Welp. Ladies, Gentleman, and everyone else, it seems we've arrived at the ending of Trip Down a Hill. I honestly don't know what to say haha.
Thoughts will be at the end of the chapter, but for now... I suppose there's not much to say, besides...
Without further ado.
Chapter 100: Another Trip Down a Hill
A collection of a dozen and a half glasses clinked together in the center of their group's shared table at the Leaf's resident barbecue shop. Between them all were the hotplates that were currently cooking up their meat, the sound of sizzling filling their ears, and the scents whetting their appetites.
It'd been about a week since Black Zetsu had been defeated, since the plans of the Akatsuki had fallen for good, and since they'd earned themselves some peace and quiet for once.
Naruto himself planned to enjoy it, even if he were nearly sure that by this time next week, another evil group (probably called the Bokotsuki or something) would've arisen and declared war on him specifically.
That seemed like his life in a nutshell.
The topic of conversation between the nineteen of them (those members of their original Konoha 12, alongside the Sound trio, Fu, Suigetsu, and Haku) seemed to sort of naturally drift towards a…
Rather complicated topic.
"So, uh… What now?" Zaku asked as he chewed on a rather delectable-looking cutlet of beef. "I mean, it's all well and good that we defeated the Akatsuki and everything, but… I don't know about you guys, but for me, at least, the feeling of accomplishment has kinda' worn off already."
"Yeah, same." Kin admitted, rubbing the back of her neck with one hand. "I kind of figured that it would last a bit longer, but no, barely three days and I was already over it. Now it's been another four, and between helping the patrols clean up the last of the White Zetsu and everything, and trying to relax back here… I just feel kind of antsy for no reason."
Naruto found himself feeling similarly. Zetsu's defeat… it'd marked the end of their war against the Akatsuki, and yet…
Now what were they supposed to do?
Move on with their lives? Yes, that did seem like the most probable scenario, but Naruto wasn't really sure what that was. Not for himself, and certainly not for those around him, those who'd stuck by him in their epic battle.
Some he could take a guess for, but others, well…
"Alright, I'm cutting us off." Shikamaru smirked, to his best friend's chagrin. "We've all had two plates, and any more than this and I'm fairly sure Tsunade's gonna' regret giving us a tab of her personal funds."
"C'mon Shikamaru," Choji placed his hands together, begging his friend. "A few more?"
"No, Choji." He smiled, calling a waiter over and asking for their check.
A couple of them laughed heartily at that, and as they exited the restaurant a few minutes later, their bellies full but their hearts still wandering, Naruto found himself cornered by someone he'd been meaning to speak to for quite a while.
"Hey." Tenten smiled his way. "Uh… so…"
"Y-Yeah." He stammered a bit awkwardly. "Uh… walk and talk?"
The girl gave a swift nod. "That… that sounds good."
Let it never be said that the Leaf Village was boring to stroll through. On the contrary, the celebratory decorations that'd been hung up to commemorate their… Well, their villages' survival against the hordes that'd been at their gates glittered in the late evening sunlight. They were simply things, just paper lanterns with candles on the inside.
He was fairly sure they were rather extreme fire hazards, but hey, they looked pretty.
As he and Tenten made it into the welcoming square of the Leaf Village, where the wooden ramparts had been set up merely a week ago, he saw an even more beautiful set of lanterns had been erected in the center.
It seemed that they'd been set up to honor those who'd fallen defending the walls, those who'd been slain by the Zetsu, whether civilian or ninja. The both of them seemed to find it appropriate to stop for a moment and pay their respects, before taking to a nearby bench, and sitting down, having walked the length of their village already.
"So." He opened not-at-all awkwardly. "Uh… how've you been?"
"Oh, y'know, same as always." Tenten admitted, before laughing. "Well, I've been fine. I've been… thinking an awful lot about a variety of things, not the least of which is just what the hell I want to do with myself now that this is all over."
He hummed in agreement, trying to show solidarity with her there.
"I… during the battle, I wasn't of all that much use. No matter what I did, it didn't feel… I don't know… worth it? I'd kill a few Zetsu, but then the person beside me would do it half as fast, or I'd manage to lock down one of the Reanimated ones, but then it'd just break free, someone else having to defeat it, and…" She sighed. "I don't know. It's just hard to sit around and pretend like I was doing something, when I felt… weak."
That word… he almost laughed.
"Tenten, did you not hear my entire speech to Black Zetsu about weakness?"
"Oh, believe me, it was corny enough that I'm fairly certain the world heard it." He winced slightly, even as she smiled over at him. "But yes, I know. I just need to overcome my own weakness, right?"
"Well, yeah, but… I don't think you're as weak as you think you are."
She regarded him pensively for a moment. "What do you mean?"
"Well… for starters, all of that stuff is fine. So what if someone else was able to take on Zetsu a little better than you were? So what if someone else had to end up fighting the Reanimated Ninja? You inevitably helped in your own way. You did something no one else could."
Tenten scoffed as she rolled her eyes, though she evidently didn't hate this line of conversation, for she wore that same small smile, even past his words.
"And, well…" His cheeks went red for some reason. "You saved me, too. When Black Zetsu was about to strike me down… you pulled me out of the way. That was worth it, wasn't it?"
"I…" Tenten looked away from him, her own face burning. "Of course, it was, you doofus…"
He laughed as she shook her head.
"Anyways… I think I was a bit down about a lot of things, too. When that bastard Deidara was revived back in Orochimaru's base… I wasn't able to do much to aid in his defeat. It felt like I missed my opportunity to get some payback… and I know," She pointed at him, her finger hovering just in front of his face. "That revenge isn't something that one should seek out, before you start."
That had definitely not been what he was about to say.
"But… I don't know, it's just hard to watch everyone around me succeed while I flounder. And so… I've made a decision."
"Yeah." She turned to him, smiling. "I want to get stronger. I wanna' become one of the strongest Ninjas to have ever lived. Someone like Tsunade, who I always looked up to…" She paused for a moment, before meeting his eyes entirely genuinely. "S-Someone like you."
Now it was his turn to glow. He practically hid himself in his jacket as he turned away from the girl, listening to her giggle quietly at his expense.
"That… was a low blow." He commented.
"Hah…" Tenten's voice was breathy as she scooted in closer to him. "I meant it."
For some reason, he found he couldn't doubt her words, as much as it sent his heart (and his ego, if he were being honest) soaring.
"And so… since I need to get stronger… and, well, you said you were looking for something to do as well… Y'know, I wouldn't mind having a partner."
His face lit up as he took on one of what everyone called his 'customary sunny smiles'.
"Yeah, sure, anytime!"
"No, I…" Tenten sighed as she leaned back, looking like she was a bit disappointed, but also somewhat amused. "Ugh, you don't really do subtext, do you?"
"Huh?" He asked, leaning forward. "What do you…"
"I…" She took a deep breath, seemingly trying to steady her nerves. "Alright, I'm going to say it. Naruto Uzumaki." She bent forward as well, their faces scant inches from one another's.
"I'd like to date you." And, just in case he didn't get it, she added. "In a romantic fashion."
His eyes widened, though, well, it wasn't like he was exactly shocked or anything. He'd sort of already put that together with a little help from Hinata and the Nine-Tails around a week ago.
"Oooooh." He said regardless. "That's…"
"I get it."
He realized he was stalling a moment or so later and let out a breath as he scooched a little closer to Tenten himself, enjoying the feeling of her beside him.
Uh-huh… He decided then and there. I…
"Yeah." He said as he turned back to her, both scared, and prepared for what would come next.
"I think I'd like that too."
And he watched as Tenten's face lit up, and as she laughed, a not-so-elegant thing that still had his heart racing, and as she leaned against him, supporting her body by propping up her face on his shoulder, still laughing…
He found himself enamored even more.
"SO!" The child before him shouted, adopting a pose that he must've thought made him look cool, and not like a tiny, irritating little gremlin. "You've finally returned!"
"Yes." Sasuke spoke plainly. "Indeed, I have."
"Hah!" Konohamaru crossed his arms over his chest, giving a "heh-heh" as Udon and Moegi sighed sadly. "Then that means you're finally going to teach us again!"
"Yes. I do believe it does mean that." Sasuke grinned as he drew his temporary new sword (which he'd have until another could be made to his exact specifications, on account of his old one being shattered by Black Zetsu) from off of his back. "And we're going to start with a lesson on how to act around people who are your superiors. Moegi, Udon, you two can sit this one out."
"N-No, no, no!" Konohamaru waved his hands in front of him, laughing in a clearly fake way as he stepped back. "I, er… sorry?"
"Eh, that'll do I suppose." He nodded, before re-sheathing the blade and sitting back against the roof behind him.
They'd set up atop Sasuke's apartment (mostly because Sasuke hadn't wanted to travel, and he hadn't actually been planning on teaching them anything today, but they'd shone up unexpectedly, knocking on his door, and he probably was supposed to teach them something, so there'd been very few options, really) in the late evening, and carried into the brink of night as the sun finished setting. He was still tired as hell from the overexertion he'd gone through last week in fighting Black Zetsu, and his eyes were…
Well, they certainly weren't blind, but when he didn't have his Sharingan activated, his vision was definitely blurrier than it'd been before last week. It was… worrying, he'd admit. Luckily, he had a feeling they wouldn't be running into any situations that'd require him to utilize his Mangekyou any time soon.
Well, that was the plan, at least.
And according to Itachi, he'd be able to help with that at some point. What exactly that meant, he didn't know, but if his older brother had a cure for the Mangekyou's blindness, than hey, he wouldn't argue.
"So, what exactly am I teaching all of you?"
"First of all, before we start, I want to ask you a question. Is it true that Orochimaru's really back, that he's free and wandering around again?"
He saw no reason to lie. "It is."
Konohamaru scoffed as he looked down at the ground, tightening his fist as he looked back up.
"Then I need to get stronger, and quick. If I'm going to kill that guy, if I'm going to make him pay for what he did to my grandfather, that I need to get more powerful; powerful enough to stand up to someone like that!"
Sasuke found himself shaking his head. "No, you don't. What you need to be focusing on is studying for the Chuunin Exams." He smiled as he watched the memory of that particular upcoming event rip the wind out of the boys sails. "Don't you recall? One between the Earth, the Sand, and the Leaf, didn't you say that the three of you were going to utterly dominate the competition?"
"Besides, take it from me," Sasuke said as he pushed off of the wall, and walked past them, signaling for them to follow. "Revenge isn't something you should seek. Not when there's so much more to life than dedicating yours to something so foolish."
The Third Hokage's Grandson looked away, rolling his eyes at him as they made for one of the many training grounds surrounding Leaf Village. The third itself had been almost entirely destroyed by the Ten-Tails' attack, so, well, until it was rebuilt (which would probably take a year or two), they couldn't really go there.
But, well, his thoughts weren't so much on their destination, but on the three behind him, running along.
Moegi and Udon showed promise, but they were raw, untapped as of yet. He'd have to mold them, to keep molding them, until they reached the heights he knew they could. As for Konohamaru…
Well, he was a bit of a different case.
That which fueled him was far deeper than anything the other two possessed, and it made him stronger, faster, willing to put in extra hours when he thought he needed to…
And it also made him prone to anger, prone to moments of weakness that the other two didn't show. He was anxious, and uncertain so very often.
