A/N: Well in the end, I couldn't figure out how to do the flashback I wanted. Oh well.
On another note, as of the Tuesday before this last one… happy anniversary! That was the day this story hit one year of age! And, incredibly, it's only beginning. We've got a long way to go.
And here we are with the end of Arc Two. Sorry about the wait—writer's block, you know. But from now on, the chapters will be about twice as long—I'm increasing my minimum word count from 2000 to 5000, effective next chapter. That should be nice.
So without futher ado… enjoy!
Chapter 36: Revitalization
Sasuke blinked as Naruto fell. Nothing had hit him—of that Sasuke was certain—so what…?
Then it hit him, too—in every sense. Exhaustion.
He found the strength to call out as he fell to his knees to call out, "Everybody… take care of this. Thank you." Then he remembered nothing more for a while.
When he awoke he found himself back in Tazuna's house. It was evening, which annoyed him—it was hard to return to a normal sleep cycle after waking up at dusk. He and Naruto lay side by side on cots raised slightly over the floor. No one else was present.
Sasuke sat up and stretched. Dim bluish filtered into the room from the window at his right, illustrating the twilight outside. There were voices coming from outside the room.
He stood and quietly opened the door, leaving the room and shutting it behind him, keeping quiet so as not to wake Naruto, who was still fast asleep and snoring lightly.
He made his way out into the main room—a mix of sitting room and dining room. There were Kakashi and Sakura. Kakashi was reading his signature orange book (Sasuke privately snorted—Kakashi might be a great Ninja and a paragon of the qualities the leaf village sought but he was also, in many ways, a very degenerate human being) and Sakura was sitting by the window, looking out with a melancholy expression of her young face.
Sasuke took the rare opportunity to study her unobserved for a moment, realizing that in all the time he had been around her, he had never really looked at her with the intention of understanding her appearance. Her vibrant pink hair—still long, in this time—framed her faceand her green eyes seemed to glow slightly in the reflected twilight as it mixed with artificial light from the ceiling fixture.
Didn't she have a problem with her forehead? he mused vaguely. Wasn't she teased about that…? And Ino called her, what was it, 'Billboard Brow'? He grinned at the thought. Then he looked at her again. I'm not really seeing the problem, he thought.
He shook off that train of thought. A high hairline should be the least of her worries, anyway. He smirked, almost nostalgic. We were all so… immature. And are again, except for us few.
"Sasuke, you're awake," said Kakashi, not looking up. "Or are you? You've been standing there quite a while."
Sasuke turned to look at him just as Sakura jumped and turned towards him in surprise. "No, I'm sleepwalking," he said flatly. "Sleeptalking, too. and sleep-telling-you-to-get-your-nose-out-of-the-porn . Is that even legal when Sakura's the only one in the room? You could be nailed on charges of some sort of child molestation with the right lawyer."
Kakashi shrugged, snapped his book shut and looked at him. "Now that's not very nice, Sasuke," he said, voice perfectly level and devoid of any amusement. "But no, it's not illegal. Read up on Akiryou v. Hatake."
Sasuke froze, staring at his teacher. "You actually did go to court for this?"
Kakashi shrugged. "Jury ruled in my favor—as long as everything is kept as well away from minors as can be expected, I have a right to my freedom to read literature of my choice."
"What the hell happened?" said Sasuke in near horror.
Kakashi shrugged. "I was in the hospital, see—shell-shock from a really powerful paper bomb—and I wasn't exactly fully aware of what was going on around me. I was just reading to relax and recuperate and this little girl sneaks up on me—I couldn't hear properly—and starts reading over my shoulder." Kakashi sighed. "Of course I was just getting to one of the really good parts—the bit where—"
"No descriptions necessary," Sasuke interrupted, "And no, I don't want an illustration either. That is sick."
"When you say little girl…" Sakura asked in a small voice, "how little are we talking?"
Kakashi grimaced. "Exactly the wrong age—old enough to get what she was reading, too young to appreciate it. About eight or nine."
Sasuke closed his eyes as Sakura made a gagging noise, calming himself in a meditation exercise he'd had to learn while learning Senjutsu. "Moving on…" he said, slowly. "When are we headed back to the Leaf Village?"
Kakashi shrugged. "As soon as you and Naruto are both ready."
Sasuke frowned. "Why wait? We didn't need to be conscious upon return."
Kakashi grinned and winked at Sakura, who was pouting slightly. "Sakura's idea," he said. "I told her you would prefer we move quickly."
Sasuke shrugged. "Doesn't matter, really." Changing the subject, "What happened after I blacked out?"
