AN: I only have a small bit written after this, so the next update won't be for a while. Whoops. Hope this is good enough to make up for the impending wait.
I spent the next day in the hospital, recovering. The wound in my side was healed, and I'd begun to recover my chakra. Sakura came to visit me in the afternoon.
"Here we are again," she said, smiling at me as she checked out my wounds, chakra swirling around her hands. "At least this time you know who you are."
"True," I said. I stretched my arms, sitting up. "I feel fine now, actually."
"Okay, but you should still stay in the hospital for a while," Sakura said. She stood up, frowning slightly. She'd looked unhappy since she'd come in, like something was bothering her.
"Something wrong?" I asked.
She looked at me, pursing her lips. "It's nothing. Naruto was just talking to us, to all of the Rookie Nine, and he was insisting that he was going to fight Sasuke alone." Her frown deepened. "He said he was the only one who could fight him, but he wouldn't say why. He's…hiding something."
"You like to worry about him, don't you?" I said.
"Yes, well…" she shrugged.
"But you still love Sasuke."
She looked at me, surprised. "Well, I—I—"
"Don't try to hide it," I said, pulling my hair back into a ponytail. "I saw how you acted back at the bridge. You couldn't kill him."
She hung her head, looking at the floor. "I'm so weak," she murmured. "I couldn't do it. All I can do is rely on Naruto and Sasuke, and have faith in the two of them."
"I used to feel the same way," I said. "I used to feel like I was too weak also…like I had to rely on others to protect me, but…you know, that's not always true. Maybe eventually you'll be able to stand beside Naruto."
"Thanks," she said. "I just…Sasuke never…" she shook her head.
I frowned. "And as far as Sasuke goes…" I exhaled, not wanting to say this, but needing to tell Sakura how I felt. "I know how much you care about Sasuke, but—well, he's not worth it."
"That isn't true," she said. "He's my teammate. And I know who he really is."
"Do you?" I said. "Sakura, he tried to kill you. Twice. You need to admit that he isn't the same person he was when you knew him. He's evil."
"That isn't true!"
"Do you really believe that?" I snapped. "He's never going to change, Sakura. How can you still love him when he doesn't give a damn about you? When he doesn't care about any of you? When he's caused you so much pain?"
"But what if he still does care?"
"And what if he doesn't?" I snapped. "Sasuke isn't the person you think he is anymore! He's twisted and evil, and he's not there anymore. Naruto is still there for you—think about what you said to him. Everything you told him is true. So why are you still fighting it?"
She stared at me for a long moment, looking surprised. Then her expression changed to a defeated look. "I'd think you would understand," she muttered, looking at the floor. "Why I can't forget about him."
I frowned. "What do you mean?"
"Kakashi-Sensei, right?" she said. "Don't you—?"
"No!" I said. "Not—not that way."
She shook her head. "Sure."
"Never mind." I leaned back against the pillows behind me. "I can tell there's no getting through to you. Just don't come crying to me when you've lost Naruto and realize that you actually cared about him."
She gazed at me for half a second, her eyes flashing, and then she turned abruptly and left the room.
Even though Sakura had told me to stay in the hospital overnight, I couldn't stand being cooped up there very long, so I snuck out as soon as I could.
I walked through the village, through the village being rebuilt, the sound of pounding hammers and the people milling about as they worked on rebuilding the houses and buildings. It would still be a long time before the place would be fully rebuilt, but at the moment things were looking hopeful. Soon maybe we'd have our village back.
That is, given Sasuke didn't somehow manage to complete his objective of destroying Konoha.
I didn't want to think about him right now. Sasuke didn't mean anything to me. And I didn't understand why she meant anything to Sakura or Naruto either, really.
I caught sight of Kakashi up ahead, walking through the streets too, looking deep in thought. "Hey, Kakashi!" I called, running up to him.
He turned towards me and frowned. "Ayume," he said. "What are you doing out of the hospital?"
"I'm fine," I said. "I can only spend so much time in a hospital room."
He shook his head. "If you insist."
"So what are you doing out here?" I asked. "Enjoying your last few hours before becoming hokage?"
"Something like that." He sighed, looking up at the rock cliff that harbored the heads of the past four hokage. I remembered the first time I'd seen it, when Kakashi had first brought me here and I'd found the place that would eventually be my home.
I looked at Kakashi and found he was looking at me too. "I guess things will change now," I said. "Now that you're going to be hokage."
