Chapter Nine: The Aftermath

Sakura sighed as she led Shikamaru and Tsunade down the dark hallway. Was this plan really enough to fool the enemy? As she understood it, the plan has unfolded like this:

Naruto, using information provided by Sasuke, had fought and eventually had to kill the agent Orochimaru had sent to follow Sasuke. This contributed to the appearance that Naruto had discovered Sasuke's plan.

Kankurou had hidden in the bushes of the forest, and, using Sasuke, Naruto, the replacement technique and two transfigured puppets, faked a battle between Sasuke and Naruto, which began with Naruto's explaining to Sasuke that he had discovered his plot and ended with two dead "ninjas."

Shikamaru had emerged on cue, stood over the bodies and signaled ANBU to take them away.

As soon as Naruto and Sasuke had finished their speaking roles in the battle, Sakura had helped them to escape to this hideout, readied their bags and disguised them for their long journey. She had done so bravely without showing emotion, but when she went to announce it to Tsunade, the reality had suddenly hit her and she had begun to cry. She knew, however, that if by some miracle this worked, it would be the ideal solution. Akatsuki would stop searching for Naruto and Sasuke would finally be free of Orochimaru's grasp. Still, it was difficult to accept the loss of two of her most important people.

Shikamaru's eyes widened with surprise when they entered the room. The two people that stood before him were nearly unrecognizable. But for the traveling gear they carried, Shikamaru would not have known who they were. However, the look on his face quickly became a smirk when he realized what had happened.

"Well done, Sakura," Tsunade remarked, her hands on her hips.

Sakura had covered Naruto's whisker-like scars and changed the hair and eye color of both men using the same technique as Tsunade used to make herself appear young. She had also demonstrated the technique and had made them practice it until she was satisfied that they would be able to maintain their new identities. She had given them each plain clothing, suitable for a civilian, to wear, and had warned them to change their habits, advising Sasuke to be more talkative and Naruto to avoid frequenting ramen shops. Where they were going, even Sakura did not know. It was a secret known only to Shikamaru and Tsunade. At least Sakura knew that the deaths had been faked. No one else in the village was to know that. Sakura thought it cruel. However, if all went according to plan, Sasuke and Naruto would live peacefully together, and blend in as much as possible, living the lives of normal civilians, until such time as the threat of Orochimaru and Akatsuki had been completely eradicated, when they would return.

"I guess we're ready, then," Naruto said quietly, and it was clear that he was having second thoughts about leaving his loved ones behind. Sasuke looked him straight in the eye and nodded.

"Bye, Shikamaru," Naruto said, giving him a brief hug.

Shikamaru grunted and gave a quick nod to Sasuke, who remained where he had been standing.

"Tsunade no baa-chan," Naruto stuttered in a voice of stifled tears. He gave her a tight hug, which she broke to kiss him on the forehead.

"I'll miss you. Please take care of yourself," she said softly.

Knowing that her turn was next, Sakura sniffled in an attempt to stop crying. Naruto merely stood and regarded her for a few moments, awe on his face and guilt in his eyes. There was nothing he hated more than hurting Sakura-chan. It was Sakura who pulled him into a hug, causing him to blush. She kissed him on the cheek. Naruto was awestruck for a moment, but eventually did the same.

"I will miss you, Sakura-chan," was all he could manage to say as he pulled away. He tilted his head, signaling to Sasuke that he, too, should say something to Sakura. Sasuke looked reluctant but eventually approached her. Taking her chin in his hand, his kissed her softly on the cheek.

In a voice reminiscent of that scene so many years ago, he said simply, "Sakura…Arigatou."

Taking one last look at the three people gathered, two so precious and one somewhat out of place, the two departed. Sakura bit her lip to keep from sobbing loudly, but the tears continued to roll down her cheeks. Tsunade put her hand on Shikamaru's shoulder. He looked at her curiously.

"Well done," she said and grinned broadly.

Shikamaru just sighed.

The End.