It was hard for him to understand Sasuke's words, his wisdom. He wouldn't blame the boy for that, not at all. Instead, he'd keep talking, keep trying to change his mind.
And maybe Konohamaru wouldn't listen to his words. Hell, he expected him not to. Even so, Sasuke would keep trying to change his mind, to change the direction he wished to walk.
He'd seen what revenge could do to a person; lived it. He wouldn't let something like that happen to someone he (begrudgingly) quite liked.
So, he'd change his mind the only way he knew how, the same way Naruto had to him…
Being incessantly nosy and annoying.
Hey, it couldn't have been that bad an idea if it'd worked.
"I'm here!" Ebisu shouted as he opened the door to the rooftop, panting slightly from, seemingly, having run up the ten or so flights to get up here. "Why… why again are we having lessons here, of all places, again?"
"Don't worry about it," Sasuke smirked as he turned back towards the others. "Now then," He opened.
"Shall we begin?"
"Business is doing that well!?"
"Yep." Ino popped the 'P' as she leaned against the counter in front of her, shooting Sakura an amused smile. "Like I said, it wasn't our intention at all, but giving away free flowers during the attack ended up paying us back and then some. I mean, literally, the Hokage paid us for those, but also the people have been coming by and thanking us, buying more stock… we sold out for the first time in eight years."
She whistled appreciatively, even as a few people filed in, buying a large bouquet, and exiting as they gave their thanks, unintentionally proving Ino's point.
"Well, I didn't doubt you."
"Uh-huh," Ino said, and Sakura rolled her eyes at her best friends antics. "So, random segue, but, now that everything's over, how are you and Sasuke doing, couple-wise?"
"Eh, fine." She shrugged. "We haven't really found the time to get together one-on-one, if that's what you're asking."
"Hah, yeah I get it. Things are still pretty hectic, even if we don't want them to be. I hear Hinata managed to convince her father to let her go with Fu to help 'rebuild the Waterfall' with her." She smiled coyly, and Sakura did the same. "Likely story."
"Oh, I'm sure some rebuilding will be done," Sakura pointed out as she leaned her back against the counter of Ino's flower shop, looking at the girl over her right shoulder. "I just don't think that's their primary goal."
They both laughed for a moment as they considered what next to say, that was, until, another figure filed into the Yamanaka's, one she was a bit surprised to see.
"Hello, Ino, Sakura." Haku smiled calmly their way. "It's good to see the both of you."
"Uh, yeah," She spoke, looking between those two a bit awkwardly. "Good to see you as well."
Haku began picking out flowers from around the shop, arranging what looked to be a bouquet of his own with a skill that belied his status as a powerful member of Root. He seemed to know just what he was doing, just what flowers he was going for. Sakura couldn't follow much of it at all, but…
"That'll be eleven hundred yen." Ino said as she held out her hand, and Haku plopped the amount into it. "Have a good day." She smiled.
Haku smiled back, before exiting out of the building, and, presumably, towards the Leaf's cemetery for a visit to his father's grave.
And yet, that wasn't exactly the thing on Sakura's mind as she watched Ino return to work, almost entirely unconcerned.
"You handled that remarkably well." She commented.
"What? I just checked him out." Ino laughed. "What's up? you're being weird."
"I just…" She sighed out as she realized Ino wasn't getting what she was saying. "I just meant that it must be weird to have to check Haku out like he's just any other customer. You and him…"
"He is just any other customer, Sakura. We broke up, but that was nearly two years ago now." She laughed. "C'mon, have a little faith in your best friend. I'm over him, he's over me. We've both moved on to greener pastures, so to speak. Hell, the far weirder thing I dealt with today was selling flowers to Itachi Uchiha of all people." She shivered somewhat, as if saying such a thing gave her the heebie-jeebies. "He just… didn't strike me as the type is all."
She opened and closed her mouth, rubbing the back of her neck as she stared down at the floor.
"…I'm still sorry you two didn't work out."
"Hah, don't worry about it. It was a necessary and needed thing" Ino shook her head. "Maybe we were 'cute', but that doesn't mean we functioned all that well together as people. I like Haku, maybe still even love him a little, but…" She shrugged. "It is what it is. There are other proverbial fish in the proverbial sea. Besides, weren't you the one who gave me the helpful push I needed back at the Sand?"
She grimaced at that particular memory. "Yeah… I guess I was."
She shot the girl an appraising look as Ino went back to pre-wrapping some other of the more popular bouquet variants.
"You're stronger than I gave you credit for, Ino."
Her best friend looked up at her oddly, before, with a soft, almost absent smile, she leaned forward and brought Sakura into a hug. She squirmed slightly in the girl's grip, having not at all expected such a thing, but Ino laughed as she let her go, looking down at the countertop beneath her as she splayed her fingers apart, holding herself up with her hands as she leaned forward.
"I… Thank you. That means a lot coming from you."
"Well, firstly, dumbass, you're my best friend," Ino shot, earning a 'fair enough' sort of nod from her. "And secondly, because you're the strongest person I know."
It was her turn to be surprised now. "Me?"
"Oh, don't act like that. Yes, you. Little-Miss-Wood-Style." Ino smirked. "You've been through hell and back on more than one occasion, and every time, I only ever see you come out stronger on the other side."
She blushed as she looked away, mumbling something quietly to herself as she thought on that.
Surely, she was often put into odd scenarios, life-threatening scenarios, even. She'd been kidnapped three times in her life (which, if she were being honest, felt like far too many), she'd been pushed against the metaphorical wall on more than one occasion, she'd been faced with her comrades nearly dying, her master nearly dying, nearly being forced to kill her in turn…
When she thought of it like that…
Maybe she was kind of strong…
"Is that really the first time you've ever considered that?" Ino laughed at her. "I swear Sakura, you can be such a dunce sometimes."
"Oi." She deadpanned annoyedly.
"Kidding, kidding," She held her hands up, before tilting her head slightly. "Mostly."
She shook her own head, even as Ino cleared her throat (a more obvious transition she had never seen) and spoke again.
"So, on the topic of Sasuke himself, what's he planning on doing about Itachi?" She asked her. "I mean, I know they're cool now, but… how's that whole thing working out? Is he staying in the Leaf Village with Sasuke, or…?"
She laughed as she nodded, definitely understanding why Ino would be confused.
"Well… from what I've heard, anyways…"
All in all, Sasuke's week had been alright, honestly. He'd hung out with his friends, passed the message Pakura had given to him to a young sealmaster from the sand named Maki (She'd cried and thanked him, and he'd felt really awkward since he hadn't really known Pakura all that well, but he'd hugged her back anyways because it had seemed like the right thing to do), taught the good children under his command (and Konohamaru) some stuff, gotten Hayate and Yugao to replace his sword (for free, as payment for saving the world they'd said), gotten an invitation to their wedding, and still had time to make awkward small talk with his older brother.
So, really, aside from that second one, things had already basically returned to normal.
He was, of course, kidding.
Things were really damn weird.
Still, at the current moment, Sasuke found himself walking through the outskirts of the village, on his way to a particular spot, where he'd said he'd meet Itachi. He ran into the man, waving to his brother as he joined up with him, and they continued walking towards their destination.
In Itachi's hands was a beautiful bouquet of flowers, presumably acquired from Ino's shop. Where they'd be placing them… he…
He still had some doubts. "You know, Itachi, it's not too late to turn back around. This… it's not exactly the easiest thing to do. And hell, if you're convinced you have to see them, we could just drop by the cemetery–"
"I appreciate how kind you're being to me, Sasuke," Itachi smiled his way gratefully, before shaking his head. "But no. I have to see this through. For myself, more than anything."
"…If you're sure."
And with that, they made their way to an old, worn down gateway, that led into an offshoot of the village that he personally hadn't visited in… by the gods, it had been years, now. Surely, he still hired out some people to come and keep parts of it clean, but…
The Uchiha Estate had seen better days.
Despite the cleaners doing the best they could, none could truly fight the crawl of time. The wood that made up the houses they passed had long since begun to splinter, and he could identify multiple points where termites seemed to have had a field day. One particular shop, that had belonged to his aunt and uncle, had had the sign atop its stall almost entirely worn away by inclement weather.
As they grew closer and closer to their destination, for the first time in nearly fifteen minutes, Itachi spoke.
"…It feels like it's been a lifetime since I was here last. The things I did that day… I will never be able to forgive myself for them, nor should I be allowed to. I…" His brother swallowed, before taking a deliberate step forward. "Let's go."
He nodded, following along behind the man.
He could remember coming here when the attack had been fresh. He could remember seeing white tape placed down upon the ground, could remember realizing that every single one, every single collection of pieces had been representative of a life. Another who'd been snuffed out, at Itachi's hand…
It was hard to get those feelings, of hate, of guilt, of sorrow, of blaming himself out of his head as he followed the man who, whether it was truthfully his fault or not, had been the reaper who'd harvested them like wheat in a field.
What felt like forever later, the two of them stepped towards the largest house in the compound; their own. Sasuke's shoes touched the wooden floor boards of the house, and immediately, by instinct, he reached down to pull them off.
Itachi did the same thing.
They left their footwear behind and continued into the main hall, finally arriving in front of the room that he'd…
That he'd found his parents in, and subsequently, Itachi as well.
He watched as his brother took a step forward and placed his hand upon the door handle. He was there for quite a moment, as if unsure if he could truly handle what might lay inside.
"If you want to go back…" Itachi spoke up, sounding terribly unsure all of a sudden.
Weakness was such a rare thing in the presence of his brother. He had not known the man to show it… nearly ever. And yet here he was, almost begging himself not to go inside, almost begging himself to turn back around, looking for any reason to.
Just a few minutes ago, this had been him, but now…
He'd be there for his brother. He'd be strong, as the man before him had been.
"No… I'd like to face this as well." He answered.
And he watched as Itachi's lips stiffened, as he took a deep, shaky breath…
And as he pulled open the door.
The first job he'd given to those who'd been hired to clean his family's estate had been, if at all possible, to get the blood out of the wood and other pieces of the house that'd been stained by them. Over the course of years and years… inevitably they'd succeeded, for the previously bloodstained floor boards were now worn away, pieces of the top layer of that material having been rubbed away so as to hide the evidence of what'd happened here.
It didn't matter. He could still feel it.
He imagined Itachi could as well.
The man hesitated in the doorway for quite a long time, even as Sasuke stepped inside the room, and sat down approximately where his parents had died. Their bodies had long since been buried inside the Leaf cemetery, but…
Like Itachi had insinuated as well, he couldn't help thinking they'd never quite left this room.
"I…" His brother stopped and sighed deeply.
He seemed to lack the strength to move, and yet even so he took a step forward, and then another, and then, around thirty seconds later, there he was, sitting just beside Sasuke on the floor, just in front of where their parents had been cut down mercilessly.
It wasn't his fault. He told himself. He was only following his orders.
And he knew that.
It… was just hard.
"Hello Mother, Father." Itachi spoke suddenly, shocking Sasuke out of his thoughts as he turned towards his sibling. "I… apologize that I could not find time to come and speak with you the last time I was here. It was a combination of a lack of time… and also my own cowardice that kept me away."
