Chapter One Hundred Seventy
Tomoko gripped the wolf's fur tight as they ran through the woods, the sun was rising when suddenly the group stopped.
"What's going on?" Takumi asked.
"Hokage-sama," Hyuga Hinata squeaked, "He's waking up!"
The three wolves stopped and the five riders dismounted, Yuu's sister and the other Jounin took up guard positions, Hinata carefully set Naruto-sama down on some soft dirt and propped him up against a tree.
His eyes were open but he didn't seem to be looking at anything until Tomoko knelt down near him and bowed her head.
Then he looked right at her and said softly, "At least some of the little ones made it out . . . unless . . . you're not a shadow clone are you?" He asked with mock suspicion but it was halfhearted, there really wasn't anything to joke about.
Tomoko choked back a mixture of a laugh and a sob, she hated to think of the scene they'd left behind.
At least some of the little ones made it out. Naruto-sama probably meant it as a joke . . . but how many of the younger ninja had made it out of the city? She knew most of the Genin under Kotaro's command had probably made it but there were plenty of Chuunin who were still just kids . . . like her brother.
But where were the others? Dead back in Konoha? Or dying?
Imprisoned? Escaped? Escaped to what? To where?
"Where will we go, Hokage-sama?" Hinata asked as if she'd read Tomoko's mind.
"Kumo." Naruto whispered, "For now . . ."
"Are we sure we can trust them?" Hinata asked, "We haven't heard anything from anyone else, Ino might have taken the survivors to Kiri or who knows where."
Then suddenly Kaori cried out a warning, Takumi drew his sword, but the first people to emerge were Yamanaka Ino, and someone else Tomoko recognized.
She ran forward, shouting in surprise and relief even though she didn't know why she was so relieved.
She threw herself at him, and luckily, despite being startled he didn't let her run right through him, instead they embraced.
Tomoko buried her face in his shoulder, closed her eyes and whispered "You're safe at least."
Yurei Yuu held her just as tightly and said "I couldn't die without telling you what I thought of your story."
Tomoko felt tears rolling down her cheeks, staining Yuu's flak jacket, "That's all you had to live for?"
"There are worse things." Yuu told her.
"Um . . . yeah, so anyway Hokage-sama," Yamanaka Ino said, "I couldn't just call ahead, didn't know if you were in a compromised state, Shikamaru hasn't caught up yet but Temari has and she said everything was going according to plan . . ."
"It was . . ." Hinata said, "but in the end something happened, Kabuto defeated the nine tails somehow."
"No . . . it wasn't Kabuto . . ." Naruto whispered, "but there's nothing we can do about it now. Shikamaru should make it back safely."
"Good . . . the people are waiting, the civilians and all the others are on their way to Kumogakure." Ino said, she indicated Yuu, "Their ninja intercepted us, they were only too eager to take us in."
Naruto smiled and rose to his feet, "Then that's where we need to go. All of us . . . all that's left."
Yeah, Tomoko thought, all that's left.
Daisuke stood with the remains of his clan, he didn't see father, he didn't see Tomoko.
He'd been asked to speak on behalf of the entire clan, he still didn't know the whole story but since he and Eri had survived the razzing of Konoha mainly because they'd been hiding with his clan he figured his father and Tomoko must have been fine too.
There was a makeshift throne room built in what had once been the Hokage's office, and it was here that everyone was being sent one by one or in small groups to swear allegiance to their Shogun and to their new Emperor.
Both men were covered completely in white robes, their heads alone were visible.
The Emperor had a soft, almost familiar feminine face and shoulder length hair, but his voice and his cold serpent eyes were completely male. The Shogun had gray hair but probably not due to age. He had glasses, but one of his eyes was completely covered in scales and was serpentine like the Emperor's.
A pair of Jounin stood on either side of them, one was the woman who'd trained Akuma. Daisuke felt afraid as he was brought before the two men who had outthought Nara Shikamaru and outfought Uzumaki Naruto.
The Emperor said "It is regrettable to learn that your father was accidentally killed in the final hours of fighting, and that your sister too perished in the battle," the feminine man said, confirming Daisuke's fears, "but I do hope, young Oedo, that you will lead your clan towards a bright future, as your father wished. Help me rebuild the world . . . starting with this place that was once your home, and will be again when we are through."
Daisuke closed his eyes, "The Oedo are simple blacksmiths, but our tools are at your disposal . . ."
What choice do I have? He wondered.
Eri squeezed his hand, he smiled slightly, the Shogun stood and walked over to Daisuke, he put a hand on the younger man's shoulder and Daisuke couldn't help but shudder.
If he were going to survive in this new enemy world that would have to change, he'd have to become more accustomed to being around people he wanted to hurt or even kill.
And when the time came . . . maybe there would be something he could do . . . some way of hindering these people . . .
"Look out at that, what do you see?" The Shogun asked, indicating the window and the blackened remains of Konohagakure.