Kakashi shrugged. "Not much. I intimidated Gatou a bit, he surrendered—Team Eight's brought him back to Konoha with them for questioning—and all his mercenaries either ran or tried to attack."
"And got themselves killed?" Sasuke asked disinterestedly.
"Yep," said Kakashi.
"So Team Eight's gone on ahead?" Sasuke asked. Naruto would be disappointed.
"Aa," Kakashi grunted. "Hinata didn't like it, but it was three against one."
Sasuke nodded—Shino knew they'd be fine, Kiba would be both confident in their health and bored, and Kurenai knew the importance of a fast report. Hinata, on the other hand, would be less inclined to leave Naruto's bedside. "What about Momochi and his apprentice?" This Sasuke wasn't particularly interested in, but Naruto was. Should he wake up later tonight while Kakashi and Sakura slept, he'd want a quick update.
"Momochi's dead," said Kakashi. "Not that there was much question about that. His head's headed back with Team Eight—big reward. It'll be split among both teams. His sword's here." Kakashi pointed at the corner where, yes, Kubikiriboucho was sitting innocently.
Sasuke cocked his head. "Why not just take the sword?" he interrupted before Kakashi could continue. "That's sufficient evidence, isn't it? One of the Seven Ninja Swordsmen never lets his sword out of his sight until he dies."
Kakashi grinned. "You're good at Kenjutsu, aren't you?"
Sasuke's mouth literally dropped open as that registered, staring at the sword. It really was a beautiful blade, but it was, unfortunately, far too large for him. He shook off his surprise. "It'll do for now," he murmured in slight awe—very slight. "But I prefer a chokutō. I can think of someone else who will want that particular blade." That will be a good way to get Suigetsu on our side, he thought. And I did promise to get him out sooner.
"That's not a very gracious way to accept a gift, Sasuke-kun," Kakashi chided him jokingly. "There are people who keep gifts they receive forever, you know. All of the gifts they receive."
Sasuke smirked. "You give me a sword, I'll use it for Konoha," he said. "If the best way to do that is to give it to someone else, then isn't that what you'd want? Anyway, what about Zabuza's apprentice?"
Kakashi shrugged. "He was… not happy about Zabuza's death. He's in custody and en route to Konoha with Team Eight as well."
Sasuke nodded, grimacing. "Naruto will kill us if he gets into too much trouble," he told Kakashi. When will Team Eight get to the village?"
Kakashi thought for a moment. "Tomorrow or the next day," he decided. "Probably the next day. They only left a couple days ago."
"Then we'd better hope Naruto wakes up tonight or tomorrow morning," Sasuke grunted. "Or we might be too late for whatever trial they have."
"Hello?" said Sasuke amusedly. "Are you still there?"
Naruto blinked at him a little more, and then leapt up and grabbed him by the collar. (Still the old turtleneck, he noticed to his slight surprise. It seemed slightly odd on this less childish Sasuke. Then again, the same could be said of his blue-highlighted jumpsuit. He resolved to replace it with the old orange-and-black motif as soon as possible). "What happened? Haku? Zabuza? Gatou? Dishonored? Gaara? Hinata? Everyone okay?" he asked in a rush.
Sasuke blinked back at him a couple of times and then sighed. "Haku's en route to Konoha with Team Eight in custody," he whispered. "Zabuza's dead—his head's headed back to the village for confirmation and reward and his sword is here. Gatou surrendered—also headed to the village. Dishonored ran away—you were awake—and hasn't come back. Same with Gaara and Yugito. Hinata's fine. So is everyone else, thanks for asking."
Naruto blinked to register all that, and then he grinned. "Gr—" he began loudly.
Sasuke clapped his hand onto his friend's mouth. "It's also a little after midnight, and I'm the only one awake," he muttered. "We're in Tazuna's house. Keep it down." He slowly removed his hand.
"—eat!" Naruto finished quietly. "Uh… why is Zabuza's sword here, and why are we still in Tazuna's house while Team Eight's gone?"
"Kakashi gave it to me, and good question," muttered Sasuke with a snort at the second answer.
Naruto's eyes bulged. "Kubikiriboucho is yours?" he said, voice hoarse with the effort of containing his volume.
Sasuke chuckled. "My thoughts exactly," he replied. "Kakashi knew I needed a sword and, well… it's a sword."
"You used a chokutō." Naruto sounded slightly strangled now. "Is this a joke?"
Sasuke shrugged. "It'll still work."
"Work?" Naruto laughed, barely staying soft. "Work? Sasuke, this is absolutely badass!"
Sasuke rolled his eyes. "Whatever you say, Naruto. We're leaving in the morning, if you're ready."
