Watch out for The Link: Heart of Fire! For hints regarding Orochimaru's scroll's whereabouts, I suggest reading Of Ramen and Wooden Skates.

The Link

Chapter XV: Partings

Deidara hissed in pain as he removed his hand from the spot where the blasted woman's blade went through his body. His fingers were slicked red with blood, but hopefully he could get up and make it back to the hideout alive. It was lucky he'd been able to do Kawarimi no Jutsu in the last moment – he had no wish to suffer through the Murasaki clan's bloodline limit again.

Kisame was already patching himself up. The Leader wasn't going to be happy.

"What do we do now?" Deidara sighed.

The shark-man held up a ring. "We got what we came for."

Deidara snatched the ring from Kisame's scaly fingers. "How did you manage to snatch this from Itachi-sama?"

"You blew up his arm, remember?"


"You need patching up?"

"Yeah, give me those bandages."


There was a moment of silence as Kisame wore his coat and Deidara wrapping his middle with bandages. And then the blonde tried to stand gingerly. His legs agreed to support his weight anyway.

"Do you think the Leader will be convinced that we did kill Itachi-sama?" Deidara asked.

Kisame gave him a disdainful smirk as he held up a pale, slender and severed finger.

"I think he would." Kisame replied. Deidara grinned back.

There were two black blurs momentarily in the air as the two left the cave they had hid themselves in after escaping from Konoha.

The funeral was simple, only a few people stood in attendance, clad in black as they took their turns offering incense before the picture of the deceased. Naruto took a moment as he held up his incense sticks and prayed for his sensei's soul. He opened his blue eyes after a moment and stared at the picture. It was Orochimaru five years before he left Konoha. He did not smile in the picture, as he was wont to do, except glared at whoever the photographer was. He wore the head protector Naruto now kept in his pocket and the old-fashioned, gray Jounin vest of earlier days. Naruto rose and turned to the people behind him.

Tsunade and Jiraiya nodded to him, as did Shizune and Sakura. Neji was also present, and even Sasuke, though the Uchiha did not bother to burn even a since incense stick. Kakashi, although clad in black, was busy reading his Icha Icha book. Ayame-chan and the owner of Ichiraku Ramen were also there. The owner was sobbing into his cap as Ayame-chan patted him consolingly on the shoulder. They were the only people who bothered to grieve for the Serpent. Naruto felt his hands clench into fists as he turned his gaze to the blue sky overhead.

He did not have the right to complain, though. Tsunade had been hard put to even secure a burial place for Orochimaru here in Konoha. And his tombstone did not even bear his name. It was too dangerous to write his name in the open, Jiraiya said. He shouldn't even be in Konoha, even though he was of the Legendary Three. The hard truth of this was a slap to Naruto. He had vowed once, to let the Serpent walk in Konoha again. It seemed impossible now that he really thought about it. A criminal would always be a criminal, Tsunade said, and the things Orochimaru had done weren't going to be forgotten for a very, very long time.

Kakashi shut his book. "So where are we going now? I have to get back to the ANBU headquarters."

"I'll come with you." Neji said hurriedly, and they left together.

Sasuke gave the blank tombstone a last look. "I have to go back to the hospital and see to Itachi. He hasn't woken...still." and he shoved his hands into his pockets.

"We'll go with you; we have to diagnose him as well." Shizune said as she gave Sakura a push. Sasuke led the way back to the hospital.

"We're going as well; we can't leave the store for too long." Ayame-chan said as she bowed. "We have to go." So saying she led her crying uncle away gently.

Naruto watched them all go in silence. And then he turned to the sword lying on the grass a few inches from Orochimaru's final resting place. Bending, Naruto picked up the Kusanagi from the ground, weighing it in his hands. He stepped back and performed a few slashes and thrusts with the sword. It was heavy and awkward, but he knew he was going to get used to it eventually. He ran his right index finger on the length of the blade. This blade was going to taste Kabuto's blood somewhere in the future, or Naruto would die trying. Already he had asked for Kakashi and Neji's help in learning the ways of the sword.

"When did Orochi-kun get that sword again?" Jiraiya asked, finally breaking the melancholy silence in the vast expanse of that long unused training field.

"A week before he took the Jounin exams." Tsunade replied.

"He killed that Snow ANBU for it, didn't he?"

"I think so..." Tsunade frowned lightly. "But then it might have been the weasel-summoning kunoichi from the Grass."