Sasuke felt his head already aching as he turned to face his brother, wanting to hear all of this.
"I… I've made up with Sasuke. I'm sure… you'd be happy about that. Or… I hope you would be. I know the decision I made all those years ago… you did not begrudge me for it, but… I…"
He found his own hand gravitating towards Itachi's shoulder, supporting the man before he could say anything else. His brother's eyes widened, and he turned toward Sasuke with a grateful expression, before smiling, nodding his head, and, after placing down the bouquet of flowers he'd been awkwardly toying with for the last few minutes, continuing.
"As you may already know, my life is to be cut short by a disease that has been ravaging my body for years. I have very little time, and I'd have even less if I were not in the Leaf village, among some of the best medical ninja on the continent. I believe they may be able to prolong my life for a year or so longer than I'd normally survive, which, well… hopefully, that will allow me to make as many amends for what I've done as possible… and to see through to the end the goal I've set."
He paid attention. He had a feeling he knew what his goal was, but he wanted to hear it from Itachi's mouth specifically.
"I will continue to act as Shisui's eyes in this world. I want to show him what more can still be seen… and then, when my mission is done, I will come and join him, and all of you, as I'd always intended. At that point…" Itachi turned towards him for some reason. "I will trust my own light, and Shisui's, to my brother."
He knew not what to make of that. He would have to ask later.
"But, until then… I ask that you watch over both Sasuke and myself. Make sure, especially, that Sasuke is as happy as can be. I myself… well, I won't be here much longer anyways, so don't worry so much on that front."
He turned to the man, ready to counter that, but he saw a small, almost joking grin on Itachi's face, which led him to believe the man had been kidding.
"I'm going to, in the meantime, receive treatment from Kabuto Yakushi, a friend of mine, and Tsunade, the fifth Hokage, in an effort to make it to see my little brother get married."
He sputtered as he turned to the man. "R-Really!? That's what this is about?"
"I must say, I rather approve of Sakura," The man smiled, entirely seriously. "Might I suggest tying the knot, so to speak?"
His face was horribly crimson as he turned away. "Neither of us are ready for that yet, I'll have you know!"
Itachi laughed, and he rolled his eyes as the man stood, and bowed once more, leaving the flowers where they were.
"For now… I'm to be living with Sasuke in his apartment. I hope, wherever you are, you find the time to drop in on the both of us every once in a while." Itachi finalized, before stepping back, and walking out of the room.
His steps seemed… light. Airy, almost. He imagined the man would never quite find solace for the actions he'd committed, for what he'd forced himself to do, but…
It'd helped. Coming here. That was impossible to miss.
"Coming, Sasuke?" His brother called to him from the doorway.
"Yeah, one moment."
As his brother stepped out, he kneeled down, smiling at the flowers that Itachi had set up. He gave a quick prayer, and then, standing up himself, he gave a few final words.
"Don't worry… I'll watch over him, in turn."
"Yeah, I'm coming!"
And as he turned away, back towards the rest of the building, he could've sworn that he briefly felt a warm presence touch him; like a hand on either shoulder, and then… nothing.
He smiled as he followed his brother, and the two stepped back into the entry hall. They slid their shoes back on, and they exited out into the open air.
Somehow, despite it having been only twenty or so minutes, as he took a deep breath of the air of the Uchiha compound… he couldn't help but feel it was somehow…
The Leaf cemetery was almost entirely empty around this time at night. Some people did still linger about, granting offerings to the departed, and otherwise greeting their loved ones, but it was far quieter now, certainly, than it'd be during the day.
It made for a good time to visit, at least in Haku's opinion.
Dropping by the Yamanaka flower shop to procure the gift he'd be bringing with him had been… well, almost freeing in some ways. Seeing Ino again was nice and seeing that she'd reacted very similar to him (in that he wasn't making a big deal of anything. They were still friends, regardless of their past relationship) was nice as well. He'd suspected she'd be the type, they hung out every once in a while, but having confirmation was comforting.
He took the stairs near the side of the cemetery and climbed up the hill, finally arriving at the headstone he'd been looking for after a few seconds. He bent down and placed his bouquet just in front of it, before sitting down himself.
"Sorry I hadn't found the time to visit, recently." Haku gave a quiet chuckle. "I'm afraid things were rather hectic for a while there. Still, we've managed to solve the situation. I guess, in a way, we saved the world."
He may have laughed, but it was certainly the truth. Their actions against the Akatsuki, against Black Zetsu, and his armies of White Zetsu, had inevitably saved thousands of lives in the Leaf Village alone, not to mention the multitude of people they'd saved vicariously by not allowing the Zetsu armies to get past their Village.
They really were heroes in that regard. Haku didn't deny that he felt a bit cool these days.
He turned around at the sound of his name being called and saw standing just behind him a woman he recognized.
"Ra?" He turned to face her, still sitting down. "Why are you out here?"
The woman gave a tiny smile at that as she walked past him and set down a trinket in front of another grave, one just past Zabuza's own.
"Several agents were killed by Zetsu during the defense of the Leaf. I'm here to send them off, so to speak."
"Ah… I see."
"I assume you are here to visit your father?"
"It is a shame what happened to him." Ra sighed. "That mission you were all sent on… There was no reason it should've gone as badly as it did. You all had no way of knowing that the Akatsuki were going to arrive. The fact that he paid for it with his life…"
"Thank you for your kind words," Haku shook his head, not at all hurt by the memories anymore. "But I know that were Zabuza put in that position again, he'd have acted the same way. The people we were on that mission to save… they were my friends, people the both of us liked and respected. I think we'd have gone even if we'd known the Akatsuki were there."
"I… suppose you would know him best."
Ra cleared her throat, before sitting down beside him, bowing her head, and placing her hands together in prayer. It was a customary thing, but he appreciated the respect she was showing Zabuza regardless.
"What will you do now, Haku?" She asked him.
"I will stay with Root." He confirmed for her. "I've no real reason to leave, even if my goal for joining, to get strong enough to get over my loss, and to defeat Kisame Hoshigaki, are both gone. I owe it to you all, after all."
Ra nodded, standing as she finished her prayers, and beginning to walk back out of the cemetery. She stopped a few paces away, before turning back, smiling his way.
"It might not mean much coming from me, but… I'm glad to hear it."
He nodded, finding an almost invisible grin ghosting across is own features.
"Get some rest when you get back Haku. It's late. None of us have recovered from the attack yet, not really."
He shook his head amusedly.
"Thank you for worrying."
She was gone without another word.
He stayed for another thirty minutes or so, basking in the night air, and casually conversing with his father, before deciding he should probably head out as well.
As he turned back to the Village, however, he swore he could feel a gaze upon his back, one that followed him out of the cemetery, and towards his destination.
He did not look back. He wouldn't allow himself to, but…
His lips curled upwards.
I'll visit again soon, dad.
"So, why am I here, exactly?"
"Because I'm giving you a mission."
Kakashi Hatake let out a noise akin to the air being let out of a pressure tank (which may have been his soul leaving his body, if he were being honest) as he nodded his head wearily, already shifting forwards four steps in the 'grieving' stages of having his vacation ended so quickly and skipping straight to 'acceptance'.
He was really starting to see the downsides of the whole 'being a ninja' thing recently.
"Sure. Why not. What am I doing?"
"Something low profile, actually. I think you'll get to have that rest you were looking for as well."
Well now she had his attention.
"And what would I be doing, exactly?"
Tsunade laid down the folder in front of him, one that presumably detailed his upcoming actions. He took it and unfurled the first few documents, doing some light skimming so he could ask her follow-up questions.
Still, what was said there was…
Tsunade nodded. "Specifically, your mission will be a long-term espionage operation. We expect this to take many months, perhaps a year or two, even. You will be stationed in the Waterfall as secretly as possible. You are to not make your presence obvious, or even felt, if at all possible."
"So, I'm trying to… what, free the Waterfall?"
"That's long-term, but yes, that is the goal. Within a few years, we'd like to shake off the Earth's dominion over the Waterfall. It's simply too close to our Village for comfort. If they wished to declare war against us…"
"They'd have the perfect staging ground." Kakashi nodded, following her points. "Even if that Kurotsuchi girl is next in line… well, she's not Tsuchikage yet." Tsunade nodded at his logic. "Alright… so, what am I being given, personnel-wise?"
"You'll be acting alone. Obviously, you'll have several members of the Waterfall Resistance Force on your side, and a few Leaf operatives who've been spies in the Waterfall for years at your beck and call, including a few you might know, but other than that, you'll be on your–"
"Would it be possible for me to make a request for a secondary operative?"
Tsunade looked up at him curiously, before sighing, the sound of her voice making it seem like she'd already figured him out.
She very well may have.
Lately, his mind had been worrying an awful lot less about things like global politics, and an awful lot more about things like himself. Selfish? Sure, but he'd been getting tired of always having everything he loved ripped away from him. If he could protect his own interests on occasion without giving up what he'd done for the Leaf, then he'd do it.
Perhaps that was an awfully greedy thing to try and do, but hey, they always said that the student master relationship went both ways.
"…And who would this mysterious 'second operative' be, exactly?"
"Well, I don't really know," he rubbed his chin. "A few people would work."
Tsunade went silent for a moment before she sighed.
"You've been visiting Obito Uchiha an awful lot lately."
"I do believe I'm perfectly in my rights to do so."
"He is a high-profile prisoner, Kakashi. Likely the highest profile we've ever seen. The whole world wants him dead. He's scheduled to be executed."
"I see your point."
"…No you don't."
"I'm sure I've no idea what you're talking about."
"I…" Tsunade let out a horrid groan of annoyance as she leaned back in her chair before she waved her hand. "Just… go. Read the rest of the dossier and be ready to leave by noon."
He bowed. "As you say, Lady Hokage."
He exited out of the room, already knowing his destination after he finished reading his mission.
Tsunade sighed horribly as she called in her personal guards, who landed beside her, and immediately turned to her for orders.
"First of all, call in Shizune, I need to see her to relieve some stress." The first nodded, disappearing immediately. "And secondly, do me a favor and tell the prison guards to take the rest of the day off."
The remaining guard regarded her rather oddly.
"Uhm… if you don't mind, ma'am, why exactly would we do that?"
She rubbed at her temples, even as she turned around, and looked out towards the Village.
"Because if I can avoid having them sent to the hospital by a particularly motivated, silver-haired fool, then I will."
The gate to his cell swung open, and though Obito could neither see nor particularly interact with that in any way… well, a moment later, as the Seal around his eyes was deactivated, and he was freed of the other bindings around his legs, he got his first good look at his rescuer.
And immediately wanted to sigh right into his face.
"The hell are you doing here, Kakashi?"
The man in front of him only gave a shit-eating grin through his mask as he swung the key-ring he'd just used to unlock his cell around his right-hand pointer finger.
"Eh, y'know, figured I'd come and get you, seeing as I've got a mission coming up, and could use the help."
This time, he didn't hesitate to sigh right into the man's face.
"You do realize what you're doing is going to get you court martialed, right?"
"Eh, semantics." Kakashi shrugged without much worry, offering him out a hand, one which he quickly retracted as he seemingly remembered, "Oh, right, I forgot that both of your arms got blown off."
