Chapter Sixteen—Closure

In hindsight, Sakura supposed she was lucky she maintained consciousness long enough to witness Danzo's death. She'd worked herself to a near-dangerous level of chakra exhaustion, and even still, she hadn't completely healed the damage from Torune's destructive bugs.

Tsunade said Itachi had carried her—with the help of Pakkun and Guruko, since he was also injured himself—to the backlines, where Tsunade and Shizune had set up the emergency medical facilities.

Tsunade also said that Sakura hadn't missed much in her period of unconsciousness. Itachi had finally defeated Danzo in the ending phases of the war. Naruto, Sasuke, and the Sand Siblings had already brought down the Yonbi—and Orochimaru, though the slippery nukenin had tried to slither away in his snake-like meta-form. Much of Root had been decimated, thanks to Genshi's Konoha reinforcements. The survivors were in containment, awaiting a military trial once the victors organized one.

There had been some deaths, as casualties were unavoidable. There would be a fair number of names to add to the Memorial Stone once they got back to the village…

But despite the losses, everyone was filled with a sense of hope.

Yes, it would still be a long road before them, to try to undo the damages Danzo and his Konoha-Akatsuki had wreaked on the ninja world. But they had won. Genshi was going home, victorious.

And… perhaps, now, those Elemental Countries that had not fallen to Danzo's army could be approached for treaties. As of right now, there was nothing Genshi could do about those that had already fallen, like Waterfall, Grass, and Earth. Genshi wasn't strong enough, not after this major battle. But they all suspected that those countries' militaries would be rising against the puppet leaderships Danzo had put in place anyway. Even in Iwa, where an Akatsuki member held the kage's seat, there would probably be revolution. The Akatsuki, Deidara, had been an Iwa nukenin after all, and chances were slim that the country wanted an exiled criminal for a leader.

So maybe now that Genshi had cut off the head of the beast, the limbs would die. In other words, maybe now that they'd killed Danzo, Danzo's house of cards would fall. Even though the old war hawk had claimed to have control of his 'empire,' the whole thing was as fragile as a butterfly's wings. He ruled them by fear and threats. Now that he was gone, perhaps things would straighten themselves out.

Not that there wouldn't be any dangers ahead for Genshi and their restored Konoha. The Village would bear the brunt of the blame for this war, and would probably be a target for some hostility.

:But at least we killed Danzo,: Sakura thought, :At least we can go home.:

They would face the new problems as they came up. Right now was a time for celebration.

…Or a time for answers.

Sakura had been lucky enough to remain conscious for Danzo and Itachi's fight. Which meant that she had also heard a lot of things that she didn't quite understand. Being an intellectual kind of person… not to mention curious… she wanted those things cleared up.

So while much of Genshi and their Konoha-allies partied and drank and celebrated, Sakura stalked purposefully through their underground base, looking for one Uchiha Itachi.

She was just starting to get frustrated when he just appeared in front of her, looking almost grim.

"I expected you earlier than this," he said before she even spoke. "Follow me; I'd prefer to speak in privacy."

Fuming a little bit at how long she'd been looking for him, only to have him pop up with a line like 'I expected you earlier than this', she bit back a sharp retort and followed. She did want answers, after all, and probably wouldn't get them if she antagonized her source.

He led her to his own room within the base—the one place, she suspected, where he was sure they wouldn't be interrupted or overheard. He held the door for her and then closed it behind them before turning to face her.

The war had taken its toll on him, as well as on the rest of Genshi. Sakura would have some interesting scarring on her chest where the kikaichuu had done irreparable damage to the skin. Itachi had a black patch over his right eye, the eye that did not have the Eternal Mangekyo Sharingan. The amount he had used that eye's ability in the fighting had deteriorated its vision sharply; what little Tsunade could do to heal it had been done, and now he wore the patch to rest it as it recovered. He'd still have only sixty-percent normal vision in it, though.

Now he fixed her with a steady gaze from his visible eye, and said, "Ask."

Well, alright, so he had caught on to the fact that she had questions. Sakura took a breath. First things first.

"Why did you wait so long to kill him?" she asked. And when Itachi lifted an eyebrow, added: "Once I thought about it, it seemed pretty obvious that you could have killed Danzo whenever you wanted. After all, you killed Madara when you were eleven, and from what I hear, he was a whole grade higher than Danzo. But you took your time. And you talked to him a lot."

She could feel her brow furrowing in puzzlement, as it did every time she tried to ponder this. Itachi didn't look offended, or annoyed. He answered readily enough, "You're right. Compared to Madara, Danzo was weak. But where Madara was arrogant, Danzo was practical. Danzo backed himself with an army that was blindly loyal to him. That made it impossible to take him down with just one man. Genshi spent all these years in exile building its own army, gathering those things that an army needs—money, supplies, training. People."