Naruto brought down the sword one last time with a lethal whoosh before sheathing it. Tsunade gave Jiraiya a look, and the perverted hermit nodded. She stepped forward.

"Naruto, can you listen to what Jiraiya and I have to say?" Tsunade said gently as she had a hand on the fox's shoulder.

"Okay," Naruto said. He blinked expectantly up at them. This close Tsunade noted that his eyes were still swollen. He had cried incessantly for three days and four nights prior to Orochimaru's death. Tsunade did not let his shoulder go as they started to go on a slow walk back to the village.

"Naruto, I am sure you have known about Koharu-sama and Homura-sama's deaths." Tsunade explained. "The council positions they have left out need to be filled. Traditionally S-rank ninjas such as Jiraiya and I are needed to take the position. Jiraiya has agreed to take Homura-sama's place." Jiraiya nodded at this. "However...I...I can't take Koharu's place because I still hold the title of Hokage. So this means..."

Naruto stopped walking, and so did Tsunade and Jiraiya.

"So this means, you've got to step down soon." Naruto said in a hushed voice.

Tsunade nodded. "True. Soon. As the village council of Konoha, Naruto, Jiraiya and I are asking you to become the Rokudaime Hokage for the village."

Shocked silence accompanied with the widening of blue eyes was Naruto's reply.

Tsunade smiled. "Can you become our Hokage, Naruto?"

For a moment Naruto's knuckles went white as he gripped the Kusanagi tightly. But then his grip relaxed, and a sad smile surfaced on his face as he met Tsunade's eyes.

"I'm sorry. I refuse." Naruto said softly.

Jiraiya looked confused. Tsunade blinked slowly as if she had misheard Naruto's reply.

"W-what?" she blurted out.

Naruto sighed and looked back at Orochimaru's tomb. Then he returned his gaze to the two Sannin before him and bowed in apology.

"I'm sorry. I refuse the title of Rokudaime Hokage." He said clearly. That was all and he hefted the Kusanagi onto his shoulders and went on his way, whistling softly.

Tsunade felt like she had been hit with a Raiton technique. However she came to herself quick enough and ran to catch up to Naruto.

"Naruto! Naruto, wait! Naruto!"

Naruto stopped on his tracks and gave her a puzzled look.

"What are you doing?" Tsunade blurted out in disbelief as she grabbed the fox's shoulders. "Becoming Hokage has been your dream ever since you were a Genin! Isn't this your ultimate goal? Why this refusal? Is it because of Orochimaru's death? Naruto, Orochimaru wouldn't have wanted you to refuse the title of Hokage for such a trivial matter -!"

"What has gotten into you?" Jiraiya frowned as he caught up with them.

Naruto gave her another sad smile. "I can't become Hokage yet, Tsunade-baachan. So I ask you to hold your office a little longer. There is something I need to do first."

He gently pried off her hands from his shoulder and resumed walking.

"Naruto! Naruto, Orochimaru wouldn't want you to become a heartless murderer for his sake!" Jiraiya called.

There was a shout of laughter from Naruto. "I won't become a murderer, don't worry!"

"Where are you going!" Tsunade shouted after him. "Naruto! Hey – NARUTO!"

But Naruto only waved at them without bothering to look before disappearing in a blur of movement.

It was warm, that much Itachi knew. He had never felt this delightfully warm for a very long time in his life. Slowly, Itachi opened his eyes. He sighed as the familiar darkness of being blind greeted him. So much for hoping that his eyesight would return. He was surprised as he felt his right arm back into place. Turning his head, he decided to try a few of his fingers...until he realized that his little finger was gone.

"Unh..." he said in surprise. It felt weird to have one finger missing.

"You're awake! Thank goodness..." said an unfamiliar voice. It belonged to a woman.

"Who's that...?" Itachi asked as he tried to lift his head a few inches from the pillow. However, a familiar high-pitched squeak reached his ears.

"Eiyi! 'tachi! 'tachi!"

Heion's voice made him bolt upright from the bed. Blindly Itachi extended his arms. "Heion! Where is she? Can I touch her? Please, I beg you!"

He felt her gentle weight settle somewhere by his feet, and she crawled up to him. Crying in relief, Itachi instinctively picked her up and hugged her tight, kissing her again and again. He felt her warm slobber slick his cheek as she tried to bite his nose. The woman's voice gave a hearty laugh somewhere in the room.

