.
Hinata recognized the wild call even before she heard the loud bark that followed. Kiba was jogging down the street, waving one hand over his head as Akamaru trotted beside him. They both seemed in very good health; Akamaru didn't even have any further symptoms from his poisoning, despite his lengthy recovery period. Hinata smiled at the pair of them, glad to see her friends with their usual amount of energy.
"Kiba-kun," she greeted.
Kiba wasted no time in plopping down in the chair beside Hinata, opposite of Shino, while Akamaru sat on his haunches and used a hind leg to scratch at his neck happily. Kiba let out an exhausted sigh.
"Man, am I ever glad to be off the clean-up detail." He stretched both hands over his head until Hinata heard a pop. "I thought my back would break from lifting all those rocks."
Hinata knew there was still a lot of work to be done around the village. They hadn't looked this bad since Pein had attacked Konoha.
"But now, Akamaru and I are busy tracking," Kiba continued. "They want to make sure none of orochi-teme's goons stuck around once he wound up dead."
Hinata felt her hand drifting up to her lips and resolutely placed it back on her lap.
"Have you found anyone?" she asked nervously.
"Nah." Kiba shrugged. "There were a few bodies, but they were all regular bodies. Hana said she thought the drugs had worked their way outa their systems after they died, so that's why they didn't look like those zombies Naruto was talking about."
Hinata nodded. It sounded like something Naruto would say.
"What was Naruto talking about?"
Hinata glanced up and saw Tenten walking with Ino down the street. The two girls were looking curiously at the gathering of Kurenai's old team around a tea table.
"Tenten-san. Ino-san." Hinata nodded her head politely to greet each of them.
Ino only waved her off as she pulled out the chair next to Kiba and plopped down.
"We were just at the hospital," Tenten explained. "Chouji's almost ready to be released."
"What about everyone else?" Kiba straightened in his seat, his eyes peering attentively at the newcomers.
"Sakura and Tsunade-sama are still working on a way to restore Sai's voice," said Ino. "Sakura thinks they'll be able to. Sasuke's still in observation."
Kiba scowled at the mention of Uchiha Sasuke, but he didn't say anything. Hinata hurriedly turned toward Ino in an attempt to divert his attention.
If anyone noticed her slight stutter, no one said anything. Ino threw her hands up in the air, exasperated.
"That guy was out of the hospital by the time we got to where he was supposed to be," she huffed. "Honestly, he's still such a blockhead."
Even as she said it, Ino's mouth turned up into something that was almost a smile. Hinata ducked her head so that neither of the other young woman would see her blush at the thought of Naruto being all right. Kiba held no such reserve as he laced his fingers together and he leaned back, supporting his head with his interlocked fingers.
"You should hear some of the theories the civilians are coming up with about Naruto." Kiba grinned as if he had told a very good joke.
Ino broke into a full smile while Hinata frowned at Kiba, waiting for him to explain. She hadn't heard much of what was going on outside of the Hyuuga Clan besides the clean-up efforts.
"I've heard," Tenten interjected. "I think I like the one about him having amnesia and forgetting where he was from."
Hinata's eyes widened. Was that what Kiba was talking about? People were trying to guess the reason behind Naruto's disappearance for so long? At least she could be glad the real reason hadn't come up yet. What Tenten was saying sounded more like the plot for a romance novel.
"Most will probably believe that he was on assignment for Hokage-sama," Shino stated with his hands tucked into his pockets. "We have good relations with Kumo and Ame now only because of him."
Kiba sat back in his chair properly.
"Because he's Raiden," he corrected quietly.
"Aa." Shino's voice was soft but firm.
Hinata placed the palm of one of her hands over the other in her lap to keep herself from pinching at her lips. She hadn't paid a lot of attention to the masquerade Naruto had gone by while he had been away — it seemed kinder to call it "being away" than the manipulation and blackmail it had actually been. But she knew that Raiden had been a powerful figure, both in the civil war that threatened Ame and as an enemy of Oto.