"Ah yes, what a fun reminder." He rolled his eyes as he pumped energy into his chest and stomach muscles to force him to stand. "I'm fine. I'm not some weakling."
At that word, Kakashi smiled. He rolled his eyes.
"…Why come back for me, Kakashi?" He asked as he walked out of the cell, multiple times his instincts telling him to reach out to something, to have some weapon for defense, and him… well, not having arms still. "You do realize I'm a criminal the world over, right? Top of the Bingo Book, the single largest bounty a ninja has ever had, period."
"Actually, technically Tobi, leader of the Akatsuki, has the largest bounty a ninja has ever had." Kakashi pointed out, walking along beside him, and smiling to himself as he groaned at the man's idiocy. "I've yet to see anything about an Obito Uchiha anywhere. In fact, I'm pretty sure, legally speaking, you're dead."
"Right… Listen… I'm not…" He shook his head, sighing as he followed the man out of the containment cells, and into the outside air. "Fine. What am I doing?"
"For now? Just act natural."
"As I said, this is my chosen partner," Obito watched as the man, as if he were some kind of court jester, gestured his way with complete confidence. "Bartholomew."
He refused, abjectly, to so much as humor what the man had just said.
"His name is… Bartholomew?" Tsunade looked at Obito, and he had the actual urge to apologize to the woman for having to deal with this. "Right. And what of the fact that he looks an awful lot like Obito Uchiha wearing an eyepatch, a blond wig, and a single blue contact?"
"Presumably just a trick of the light, Lady Hokage."
"He's missing both of his arms, Kakashi."
Kakashi did Obito a once over, seemingly drinking in that fact, before, in a manner so clearly bullshit that it was almost impressive, he uttered, "Bartholomew here was in a horrendous accident when he was younger. He doesn't like to talk about it."
He wasn't even a member of the Leaf, but Obito couldn't help but want to join in on the hulking sigh that escaped the mouths of nearly every ninja present in the room, including over fifteen guards, the Hokage herself, and her closest attendant, he believed her name was Shizune.
"OK Kakashi, sure, give me a reason I should let you go." Tsunade remarked, the skin on her face scrunching up as she leant on one arm. "Because right now, I see only reason to have you both court martialed under the fullest extent of Leaf Protocol."
"Told you." He sighed out.
"Shh, I got this." His idiot friend insisted.
Obito wished he still had hands, so he could rub his temples, or hide his face from view, or, alternatively, throttle Kakashi to death for putting him through this. Instead, he just had to watch, mortified, as Kakashi put a hand under his chin, and hummed.
"Weeell, I'd say first of all that I've been one of the Leaf's foremost agents for a good decade, and that's not going to stop just because of what happened today, especially since nothing did happen today, as Bartholomew here has nothing to do with Obito Uchiha's sudden disappearance from the Leaf's prison cells."
He hung his head in abject shame.
"But secondly, I'd say that having Bartholomew around, instead of being executed as you'd originally planned, will make me a lot more productive as a ninja in my upcoming mission. Being able to work alongside him, likewise, will only aid in that. Might I add as well that Bart here has very powerful Jutsu, ones that would allow us an extra layer of power regarding espionage in the Waterfall and might even speed up our operation three or fourfold."
"Right… and why would Bartholomew be executed, as you were saying?"
Kakashi cleared his throat awkwardly. "No reason. Just a random example."
"Uh-huh." Tsunade ran a hand down her face, and, finally, seemed to find what she wanted to say next. "Kakashi, listen… how can I trust that Ob– sorry, Bart, here, isn't going to run at the first sign of freedom, and become a thorn in our side again."
Kakashi had an answer for that almost immediately. "Because of Itachi Uchiha's Izanami, ma'am. As he explained it to me, it is not the kind of thing you can break out of with brute force alone. One must accept their own identity, their own truth, instead of choosing to lie to themselves. If Obito here escaped from it…"
"You mean Bart?" Shizune smarmed, causing Kakashi to cough awkwardly.
"Yes, thank you. If Bart escaped from it, then that means he really is a changed person. He helped us during the final battle against Black Zetsu, probably single-handedly saved the world thanks to the device he had made by Orochimaru. I want to believe he really is the person I used to know… and if that's the case… I can't allow him to be killed and have that be it. I want him to work towards rehabilitation. I won't allow you to give him the easy way out."
Obito looked away from Kakashi as Tsunade seemed to think rather seriously about Kakashi's answer. She weighed every word, every syllable, until finally, she pinched the bridge of her nose, sighed out, and looked Kakashi dead in the eye.
"If he betrays us, it's on you to track him down and end him for good."
"Don't worry ma'am." Kakashi bowed his head. "If it comes down to it, I'll kill him myself."
Ah, what a fun thing to hear about oneself.
"Fine, fine," Tsunade waved them off. "Go. And take 'Bart' with you, you're already late for your departure time."
"As you say, Lady Hokage."
They made to exit, but before they could, Tsunade called out to Kakashi one more time.
"And… I suppose to the both of you…"
"So, I'm guessing Nagato's Rinnegan was returned to him?"
Obito nodded, in that moment truly feeling the emptiness of his left eye socket as they continued down the dirt path that would eventually take them to the Waterfall.
"It was. Well, if you want to consider it Nagato's Rinnegan at all. Technically, that eye belongs to Madara Uchiha, and it was he who gave it to a child Nagato, in order for him to later use him as a tool in his revival."
"Sounds overwhelmingly complicated."
"It was, trust me. Black Zetsu's plans… well, they're what I thought Madara's plans were. I think even Madara was fooled. He truly believed, I like to think, that he was doing the right thing for the world. But… well, it seems Black Zetsu played on his good nature."
"Well… what was left of it, anyways."
Kakashi nodded, even as they changed topics.
"So… first thing on the agenda is getting your arms back. I'm assuming, since I don't think they were made up of your flesh, that if you had them built once, you could do so again?"
He nodded. "…Madara and I both set up a few bases around the world. A couple of them would work for that purpose. It's not a particularly quick process, might I add. It'll be faster since I've already had the limbs grafted onto me before, but it'll be a month or two before I'm back to being able to use them."
"That's fine. It'll give me a trial period to make sure you really are being genuine with me."
He laughed. "Believe me, if I weren't, you'd know by now. I could've fled to my Kamui dimension at any time."
"Yes, but I could track you down as well." Kakashi said, indicating his own Sharingan. "Speaking of, do you want this back, or…?"
"No. I've no need of it. Surely, it would make me more powerful, but… well, I've gotten used to the single eye after 15 or so years of using it, and I imagine that goes for you as well."
He nodded, and Obito accepted that.
They walked a while longer without saying much, until Kakashi said something odd to him.
"So… what are you going to do now?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean… I think you've lost any shot you may've had at Hokage by doing what you did."
He laughed. "Hah… yes, that and then some, I can't help thinking. I suppose that's my penance for my actions."
"Are you kidding?" Kakashi actually shook his head. "You're going to have to do a hell of a lot more than that to make up for the shit you pulled."
He nodded, agreeing with the man. "I suppose that's my goal, then. I want to make up for my actions as best I can. Helping to repair and free the Waterfall village… That's a good start. I think after that… I might try and do the same for the Sound, and perhaps some of the other nations as well. I… I simply wish to help people, I suppose."
Kakashi smiled nostalgically. "Just like the kid who used to be late every day because he was helping old ladies cross streets, or getting stuck cats out of trees?"
He shook his head, rolling his eyes. "I'm… I suppose if you wished to think of it like that, you could. I certainly couldn't stop you."
He sighed at the almost ecstatic look on Kakashi's face as they continued walking, until finally, he could stand staying silent on the question burning at the tip of his tongue no longer. He stopped, and Kakashi did as well, staring at him questioningly.
"Why'd you come back for me, Kakashi?" He asked, looking at the man with his single eye as his best friend from a lifetime ago stared back. "You broke the laws of the Leaf, hell, you broke international code, freed one of the greatest criminals of all time… you… you have to realize that doing that is putting a target on your back, one larger than even you might be able to deal with from a hell of a lot of people, right? More than just the other major nations, I'm sure you've burnt an awful lot of trust your own nation had in you to do this."
"You…" He sighed. "Why? Why do it? I'm not worth all that, I promise you."
"Hah… I don't think that's for you to decide. I thought bringing you along, and sacrificing my dignity and honor to do it, was a worthwhile trade. And if that's my decision… well, what have you got to say about it?"
He had little.
"Besides…" Kakashi looked up at him, and he could tell by the amused glint in his eye that Kakashi was about to say something that would annoy the hell out of him. "Those who break the rules are scum…"
And suddenly, he was a twelve-year old boy, who'd just launched a fireball at a bamboo trap. Rin had just been kidnapped, taken from them, and Kakashi had suggested they continue their mission without her.
Those words he'd said to them… to think he'd remembered them for so long…
He knew the man's next line before he could say it and shook his head as he decided to cut him off before it could be uttered.
"But those who'd abandon even a single comrade…" He remarked. "Are worse than scum, aren't they?"
"Hah…" Kakashi shook his head as he signaled them along, and Obito, finding a freeing feeling in his chest, followed along behind him.
"…Took the words right out of my mouth."
Alright, Kabuto was willing to admit it; Shizune had been right, he definitely should've come and looked at the apartment he was planning on renting before he… well, rented it.
Because it looked a hell of a lot smaller outside of the photos.
Ah, well. He remarked mentally, shrugging. I can always find another one some other time.
Besides, living there on his own, it wasn't like he particularly needed any extra space.
He popped the toast he'd made out of his toaster, spread some butter across it, ate, and immediately headed towards the Leaf Hospital, where, as of last week, he'd been officially employed as a chief medical officer.
He imagined having been one of the two people to solve that case with the murdered doctors (and doctors having been murdered in the first place, freeing up some space if one was to be morbidly truthful about it) had helped land him the position, and he certainly wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth on that matter.
Still, on the side, he'd been given another position as well, which was where he'd technically be going today. The Leaf Hospital was still his destination, but his mission upon arriving…
The automatic Hospital Door opened, and Tsunade smiled over at him from her place near the back of the hall.
"Ah, Kabuto. Good to see you. Come on back, we'll begin near immediately."
"Yes, teacher." He nodded his head, following her into her personal office, a larger offshoot room than most.
Shizune was waiting for them, her arms crossed over her chest as she shot him a curt nod. He responded with one of his own, and as Lady Tsunade cleared her throat, they both turned to her.
"Now, it's been an awfully long time since I've taught anyone… anything, but Shizune was my last pupil, and, well, I never did get the chance to fully finish instructing her as I'd have liked, on account of my… er…"
"Your rampant gambling addiction, ma'am?"
"Yes…" Tsunade looked away, embarrassedly. "That. Thank you, Shizune."
The girl smirked her master's way, causing the woman to roll her eyes. Kabuto looked between the two of them with some degree of intrigue, scratching his chin as they continued on for a moment or so on some line of conversation.
Regardless, that gave him a moment to reflect in on himself, and his own goals here. He would be taught by Tsunade what he'd not been able to learn under Orochimaru. He would become a splendid medical ninja…
One his mother could be proud of.
Because really, at the end of the day, she was what this was all for. The reason he'd sought a life past Orochimaru, the reason he'd chosen to try and move past those lessons he'd been taught, the life of espionage, and death…
He looked upwards, towards the ceiling above him, and gave a tiny, absent smile.