"Do be careful, she is starting to grow her teeth, and they are quite sharp."

Itachi nodded as he took in Heion's wonderful baby scent, sniffing her neck and ears all the while raining her with kisses. She was alive, she was safe. Deidara and Kisame did not kill her nor take her away, o let all the gods be praised!

"Coo...'tachi...coo..." Heion giggled as she had her little arms around his neck and laid her head on his shoulder.

"Who are you?" Itachi asked as he patted the baby's back.

"I am Murasaki Koyuki, Head Medic of Kirigakure." the voice replied. "I am Miyabi's auntie, her only surviving family. Miyabi is otherwise fondly called by you and Sasuke as Heion."


"So you're going to take her away now?" Itachi asked softly.

"I am afraid that is how things will be." Koyuki replied after a moment. "However, I cannot express enough words of gratitude to you and your brother. You are both always welcome to see us in the Hidden Mist anytime you like."

Itachi gave a bitter smile. "You are aware I am the one who killed your brother?"

"Yes, I am aware enough." Koyuki answered.

"And you are also aware that I had been of the Akatsuki, and therefore an S-ranked criminal and missing nin?"


"And you are aware that I killed the Uchiha clan, sparing only my brother?"


Itachi gave a small laugh as he kissed Heion on the cheek for the last time. "Take your niece."

"What are you planning to do, Uchiha Itachi?"

"I am..."

However, Itachi's words were cut short, to be replaced by sharp hissing as pain suddenly erupted from his eyes. Heion cried, and soon her weight left his bed.

"Are you all right?" came Koyuki's voice.


The pain escalated, and then as quickly as it had come, vanished. Itachi lifted his head slowly. At a snail's pace, the darkness that surrounded him was pierced by a single beam of light. And then another...and another...


Colors appeared, and then the faint outline of a woman standing before him. The blurry outline gradually sharpened, until his eyesight had fully returned. Blinking in wonder, Itachi looked around the room. They were alone, but his senses told him there were two ANBUs at his door outside.


He held out his arms for her, and they looked long and hard into each other's eyes. Heion was very beautiful. Itachi smiled at her and gave a contented sigh. He turned his gaze to Koyuki. She was beautiful too albeit in a hardened way, and her own purple eyes glinted with pain and wisdom and love.

"Your eyesight has returned." Koyuki said in wonder.

Itachi nodded. "Yes, but is not the only thing that came back."

At once the hospital room vanished, to be replaced by the twilight world of Tsukuyomi. Koyuki stood bravely on her ground. She was not affected by his illusion, just like her brother.

Itachi walked up to her. "I have no plans to be executed, Koyuki-san. So please cooperate."

Koyuki nodded and let him touch Heion. He ran his hand over her eyes, and she instantly fell asleep. Koyuki met his gaze with determination.

"What about Sasuke? He has watched over you without any sleep for three days."

Itachi gave her a small smile. "I know. I felt him beside me."

"And you are just leaving without telling him?"

"He does not need to know; he is no longer a child."

"You love him?"

"With every drop of blood in my veins that he also shares, yes, I love my brother. Now go to sleep."

Koyuki nodded and acquiesced, finally closing her eyes.

The doorknob gave way under Sasuke's hands, and he entered the room, followed by Shizune and Sakura. However, the medics' conversations were cut short. Koyuki and Heion were peacefully asleep on the bed where Itachi should have been. Eyes widening, Sasuke immediately went into the room, rummaging about. Sakura quickly informed the ANBUs outside.

"He's gone!" Shizune exclaimed in wonder. "But...but how did he -?"

Sasuke's gaze landed on the small, wooden horse carving standing on the bedside table. It stood about a foot tall, painted exquisitely in blacks and whites. Walking slowly, he went to it and picked it up. Beneath it was a small piece of paper with Itachi's neat handwriting.

Took me long enough to finish this.

I hope you don't mind the lateness.

For all your birthdays and Christmases that I missed.

Take care of yourself, brother.

Sasuke smiled as he clutched the horse to his heart and lifted his gaze to the open window, where the curtains were still swishing under a nonexistent breeze.

"You also owe me a new house, you bastard." Sasuke whispered as his eyes sparkled.

Some twenty kilometers outside Konoha, Itachi gave a laugh as the illusionary breeze took Sasuke's message to his ears.

The End