"What will he do now?" Ino wondered aloud.
Hinata lifted her head.
"He mentioned taking the Chuunin Exams once he gets the chance."
Actually, Naruto's words had been more of a retort to Kiba's teasing, and Hinata didn't even think the people who had been there remembered that much. The prank Naruto had pulled right after that had taken up most of that evening.
"Ha!" Kiba laughed out loud and slapped his knee. "I'd love to see who he gets teamed up with. Little brats'll probably fall flat on their faces trying to keep up with him."
"It will be a challenge for him to pass the tests without completely taking over for his team," Shino agreed.
Hinata looked around while her friends all smiled at the thought of Naruto finally catching up to the rest of them.
"I think he can do it," she blurted firmly.
Ino looked up at Hinata, surprised, while Kiba just continued to grin.
"Oh, I don't doubt that he'll do it," Tenten said.
"Yeah." Kiba folded his arms over his chest as he smiled. "After all, he still needs to become Hokage."
Kakashi balanced carefully on the sill of the window, his book in one hand held up close to his nose. It was relatively easy to bypass the hooded figures he knew were perched on and around the building, although he rather suspected they let him do what he was doing.
"Can't you ever use the door?" Tsunade grumbled from inside her office.
Kakashi took that as an invitation to step in from the window and walk leisurely into the Hokage's office.
"I do," he replied simply. "With my team."
He still remembered the first time he had walked through the double doors of the office, leading a genin team of kids he knew would either fall apart at the seams or grow up to be great leaders of the village. He wondered if he could satisfy himself with the thought that his team had somehow managed to do both.
Tsunade leaned over her large desk, resting her elbows on the paperwork that covered the surface of the wood. She pressed the tips of her fingers over her eyelids. Kakashi suspected if it wasn't for the genjutsu she always kept up, Tsunade would look pretty darn aged within the last few days.
"Long day?" he asked.
"I'm about ready to retire from this job," Tsunade sighed. She looked up and pinned Kakashi with reddened eyes. "I don't suppose you'd like the hat, Hatake?"
Kakashi smiled beneath his mask, causing the fabric to stretch as his uncovered eye squinted.
"No, thanks. Sakura would probably hide all my books, and Shizune already took the sake."
The topic of the next Hokage had come up before, and Kakashi knew there were some who had suggested him. Tsunade bent down and used one hand to pluck a small bottle from the bottom drawer of her desk.
"Not all the sake." She smiled triumphantly.
Kakashi ignored her as she tipped her head back and sipped directly from the bottle. He wasn't sure if Tsunade had been serious about naming him the next Hokage, but he didn't think he would do a good job. He had been a soldier too long, was too familiar in all the bloody ways to keep a village afloat. The village needed someone better than him, and Kakashi already had someone in mind.
"Besides, don't you need to wait for a proper successor?" he addressed Tsunade as she wiped the remnants of sweet rice-wine from her lips.
From the way Tsunade's eyes narrowed immediately, Kakashi suspected she knew exactly the one Kakashi had in mind as well.
"That brat is too headstrong," the Hokage spat. "He put himself in too much danger."
"He was willing to die to protect the village," Kakashi retorted.
He didn't say that he had almost had a heart attack when he felt the poisoned chakra rise over the forest. Or that he had only held on to Sasuke so desperately because he knew he wouldn't be able to help Naruto when he was lying on the ground, bleeding out and dying. Kakashi could still see how the blood on the ground had practically blended in with Naruto's red coat, making it look like the young man was surrounded by blood.
"Don't remind me." Tsunade lowered her head to rest one hand over her eyes.
Kakashi wisely said nothing as Tsunade slowly lowered her hand. Her eyes seemed a little sharper and a little harder.
"Still, only that brat would find a way to pull this kind of prank," she said heavily. "He convinced everyone that he was dead and then still managed to save the village from Orochimaru."