"I see a destroyed city."
"I see a blank slate." The Shogun said calmly, "the Emperor sees a blank slate. You will build us our new city, a city with tall towers made of metal and glass. Not a hovel made of wood but a city made of steel and stone. Your clan will be nobility, simply build me, and my master, the city we expect. You'll have as much resources as you need, as many workers as you need."
A metal city . . . a life of nobility . . . a life of shame knowing that for all he knew he was rebuilding the city for the very people who'd killed his father and sister.
But he glanced back at Eri, who was caught in the crossfire . . . if he denied his honor might be satisfied but she might be harmed, and besides the way he'd so obviously taken comfort in holding her hand the Emperor and Shogun might use her to force him to do their bidding . . . so in the end it was risk Eri or build a few buildings . . . what choice did he have?
He'd tried to protect her, get her out of the city, and he'd failed. Now she was alone, her brother was gone, maybe dead or captured, her parents were in a whole other country, for the time being at least she was the only person outside of his clan that he felt close to, and he felt responsible for her.
"It will be an honor to build your city . . . my liege." Oedo Daisuke whispered.
He was lying, it was no honor, it was simple survival. Worse he sensed the Emperor and Shogun sensed it . . . They just didn't care.
They'd won. He was nobody, no threat.
He swore then and there that regardless of the risk to him or his clan he'd prove them wrong on that count.
Hokage and Raikage walked side by side at the forefront of the Konoha exodus. They weren't separated from the others but mostly only ninja were within earshot, their aids were walking right alongside them, with Naruto was his temporary aid Ino, and the Raikage's aid Tetsuo. Hinata was in the crowd attending to the injured.
Ino was a medic too and would have been tending to the injured as well but since she'd been in nominal command of the refugees since they left Konoha Naruto had asked her to act as his aid for this talk with the Raikage.
Normally it would probably have been Sakura-chan, or maybe even Sasuke or Shikamaru, but with all she'd been through Naruto sort of felt like Ino was the best suited to advise him for the moment.
Both sides had their soldiers nearby, the Raikage had several members of the Hattori clan nearby, pretending not to watch them, Naruto noted that Temari and several Suna ninja were shadowing him and Hinata-chan was treating patients that were very nearby, the remainder of the Hyuga clan was watching Hinata very carefully.
But whatever happened Naruto wouldn't let it come to blows between him and the Raikage, not with so many civilians who could and would be caught in the crossfire.
The older man smiled slightly, "You're our guests . . . and those of you that wish to will join our ninja force . . . those that choose otherwise can go to Kirigakure."
"So it's your way or the seaway?" Naurto asked.
"You'll understand if I'm not comfortable having possibly hostile ninja in my city." The Raikage said simply. "Besides spreading our forces between Kiri and Kumo would be beneficial, it keeps the Shogun from conquering one place and wiping out all resistance."
Naruto nodded, but said "Last I heard you were still at war with Kiri."
"Yes well that came to an end. We were fighting them on the shores, they were trying to stall us, keep us from going after their ninja who'd gone ahead to Konoha's aid."
"They were late." Ino said darkly.
The Raikage smiled weakly, "We sort of contributed to that. It was . . . a misunderstanding, we had no idea they were your allies, so we fought them at the shores thinking we'd wipe them out and then move to your aid. You have to understand if we'd left our village exposed to possible enemies we might save your home only to find ours in ashes."
Naruto nodded but he sensed there was something the Raikage wasn't telling him.
Something he didn't trust.
"We tried to fight them off of the shores, it wasn't happening. So we captured their ships at sea and forced their soldiers to surrender. We've come to an . . . agreement with them. They'll ferry you and your ninja to Kirigakure if you so choose." The Raikage's aid, Tetsuo said.
"So you mean to divide our forces between your own city and your enemies." Ino snapped, Naruto raised his hand to rebuke her but she continued anyway, "what happens if you tell our ninja to kill their own clansmen in the other city? You realize we won't do it don't you?"
"By the time Lightning and Water return to their old feuds," the Raikage said, "we expect Konoha and Suna will be reclaimed . . . we're in private alliance with Kiri and the new Shogun will enforce peace between Lightning and Water."
"If it makes the chain of command easier, keep the Sunagakure survivors in Kumo, and the Konoha survivors in Kiri, after all Kumo and Suna never really had a proper chance to exchange blows, the hatred between our ninja will be less than that between Kumo and Konoha ninja if they're forced to share living space." Tetsuo said.
"That'll be Gaara's call when he's feeling better." Temari said calmly, "whether or not the Suna ninja take residence in your city that is."
The Raikage nodded, "Of course. In fact my agents tell me that the Mizukage would like to have a meeting of all four allied Kage."
"Four allied Kage." Naruto said softly, "it sounds like we're a formidable force."
"In the old days we would have been." The Raikage agreed, "But then, I suppose you know better than anyone that even an alliance of ninja villages doesn't always spell doom for their target."