Watch over me, Mother. I promise you… I'll make you proud.
And with that, he keyed back into Tsunade and Shizune's conversation, just to see the two at each other's throats.
"Oooh, so I'm not the one who's responsible for stopping your gambling habits?"
"No, you… you helped, I'll admit that, but I stopped on my own."
"And I'm so proud that you did, but I definitely was a part of that!"
Well, not really. More… needling one another, honestly. They reminded him of a married couple somewhat, and he found himself understanding why both Naruto and Zaku had wondered about the two of them so much.
And yet, even so…
"I'm never going to get an answer as to whether or not you two are an item, am I?" He asked with a small sigh.
Both turned to him, their eyebrows raised, looked to one another, smirked, and turned back.
"Nope." They spoke simultaneously.
The winds that whipped through the Welcoming Square of the Leaf Village blew through Naruto's hair, messing even more with his already messy locks, and doing him no favors on the looks department.
Luckily, his date with Tenten wasn't for another few days, so he had some time to get that under control.
The reason he was actually out here today was…
"So, where are you guys headed first?"
"The Rain, I believe?" Jiraiya seemed to almost question as he turned towards Nagato and Konan, who nodded back, seemingly satisfied with that. "The Rain it is."
"Yes, well, it seems the obvious place to start." Nagato's voice was steady and even, no longer filled with the obvious regret and emotion that'd plagued him mere weeks ago. "We've lived there for the vast majority of the last twenty or so years. Whether or not we've done anything to help it, even though I'd like to think we have… it's still our homes. If we're helping the world… it seems as good a place as any to begin."
Jiraiya patted the man on the back, and Konan looked between the two rather proudly, even as she stepped past them, right up to Naruto, and weaved him a single, magenta paper flower in an instant, handing it to him.
"For your ensemble. I believe you have a date this week?"
He blushed a bit, but nodded nonetheless. "How did you…"
"The Leaf Village does not keep secrets very well, I'm afraid." Konan's eyes betrayed her amusement at his groan, and after he took the 'rose', she leaned back away, seemingly ready to go. "Still, I am not sure that's too bad a thing. Though, well, perhaps it is in this case for you."
He grumbled something, even as both Nagato and Jiraiya joined in with Konan in laughing at his expense.
He paid attention to a few things as they conversed with one another. Nagato's right eye was covered in a white medical bandage, the Rinnegan inside of it having been returned, but still healing through its being taken. The wounds on his chest, as well, seemed as if they'd mostly healed.
But more than that, as he'd observed earlier, Nagato looked happy. For the first time in a long time, if he had to guess, the man seemed to see some hope on the horizon, some reason to keep going. Together, alongside Jiraiya and Konan, they would return to the Rain, and become the Akatsuki they were always supposed to be.
He wished them luck, honestly, even if he wouldn't be able to go with them.
"Alright, in all seriousness, if we plan on making it to the Rain within the next few years, we should probably head out." Jiraiya smirked as the other two nodded and began walking towards the gate. "Ah, but just one second. I've got something I want to say to Naruto here."
Konan shot her master a look. "Didn't you just say we should head out."
"Bah, you're quoting me entirely out of context."
"You – I – Y'know what, sure." Konan waved her hand, dismissing him as she and Nagato kept going. "We'll wait for you outside the Gate." She bowed his way. "Naruto, it's been a pleasure. Once more, good luck on your date with Miss Tenten."
"How do you know it's Tenten!? How does everyone know this!?"
Nagato nodded his way a bit apologetically, before following along behind his partner.
"Anyways," He sighed out. "You wanted to talk to me, master?"
"Yeah." Jiraiya nodded his head, before… "I've decided I'm going to try and track down Orochimaru. To try and convince him to turn over a new leaf once more."
His eyes bugged out of his head as he felt a concern for the man in his chest. Surely he had to know that such a thing was pointless. "But I thought you said it wasn't going to–"
"I did." Jiraiya admitted, smiling his way as if to cleanse him of his worry. "Trust me, I know. I've tried before, after all, and it certainly didn't go fantastically for me, but… who knows. What with me reuniting with Konan and Nagato, helping to save the world, and now going off to help right the wrongs of my old students… Weirder things have happened recently."
He couldn't exactly argue with that, even if he really would've wanted to.
Jiraiya walked away from him, treading towards where Nagato and Konan were waiting, and waved to him from behind, giving him one last wink as he briefly turned his head.
"I've been in no mood to give up these days."
His mouth hung open for a moment, even as the three met up, and began to disappear behind the horizon as they left. He almost wanted to try and stop his former teacher, to tell him his mission would be fruitless, but…
Instead, he turned around himself, and made his way back into the Village proper, finding a tiny grin on his lips before he could stop its forming.
"Good luck, Master." He said instead.
"See you again, someday."
Sure, Zaku wasn't going to argue that having nothing to do was the better alternative to the world ending, but that didn't mean that he'd been entirely chill with having been bored out of his mind for the past month or so, either.
Kin didn't really seem to agree with him on that front.
"I gotta say, this whole just getting to relax thing is nice." Kin sighed out as she lounged in her chair, letting out a rather undignified burp as she let the food they'd all just eaten settle. "At first it was weird, but now that I'm used to it… yeah, I could stay used to it."
"Hah, of course you're thriving, why doesn't that surprise me?" Dosu rolled his eyes at her. "I for one am horribly bored."
At least Dosu had his back… though he wasn't sure that was that much of a good thing. Dosu tended to be the most… pragmatic of the three of them…
And Zaku liked siding with his heart on most matters.
"Meh, so what?" Kin shrugged, sitting back up to address them. "Boredom means you're alive. 'Sides, we all just got our promotions like a few days ago. Some downtime to think about what we want to do with them is important."
Kin was, of course, referring to their promotions to Jonin of the Leaf Village, those that Tsunade had seen to give just about every member of their little Anti-Akatsuki force after all the shit they'd had to pull.
"If I had a promotion beyond this," He could remember her saying. "Believe me, you'd be getting it."
"Hokage?" Naruto had asked hopefully.
Tsunade had just laughed.
"Give it a few years, and we'll see."
"What are you guys thinking?" He asked as he bit down on one of the last pieces of the roasted pork they'd ordered. "Just, y'know, for reference."
"Well… I've been thinking an awful lot, and…" Kin seemed to gain a determination there as she looked up at them all. "I want to try and teach Genin as a Jonin Sensei."
Zaku nearly spit out the sip of drink he'd taken. "T-Teaching? Us?"
"Well, me," Kin commented with a quiet laugh. "But… Yeah, I get what you're saying. We… weren't exactly the type you'd expect to see working with kids, right?"
"Yeah…" He muttered as he pounded his chest, trying to down the little bit of food that'd caught in his gullet. "You can uh… say that again."
"But… this Village gave everything to us." Kin said with a tiny, nostalgic look. "And for that reason, I don't know, I just thought I wanted to give back."
He nodded his head, even as Dosu scoffed quietly. "Somehow that's just like you."
"Oi!" Kin narrowed her eyes, clearly aggravated with Dosu's behavior. "So, what are you going to do, then?"
"I plan on continuing to do what I'd been doing before all of this came to a head," Dosu crossed his arms over his chest. "I'm going to try tracking down Orochimaru's last remaining bases, to drag that snake to the surface. I hear Suigetsu and some of the others from the remnants are going on an excursion next month. I intend to join them."
"Hah," He shot his friend a look, shaking his head as he thought of just what to say. "Somehow that's just like you."
Dosu death-glared at him, but what meant far more was the almost musical laughter that poured out of Kin's mouth as she doubled over, pointing and laughing at the man.
"Fine, fine. You're perfectly fine to do whatever it is you wanna' do with your life. There, happy?"
"Ecstatic." Kin said with a playful smile.
"And Zaku, what about you?"
"What are you planning on doing with your life now?" Dosu asked, not really pushing him, but seemingly just making conversation. "I mean… you're kind of the oddball of the group. What's your goal?"
He thought on that for longer than a moment, thinking about and weighing between his different options. He could always simply take on missions as a Jonin, but without the other two around… well, it wouldn't be all that fun, he couldn't help thinking.
But… an excuse to be back in the Village, and to help others at the same time, something he'd found himself enjoying more and more…
That wouldn't be so bad.
"I think I might go with Kin's angle in becoming a teacher." He smiled, earning a pumped fist from Kin and a groan from Dosu. "Y'know, benefits outweigh the costs in my opinion, Dosu. you sure you don't wanna try it?"
"Yeah, thanks but no thanks. I'm not the type to raise children." He grimaced. "Trust me on that."
"Yeah, somehow I just can't see it, no offense." Kin needled, earning another glare that she laughed in response to. "Seriously though… I guess we're coming to the end of Team Dosu, huh?"
"Hah, well, it was only ever supposed to be a temporary arrangement for the Chuunin Exams," Dosu pointed out, shrugging. "The fact that we made it this far is, quite honestly, a miracle in and of itself."
He smirked. "Can't argue with you there. Here, for old times' sake, I'll pay for all of us."
"Score." Dosu let out, immediately putting away his wallet.
"Thanks, Zaku." Kin smiled his way.
The server came and took their plates, and his payment, and they were free to go. He found himself gravitating back towards his apartment as he waved goodbye to Dosu and Kin. He'd see both of them again, and honestly, he wasn't sure who they were kidding with their 'the end of the team' thing. They'd been inseparable for years now. Becoming Jonin wasn't going to magically change that.
Still, imagine his surprise when a hand tapped his shoulder, and he turned around to see Kin smiling up at him, sliding in beside him.
"What's up?" he asked. "I thought we'd finished talking."
"Well… kinda'." Kin admitted, smiling a bit awkwardly. "But there was something I needed to say that I didn't want Dosu around for…"
His eyes widened minutely as he took in what that could be. Was Kin in trouble somehow? Did she need assistance that only he could give? Was Dosu threatening her in some way? No… that wasn't him. so… what could be…
"You're thinking too hard."
He snapped out of his own mind to look down at the girl's grinning face.
"I'm fine." Kin laughed as she placed her hands behind her, almost skipping with each step. "I just… when you said you wanted to be a teacher as well, I found myself getting all giddy. I… it'll be fun still having you around, Zaku."
He laughed. "Yeah, same here. I can't imagine it'll be an easy transition but having you around will certainly make it a lot easier. I would imagine you've been thinking about this for an awful long while. You uh… probably know quite a lot more about this than I do, so having your expertise will be nice."
"Well… sure that's kind of what I meant, but…" Kin sighed. "Alright, fine, I'll just say it. I meant more… I'm glad I still get to be around you. In a… personal manner."
His cheeks heated up a bit at Kin's words. He'd never thought he was all that good at reading signals like these, I mean, hell, he'd been turned down by Sakura a few years ago and nearly burned to pieces in hot embarrassment over it, but…
"So, uh… I was thinking, between lessons and stuff…" She looked away from him, unable to meet his eyes. Her cheeks were a bright red, the same as his. "Would you want to… share notes sometimes?"
His throat was constricted as he swallowed on some spittle in his mouth. This feeling in his chest… new and alien, but not in a bad way. He… found he did not much mind it at all.