Itachi tilted his head slightly and continued: "As to why I talked to Danzo… Sometimes, it isn't just enough to kill your enemy. Taking the time to understand why they have done what they've done can also be important. It can help you to prevent something similar from happening again."

"Oh," she frowned. Thought it over. Concluded that, yes, there was merit in that. It was somewhat similar to what Naruto did, she supposed—he talked to his opponents, figured out what made them tick, and more often than not, figured out what to say to make them reconsider their actions.

Itachi was waiting for her next question. And his eyes were… almost wary. Sakura debated a moment whether to ask him or to just let him have his secrets. But… she wanted to know. And if he really didn't want to tell her, he could just say so.

"What was the scroll Danzo mentioned?" she asked before she could lose her nerve. "And what did he mean when he said 'your secret'?"

Itachi held her gaze with his, intently. He said: "If I tell you this, you must understand… You cannot speak a word of it to any other. Not your team, not your friends. No one. It is S-rank classified, with all the secrecy restrictions that go along with that."

Sakura frowned. "If it's so secret, can you really be telling me about it?"

"I have dispensation to inform others at my own discretion," he said; his eye scanned her face. "You have heard enough from my… conversation with Danzo that it would be safer to bring you into the secret, and bind you to keeping it, rather than to let you go about with your questions."

Sakura paused. She probably wouldn't regret swearing to keep the secret, but something with as much gravity as this seemed to have… it required at least a brief thought. Finally, she nodded. "Fine. I swear to keep whatever you say here secret. I won't tell anyone."

Itachi stared into her eyes a moment longer, probably gauging her sincerity. And then he started to speak.

The story that unfolded was unbelievable. Time-travel? An older Itachi dying, only to have his mind transported into his eleven-year-old body? A different future in which the Uchiha were all dead, Itachi a nukenin, and Akatsuki an organization bent on the destruction of Konoha? At first Sakura listened disbelievingly, but she thought about what he was saying as the tale lengthened and events began to coalesce…and it made sense. A wild sort of sense, in that she had never imagined such things were possible, but… When she was younger, she never imagined running up the side of a tree or walking on water, either. But chakra allowed ninja to do both of those things. So… why not time-travel?

Maybe the victory—and adrenalin-high—Sakura was experiencing had something to do with how easily she accepted the story. Maybe her own experiences had stretched her mind so that it was flexible enough to wrap itself around the concept of time-travel. Maybe she believed him because her lifelong experience with Itachi told her that she could trust him, that he was not one to lie so extravagantly and for no reason. Maybe she trusted his wild story because other people she regarded highly trusted it—the Sandaime, Kakashi, Inoichi, Ibiki…

Whatever the reason—and she couldn't fully determine which it was, if it wasn't all of them at once—Sakura believed him. When Itachi finally fell silent, she stared at him, her mind reeling. He waited for her response.

What a secret to carry with you. She understood, now, a little bit why Itachi had always seemed so unflappable, so steady. He'd already seen everything life had to offer. He'd already died once before.

It was obvious why he'd made her swear to secrecy. Not even his family knew of this, Sakura would bet. The reason why he would forgo telling them, as close as he was to them, was obvious. And as for telling anyone else…

She breathed, "No wonder you're always so aloof and secretive. You knew that if people found out about your time-traveling they might try to use your knowledge for their own gain… Hell, that's partly what happened with Danzo! He found the scroll of what you'd told the Sandaime, and Ibiki, and Inoichi-san, and he used it to remake Akatsuki for his own use."

Itachi's visible eye narrowed slightly. "He must have been stealing knowledge even while the Sandaime was still in power… Akatsuki was forming even before Sarutobi-sama fell ill."

Sakura felt that her eyebrows had taken up permenant residence in her hairline—they'd risen in amazement some point near the beginning of the story and hadn't relaxed since. "Does Tsunade-shishou know your secret?"

"Yes." The answer didn't surprise Sakura; Itachi had accepted Tsunade as the true Godaime Hokage, and Itachi was nothing if not loyal. She nodded absently, the gears in her mind still clicking along, trying to fit all this into what she had already known, or thought she'd known.

The revelation of Itachi's past… and 'other-past,' Sakura thought wryly… explained some things. And raised some suspicions. Sakura had always wondered why Uchiha Itachi had deigned to tutor two strangers like Naruto and Sakura along with his little brother. And why they had all been placed on a Genin Team when, by all accounts, the Teams were supposed to be balanced in terms of skill. Itachi must have had a hand in that, probably because of his advance knowledge. He'd persuaded the Hokage and Council to agree to keeping them together.

Strange. Sakura didn't feel betrayed by the knowledge that she'd been so handily manipulated, like a piece on a shogi board. Itachi had trained her, and Naruto and Sasuke, molded them as easily as wet clay. Or… forged them, like you might a blade. He had prepped them for use as tools.