Naruto smiled wryly, "Lets hope this Sound Shogun isn't as resilient as Konoha and Suna then."
Temari seemed distracted, Naruto added for her benefit, "We'll go to Kumo for now, that's where Shikamaru will be headed . . . we'll hold a meeting with the Mizukage when Gaara is up to it . . . and begin plans to take back the ninja world."
But even as Naruto said that he was already thinking of a plan of his own.
"What's that?" Ino piped up, Naruto's gaze went upwards, to where Ino's eyes were looking and he saw the large shape moving towards them.
The dragon descended and landed almost delicately nearby, and on its head was a very familiar ninja dressed in black. Most of the civilians backed away, several ninja stepped forward to defend them against the possible threat, but one ninja in particular strode closer than the rest.
"Kankuro!" Temari screamed in a mixture of joy and surprise, "Kankuro you're alive?"
Kankuro's dragon puppet lowered its head, he smiled weakly and said "Thank to the Raikage I am . . . and you were correct, Raikage-sama, Sound agents tried to launch an insurrection, we stopped them."
Naruto noticed that there was someone else on the dragon's back, and once he recognized her he was surprised he hadn't noticed her before the dragon, she was huge.
Hanabi slid off the puppet's back and threw her arms around her husband, "Tetsuo! I was so worried!"
Hinata looked up from her work and Hanabi smiled at her, Naruto couldn't help but smile too.
It was kind of nice seeing two pairs of siblings reunited . . .
"Kan-kun?" A trembling voice said from the crowd, "Oh my gosh you're safe? I was so--"
The dragon's head suddenly snapped towards Syako, who had emerged from behind the line of ninja holding Temari's daughter, she staggered back but the ninja seemed unsure of whether or not to get between her and one of their own, after all pretty much everyone knew she'd been with Sound.
Kankuro glared at her and then turned to the Raikage, "With your permission I'll take Gaara and some of the other injured on ahead to the city for proper medical attention."
"Absolutely." The Raikage said, "And you go with your wife Tetsuo."
"If there's room after the injured," Tetsuo said evenly, "I wouldn't want to deny any with greater need."
Naruto folded his arms and said "Won't the dragon puppet be a fairly obvious sign of ninja?"
"It's good that the people see our ninja helping the common people," The Raikage said, "the Shogun has and will likely continue to smear the reputation of ninja."
Naruto nodded, and he trusted Kankuro, but . . .
"Ino and Hinata had better go too," he said, "since they know everyone's condition."
They didn't, they probably knew a few people's situation but Naruto wanted some of his own ninja going with the civilians and injured ninja, he didn't want there to be any chance of foul play and even though he was aware that Ino was pregnant she wasn't so far into it and could still defend herself and aid Hinata in the event of trouble.
The Raikage nodded and all of the ninja began to search through the convoy for the most injured or ill.
All while Naruto thought and rethought his own schemes.
Sakura and Sasuke moved as quickly as they could after the refugees, knowing full well that Sound ninja might follow them or worse that Sound ninja might have beaten them to the civilians.
Sakura kept one eye on the trees as they leapt and another on Sasuke.
She'd known him for more than half of her lifetime and yet still didn't know him as well as she wanted to, wasn't certain about some things, but still one thing she did know was that he was thinking very deeply about something very troubling.
They hadn't said a word to each other after they escaped Konohagakure, she'd asked after Hijiri Hitomi's condition, they'd paused long enough to stabilize her, and then ran off through the trees in silence.
What was Sasuke thinking about and why wouldn't he tell her?
Maybe he was waiting until they were safe . . . maybe he didn't want to talk about it out in the open but whatever was troubling him did he even know that he could ask for her help?
Had she made it clear enough in their time together that she was trustworthy?
A pair of ninja traveled faster than nearly the entire population of Konoha, still with the headstart the people had Sakura hadn't thought they'd catch up to them until she saw a pair of Genin standing guard. She and Sasuke showed themselves to the boys to make their presence known, they could have bypassed them or at least restrained them so there were no accidents but Sakura didn't want to make the two Genin seem incompetent in their own eyes or in the eyes of their superiors, and Sasuke, regardless of how he felt in the matter, was carrying an unconscious teenager so he just followed her lead.
"U-Uchiha, Haruno!" One of the Genin said, awestruck.
"How far are we from the main group?" Sakura asked.
"Not far, they've stopped."
"What? Are they insane?" Sasuke demanded harshly.
"Uh no, it's just Kumogakure's sent a big flying machine to--"
"A what?" Sakura gawked, "A flying machine? Are you serious?"
"Yeah, it's like a dragon!" The boy said excitedly, "I guess the village hidden in Clouds would have lots of flying things, but this one was a huge dragon!"
"Has Hokage-sama arrived?" Sasuke asked.
"Yes, he showed up a few hours ago, I heard him saying he rode on wolves just to catch up to us! This is really exciting!"