Liked it might be the better terminology.
"I… think I'd…"
He gazed at the sights around them as they continued marching through the Leaf Village, the place they'd come to call home over the last half decade, and the place that, hopefully, if all went well…
"I'd love that."
Would be their home forevermore.
"We need brick and mortar over on twenty-third!"
"Twenty-first needs nails, they're all out!"
"If we could get these beams of wood to sixteenth by noon, that'd probably let them back us up tonight, maybe we can have one through five all running with power by tomorrow!"
"Hah, no easy task."
"Coming through! Clear a path, coming through!"
Hinata did her best to do just that, scootching as much as she could in the horrendously congested streets of the Waterfall. Workers moved all around her, trying to edge through tiny spaces that they felt they could fit through, or otherwise working on houses and homes, trying to assemble them in as much a hurry as they could without compromising integrity.
Which… was shockingly harder than it sounded.
…She was still adjusting to sarcasm. It was far from her forte.
"Hey, hey! More supplies from central here!"
She heard the peppiest voice among them ring out, and much like several of the others, felt her morale shoot up as she looked over, and saw the eternally smiling face of Fu.
Well, it also helped that she did have the pieces to replenish their stocks of building material. Brick, mortar, and wooden beams for the homes, some inactivated concrete for the roads, and food and drink for all of them.
"Nice work, dragonfly!"
"…Does no one else think it's weird that she hauled nearly a ton of material all the way over here from central? Nearly twenty blocks? Lugging that behind her the whole time? No? Just me?"
Hinata giggled quietly as the man went largely ignored. He was help from the Stone, and while he and his fellow ninja were appreciated during the reconstruction, well, no one was going to be telling an enemy nation (even if they were technically under Stone control at the moment) that the reason Fu was so freakishly strong was due to the Tailed-Beast in her stomach. Well, that and her ninja training, assuredly.
Still, as Hinata's arms and legs threatened to give out on her, she wiped away at her forehead, and decided she'd take a pair of the newly procured food and drink. It was simplistic. Ration bars and water canteens. Yet still, it was filling, and for Hinata, who'd gone nearly three straight hours of work with neither, it might as well have been ambrosia.
She'd been working since this morning, so she was allotted an hour long break, which she supposed she should use. Technically, she was volunteer help, so really, she could take off as long as she wanted, honestly, she could sit there and ask to be fanned if she really wanted to, but, well…
That wouldn't much be her, she couldn't help thinking.
She decided to, however, talk with another person who seemed to have taken some time off for a break. She sat down beside her, a foot away or so, and groaned a bit as she slid beside her, their shoulders touching.
"Fu, normally I wouldn't mind," She laughed a bit exhaustively. "But it's rather hot out. I'm horribly sweaty, and you are too, and I just don't want to–"
Fu entirely ignored her, coming closer and wrapping her arms around her in a muggy, far-too-icky-to-be-nice hug.
"Sorry," Fu laughed at her expense. "Couldn't resist!"
She rolled her eyes, but despite her feigned resistance, she couldn't hide the smile on her face.
They talked on nothing much of value for a good ten minutes or so, just enjoying one another's company. They'd grown… inevitably, they'd grown closer since they'd departed the Leaf. She'd taken Naruto's advice, and not told the Hyuga, even her father, of her real relationship to Fu, merely saying she was a friend whom she wanted to aid.
Even so, she was fairly sure Hanabi had seen through her, if the mischievous grin on her sister's face had been anything to go by. Hell, she was positive Neji had, though, well… she hadn't exactly been hiding anything from him.
Still… she'd be remiss to not admit she loved it here. It had its moments, like today, working under the sweltering sun, surely earning some sunburn that she'd be feeling for a week, but at the same time, being able to see the Waterfall getting back on its feet; no, more than that, getting to participate in helping it to stand… that was worth a little exhaustion, a little pain.
And having Fu beside her only made it better.
It was as she and Fu quietly conversed over lunch (well, it was probably halfway to dinnertime, but beggars couldn't much be choosers) that a Waterfall Shinobi walked over towards them both, and spoke to them.
"Hey, scarecrow was looking for the two of you." He said as he passed by, waving casually to them both. "Just thought you should know."
She turned towards Fu with a serious expression, one her partner quickly answered with her own. They stood and walked to where they were fairly sure 'scarecrow' would be waiting for them.
As they arrived, Hinata found herself giggling quietly as she saw exactly who she'd thought would be waiting for them.
"You know, I can't help feeling 'scarecrow' is too obvious a codename," Hinata commented, nodding towards the other member there as well. "Just thought I should bring that up."
"Yes, believe me," Kakashi rolled his singular exposed eye. "I've heard enough from this one here about that. I'd ask you keep all codename-related complaints to yourselves until I can come up with a better one."
Their other objective in being here was to help Kakashi with his mission. They would act as informants, her with her Byakugan, and Fu with her ability to get into nearly every part of the Village, what with her natural charm, her being a local who people of the Village recognized from having lived there her whole life, and, well…
The wings she could use to fly.
"It's not my fault its terrible." Obito shrugged, his bandaged arms (which she supposed he'd had refitted to him, even if they didn't look all that responsive at the moment) hanging at his side. A moment later, he turned towards her partner with an awkwardness and guilt about him. "Ah… Fu, was it?"
"Mhm." Fu said, any semblance of the usually friendly and exuberant girl replaced instead by a far more serious, and genuinely aggravated looking visage. "And you're Obito Uchiha. The man who ran the Akatsuki."
Hinata could understand just why she'd be so upset. The Akatsuki had ruined her Village, forced them to do this rebuilding, killed so many of their people. Surely, most of that damage had been Deidara's doing, himself long-since dead at Kabuto and Itachi's hands, but…
Who'd ordered the mad bomber to do such a thing was perhaps the obvious question.
Fu took a rather determined step forward, getting right up next to Obito and pointing her finger into his face. On a different day, she might've thought the way that the man flinched backwards was humorous, seeing him cower away from someone of Fu's stature.
Not now, though.
"If you're planning on asking me to forgive you then let me cut you off. I can't. I won't. You… you killed so many people, so many of my people. I'm not going to sit here and pretend like I'm over that."
Obito didn't so much as try to speak or interrupt her. Instead, he nodded his head, as if agreeing with every word out of her mouth.
"Still, I'm not going to try and stop you making amends. If you're planning on helping the Waterfall Village… to help it rebuild, to help free it… then I'm not going to stop you. In fact, I'll work alongside you. But if you so much as touch another person from my Village, then… I'll deal with you myself, got it!?"
It should have been an empty threat. Fu was strong, surely, but compared to Obito Uchiha, the shadow leader of the Akatsuki, she might as well have been a civilian. And yet, even so, even despite that…
"You have my word." Obito spoke, entirely seriously. "My goal is to make amends, to undo the damage that I did in my life as 'Madara' and 'Tobi'. I promise you; I will do everything in my power to help the Waterfall, and every nation in the world."
Fu studied the man's face for a moment, seemingly trying to find any signs of deception. After 4 or 5 seconds, she nodded, and turned back towards Hinata, apparently satisfied.
"Alright. Then make it happen."
Obito hummed agreeably. "I will."
She reached just behind Fu and took the girl's left hand, giving it what she hoped was a reassuring squeeze. When the girl turned to her, she gave her a proud smile.
Fu just giggled under her breath.
Kakashi looked between all of them and let out what she could only describe as a tired sigh. "Well, if we're all finished trying to threaten one another, we kind of have a mission to go over?"
"Oh, right," Fu mumbled awkwardly. "Sorry."
"It's fine. We were waiting for the others anyway."
Just as the man said that, more people began to file into the room. They ranged from regular civilians to Waterfall guards, to even a single Stone Ninja. It seemed this would be the entire group dedicated to freeing the Village, spies that would help act as eyes and ears for Kakashi and Obito, experienced enough on their own, to surgically strike out.
Hinata and Fu took positions around the table in the middle of the room, even as everyone else did similarly, wrapping around it, encircling it, trying to get a good view of what Kakashi would be presenting.
And Hinata had faith. Faith that they'd succeed, surely, but…
Faith in herself. In the girl beside her. Faith that things between them would work out.
"Alright. The first meeting of our little entourage, the Waterfall Freedom Force…" He grumbled something along the lines of "gonna' have to workshop that name a bit more later" under his breath, before continuing.
Idly, Fu turned her way, and shot her a wide, beaming grin. She returned it with one of her own, their interlocked hands still at their sides.
Faith that somehow, some way…
Things would be okay.
"So… what's it like?"
Tenzo said nothing for quite a while, the wooden beams he'd erected around her, each with what looked to be the head of a dog carved into the top, seemed to be analyzing the chakra of both Sakura, and her tendrils, which weaved around the enclosure in an almost aimless manner.
That likely had something to do with the fact that she'd been bored out of her mind for the past thirty-ish minutes, but hey, she felt she couldn't be blamed for that one. Tenzo had said this would take ten.
"They're… different than I was expecting. They're not an evolution of your previous control of the Wood Style… if anything, they're an inversion."
"Meaning?" Anko asked from just behind her, standing outside of the circle the two of them were sat within.
"Meaning… well, before, Sakura's Wood Style sapped the life of that which she used. If she were trying to heal herself, she would drain the life from vines or trees surrounding her to use for herself. If she wanted to attack, she would utilize the life energy of a root system, for instance, to make them move. It would eventually result in that organic life's demise. Understood so far?"
She and Anko both nodded, and the man continued.
"Basically, now, she utilizes not the life energy of the plants she's manipulating, but the natural energy that they've accrued. She forces them to move through a sort of… natural bond she has with the organism's around her. It doesn't spend their energy, and it doesn't spend hers, either. It's a complete reversal of what she had before."
She… understood what the man had said, yes. It was still odd, and a bit convoluted, but she understood.
"If I had a guess," Sakura decided that she might as well provide her own input. "I'd say that the Curse Mark's inherent darkness was what had that affect. Before, when I rescued Anko in the bowels of Root… I unlocked that same Natural control over the Wood Style as I have now. It was… raw, and unrepeatable, but it was undeniably powerful. It allowed me to save her life, after all. But at the same time… I'd imagine in that same vein, the reason I almost died was because, well, at the time all I had was the ability to transfer life force. I didn't suddenly gain so much strength… I'd literally transferred nearly all of my chakra to Anko to save her life. If Ra hadn't come when she did…"
"You'd have died." Tenzo hummed agreeably. "I thought the same thing. Still, overall, your strength now is tied to your character, who you are as a person, your training and overall ability. You're a remarkably powerful ninja, Sakura, likely one of the strongest up and comers of this generation."
She blushed as she looked away, rubbing the back of her neck awkwardly. "T-Thanks. I don't really…"
"Listen to the man, he's right." Anko smirked. "You're damn strong, Sakura. Easily competing with Sasuke and Naruto. Well, their new abilities, that Indigo Sage Mode, and Sasuke's Susanoo… they've certainly made them stronger, but I don't think that means for a moment that they're stronger than you."
Both looked at her a bit surprisedly, but she cut them off before they could say anything.
"For the moment, both Naruto and Sasuke have surpassed me once again. But… that doesn't mean I'm going to accept being behind them forever, nor am I going to stress about it. I'm just going to keep going. I'm going to keep training, and I'm going to, one day, surpass them both."