Naruto nodded. "We should get back," he said. "The Chuunin Exams should be starting in just a couple weeks."
"Aa." Sasuke grunted. "And we have to help Haku."
Naruto frowned. "Why does Haku need help?"
"I told you he was in custody," Sasuke said, one brow raised. "Not protective custody. Technically, he's an enemy of the Leaf."
Naruto jumped up. "He was being manipulated!" he growled. "They can't…"
"No, he wasn't," Sasuke interrupted, "any more than anyone else. He sought attention and affection from the one person who would give it to him—is that so unnatural?"
Naruto's fists clenched. "But…"
Naruto, Kurama's voice cut in. It's no different from you—not at all. You fight for your friends, don't you?
"Hey, Kurama," Sasuke said.
Sasuke, Kurama acknowledged the salutation.
"But it's different!" Naruto said. "Zabuza didn't care about him!"
And you played pranks for attention from those who hated you, said Kurama, almost gently. Would you not deserve punishment if those pranks involved actively fighting Konoha?
Naruto looked down. "He doesn't deserve to die," he said quietly. "They can't…"
"And they won't," Sasuke promised. "Who ever said anything about dying, anyway? We won't let him die. I'm just saying he's not innocent. Believe me, I know innocence and guilt."
Naruto sighed and nodded. "You're right." He looked up at the ceiling, then out the window at the stars. "I was a child then. I met someone decent and assumed they were a friend and an ally." He laughed hollowly. "If only the world were that clear cut."
Sasuke looked away. "That's what the Infinite Tsukuyomi was for," he murmured. "If people can't come in all shades of gray, then they're not human anymore—just a dream."
Naruto nodded. "And that's what we're fighting for," he said, laying back on his bed. "So that people can be themselves, without fear or hate."
Isn't hate a part of people, though? Kurama's voice was odd, stony and melancholy all at once. Isn't it natural for humans—and everything else—to hate?
Naruto didn't answer, but the question, rhetorical though it was, bounced around in his skull all through the night.
"Danzo!" The voice was a surprise to the elderly Shinobi. He turned.
It was Hiruzen. This was a surprise—Hiruzen had made it quite clear the last time they had spoken that they were now political enemies, with no more quarter.
But it would not do to be antagonistic without obvious and present cause. "Hokage-sama," Danzo replied cordially. "Why are you here?"
Hiruzen hesitated as he came up to him. They were in the middle of Konoha's streets and as such were now the center of attention—the Hokage drew quite a crowd. "Come to my office, please," he said quietly. "There is much to talk about."
Danzo frowned Unexpected, he thought. Hiruzen is not one to converse with those he hates. Still he nodded and, knowing his Root guards would follow him, he followed after his former friend and comrade.
They soon reached the relative peace of the tower. Once they entered Hiruzen's secure room, the Sandaime led him towards the desk.
Danzo stood before it and Hiruzen walked aroung it… and didn't sit in his chair. Instead, he lifted up the second chair where his assistant would sit and dragged it around to the other side.
Danzo's eyes widened. This was unheard of.
Hiruzen returned to his customary place, still not sitting, and nodded at the chair. "Please, sit down," he said.
Danzo sat in shock. This was almost deferential, and scarcely becoming of the Hokage. "Sandaime-sama," he said, keeping his voice carefully controlled as the Hokae followed him—followed him—in sitting down. "What is the meaning of this?"
The other man studied him a moment and then looked away. "I fear I have made a grievous error," he said quietly. "I let the subjective views of others cloud my judgement, and the mistake may well have very far-reaching consequences. And so I must seek to undo my mistake." He looked back at Danzo the the other man was almost certain that his eyes were shining more than normal with unshed tears. "My friend," the Hokage said. "I am deeply sorry for what I said a month ago."
Danzo blinked his one eye in amazement. Given all that Hiruzen knew, he had never expected something like this. "Please, Hokage-sama," he said, "elaborate. Why, exactly, are you apologizing?"
It was a difficult question to ask correctly, but Hiruzen understood. He smiled. "I had learned a great deal about your… less savory dealings very quickly," he said. "And I reacted in haste. I have only recently realized just how foolish that was." He leaned forward and looked Danzo in the eye. "I know about Root," he said slowly and clearly. "I know about your stolen Sharingan—all of them—and I know about the Mokuton grafted to your shoulder. But I made the mistake of thinking that you had supported Itachi's attack on the Uchiha in order to gain the Sharingan. I made the mistake of thinking that you maintained Root for your own devices." He smiled and leaned back, taking out his pipe and lighting it, his eyes never leaving Danzo's visible one. "I assumed you had manipulated Homura and Koharu with the Kotoamatsukami. On that point, I am still uncertain, but my mistake was simple." He looked away from Danzo. "Given all you've done… to my eyes, it appeared that your goal was your own advancement."