Sakura shuddered from the look Sasuke shot the Genin, "It's what? Our city is in flames, our people evicted, good men and women dead or dying or captured . . . and you think its exciting?"
"Well," The Genin said, seeming unnerved by Sasuke's ire but not remotely apologetic, "with you two here now, and the dragon to fly all the civilians to Kumogakure aren't we going to turn around and take back Konoha?"
"Yeah!" The other Genin piped up, "We've got reinforcements now, isn't the plan to go home while they're not expecting us?"
Sasuke's anger disappeared, but not completely, "I don't know the plan . . . ask the master strategist."
"Look," Sakura said, interrupting, "if Naruto-kun needs us we should go to him, and if there's some flying machine taking people ahead to Kumo we should let Hitomi see a physician, field treatments will only get her so far."
Sasuke nodded and they ran down the trail left behind by the civilian mob.
Sakura watched Sasuke, he seemed even more withdrawn now, what was he thinking?
"Do you think the Mizukage will help us if we do go back?" She asked.
"He'll help himself and his village, if we go back with enough force that he thinks we can win, or would win were he to side with us, then he'd help us. If we go back counting on his help he'll stick with the winning side, stick with Kabuto."
Sakura nodded slightly, "What do you think we'll do?"
"Shikamaru didn't tell you what to do?" Sasuke growled.
"No." Sakura said flatly, "He told me where to be for the ambush and said that if it failed I should head for Kumogakure."
"He shouldn't keep so many of his plans in his head." Sasuke said, "If he'd told me it wasn't really Naruto, that it was just a clone I would never have--"
"Sasuke-kun, none of us knew you were there."
"Shikamaru's a sensor, he should have known I was coming." Sasuke snapped back.
"He can't sense chakra all the time, he has to focus and even then he can't always tell who an individual is . . . but it doesn't matter, it's not your fault we failed to assassinate Kabuto."
"I never said it was my fault." Sasuke said coldly.
"And it isn't," Sakura reassured, "You were worried about Naruto. It's understandable . . . Shikamaru should have anticipated the chance of you showing up. Maybe he did, I don't know, but the fact is you had no way of knowing that Naruto's life wasn't in danger by the demon's chakra. You're not to blame, Naruto knows that."
Sasuke was quiet for a while, then they reached the refugees.
Several ninja showed up but nobody threatened them, it was clear right away who they were.
Sakura could see now the giant dragon which stood on the treetops, its head leaned down to the ground to allow people to climb aboard, "How did we not see that coming in?" She asked, even if her eyes were blocked by the trees she would have thought Sasuke's Sharingan would notice it.
Maybe he hadn't had his Sharingan activated? She wasn't sure and Sasuke didn't answer, they went to the dragon and saw several ninja conducting people onto the monstrosity.
"You're sure you can fly it with so many people, Kankuro?" Sakura heard Temari asking, and turned her head to see Temari and indeed the missing and presumed dead Kankuro chatting by the giant puppet's side.
"I perfected controlling the Dragon while I slaughtered the Sound agents trying to invade Kumogakure, I can even make it fight while it flies if I need to defend myself. Gaara's going to be perfectly safe."
"So it's a giant puppet? Where did it come from?" Sakura asked, noting that the dragon didn't really look all that aerodynamic, it was a giant snake with legs mostly.
"Sakura?" Temari said in surprise, turning around to see her, "And Sasuke? Is Shikamaru with--"
"No." Sasuke said sharply.
Kankuro answered Sakura's question, "It is one of the things I could take from Suna, the most powerful puppet ever designed. I felt like I would need it more than Sound."
Sakura smiled, "See that, Sasuke? Doesn't a powerful ninja tool like that make you even a little cheerful? We'll take Konohagakure back in no time."
"It should never have fallen to begin with." Sasuke said quietly.
"Well . . . It looks like they're done loading me up," Kankuro said, "Want me to take the kid too? We're going to Kumo, where there's real medicine, might help her out."
Sasuke nodded, he turned to Sakura and said "Take Hitomi, I want you to make sure she's kept safe. You're the best medic in this or any army so you're her best chance for survival, the best chance most of these people have for survival."
Sakura frowned, about to protest but she noticed that over two dozen badly injured ninja and samurai had already been loaded onto the dragon.
No civilians thankfully, they'd been kept properly safe, the soldiers of Fire and the ninja of Konoha had done their duty splendidly . . .
Or as splendidly as any defeated army ever could.
Sakura said "All right, but I should see Naruto-kun first."
"I'll tell him you're safe. She has a bloodline trait, her eyes, and I don't want those doctors in Kumo getting their hands on them if she doesn't make it."
Sakura frowned, but she nodded, the glanced at the girl whose goggles covered her eyes . . .
What did those eyes look like? There were some rumors that Hitomi might have the Sharingan, and Sasuke's interest in the youth might mean that they were true, was that why Sasuke didn't want anyone getting Hitomi's eyes?