However. However, Sakura realized that this was what any leader did. A leader used his soldiers as tools, as weapons. Even the Sandaime—who was well-known for being compassionate toward his ninja and valuing their lives—sent his people out on life-threatening missions. Sent them out on missions that were as suicidal as they were vital. That was the purpose of ninja; to be sent on missions to help the Village. Even if Itachi had not taken interest in Team Seven, they would have been utilized in the same way. So, no. Sakura did not feel betrayed. Itachi had not done anything that would have been unusual under other circumstances. Just because he had a little bit of fore-knowledge did not make his actions sinister.

Everything Itachi had done had been to help protect the Village—his friends, his family, his little brother. And hadn't he protected her, too, when she needed it? And his training had better prepared her for the harsheness of the ninja world. She survived, in part, because of it. Her teammates survived because of it.

Although, she wondered…

"When you saved me from those bullies, did you know who I was?"

Itachi knew immediately what she was referring to—the incident when she was six that had been their first interaction. He looked her head-on and answered truthfully: "I did not know until I had driven them away."

Sakura smiled. :Knew it. Maybe I didn't understand all his motivations until now, but his intentions were always good. He only ever wanted to protect people. To protect Konoha.:

"You know," she said lightly, "I think that, when we return to Konoha, you should destroy that scroll. There's no reason for anyone to know that you were sent back in time. Like you said, everything changed as soon as you were sent back; the future you knew is irrelevant here, now. The only information you have from that other life that's still important is the information about people; enemies, their weaknesses, abilities… Like the information you have on Akatsuki's members. But that can be gathered by any spy. So why not pretend that's where you got it? Why not just be another loyal Konoha shinobi, instead of a time-traveler?"

She received a slight smile in response. "After the incident with Madara and the failed coup, I told the Hokage I would be just another Leaf-nin in the ranks. But then, with Danzo…"

I didn't have the luxury of forgetting. He didn't say it, though. Not outloud.

"Well," Sakura said, "you've got that option again. I advise you take it. And right now, I'd also advise that we go join our fellow Leaf-nin and celebrate. Everyone will wonder where we are."

She turned and walked to the door. Behind her, Itachi said quietly, "Sakura-san. Thank you."

For not fighting his request to keep this secret. For believing him. For not turning on him once she knew the truth.

Sakura grinned at him. "We're teammates, Itachi-san."

Sakura weaved her way through the reveling Genshi. To her side, she saw Lee and Tenten reuniting with their lost teammate, Hyuuga Neji, who had come with the reinforcements from Konoha. Neji's mouth was curved in an unmistakeable smile, and Lee had tears of joy in his eyes. Tenten looked close to tears herself.

Kotetsu had found his friend, teammate, and comrade Izumo and with them, Anko and Genma were sharing a jug of sake. Kurenai was showing off her son Makoto to Nara Shikaku, Akimichi Chouza, and Yamanaka Inoichi. Sasuke and Itachi's mother, Uchiha Mikoto, stood with them, laughing along with Kurenai as Inoichi tried to extricate his fingers from the child's grip.

People were milling about, swigging beer and sake, talking, joking, laughing. Some sported bandages, others seemed virtually untouched by the battle. All were smiling.

To some, the joyous celebration might have seemed somewhat callous after the difficult and deadly battle they'd all just been a part of. And certainly some of them had lost loved ones, but they all knew that the dead had died for what they'd believed in. And they would be honored, as was proper. But tonight was for the living. And the living were enjoying their victory.

The air of energetic merriment was catching, and Sakura laughed as she glanced behind her to check if Itachi was keeping up. He was smiling slightly and accepting hand-clasps and shoulder-slaps from those sober enough to recognize him and realize that he had been the one to do Danzo in. She left him in the clutches of his cousin Shisui and Shisui's Team.

"OOOI, SAKURA-CHAAAN!" bellowed Naruto's voice over the hubbub. Sakura turned, unable to wipe the wide grin off her face, and spotted her teammates. Naruto, Sasuke, Gaara, Kankurou, and Temari had been given a place of honor at the end of the long table that stretched across the room—doubtless because of the major role they'd played in the battle. Tsunade and Jiraiya sat at the other end of the table, looking far more sober than the number of empty bottles around them would suggest.

Ino, Shikamaru, and some of their other year-mates from Konoha were sitting with Naruto. Sakura waved energetically, and started making her way through the crowd to them.

"Sakura!" Ino leaped to her feet to embrace her friend. With her lips pressed to Sakura's ear, Ino whispered quickly: "Who's that cute redhead with the eyeliner?"

Ino and Gaara? Sakura smothered a laugh, and pushed her friend away.

"Hey guys," she said, flopping down onto a free cushion. Ino flounced back into her own seat, eyes bright with mischief and happiness.

"Sakura-chan, I can't believe you almost missed it! Where have you been?" Naruto demanded.