Both gave proud grins at her attitude, and once more, she felt pride for herself fill her chest as they all called training there for the day. She'd likely be seeing Tenzo again sometime soon, but Anko would be going with her. Or, well, she'd be going with Anko, on account of…
"So you're sure? I guarantee it's not really all that it's cracked up to be."
"Haha, trust me, I've thought for a while on this. I'm sure." She smiled over at her surrogate older sister. "I was originally planning on getting an apartment with Sasuke, but with the whole Itachi thing coming around, he's planning on staying with him until… well…"
"Until Itachi passes?" Anko asked carefully.
She nodded a bit solemnly, feeling some small melancholy for the inescapable fate of her beloved's older brother.
"So, for now… yeah, I'd like to live with you."
Anko smiled, perhaps subconsciously, for a moment later, she tried to hide the fact that she'd done so by turning away and coughing.
"Well… I'd… I think that'd be fun. I also think you're going to end up annoying the shit out of me, and vice versa, but hey, that's half the fun."
"You have an interesting definition of fun." Sakura shot back amusedly. "Still… yeah, I agree."
The midday sun bore down upon them as they stepped out of the forests of the Leaf (or, well, the few forested sections that had not been utterly ravaged by the Zetsu or Ten-Tailed Beast), and Sakura reached up to shield her face.
"It is… annoyingly hot." Anko laughed, turning to her. "What say we get back? I have dango in the fridge."
"But isn't dango supposed to be eaten hot?"
"Well… yeah, but I have a microwave too."
"Alright, I'll bite. What are you doing here?"
"Well," Naruto gave a confident smile as he sat down in front of the Nine-Tails' cage. "I figured, y'know, since we're basically friends now,"
"–That I'd come in and chat with you." He spoke, giving an altruistic laugh that even to him sounded a bit haughty. "Anytime you want to thank me, you're welcome to."
"Yeah, I think I'll hold off on that." The Kyuubi sneered mirthfully as it leaned forward, resting atop its wrists as it locked one singular eye on him. "Seriously, though, why are you hanging out here?"
"Really, I meant it when I said we're kind of friends." He shrugged. "Wasn't joking, I swear."
The Nine-Tails heavily scrutinized his expression, before sneering. "Wow. You're actually serious."
"Hey!" Naruto placed his hands on his hips annoyedly. "And here I was thinking maybe I could let you out of that cage someday, but you're over there, being all rude."
The Kyuubi regarded him, once again, like he was crazy.
"Well, y'know… I figure it's not like we're enemies anymore. I don't think you'd try to take over my body or anything if I let you out, would you?"
"Eh, I might."
"How the hell am I supposed to know! That's an awful lot of freedom you'd just be handing over to me!" The Nine-Tails huffed. "I might, I might not. I don't know."
"Heh, you're all nervous." Naruto teased, crossing his arms over his chest. "How cute."
"You're talking an awful lot of shit for someone who's trying to use me to calm his nerves because he's stressing about his date tomorrow."
"ACK!" He nearly choked on spittle at the back of his throat. "N-No! No idea what you're talking about!"
"Uh-huh. I totally believe you. You do realize I see everything you do, right? I watched you sit on your bed for two hours staring at the wall, presumably thinking about what might happen."
Naruto's cheeks might have actually caught fire, he wasn't sure.
The Nine-Tails stared at him expressionlessly.
"Eh, I'll take it." The great beast stretched its arms and legs. "Y'know, if I were you, I'd go and find my friends, who probably know a lot more about human dating rituals than the Demon Fox who hangs out in my chest."
"…Is that a less than subtle hint to leave you alone?"
"No, it's a less than subtle hint that I can't exactly help you."
"Wait, if you could, though, you–"
"Shut up!" The Nine-Tails interrupted that train of thought before he could go any further, turning away from him. "Now go, get on out of here."
He opened his mouth, almost wanting to say something to the great beast. There were things he still wanted to ask him. His life before meeting him, about the voices that'd called out to him from his seal, who he suspected were his parents, and a million other things, but…
He nodded his head, and turned around, waving as he walked away.
"Then… I'll see you later, Kurama."
His friend snorted.
"See you, Naruto."
I guess that can wait til' later. He thought with a smile.
The knock on Anko's door came a lot later in the evening than Sakura had been expecting. Actually, scratch that, she hadn't been expecting anything at all. The sun was setting in the sky, and as she was just then getting over the effects that eating nearly five sticks of poorly-microwaved dango had done to her stomach, she found she didn't much want to move to get the door at all.
She did end up doing so… but she certainly wasn't happy about it.
"Hello? Oh… Naruto? Sasuke?"
One of her closest friends, along with her boyfriend, smiled back at her, laughing a bit casually as she stepped out, and pulled the door shut behind her.
"Hey, Sakura. Been a bit." Naruto commented. "I know we've all been busy and whatnot, but I felt we could… y'know, hang out or something?"
She shot him an odd look. "Okay… why are you acting weird about it though?"
"Weird? What? Me, weird? N-No idea what you're talking about!"
"His date with Tenten is tomorrow and he's freaking out about it." Sasuke provided helpfully. "He wants us to hang out to get his mind off of it."
"Ah, I see."
She rubbed her chin as she considered her options, eventually deciding that…
"Yeah, sure." She remarked, smiling their way. "Sounds like fun."
Naruto nodded gratefully, bowing his head somewhat as she assembled something that could pass for 'going-out' clothes.
"Then… if you guys don't mind…" Naruto spoke, sounding almost nostalgic as he trailed off. "There's a place I want to go."
The two of them laughed, and somehow…
Sakura couldn't shake the feeling she knew just where they were going, already.
It was late, though, as per usual these days, Naruto was far from alone.
This wasn't new, of course. Naruto traveled alongside his friends and loved ones quite often; had been for years now. Hanging out with Sakura and Sasuke, or chilling out alongside Ino. Perhaps chatting the night away with Hinata, Fu, Shikamaru, or Choji. Training alongside Haku, Tenten, Neji, Kiba, Lee, Shino, or Suigetsu, or getting together with everyone at the barbecue joint they frequented on occasion. No matter what, no matter the scenario, or the people…
He was practically never alone. Not anymore.
The three of them were walking alongside a river that snaked through the middle of the Leaf Village. It was a relatively hot day, though, as per usual, it wasn't like he ever changed his outfit to suit the weather.
He watched with passing interest as hues of red's and oranges glittered across the surface of the water. The sunlight played tricks atop it, and he watched as several people, ninjas, civilians, children, and everyone in between all partook of its splendor as well.
It's pretty. Naruto, even after all this time, still couldn't help thinking.
Off to his left, Sakura gave a quiet laugh as she observed their surroundings herself. "Hey, do you remember that night that the three… no, four of us came here together?"
"Yeah, I think so." Naruto was almost immediately swallowed by the nostalgia, overwhelmed with the feelings that blossomed out of him. "Ino was there too, right?"
"Hah." Sasuke nodded. "Yeah, we talked about dreams, didn't we?"
He turned towards the other two, who both seemed in agreement with that. Still… he had no memory of that.
Sakura looked at him a bit oddly for a moment, before giving off an "Ah" as if she'd just remembered something.
"Right, I think Ino was running interference for me."
He contemplated that for a moment.
"Wait…" His voice came out rather distraught-sounding. "Distracting me on purpose?"
"I think so, yeah." Sakura said a bit awkwardly. "Still, uh… Ino's Ino, so she genuinely probably did want to chat with you and stuff as well!"
He wasn't sure he much believed Sakura on that front, which sucked, because that was one of his better memories, Ino taking the time to listen to him, make him feel validated. They were definitely friends these days, no matter what he might've been to her then, but…
"Yeah, I'm going to choose to believe that she was being genuine. The alternative is too painful."
The two of them snorted at Naruto's unfortunate revelation, and he glared as they all kept walking.
"So, uh… a bit of a sudden question, I know, but…" He swallowed on some spittle at the back of his mouth, before parting his lips with a small sigh. "What're you all planning on doing? I mean, you know, with our lives and stuff."
"Hm… Well, I'm going to be allowing Itachi to live with me for the time being in my apartment. It's the least I can do for him, especially since he doesn't exactly have much longer to live. I intend to give him the peace he deserves for as long as he can afford it." He smiled. "I suppose, Sakura, that my dreams the one that's changed the most in that regard. Half of it… to carry on my clan… I won't be abandoning that, but… I think my 'evil older brother' may not fall by my hand after all. And hell, I've got some annoying children to raise into proper ninja I guess, so that'll probably keep me pretty busy as well." He shivered slightly. "Just once… just one break…"
He nodded at his friends words, an almost proud expression on his face as he turned to Sakura.
"Hah, in comparison, I guess I kind of got most of my dream by now, some…" She blushed a bit, which seemed odd on her face these days. "Some parts of it I'm still waiting on, I guess," This time, it was Sasuke who went beat red. "But… yeah. For now, I'm moving in with Anko. Was originally going to try and get a bigger apartment with Sasuke, split rent, y'know, but, well, with the whole Itachi thing, I couldn't help but think that would be a bit awkward, so I decided to hold off on that idea for a while. I'm going to keep training with the Wood Style. Hell, I was thinking, well… I might try and do Sage Mode, like you, Naruto." Sakura smiled. "Might not work, Jiraiya said I probably don't have the reserves for it, but… I figure I've already accomplished so much… I might as well go for broke, right? Fully invest in the whole nature thing I've got going on."
He hummed agreeably, laughing as he bumped fists with her.
"I'm feeling left out over here." Sasuke joked around. "All I can do with trees is set them on fire in a variety of ways."
They shared a collective laugh at that, before the others rounded on him.
"And what about you, Naruto?"
He ran a hand up and down the back of his neck, trying to think on that question.
What about him?
"Well… I guess for right now, I've got plans to train with Tenten. The two of us both want to keep getting stronger, and… well, obviously with the whole… dating thing, I'd like to grow closer with her as well."
His friends gave him teasing looks, which he fought back by way of embarrassed stammers.
It felt highly ineffective.
"And then… obviously, I'm going to become Hokage." He smirked at them rolling their eyes. "Hey, some things don't change, you guys."
They laughed, even as his own words had him growing… pensive. He found his thoughts gravitating towards that, and, well… these were his best friends.
He could trust them with his thoughts.
"But yeah. I… I think I've been considering this for a while now, and going nowhere with it, but…" He turned towards them, asking entirely seriously, "Do you guys think things are going to change?"
It was, perhaps unsurprisingly, Sakura who decided to answer.
"Why do you ask? Are you frightened of change?"
He looked away. "I'm not… not frightened of it."
Sakura nodded, seemingly understanding that, before she took a breath, and began.
"Eh… I think things might change a little," she shrugged. "But in the end, aren't they always anyways? We'll face them just as we always have, and we'll come out on top on the other side. That's how it's been for the last 6 or 7 years, and on that front, I don't much intend on changing."
He stared at Sakura for a moment before he was overwhelmed by the laughter hanging at the back of his throat.
"I wish I had half your confidence, Sakura."
"Same here." Sasuke smiled her way.
Sakura glowed a hot, embarrassed red as she looked away from them, smiling bashfully.