Sakura decided to just nod and accept Sasuke's instructions, if it helped him with whatever he was planning she'd just do it.
"No problem, Sasuke. I'll see to everyone, but Hitomi in particular."
Sasuke nodded, Kankuro took Hitomi from Sasuke and said to Sakura, "Well come on if you're coming I guess."
Sakura smiled encouragingly at Sasuke, "Everything's going to turn out fine, you'll see."
Sasuke smiled back, which only made Sakura smile more.
Then he leaned forward and kissed her gently on the lips.
Sakura's eyes went wide with surprise, and before she could close them and really enjoy the kiss Sasuke started to move away.
Oh no you don't! Sakura thought sinisterly, wrapping her arms around Sasuke and using her enhanced strength to keep him from escaping her, she leaned into the kiss and finally, after years of waiting, shared at least one moment of perfect clarity with Sasuke before letting him go and climbing up the dragon's neck, too embarrassed by her own brazenness to say any sort of "goodbye".
Which was fine, she wouldn't say "goodbye" to Sasuke, they'd meet up in Kumogakure soon.
And maybe if he was finally willing to kiss her he'd be ready to do a bit more.
Maybe she was just getting ahead of herself.
"Are you okay Sakura?" Hinata asked and for the first time Sakura noticed that Hinata and Ino were on the dragon along with the other injured.
"Uh . . . yeah." Sakura said.
"Your face is so red . . ." Ino remarked, "you look like you might faint."
"It's nothing." Sakura said, a little cross and embarrassed as the dragon began to rise up.
"Are you sure? Because if you need to lay down . . ." Ino trailed off.
"I'm fine." Sakura said firmly, though she didn't miss the wink Ino sent Hinata.
Shikamaru and his group reached the refugees not long after Sasuke and Sakura did, Shikamaru was pleased to lean from the sentries that they'd made it back.
As soon as he reached the camp he spotted Naruto, he approached the Hokage and asked "Why're we stopped?"
"Just finished loading passengers on Kankuro's amazing flying dragon." Naruto said evenly, "Besides I was hoping to find any stragglers. Now that you and your group are here we're still missing Kiba, Shizune, Kakashi-sensei and Granny . . . among others that is. I haven't seen any of my old Genin for that matter, I would have thought Miyuki would be tending the wounded."
"I haven't seen any of them either," Shikamaru admitted, "Hara was part of my ambush force, he was under the impression that Yamamoto and Hijiri had made it out already . . ." Shikamaru hesitated, recalling that he was pretty sure . . . "I think Hijiri showed up at the ambush though."
"She did." Sasuke said, approaching the group and looking just a little flushed, "she was badly injured, I sent her on the dragon, Naruto."
"What about the others?" Naruto asked but Shikamaru didn't really hear him because he noted that Sasuke wasn't alone, Temari and Tenten were with him.
Tenten threw herself at Neji, though her injuries made it look painful.
Temari was a lot more reserved, the obvious public display of affection wasn't really her thing.
"Guess I'm not a widow, then. Shame I was already compiling a little black book." Temari remarked.
Shikamaru smiled, he decided not to bother trading barbs, instead he just walked over to her and kissed her, but then after the kiss he couldn't help but remark "I guess it's lucky for all those men I made it, none of them would want such a bossy, unfeminine woman stalking them."
"If I'm unfeminine and you married me does that mean you're really--"
"Give it a rest you two." Chouji said good naturedly.
Shikamaru smiled weakly and said "So what's the plan, Hokage-sama? I told you you'd have to decide what we do if we lose."
"I made that decision," Naruto said with a shrug, "we're going to Kumo for now, the Mizukage will be showing up for a meeting there."
"When?" Shikamaru asked.
"Raikage said one week." Naruto shrugged.
Shikamaru did a slight calculation . . .
Enough of their ninja might recover from their injuries and exhaustion by that time for an insurrection if Naruto so chose, but betraying the Raikage and siezing Kumogakure for themselves might just be offering Kabuto and Anko--that is Orochimaru, another reason to launch an all out attack on them. One of the things that made staying in Kumo so attractive was the security of it, security that would dissipate if the Raikage were murdered.
But Naruto didn't ask for that and in truth Shikamaru supposed he wasn't really the sort that would.
All Naruto said was "Lets go home . . . Or at least lets go to our temporary home away from home."
"And our next move?" Sasuke asked.
"To go home . . . Our real home." Naruto said and Shikamaru nodded agreement. The remains of Konoha's ninja and free citizens marched on towards Kumogakure escorted by Kumo ninja and Lightning soldiers.
Kotaro's eyes opened slowly, he sat up in bed . . . he was in his room.
What was going on? Wasn't there a battle going on? And why hadn't he--"Good morning sunshine." His mother said, standing in the doorway of his room.
Kotaro blinked, his mother didn't often talk like that . . . what was the pain in his neck?