Danzo leapt to his feet. "How dare you?" he asked in a fury and then shook himself. He sat back down. "I am sorry, Hokage-sama. I did not intend to lose control, but…"
"Don't apologize." Hiruzen's smile was wide. "It is proof of what I have known, deep within, all along." He took a deep pull at his pipe. "It was never you," he said. "The Uchiha you wanted dead because they were a threat to the village. You wanted yourself to be strong, not because you wanted power, but because you felt that you know how to use it for the village. Root is maintained, even now, because it gives the village strength."
Danzo stared at him. "You thought otherwise?" he asked.
"I should not have, my old friend, but I did." Hiruzen's voice was regretful. "Please, will you accept my sincerest apologies?"
Danzo watched him for a moment and then nodded. "I accept your apology," he said quietly. "No harm has been done." Of course harm has been done, he thought privately. I've had to set many of my plans back a full month. But he couldn't deny Hiruzen like this. He would gain nothing from it but an ache in the heart which he tried to deny existed. "But what will become of Root, and of my station, and of my… abilities?"
"Root will be allowed to continue," said the Hokage. "There will be no more recruitment of children of this village, however. You have techniques for removing people's memories, don't you, which you use for the Root training process?"
Danzo nodded—there was no point keeping it secret.
"Then you will have all prisoners who have no other use," said the Hokage. "As long as there is room in root, there will never be another execution of a Shinobi in this village."
Danzo's eyes widened. "Is that wise?" he asked. "Should they be recognized, the other villages would react… poorly."
Hiruzen shrugged. "Any prisoners who would better serve us through exchange will be exchanged, of course," he said, "but there is a reason ANBU wear masks. As to your station, I would like to invite you back into your former post as one of my advisors on the Council of Elders—with, of course, the solemn oath that you will not use Kotoamatsukami on anyone in that council, including myself, or indeed anyone for the purposes of controlling this villages politics. I created the councils for a reason, after all."
Danzo nodded. "I never have, you know," he said. "I never have controlled any member of either council with that jutsu or any other. This I swera for past present and future." The oath may be broken if ever needed, he thought. With luck, it won't be.
"Good," Hiruzen said, smiling. "And as for your Kekkei Genkai… why remove them? It would serve no purpose."
Danzo nodded. He had not expected and could not have expected such generosity—ever. "Thank you, Hokage-sama."
He stood up to leave, but Hiruzen was not quite finished. "Before you go, one more word." He studied Danzo, and there was no more smile on his face. "Kidnapping children for Root and the death of Uchiha Shisui," he said. "These are the things you've done—that I know of—that I can never condone. Things of that nature must never happen again—and I will know, Danzo-san. I have a far better intelligence network now than ever before. Can you promise me that you will stay, if not within the bounds of the law, then at least within the bounds of reason—will not perform atrocities of those kinds any more?"
Danzo looked at him. "I cannot promise that," he said quietly. "But I will promise that I will only do something like that if I know there is no other choice."
The Hokage shook his head. "It's not enough," he said quietly. "Unless you swear to only do it when there is no other option—not when the other options are unlikely to work."
Danzo sighed. "I swear it." Oaths can be broken, he thought.
Hiruzen smiled. "Thank you. You may go—the next meeting of the Elder Council is tonight at six in the evening."
Danzo nodded and with a bow was gone.
End Arc Two
A/N: You have no idea how long I've wanted to do that scene with Hiruzen and Danzo. I hadn't actually gotten through the Danzo arc when I wrote that scene where Danzo gets kicked out, so I didn't understand him fully. Now I do, and frankly, this is more in character for Hiruzen. Danzo was never self-interested—that was the mistake I made. Now it's (finally) undone. Some people aren't going to like it—to them I say, "this story doesn't do bashing. I made a mistake and bashed Danzo. Now I've undone that mistake. I have no regrets, and nothing anyone says will change that.
…Which is actually a wonderful feeling, considering how much heat I got for the Dishonored and similar.
Anyway, please review! Here's hoping the next chapter doesn't take so long! (By the way, it shouldn't. It'll have action, and I love writing action!)
But before that, I'll be revising the story. Just grammatical reparations, plus two things—changing Kurama's speech patterns (no more Kit, and saying Naruto instead) and I'm going to start using traditional Rōmaji accents (ō and ū) So that'll be fun. After that's done… enter the Chuunin Exams!