"Yeah, well, thank Anko for that one, I certainly didn't always have it."
He agreed with her there. Her transformation from awkward yet kind child to confident, oftentimes brash adult had been… well, sometimes subtle, other times very apparent.
And, well… he supposed the same could be said for all of them. They'd all changed. Not quite to the degree that Sakura had, but it was undeniable that Naruto and Sasuke were both different than the children who'd met one another…
His friend was far more open, and he himself could be far more reserved. They'd both taken qualities from one another, changed, and evolved. Whether or not that was always the best thing for them, when he thought about it…
Well, it wasn't like that terribly mattered.
All things had their ups and downs.
He looked down just off to his left side, down towards a small, wooden dock that looked to be a very simplistic fishing spot and felt a wave of nostalgia wash over him. Before he knew it, he'd stopped the other two, and was pointing right at it, an almost teary smile on his face.
"Recognize that, Sasuke?"
His best friend did. It was shown all over his face.
The place where it'd all began. The place where they'd first met, the place where they'd come together, and decided they'd be friends, because the both of them needed one.
Well, maybe he was exaggerating a little bit. Ultimately, it was just a hill, just a small incline in elevation, just a river, just a dock.
It meant more to him, really. It meant a lot more.
Sakura wrapped her arms around both of their shoulders, smiling vibrantly as she stared down at that same spot as well.
He wasn't alone in jumping in surprise as he turned towards the sound of the voice who'd called out. When he did, he found himself smiling, despite his now rapidly beating heart.
Ino, Haku, Suigetsu, Anko, Zaku, Kin, Dosu, Tenten, Lee, Neji, Shikamaru, Choji, Kiba, Shino… Hell, even Itachi and Kabuto, who looked like they'd been simply hanging out as friends, before being dragged into whatever this was… hah, nearly every one of their friends that could be there, that wasn't off on an important mission in the Waterfall, was there.
"Haha," Naruto found himself horribly amused as he broke out of his friends little formation and waved to the others. "To think, we'd all end up here. How… funny."
"They surprised me." Sasuke huffed annoyedly as he stepped around Sakura. "I was all caught up in memor–"
And then, with no warning, no fanfare, no… anything…
Sasuke's right foot accidentally snagged a root growing out of the hill. He seemed to realize what was about to happen just a moment too late to do something about it, for in the seconds afterward…
Sasuke tripped down the hill beside them.
His best friend was falling, that much Naruto knew for sure. It wasn't graceful, he was rolling end over end, trying desperately to regain his footing, to no avail. By the time he rolled to a stop at the bottom of the hill, a foot or so from the water, he was covered in dirt, and grassy residue.
Nothing looked injured, with the exception of his pride.
"Oi!" Ino called from just behind them, or ahead of them depending on what direction one was coming from on the path. "Sasuke! Are you alright!?"
Several members of their friend group looked concernedly at the man, but in that moment, there wasn't an ounce of worry in Naruto's own heart.
And for some reason… he broke at that. Laughter poured out of him as he looked down at his best friend, spitting grass out of his mouth and glaring up at him. But he just couldn't help it, because…
"Why do you ask? Are you frightened of change?"
He looked away. "I'm not… not frightened of it."
Because in the end, the more things changed… the more they stayed the same.
"Gods," Sakura shook her head, seemingly trying and failing to hold back a bit of mirth on the tip of her tongue. "I suppose I should go help him up."
By the time Sakura turned towards him, he was already looking right at her, a sunny smile set on his features as he thought of everything that had led to this…
"Let me. In a way… let's just say I owe him this one."
Sakura seemed confused at first, but after a moment, simply shrugged, smiling his way as she let him go.
"Alright." She laughed. "You're up, then, Naruto."
He nodded his head, and then…
He ran down the hill to meet his best friend.
And as he arrived at the bottom, and held out his hand to the boy who'd been with him through everything, as he took it, and he hoisted him up…
Mirroring just what, what felt like a lifetime ago, he'd once done for him…
It felt like they'd come full circle.
"Are you okay?" He asked.
"Yes, well, I couldn't have known this hill would prove a more formidable foe than Black Zetsu, could I have?"
He laughed as he looked up towards the hill above them, and saw everyone looking down at them. A few were laughing at Sasuke's broken pride, others seemed worried. More seemed to be waiting for them to come on up, waving their way.
"Well?" He turned to his friend. "We shouldn't keep them."
"I was about to say the same thing." Sasuke smirked suddenly, seeming awfully confident in himself for a man who'd just been humbled by a pile of dirt. "Race you to the top?"
He found a cocky smile blooming on his face.
"Oh, you're on."
And, somewhat competitively, somewhat jokingly, filled with pride, and mirth, and a hundred different little things…
They charged back up the hill together.
End Chapter 100
End Trip Down a Hill
Huh. It's over.
Kind of hasn't sunk in yet. Maybe it will when I don't have to upload this next week, but truly, I think it was when I wrote the last line (about six or seven weeks ago now lol) that it really hit me that it was over.
Funnily enough, that last line has since changed, but eh, the feeling hasn't.
So, not-so-quick reflections:
I started Trip Down a Hill in March of 2019. It's since been two and a half years since then. I've since quit my job, moved to a different state, gone through an international pandemic, suffered major life problems, had two different pets die, and am only now finishing this story. It's been... a hell of a journey for me haha. I think this story unironically gave me wrist problems last year, but since I've been taking it easy they've been subsiding somewhat. Still, for the time being, at least, don't expect another story from me for a few more months. I do have an idea on the docket (focused on Orochimaru, of all people), and it's outlined pretty well, it's just not in the cards ATM. Expect to see that in like... two or three months maybe? I'd like to focus on my own ideas a bit.
Gonna answer some questions I think people might have?
So, thoughts on this story specifically: I like Trip Down a Hill as an overall product, even if it's extraordinarily flawed. I think it comes together quite well at the end, and that my last 10-15 chapters are pretty good (you can really tell that my writing has gotten a lot better over the tenth of my life I've been writing this damned fic lol). But I think a good majority of the middle of this story is kind of slow, and can get really boring at times. But hey, for a story that I was definitely at multiple points writing as I came up with it (as in week to week, which I multiple times claimed I wasn't doing) I think it's okay.
My favorite characters in this story were probably rather obvious. I liked Sakura, Anko, Zaku (really the sound trio in general), Hinata, Fu, Haku, and Kabuto the most. I say that was probably obvious because they often got slightly more to do/got slightly more interesting story arcs. I had a problem near the middle of this story writing Naruto a lot (and by that I mean giving him unique things to do, because aside from the Indigo Sage Mode plotline he didn't actually get anything unique to this story to do on his own all story (or maybe he did, and I'm just forgetting?)) which as you might imagine is an issue, as he's one of the main character's. Still, he split that role with Sasuke and Sakura, and I think they were both fine, but yeah, if I were to ever do a rewrite (which I never will, just to be clear) I'd fix that.
I think overall, besides him and the Akatsuki members who got a lot less focus on purpose to make room for others (e.g. Deidara, Hidan, Kakazu) I did an alright job with character arcs and stuff. Not all of them are fantastic, but the majority of characters (e.g. Haku, Kisame, Itachi, Sasuke, Kakashi) were handled decently.
So yeah, in the end, the whole point of Trip Down a Hill is that such a tiny change has such a big impact. Characters who died lived, characters who lived di... no, wait, I don't think that happened. But, in the end, the destiny of the world of Naruto was never met in this timeline. As that implies, this world still has plenty of turmoil to work out, as do these versions of the characters. This whole universe was a lot weaker than canon, and a bunch of different things happened. Here at the end, the world is still almost as it is mid-shippuden, with the Kage's all in a state of deterrence with one another. Still, with Temari, and soon to be Kurotsuchi and Naruto on the horizon as Kage's... well, I'd like to think they'll manage just fine.
Uh... what else. Is there anything else?
Sasu/Saku was confirmed from minute one pretty much, and I never so much as hinted at anything else. Naruto/Tenten kind of came about randomly. They interacted during Chuunin Exams. Then again during Training, then again during Second Chuunin Exams. By that point, I kind of had an idea that was the ship I wanted to go with, and especially so when I randomly came up with Fu Hinata at the tail-end of the SCE. Was very funny when that happened. I definitely expected to get some hate for that, but nah, you guys were pretty chill all things considered. I really appreciate that. Made writing their scenes a lot more fun.
As for other things... Idk. Zaku and Kin felt kind of cool for me, but tbh, I could definitely see them as just friends as well, so if you felt they were just homies, then go ahead and headcanon that they dated for a bit and then parted amicably. If you like the ship, then go with the happily ever after angle lol.
Ino/Haku was actually the most fun to write, simply because of how ultimately disfunctional it was. I liked breaking those characters apart against each other, and then watching them have to pick up the pieces. I could've done it better, but I still thought it was pretty good.
And as for Tsunade and Shizune...
Well, I left that a mystery on purpose ;) (And I'm only sort of sorry about it!).
I also wanted to address the fact that no one died in the last arc, despite that being prime killing-people-time for a lot of writers. I don't like killing characters unless it completes their arc (if this were a more serious story, for example, I may've had Dosu die protecting Zaku and Kin down in the Akatsuki base, instead of him just being injured and having Sakura complete her arc healing him, completing his own arc of only watching out for himself in a really poignant way), but random death to establish stakes just isn't my style. And so, despite the fact that, realistically, some people probably would've died during the big fight with Black Zetsu because of how much stronger than them all he was, everyone kept pulling heroics to make sure everyone else came out alright.
God this is long.
Ok, I'll wrap it up by saying that as a special little thing for this last chapter: I'll be responding to every review on this chapter (unless you specifically ask me not to, in which case I won't) for at least the reasonable future, so if you have thoughts/questions, want to give feedback/constructive criticism, or just want to say hi and get a hi back, then this is your chance. Going to sleep for half a day after this upload (for me it's roughly 3 in the morning on Sunday as I upload this), so responses won't be immediate, but I should have them all out by the end of the weekend? So, If you guys don't mind, drop a quick review! I very much so appreciate them, and this is the last time I'll be able to shamelessly ask for them!
Oh also, if you find a spelling error/thing that doesn't make sense/a cutoff sentence (or if you think I was missing something), and feel like it, feel free to point those out as well! I'll correct them.
Anything here in this little blurb at the end is non-canon if you want it to be by the way. I'm writing it at 3 in the morning. I'm too tired for canonizing thought.
God, I've been sitting here editing this chapter for like four hours now. At some point, I just need to accept that it's never going to be perfect, I'm never going to catch every spelling error or grammar mistake, and that I need to go to bed.
That time is right now, apparently.
I think that about covers it from me. So, uh...
See you all whenever my next story (Tentative Title: What it Means to Live Forever) goes up in a few months! It's (in my head) a hell of a lot shorter than this story (and a hell of a lot better in theory lol), and I can stretch it over a longer period of time (e.g. no weekly chapters. Probably longer (10k range) chapters on a monthly release schedule) which will be a lot better for my wrists I do believe. Think 100-125k range for word, so around 10-12ish chapters.
Thanks for sticking with me through all of this, and I hope that in the end, it was worth it.
I hope you enjoyed reading Trip Down a Hill!