"You slept the entire day away you know." His mother remarked.
"Then the battle's over?" Kotaro blinked, why hadn't anyone woke him?
"Yes it's long over." She said, "Don't worry, the good guys won."
"Is that a fact . . ." Kotaro said, doubting that he and his former-mother shared the same opinion on which side had been "good" and which hadn't.
Anko walked out of the doorway and as she passed through it the illusion of her body melted away, or perhaps the illusion was really melting onto her true form, Kotaro wasn't sure.
All he knew was that as she stepped into the room she became a man with skin almost paper white, eyes yellow and serpentine, hair long and black.
"You don't trust me yet. That's fine. I've given you a gift . . . you're going to become a very powerful ninja, my child."
"I'm not your child." Kotaro said coldly.
"Oh don't say things like that. It breaks poor Anko's heart to hear you talk that way. You see I have retained just enough of your mother's mind to hear her protests and screams . . . it'll pass in time when she realizes how helpless she is, so don't worry one bit about me."
Kotaro just glared, wondering if he could hit this bastard with a Chidori, but doubting he had the strength.
Orochimaru smiled, "I've done this for a reason; normally I'd take full control and only the hosts' most powerful desire would reach my mind, when I left their body they'd die. But I left just enough of your mother, Kotaro, that she can be restored when I leave. That's my offer."
"Offer?" Kotaro blinked.
"Yes, my offer. Get me a new body, and you'll have your mother back . . . and your father. Did I fail to mention? Ah yes, I captured the legendary Hatake Kakashi as well. Both your parents are at my mercy, but they'll be set free if you can carry out my wishes."
Kotaro said without hesitation "Take my body then, leave them alone."
"You're not the one I'm after I'm afraid." Orochimaru said calmly, "The one I want is Uchiha Sasuke, his Sharingan eyes intact. You and your comrades will fetch him for me when your training is completed."
"My comrades? Nao and Miko? You have them too?" Kotaro demanded.
"Those weak, worthless undesirables? No. But I do have Kurai, Yukio, Shiroi, and Kasumi, your four new teammates. Together you will be the Sound Five, you will hunt down and capture Uchiha Sasuke so that I can inhabit his body, in exchange I won't destroy your mother's mind, and I won't kill your father. Refuse me or double-cross me however . . . Well I suppose I could always surgically implant your father's Sharingan eye in your skull, it would make you more useful and while I'm at it I might as well rearrange some things in your head."
Kotaro doubted Orochimaru could rearrange anything in his head to make him work for him . . . But the danger to his mother and father was real, much too real for him.
"Just capture Uchiha Sasuke?" He asked calmly, "I won't have to hurt anyone else?"
Orochimaru laughed, "Dear boy you'll hurt whomever I tell you to hurt, I'm the Emperor now, my wish is your command. As the leader of the Five you will be expected to carry out various duties to keep the peace, you'll do as your told . . . But there are benefits. You will have access to my vast knowledge, learn from me. You'll also learn from the strictest, most brutal instructor, the same woman that turned a spoiled prince into the death machine you know as Akuma. When your training is complete you'll be one of the most powerful ninja the world has ever known . . ."
Kotaro looked away, thoughts of power wouldn't tempt him.
"You'll also be able to observe humanity itself, study it, understand it as I myself intend to do. You may not be my flesh and blood son, but you do have my thirst for knowledge. Besides . . . Wouldn't it be a shame if your friends, Nao and Miko was it? Wouldn't it be ashamed if they were hunted down by another member of the Five and you weren't able to help them? As leader of the Sound Five you'd be able to take your friends alive . . . Or let them slip through the net even, if it meant bringing me Uchiha. What do you say?"
Kotaro clenched his fists, he didn't have any choice . . .
"I'll never join you." He said coldly, "My father would understand and my friends would rather die than be at your mercy."
"Are you so sure that helping them from the inside isn't the better course?" Orochimaru sneered.
"I might have thought so, but the fact that you even suggest it just affirms that it'd be wrong, you probably have some sort of plan or Jutsu to keep me in line, or to make me loyal to you once I join you."
Orochimaru laughed, he turned for the door and said "Clever boy . . . wrong, but clever. You see Kotaro I am an honest Emperor and Kamikage. The Shinobi world must return to its roots. In shadow and in secret, let the rest of the world wage its public wars let ninja be the terrifying whisper in the night. I've unified the world Kotaro, you can stand at the forefront as my right hand and help me to preserve it and the peace or you can oppose me."
Kotaro wanted very much to continue opposing Orochimaru.
But the opportunity to ruin things for the tyrant from the inside was too much. The chance to rescue his parents too much.
Even if he could just get to his father it might be enough, his father might know a way to stop Orochimaru.
He lowered his gaze, ashamed of himself . . .
But the world was at peace, and it would be a long time before another full scale war broke out.
It might be nice to just train and research, to be apart of something upholding the peace.