"He is Konoha's Most Surprising Ninja," Kakashi noted.
He considered his next words only long enough to toss around the thought that he might just be crazy for suggesting it.
"Will you bet that Naruto will become Hokage?" he suggested. "Within your lifetime?"
A slow, sly smile appeared on Tsunade's face as she lifted her eyes to Kakashi.
"I don't think you want me to take that bet, Hatake," she said. "I'd win it. And bad things happen when I win."
"How do you know you'd win?" Kakashi didn't really think Tsunade would lose — not when Naruto's chance at his dream was on the line — but Tsunade did have a reputation of losing more often than she won.
"I learned long ago never to bet against Naruto." Tsunade smiled as she tipped back the sake jar.
"Ah." Kakashi smiled again. It was good to know that Naruto had such support behind him. Maybe his dream wasn't as far away as anyone thought. "What do you think he'll do to the world next?"
Naruto took a deep breath and let all the air out of his lungs. The wind smelled like fresh earth and growing things, but if he were really picky, he could probably smell the dust of the day's worth of construction from the village below him. He had missed this view, being able to see his entire village at once. And this spot on Hokage Mountain really was the best.
"I like this spot," he announced. "Has a good view."
No one answered him, so Naruto didn't turn to look over his shoulder. If Sasuke wanted to hang around a mountain face like a vulture, that was his business.
"You're supposed to be in the hospital," a cool voice finally said.
Grinning at the thought that he had outlasted the cold bastard for once, Naruto tilted his head up so that he was almost bending over backwards to see the man in a traditional jounin uniform standing on the face of the mountain.
"So're you, Sasuke-teme," said Naruto.
"I thought it prudent to check up on you." Sasuke crossed his arms over his chest and huffed as his eyes traced over the Hokage Tower just below them.
Naruto rolled his eyes and turned back to his great view.
"Okay," he pouted, "now you just sound like Shino."
Naruto heard the soft tap of shoes against the hard rock of Yondaime's carved out head. He didn't look behind him, even when he felt Sasuke's presence draw up close to his back.
"Danzo is dead."
Naruto drew in a quick breath and held it for a moment. He had already known, but Sasuke's tone was almost as dead as Danzo was.
"I heard about that," Naruto said quietly.
It was hard not to hear about it when he had been in the hospital. Sai had been pretty excited, even without being able to say anything.
"The Hokage and ANBU are working at cleaning the remnants of ROOT from the shinobi ranks," Sasuke continued.
Naruto wondered if Sasuke knew how much he sounded like a subordinate reporting to his Hokage. Naruto tried not to smile too widely at the thought.
"Good." He glanced over his shoulder at Sasuke, hoping Sasuke didn't take his smile the wrong way.
Naruto's eyes darted up to the hitai-ate on Sasuke's forehead. He had recognized it from the first time he had seen it on Sasuke's head. The little scratches and signs of wear marked it as his. The mark of loyalty that Iruka-sensei had entrusted to him and he had entrusted to Sasuke.
Sasuke frowned at Naruto's intense perusal, but Naruto just shrugged and looked ahead again. Sasuke stepped forward so that he stood next to Naruto, facing the village below.
"No one's even asking for a true explanation about your disappearance," Sasuke said.
Naruto turned to Sasuke with wide eyes. He didn't know if Tsunade was going to make Danzo's actions public knowledge, but it didn't occur to him that people would come to their own conclusions.
"They think I betrayed the village?"
"No!" Sasuke practically shouted as he spun to face Naruto. "You are physically incapable— You couldn't—"
Sasuke swallowed hard and stopped talking. Naruto wasn't even sure what he was trying to say. Sasuke took a deep breath; Naruto could practically see Sasuke's brain reboot as he calmed himself.
"You would never betray anything you cared about that much," Sasuke murmured, keeping his eyes on the ground below his feet instead of looking at Naruto.
"So, trust that I never will," Naruto replied simply.