"I was dragging someone's recalcitrant brother to the party," she said lightly, jerking a thumb behind her in Itachi's general direction.

"Itachi?" Sasuke said.

"Unless you have another brother you haven't told us about?" Sakura said pleasantly. Sasuke scowled at her, and then got up.

"I'm going to go find him."

"Come back in time for the thing!" Naruto shouted after him. Sakura winced a little at the volume.

"What thing, Naruto? And what did I almost miss?" she asked then. She absently accepted the sake bottle Ino pressed into her hand.

"Didn't you hear, Tsunade made an announcement!"

"Naruto…" Sakura drawled. "Get to the point!"

"Tsunade-s-sama declared t-that Genshi's members would reclaim their hitai-ate tonight," Hyuuga Hinata stammered from where she sat, blushing, next to Naruto.

Sakura's breath caught. Reclaim their…? Oh! Elation flooded her, quickly followed by regret. Genshi would finally put back on their Leaf hitai-ate. But hers was in her room.

"Hey," Sasuke's voice cut in above her head. She craned her neck back to see Sasuke, Itachi, and Shisui with his cadre. Sasuke tossed something at her, and she reached to catch it automatically.

It was her hitai-ate. She looked at it in surprise, and then shot a narrowed glare at Sasuke. "Did you go through my stuff?"

Shisui laughed, "Sasuke-chan, I didn't think you had it in you! Rifling through a girl's drawers."

Sasuke snorted and punched Shisui's shoulder without looking. "Figured you missed the announcement, so the dobe and I went to get it for you."

"We knew where you keep it," Naruto said, beaming. Sakura rolled her eyes. Only Naruto would be so… cheerful while admitting to digging through a girl's belongings. At least she didn't keep the hitai-ate with anything potentially embarrassing.

She shrugged. "Thanks."

Then she turned to the Sand Siblings, grinning. Kankurou seemed to be passed-out already, a couple empty sake bottles around him. Temari was watching Shikamaru out of the corner of her eye. Gaara was just watching the proceedings with a curious expression on his face. "So, Gaara, what do you think of Genshi now?"

He thought for a moment, and the replied soberly, "Loud. Happy." He looked around them, taking in the revelry, and added quietly, "I like them."

Sakura smiled. "You and your siblings can stay with us as long as you want. I'm sure Tsunade-shishou would welcome you."

Gaara nodded gravely.

"LOOK, LOOK!" Naruto cried, pointing. Sakura turned, and saw that Tsunade was standing on top of the table. Her face was flushed, and she held a jug of sake in one hand, but Sakura knew her teacher well enough to know that the woman was probably barely even tipsy.

"GENSHI!" Tsunade bellowed, and silence fell quickly. Everyone turned to face her. Those who were sitting stood. Tsunade lifted her sake high, as if toasting. "It has taken long years, but at last, Danzo's shadow has been lifted from Konoha! The threat of Root and the Bijuu has been eliminated."

Cheers erupted, then tapered off into silence once more, as Tsunade continued, "We have lost good friends, good people, to this war. They will not go forgotten. Their names will be added to the Memorial Stone, their memories honored.

"Genshi! We have won a great battle. And while we will still have difficulties to overcome in the future, right now, we stand victorious. Genshi, stripped of our Village, we became shades. Let us now reclaim ourselves."

There was a flurry of movement through the crowd, as they all took out their Leaf hitai-ate. Sakura felt emotion swell in her chest to see that each and every one of Genshi's ninja members had kept their Leaf bands.

Tsunade had put down her sake jug and was holding her own hitai-ate in her hands. With solemn ceremony, she brought it to her forehead. Genshi followed suit.

Sakura felt tears prick her eyes as she tied her hitai-ate to her head for the first time in years. All around her, the symbol of the Village Hidden in the Leaves, engraved in polished metal, flashed proudly.

"Loyal ninja of Konoha," Tsunade said, "We're going home."

TH: Holy flip! It's done! The end!

Well, sort of. :) 'Shades' might be finished, but I think I am going to make a short flashfic series (like what 'Ravel, Unravel' was) to give you all a look at the rebuilding of Konoha. I just didn't want to put all that in this story, not after the climax of the end of this war. We just had a resolution of conflict, I can't drag the story out any longer or it would feel/read awkward(ly). So I'm going to give you breathing room, and then make a mini-sequel for what I want to show of the future of Genshi/Konoha. Keep an eye out for it.
Now. Acknowledgments.

Thanks to MakalaMea for betaing this story! Without her, you all might be wondering about the dog-eating chicken or the dog eating chicken.

And thanks to you all for reading, faving, alerting, and reviewing. I really appreciate it. And if you could all see your way to one final review for the good ol' Shades, I would love you all just that much more. :)

I look forward to killing you later! (ninjas. couldn't resist)