"Not everything," he said. He gazed at me intently. "You know, I thought..." He frowned slightly. "I was worried about how you'd react when you met with Sasuke, actually. You and he are alike, after all—you've both lost your clans—"
"He and I are nothing alike," I said abruptly, almost fiercely. "I would never abandon my village for power."
He seemed to smile. "Well, I realized that when you said to him...what you said. About revenge not being worth it. And I realized I was wrong. You can't be changed like he has. You two really aren't anything alike." He sighed, looking over my shoulder off into the distance. "Maybe that's a good thing."
"Even though he's strayed so far," I said. "You all still hold out hope for him that he'll come back. How can you still think that?"
"I don't know," he said. "Naruto hasn't given up on Sasuke yet. And besides, no matter what Sasuke has done, he's still my student." He shrugged. "Maybe it's all just pointless sentiment. But there's always the chance that he'll return."
I stared at him for a long time, unable to think of a way to respond to that. He met my eyes again and I opened my mouth, trying to think of the right way to say what I wanted to—but before I could, someone appeared out of nowhere next to us and threw his arm around Kakashi's shoulders.
"Kakashi, my eternal rival!" Gai said, grinning enthusiastically. "You appear to have survived. How was the mission? Are you injured?"
"I'm fine, Gai..."
Gai then seemed to realize that I was there too and nudged Kakashi with his elbow. A sly grin appeared on his face. "Am I, uh...interrupting something here, Kakashi...?"
"Not at all," Kakashi said. I flushed, rolling my eyes.
Gai still looked suspicious, but he just shrugged. His blinding smile returned. "In that case, what do you say to a little competition? If I remember right, we were tied at 51 wins each."
I laughed. "I'll leave you to it, then." I turned to go. "Good luck, Kakashi—it's your last chance to win as equals, after all."
He blinked. I grinned and headed away from them down the dirt road.
They reminded me a little bit of Naruto and Sasuke, and the rivalry they'd had. The difference was, Naruto and Sasuke's rivalry had ultimately ended in them trying in earnest to kill each other.
The next morning, I was awoken by someone crashing into my room.
The door slammed open and I sat up abruptly, awake and alert at once. Sakura stood in the doorway, breathless and tears in her eyes. "Ayume!"
"Lady Tsunade—" she gasped. For a moment I was sure something terrible had happened and dread twisted in the pit font stomach, but then she smiled. "She—she's awake!"
The entire village seemed ecstatic. Word was traveling quickly of her revival and everyone was talking about it—Tsunade was awake and recovering her chakra by the minute. Before long, she was back to her old self and called Lady Tsunade me in to meet with her, along with Sakura, Kakashi, Yamato, and Shikamaru so she could inform us on the current situation.
Which wasn't good, to say the least.
Madara Uchiha had officially declared war on the shinobi world itself at the five kage summit. Our enemy would be the Akatsuki. Danzo was dead by Sasuke's hand, who had appeared unexpectedly at the kage summit. The shinobi would be gathering together to prepare to fight. It was anybody's guess what would ultimately happen to the shinobi world.
Being a shinobi was never pretty, but I was hoping that in my life I wouldn't have to experience war. I was alive during the third great ninja war, but I had been very young. I didn't remember anything about it.
Essentially it was to protect Naruto, and the other Jinchuuriki, the eight-tails. Naruto had become a hero, and heroes were worth protecting. So I would fight alongside the allied shinobi forces—the five nations would have to join together to fight as one.
Sakura and I were the only two there who hadn't known about the declaration ahead of time, and Tsunade told us that the word would go out about the war soon. She told us to keep the teams calm, and to keep an eye on Naruto as well.
"So what's going to happen with Naruto?" I asked Shikamaru as we walked down the road through the village, the sun bright and hot overhead. We were searching for Naruto, though only halfheartedly. "Are they going to let him fight with us? We could use his power."
"The Kages will probably be meeting soon to discuss that," he said. "And to discuss who the division generals will be. He already knows about the war, but I'm guessing that Naruto will be confined." He frowned. "Naruto may be powerful, but he's reckless. And since this whole war is to keep him safe, I doubt he'll be allowed to fight or it will be too easy for him to get caught."
"You're right," I said. I smiled. "Sharp as always."
"Ayume! Shikamaru!" Sakura was waving at us, Naruto at her side. I shook my head and approached them, and we headed back to see Lady Tsunade.