Naruto was sure Sasuke's face scrunched up like a boy's about to cry for a moment. But the moment passed quickly enough to leave only a harshly set jaw that refused to shed any light on the Uchiha's inner workings. Stuck-up bastard would be ashamed of having simple things like feelings.
A cool breeze brushed by Naruto's coat, making it flap at his sides as he turned away from Sasuke and looked out at the view.
"We still got work to do, y'know," he muttered to Sasuke. "Orochimaru never told me who the guy was who gave him access to the Yonbi."
"Likely a remnant of Akatsuki." Sasuke's voice was steady now. "I don't know what happened to Hoshigaki Kisame after the battle."
Naruto glanced at Sasuke out of the corner of his eye, but Sasuke was staring in the same direction, refusing to look at Naruto. But Naruto saw the way Sasuke held himself, like all the muscles in his body had seized up. One corner of his mouth turned up and he looked back.
"It's all right," he declared. "We'll protect Konoha."
Naruto grinned. He would never tell Sasuke, but he really believed that Sasuke would keep his promise. That was the one lesson he had wanted Sasuke to learn. That was the reason he had wanted Sasuke to have the hitai-ate that even now rested on the darker man's forehead. If that was what was tying Sasuke to Konoha, it was worth giving it up.
Naruto reached his arms over his head in a stretch and rested his hands at the back of his neck.
"I'll have to see how long it takes me to scratch your forehead now, teme," he said.
He and Sasuke hadn't really had a proper spar in ages, not even when they were sixteen and Sasuke had first come home. There had been some tension between Raiden and Sasuke, almost like when they were thirteen and fighting under a waterfall, but Naruto had never wanted that. He just wanted his brother back.
"You're joking," Sasuke scoffed. "I'm clearly faster than you."
Naruto's hands flew back to his sides as he spun around. Sasuke was wearing a tiny smirk — barely a twitch in one corner of his mouth, but Naruto saw it.
"Hey!" Naruto jabbed one finger at Sasuke. "Didn't you see how I caught up to orochi-teme?"
Sasuke made a motion with his neck as if he wanted to roll his eyes but couldn't bring himself to.
"Yes, and then I saw you bleed all over his stomach," said Sasuke. "Most impressive."
"Teme!" Naruto growled as Sasuke turned back to head to the top of the mountain.
Naruto jumped after him, thinking he'd just jump on the bastard's back and just tackle him to the ground. Maybe he'd dig up another one of his seals. The skunk one would suit Sasuke pretty well. Scrambling up the face of the mountain, Naruto couldn't keep the wide grin off his face.
As is the generation of leaves, so is that of humanity.
The wind scatters the leaves on the ground, but the live timber
Burgeons with leaves again in the season of spring returning.
So one generation of men will grow while another dies.
Homer, The Iliad
A/N: The end!
I usually hate lengthy author's notes, but I feel I need to thank some behind-the-scenes people.
First and foremost, to the stories on this site that first got me inspired. So, to Walking Corpse by dazdnconfused; which first got me thinking about how I would tackle the whole, Naruto-is-forced-to-leave-Konoha-and-returns-in-secret-to-save-it. Also, Time and Again by KyLewin, who is an amazing writer and who always gave me something to aspire to in terms of fight scenes. Seriously, good.
I do need to mention both Rawrmander, who was a very dedicated beta while this story was in its infancy, and Nemesis Jedi, whose reviews made me consider plot points I hadn't even seen before. NJ, I owe you (seriously. i will write you a oneshot if you like). And all the other reviewers who made me so enthused to write this story: SuperN-Gaspard, SenceLess, K.R. Ukido (thanks for reviewing all my chapters even long after they had come out!), fransis, mamawar, NekoKriszty, ficticious-imagination (it's always nice to see authors whose work I admire reading my story) and ShirouHokuto (you and your CAPS LOCK key literally made my day every time you reviewed).
And to everyone else who ever reviewed, added me to your favorites, or even silently followed this story.