A/N: These chapters are going to tend to be shorter, though hopefully that will mean I'll be able to update more often. This chapter is Sasuke's reunion with his mother, along with the rules for his return. The next chapter will show what has been happening in Konoha and reintroduce Naruto and the rest of the characters, all of whom have changed because of Sasuke's accident. Please read and review!

Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto

Chapter 2: A Second Chance

There were a hundred things Sasuke wanted to say, a thousand words tripping over each other in his mind. In the end, he was too full of emotion to say anything. Instead, he ran to his mother and embraced her, clutching her tightly around the waist and soaking her dress with his tears. They were flowing down his face so fiercely he couldn't see a thing.

Mikoto hugged him just as tightly back, a few tears of her own falling silently. Mother and son clung to each other desperately, communicating years of love and grief into one embrace. Sasuke never wanted to pull away, but he had to if he wanted to see his mother's face. He looked up at her, roughly brushing away the tears that blocked his view. Mikoto looked down at him, and her love was like a physical presence, making him feel safe, warm and happy.

"Mother…" Sasuke whispered brokenly, "it's really you! How… aren't you…"

Mikoto smiled gently. "Dead? I'm afraid I am dead, my son. I'm a spirit."

The grief that accompanied those words was minimal for Sasuke, who was still experiencing the utter and unexpected joy of seeing and talking with his mother again. But the implications of what she was saying were too clear for him to ignore.

Sasuke pointed to himself. "If you're dead, then I'm…" How else could his spirit be talking to his dead mother, unless he was dead himself? But then, what about his body back in the hospital? The Hokage had said he was still alive…

Mikoto shook her head firmly. "No. You're alive. Or at least, you're not dead." Though she didn't say it, the word yet seemed to hang in the air after she finished her sentence. "I'm only here because I begged to be allowed to see you one last time. That's why I was given this job."

Sasuke cocked his head. "What job?"

Mikoto tried to pull away, but Sasuke held on tighter. He felt that if he let her go, she might disappear or drift away. Mikoto laughed, but stayed where she was.

"The job of explaining the rules to you," she said at last. "You've been given a second chance at life."

"A second chance? I… I don't understand. I thought I wasn't dead."

"You were for a while," Mikoto answered, her eyes growing sad. "Your poor heart stopped. The Hokage did what she could, but the ability to bring you back to life doesn't belong to her. It belongs to the Shinigami, and He decided to give you a chance."

"Why?" Sasuke asked, his grief beginning to turn into anger. "Why me, and not you? I'll trade places with you!"

"Oh, Sasuke," Mikoto said sadly, brushing a lock of hair out of his eyes. "It doesn't work that way. No one knows why some people get another chance, just as no one knows why some people die young, while others live to a ripe old age. Do not ask why – it does no one any good, and will only drive you mad. Instead, focus on the chance you have been given. Please, Sasuke. If for no other reason, do it because I ask it of you. Think of it as my last request. I wish you to live a long life, one filled with joy and love."

"Do I have to go back?" Sasuke said, feeling the tears well up again. "Why can't I stay here with you?"

"My time is almost done," his mother said. "I only lingered here because I could not bear to leave you alone with no one to watch over you. But a spirit cannot remain in the world forever. We must go on. And it is not yet your time. Even if you were to die now, we would not be together. The afterlife is a journey we all make on our own."

Sasuke opened his mouth, preparing to argue, but Mikoto silenced him by putting one finger on his lips. "Hush. You must listen to me. I have much to tell you."

Sasuke saw that she wouldn't be dissuaded, and he didn't want to waste any of the precious remaining time by arguing. He waited silently for his mother's next words.

"The Shinigami acknowledges that what happened is not only your fault. Naruto should have understood how dangerous your attacks were, and stopped fighting."

Here Mikoto broke off, gazing at Sasuke sorrowfully. "I am very disappointed in you for that fight, Sasuke. Do you truly hold your life, and the life of your friend, so lightly, that you would throw either or both away without a thought?"

"I had to test myself!" Sasuke cried out. "I need to be strong if I want to-" but he couldn't finish the sentence. Somehow, he couldn't bring himself to talk about Itachi with his mother, the woman Itachi had murdered.