If his parents weren't being held hostage he might even consider this a good deal.
But the fact was his parents were being held hostage, and that was something he'd never forgive.
"I'll join you," Kotaro said calmly, "I'll bring you Uchiha Sasuke."
And someday, Kotaro thought, I'll kill you.
As if the evil creature had read his mind Orochimaru smiled a sinister smile at Kotaro, as if to say just try it, but Kotaro supposed in reality the man was just smiling because he'd gotten what he wanted . . .
Hitomi's eyes slowly opened, she gazed around the room, her brain seemed to be working in slow motion.
She saw a figure dressed in white standing near her bed, was that an angel? Was she in heaven? How did she get into heaven?
No, no, couldn't be that . . . so what was going on?
He was reading from a clipboard, her brain began to struggle to get back up to normal speed, but while it was still down she hazarded a guess at the figure in white, "M-Miyuki?"
The figure turned to face her, it wasn't Miyuki, it was a man.
He was vaguely familiar, Hitomi began to remember him as he smiled and said "Well, well, the leaf bug's awake."
"Bendo . . ." Hitomi grumbled.
"Endo," the doctor said with what Hitomi's brain had sped up enough to recognize as a smirk, "and might I add what a lovely scowl you have. Your boyfriend is going to be ticked, I told him he didn't have to stay with you, you probably weren't going to wake up for another day or two, told him 'go ahead, attend that Kage meeting."
Hitomi blinked, forcing her brain to work faster and process information properly, "What Kage meeting? Why's Naomasa at a Kage meeting?"
"I meant Uchiha, he comes here and just sits in a chair waiting for you to get up. Uchiha wanted me to tell him as soon as you were conscious but there's this whole meeting of the Kages and the Hokage chose Uchiha to be one of his aids. He was going to turn down the offer but Haruno wouldn't shut up about supporting the Hokage so I told him not to worry, you probably wouldn't wake up, now he's probably going to shove that lightning fist of his down my throat." The doctor said though he didn't look concerned, just amused.
"Why are you taking care of me?" Hitomi asked.
Endo raised an eyebrow, "For the joy of healing others? I don't know really. Mostly because you're here, injured, and because though you're usually Haruno Sakura's problem she just happens to be the other aid to the Hokage, and I was the only person around to take over making sure you didn't swallow your tongue or something."
He smiled at her and said "From what they've told me though, you're set to make a full recovery, though it could be a while before you can use that arm for ninja arts again."
Hitomi noted her bandaged right arm, her burns ran only a couple inches past her elbow, but it'd felt as if they were much worse.
She sat up in bed and asked "When can I leave?"
"When Haruno-sama says so." Endo said simply, "I don't hold much faith for medical ninja, but I will say I respect her. When I first saw you dragged in here I thought we'd have to amputate that arm, the burns covered the whole thing right up to the shoulder."
"And now it's like this . . ." Hitomi said, eyeing her comparatively minor injury. Then she glared at Endo, "You would have amputated my arm? Because of a burn?"
"My rule is that if I can see more bone than flesh you probably won't need the limb anymore. That is how bad it was before Haruno showed up, and it's why I'll admit to grudgingly respecting her medical prowess now." Endo said casually, as if he were talking about what he'd wear tomorrow rather than removing a vital part of her body.
Hitomi massaged her forehead with her working arm, "Is Miyuki around?"
Endo didn't answer, Hitomi assumed he didn't know who she meant, she asked "My friend from before? Have you seen her at all? Or maybe you could just ask for the name, Yamamoto Mi--"
"I know who you're talking about . . ." Endo said carefully, "Look . . . She didn't make it to Kumogakure."
Hitomi felt tears rush to her eyes, "What? No, she can't be . . . I mean you're not saying--"
"No, I'm not," Endo said quickly, sounding irritated, "don't make assumptions. I just said she didn't get to Kumo, but then a lot of your ninja didn't arrive here. She might have made a break for Kusa or something, you never know."
"Well has anyone come to see me?" Hitomi asked, thinking maybe Hara had been in and maybe he knew where Miyuki might be.
"Dunno. I haven't paid much attention to you. There has been this girl with braids every once in a while though, running errands of some sort for some Jounin but checking in on you for whatever reason, and like I said; Uchiha."
Hitomi nodded slowly, and tried to get out of bed but Endo stopped her, placing a hand on her shoulder, "Not so fast, you're not clear to leave until Haruno says so."
Hitomi groaned irritably, Endo just smirked.
She looked around the hospital room, it was small, cramped, she didn't like it.
"I want to go." She commented. "I don't like this place, and I definitely don't like the idea of being treated by you even if its only temporary."
"Sucks to be you then, doesn't it?" Endo laughed, "Why don't we try something to get your mind off things?"
"Fine," Hitomi scowled, "What's the state of things?"
"Hmm? Your arm is burned and you're in the hospital."
"I mean the state of things outside here. How many ninja made it out of Konoha? Why are we in Kumogakure?"