"An…octopus?" Tsunade said, staring blankly at Naruto. He had just finished explaining how he'd been summoned to meet with the toad sage, who had told him about a prophecy. This particular prophecy involved Naruto traveling to an island and meeting...an octopus.
Kakashi and Tsunade exchanged glances, both looking rather dumbfounded. Kakashi turned to Naruto. "So what does that mean, exactly?" he said.
Naruto frowned. "Well…I guess the octopus is going to help me, somehow." He shrugged. "The great sage didn't really know either. And…he also said I'm going to end up fighting Sasuke."
But we'd already known that. Naruto had known it, too. But he still looked a bit upset about it. Everyone was quiet for a moment. Then Naruto raised his head, smiling again. "But I'm already prepared for that," he said, confirming what I'd thought.
"Naruto…" Sakura said, looking worried as usual for her companion.
He turned to her, still looking confident and smiling. "It's all right, Sakura," he said. "Let me handle Sasuke."
Lady Tsunade left the village soon after speaking with Naruto, and things quieted down temporarily. People were beginning to hear the news, and I could sense the tense atmosphere in the village, but at least nothing big had happened yet. I think we were all waiting for something to happen like Pein attacking the village. It was only just beginning to be restored—we didn't want the village wrecked again.
I kept training so my skills wouldn't deteriorate—this was the worst possible time to get soft. Sakura, meanwhile, was learning what it took to be a medical-nin in the field. I could tell, whenever I saw her, that she had a lot on her mind.
I had a lot of my mind, too. I think we all did.
Tsunade returned with Shukaku several days later, from what I heard was a meeting of the Kages. Evidently they'd decided some pretty important things. One of them being that Naruto would be sent on an s-rank mission to an island where he would most likely find this octopus.
He'd be taking a boat there with Yamato and Gai, and seemed pretty happy about the whole thing. After all, he thought he was going on an elite mission to a paradise island, when actually…
"He's being put into hiding," Shikamaru said. "He's probably going to meet with the eight-tails, so they'll both be kept out of the way."
"And he has no idea?" I muttered, watching as Naruto ran back home to pack, looking excited. "Geez. Talk about being dense. Tsunade sure knows how to take advantage of that.
The Joint Shinobi Forces Central Command was to be set up in the Land of Wind, in the Hidden Sand village, Sunagakure. Besides the sensor companies and the medical companies, shinobi were being placed in five separate divisions—the midrange, close range, intermediate, long range, and special ops. Each division had sub-captains, and one general.
As things began shaping up, the commander general was named for the entire shinobi alliance—and it was Gaara, the Kazekage of the Sand.
I honestly couldn't believe it, when I heard it—I hadn't ever met him, but I knew that Gaara was only sixteen, had never experienced war, and had only been Kazekage for a couple years. He was so young, so inexperienced…he may be powerful, but was he really fit to be in command of the shinobi army?
"Division three general?" I said to Kakashi, blinking.
He nodded. "Intermediate range fighters."
Well…that wasn't really surprising. I was starting to wonder which division I would be put in. Possibly close range.
Kakashi noticed I was staring and smiled. "What, you're not surprised, are you?"
"No," I said. I smiled and shook my head. "Not at all. It's just…this is really happening, isn't it?" This war. It was coming—and there was no stopping it. How much longer would I have in this village—and with the friends I'd made?
"What do you say we spar once more?" he asked suddenly. "For old times sake?" He smiled tauntingly. "We'll see how much your skills have improved."
Once out on the training grounds he uncovered his sharingan and we began to fight. I was surprised at how much I'd learned from my brief encounter with Sasuke—I'd seen do much of what the sharingan could do that I could see a lot of the moves coming.
Half an hour passed, and neither of us had won yet. He still was able to see every move I was going to make. I drew a kunai, jumping backwards, breathing heavily. At least this time he looked a little winded as well.
I frowned, gathering myself. I had to find some way to strategize, though he'd probably be able to see right through my strategy. Dammit, where was this guy's weakness?
He flickered and appeared before me before I could think of anything. I raised my kunai and fended him off, my mind working wildly as the battle adrenaline surged through me.
His kunai descended towards me. But my reflexes kicked in, and I ducked, swinging my leg out underneath me.
Somehow I managed to catch him off-guard and he stumbled, falling to the ground.
And then I stood with my knee braced on his chest, my kunai knife poised above his throat. He blinked up at me, shocked.
"You're finished," I said, breathing heavily.
He stared at me for another split second, then, to my surprise, burst out laughing.