Gently but insistently, Mikoto pulled away from Sasuke's clutching embrace. She kept hold of his hand, and led him to two of the armchairs in the center of the strange room. They sat down, and Mikoto held Sasuke's gaze.

"It doesn't matter what your motives were – what you did was foolish, reckless, and cruel. But neither of us have the time for a lecture. What is important is that Naruto was equally foolish, and the Shinigami has decided to be lenient because of that. Your spirit will be able to use Naruto's body during your quest. Without the use of a body, coming back to life would be much more difficult."

"Wait, what? Naruto's body… and a quest? I don't understand." Sasuke sounded like a broken record, and he knew it. He didn't think there was a single thing that he had understood since the moment his spirit had woken up in the hospital.

"Yes, your quest," Mikoto answered. "Your quest to find three people who love you. That is the first half of the Shinigami's deal. In order to come back to life, you need to collect three tears from people who cry out of love for you."

Mikoto squeezed Sasuke's hand gently, and on his wrist there appeared a jeweled bracelet. It was a thin band made of gold, with three glass teardrop-shaped bulbs spaced evenly around it. The bulbs were as large as one of his fingernails, and almost completely transparent.

"This is the bracelet which will track your progress. Whenever someone who loves you cries while thinking of you, one tear will appear on the bracelet. When you collect all three, the spell will be finished."

Sasuke stared at the bracelet and tried to understand. Why did he need to collect tears? And why did he have to find people who loved him? It was such a strange thing to require – why couldn't the Shinigami just put him back in his body, without this whole elaborate routine?

His questions must have been clear on his face, because Mikoto answered him without Sasuke needing to ask. "Love is the key because it's what makes life worth living. I don't know for sure, but I imagine that this is the Shinigami's way of making sure that you deserve to live."

Sasuke thought that was utter tripe. For the past five years, after all, he had been living with only one purpose: vengeance. If killing Itachi had been enough reason to live then, why wasn't it now? Still, his mother wanted him to live again, and Sasuke still had unfinished business with Itachi. He couldn't avenge his family if he was dead, and he couldn't go with his mother even if he died. The only answer, then, was to play along with the Shinigami's game so that he could come back to life and complete his revenge.

"So I have to get three tears," Sasuke said with determination. That wouldn't be a problem, he was sure. I mean, his fan club was bursting with girls who had almost certainly cried buckets of tears for him already! He would just need to pick three, get the tears, and move on.

"Is that everything?"

Mikoto was looking at him strangely, as if she had something to say, but in the end she responded, "That's only the first requirement. The second is that you have to cry for someone you love."

"Didn't I already?" Sasuke asked, pointing to his tear-streaked cheeks. He was still on the verge of tears, in fact, but he was fighting them back so that nothing would interrupt his last conversation with his mother.

"It has to be for someone who's alive," Mikoto said, smiling. "If that wasn't true, you would only need two tears from people who love you, because goodness only knows how many tears I've shed while watching over you all these years."

The second requirement made Sasuke pause a little, because aside from his mother and father he couldn't think of anyone offhand that might fit the description of a loved one. Naruto might, just might, count as a friend, if you defined friend loosely and were feeling generous. Other than that, there were people Sasuke tolerated and people that he hated. The people that he hated were by far the more numerous.

"Let me see if I've got this," Sasuke said slowly. "I need three people to cry for me, and I need to cry for someone else. Ignoring the fact that this is completely ridiculous and stupid, I still don't understand where Naruto enters the picture."

Mikoto shifted in her seat, "Because his body is the only way you can interact with the world. You were in the world for a while before coming here, weren't you? Then you should know that you won't be able to touch anything or interact with the world in any way as a spirit."

Right. Sasuke remembered very well how frustrating it was to yell at Kakashi and Tsunade and have them be completely unable to hear him. Using Naruto's body would allow him to get around that, and it wasn't like dead last didn't owe him after killing him and everything. Just thinking about it now, Sasuke experienced a pang of disbelief – how had Naruto beaten him? But this wasn't the time, so Sasuke pushed the feeling away in order to focus on his mother's instructions.

"You can use Naruto's body during the day, from 8 in the morning until midnight. If you don't return his body to its proper sleeping place by that time, you'll forfeit your second chance. Also, if you try to tell anyone that you're actually Sasuke and not Naruto, it will be over as well."

"I can't tell anyone?" Sasuke gasped. "Why not?"

Mikoto shrugged. "I don't know. But that's the way it is."

Sasuke realized something else about the arrangement that piqued his curiosity. "I have Naruto's body all day, right? So when does he get to be in control? Is it only when he's sleeping?"

Mikoto shook her head. "No. Naruto doesn't sleep during the day any more. After your accident, he quit being a shinobi. He works the night shift at a ramen restaurant, cleaning and preparing the next day's meals."

Sasuke froze, sure that he had misheard. He must have, because what Mikoto had just said made absolutely no sense. "Naruto did what?"

"He stopped being a shinobi," Mikoto repeated patiently.

"Why? Of all the stupid, idiotic ideas, why… Naruto is a shinobi, not some civilian cook!"

Mikoto looked pleased at his response, though why Sasuke had no idea. "It has something to do with his guilt, I believe," she said after a significant pause. "He feels he was to blame for your accident. That's all I know, however. If you want to learn more, you'll have to find out for yourself. Luckily, you'll have that chance since you'll be using his body every day. Don't worry about his body needing sleep – the Shinigami tells me that the Kyubi will rejuvenate his body for the period of one year, so that the two of you can trade off using his body night and day without him becoming weary over time."

"I'll make sure to have him kick himself in the head," Sasuke said disgustedly. "Imagine him giving up on his dream just because I was too weak to defend against his technique. Kami, I'd like to smack him! First thing I do when I get back is march his sorry ass back to the Hokage and tell her that I'm back on duty."

Mikoto smiled gently, and a knowing glint came into her eye. "That may be a very good idea, indeed… but now you understand everything, and I must be on my way."

This statement made Sasuke forget his anger towards Naruto. He clutched at his mother's hand, unwilling to let her go. "No, Mother! Please, stay with me!"

The tears began to flow again, despite all of his efforts to check them. Mikoto took both of his hands in hers, squeezing tightly. On Sasuke's right wrist, a second bracelet appeared. This one had only one glass teardrop, slightly larger than the three on his left wrist.

Mikoto gestured to the bracelet with a nod. "That's the bracelet which will hold the tear you cry yourself. Now you know the rules. One: you have one year in which to come back to life. Two: you can't tell anyone that it is your spirit inhabiting Naruto. And three: all four of the tears which you will collect must spring from pure, 100% love. Now the only thing I can give you is my own love, and a little advice."

For a second, Mikoto became stern, and her voice was deadly serious. "I know what you have been doing all these years. I have watched you grow – in size and power, but also in hatred. I want to tell you, my son, my dear boy, that hatred is not a reliable weapon. It is a sword that inevitably turns on its wielder. I beg you, Sasuke: for the love you bear me, please do not lose yourself in hatred."

In the face of his mother's earnest request, Sasuke couldn't help but nod. But the image of Itachi stayed in his mind's eye, and he knew even as he nodded that his feelings hadn't changed.

"I must go now," Mikoto said, her voice growing a little fainter. "When I'm gone, go back down the stairs. They'll bring you back to Konoha, but be aware: time has passed while you climbed, and while you talked with me. Time in the spirit world is not the same as time in the real world. When you return, the world will have moved on. Things will be different from how you remember them."

Sasuke was only half listening. His mother was growing more and more transparent, and her hand started to become insubstantial in his grip. He held on tightly as she faded.

"I love you, my son." The words were so faint he could barely make them out.

"I love you, too." Sasuke choked the words past his uncooperative throat. Then Mikoto was gone, and Sasuke stood alone in the empty room.

For a long time he only cried, letting all of his grief wash away as he said goodbye to his mother in his mind. The defenses he'd built over the last five years, the walls of hatred in his heart, had all cracked with just one conversation. If he was truly going back and rejoining the world of the living, he couldn't be weak. He would need to be even stronger, even more focused, if he wanted to avenge his family.

When he was sure that he had control over himself once again, he made his way toward the door that led to the world outside.