"You've gotten faster," he said. "But…not quite fast enough."
"What do you—?" I looked around and groaned. Kakashi's shadow clone stood behind me, the tip of his kunai pointed calmly towards me. I cursed, listening to the poof sound as his shadow clone disappeared. "Damn. I was so close."
He chuckled and a sly glint appeared in his eyes. "Then again…" He gripped my arm which held my kunai and flipped me suddenly, pinning me to the ground before I had the chance to protest. The breath was punched out of me and I found his eyes locked on mine, my wrist pressed to the ground by one of his gloved hands, his other holding a knife to my pulse point. "I could have just done this," he finished, his voice pitched low and victorious.
I swallowed, eyes wide, and realized I should probably be struggling. I quickly forced my brain to get moving again and glared up at him. "Yeah, yeah, fine. Get offa me."
Clearly grinning, he released me and sat up. I was unable to keep the expression of anger on my face and instead just sat up as well, brushing off my clothes. Kakashi stared at me, appraising me, but didn't say anything. I avoided his eyes, my thoughts straying.
During the war, I might be facing Madara Uchiha. If I couldn't defeat Kakashi, who could use the sharingan that well, what chance did I stand against a true Uchiha like Madara?
"Your eye," I said, before I lost my nerve. "How did you get it? When did you get it?"
Immediately he averted his gaze, his expression becoming guarded. He stood up abruptly. "I should go—"
I rose quickly and caught his arm, refusing to let him get off the hook that easily. "Tell me the truth. Don't you trust me at all?"
I have my secrets too, you know," I said. "I've made mistakes in my life. But I'm not afraid to admit to them."
He stared at me with that intense, probing look that made me wonder what he was thinking…and what he was seeing. But I didn't look away, glaring at him and waiting for him to say something. After we'd known each other so long I felt like I needed to know.
Finally he sighed and looked away. I let go of his arm and he stared at the ground for a long moment—frowning, I saw in his gaze something that I'd seen appear there before but couldn't recognize. Now I understood—he was harboring a deep sense of sadness that had probably been there for a long time.
"When I was thirteen," he said, "I was...in a three-man team under Minato, the fourth Hokage. One of them was a medic-nin named Rin, and the other was a young Uchiha named Obito." He sighed. I didn't like where this story was going.
"It was during the fourth ninja war," he continued, "and we were given a mission that would lead us to the Kannabi bridge. I'd just been made jounin—"
"At thirteen?" I said in disbelief.
He nodded absently. "I went separately with Obito and Rin, but soon after we'd headed out Rin was captured. Obito went after her alone, and I followed instead of carrying out the mission like I'd originally intended." His gaze was faraway and his voice was heavy. "Obito had just awakened his sharingan when we found Rin, but he was killed...trying to protect us." He closed his eyes. "Before he died, he gave me his sharingan, and I swore I would use it to protect Rin. His death was my fault—if I had gone after Rin instead of insisting on finishing the mission..." He shook his head. "Never mind. It was a long time ago. But anyway, that's how I got the sharingan."
"And Rin," I said softly. "What happened to her?"
"That's—" He paused. "Not important."
I gazed at him thoughtfully, silent, for a long time. "You've been carrying that around for a long time, haven't you?"
He shrugged. "I suppose."
"It couldn't have been entirely your fault, though," I said. "And besides, think about how you've been able to develop the sharingan."
He stared at me. "Ayume—"
"I've done terrible things in my life too," I said, "and made tons of mistakes. But at least you've made a good name for yourself, and are respected. The people of this village still hate me because of all the things I've done, so I still don't have anywhere I really belong. Maybe—"
"Ayume," he interrupted, and I could tell he was smiling now. "Believe me. You belong here. And the people of the leaf respect you—and trust you—more than you think." His voice dropped slightly. "I trust you with my life."
I tried to speak, to think of the right way to respond to that, but I couldn't find the words.
So instead I stepped towards him and stretched up on my toes, kissing him over his mask.
I drew away, opening my eyes, and he was looking at me as well, with that same calculating look he always wore. And then it faded, and suddenly he was just looking at me. But it was as if he was seeing more than he ever had before.
I hesitated a moment before pulling away the mask that shielded his face, and moving close to kiss him again, not caring what he looked like, not even seeing, not caring that we stood on the precipice of a war.
And he kissed me back, this time, making me feel that maybe I really did have a place in this cold, cruel world.
Maybe I'd known where it was all along.