Endo shrugged, "I don't know how many ninja made it out of Konoha, maybe a hundred, two hundred? As for why you're in Kumo, well the Kages are discussing it but it seems like most of you are going to stay in Kumogakure or take over some nearby town until Konoha and Suna can be recovered. Otherwise you'll probably all go to Kirigakure with us and hide on one of the smaller islands so you're out of our hair. Those are the rumors anyway, for all I know the Kage are discussing what color the decorations should be for the new years celebration."
Hitomi shook her head slowly, whatever the Kage decided she wouldn't go to Kiri and leave Konoha to rot, at least not unless she could confirm that Hara and Miyuki were already safe.
Until she knew where they were, or what their fate was she wouldn't leave the mainland, and if it turned out that their fate was bad . . . well she just wouldn't leave at all, she'd stay and get revenge however she could.
She closed her eyes . . . Whatever the Kage decided she was going to fight, she just needed to get healed.
So she'd rest quietly, and hope it sped things up.
Naruto was watching the horizon almost as if he expected to see the silhouette of an oncoming army.
Hinata was watching Naruto, worried about him.
Whatever had gone down at the meeting of the Kage hadn't sat well with Naruto, Sasuke had actually stormed out early and that was probably what had upset the poor young Hokage.
Hinata swept her hair over her shoulder and said "N-Nartuo-kun, how do you like it in Kumogakure?"
"It's fine, but it just doesn't feel like home." Naruto said.
Hinata nodded, "It shouldn't. If we get too comfortable it might delay our return to Konoha, right? We … are going back, aren't we?"
Naruto frowned and kept looking at the horizon, "We are."
"How soon?" Hinata asked.
Naruto looked at her and said "Ten years."
Hinata stared at him with a mixture of confusion and horror, "T-ten?"
But the Hokage smiled and said, "Kidding . . . just kidding . . . but then again it took about that long for Kabuto to throw us out maybe it'll take that long for us to get back in . . . how can anyone say?"
"Well . . . what's the plan?" Hinata asked.
Naruto gazed into the distance again, but this time Hinata realized he was looking out towards the sea, Kumo's ninja captured the Water country's fleet . . . And they've got a lot of extra room aboard . . . Enough that two light destroyers will be filled almost to capacity with our civilians . . . those willing to go anyway."
Hinata blinked, "N-Naruto-kun, we're joining Kirigakure?"
"No." Naruto said. "The Mizukage offered us sanctuary, the Land of Water isn't just one big island, it's a big island surrounded by smaller ones, as you know . . . we're going to build a new village on one of the smaller islands . . . it's impossible to attack the Land of Water without a massive fleet, one that wouldn't be able to show up undetected, this gives us the best possible defense against Kabuto . . . and keeps our allies in Cloud from becoming targets when it becomes known that they helped us at all."
"But . . . we're just going to abandon the mainland?" Hinata whispered.
"That's what Sasuke says. But that's not what we were planning . . . it's a regrouping effort. In this new village we can safely lick our wounds, more than half of our remaining ninja are academy students and Genin, by being so close to Kirigakure we can host secret Chuunin exams, keeping the ninja of both our countries sharp . . . when the time is right we return."
Hinata frowned, she wasn't a major fan of the idea but . . . she would follow Naruto's orders.
"I talked to Sakura-chan about it after the meeting was over, she said I should consult Shikamaru, but . . . I relied on Shikamaru for everything during the invasion, what kind of Hokage would I be if I kept going to him for everything? This is a decision I should be able to make on my own and . . . Honestly I'd made up my mind before Suigetsu even suggested the second island."
"So what's your decision?" Hinata asked.
Naruto looked at her, "I'm . . . I'm going to ask something really difficult of you, Hinata-chan . . . and it's because I trust you . . ."
Hinata nodded, "Anything."
"You're the head of the Hyuga clan now. I want you to stay in Kumogakure with your sister . . . join the Raikage's ranks."
Hinata blinked, "I don't understand . . ."
"When we leave there are going to be other ninja who got out of Konoha and couldn't make it here, I want someone here in Kumogakure to help direct them, Gaara's leaving Kankuro and an honor guard who're going to work with the Raikage's Hishu to sneak the families of Suna's surviving ninja and Wind's soldiers to the island . . . I would like you and your clan to remain behind as Konoha's honor guard, keep an eye on things on the mainland and when the time is right let those on the island know."
Hinata noted two things about her Hokage's insturctions.
The first was that she was to keep an eye on things on the mainland, she suspected Naruto also wanted her to keep an eye on Kumogakure's ninja, to spy on their allies and ensure that they were trustworthy, which would place her clan in a tight corner if the Raikage double-crossed them, they'd be cut off from any support by an entire ocean.
It would be dangerous, but then again someone had to do it, knowing whether or not Kumo was truly friendly was important.
The other thing she noticed was the way Naruto-kun had said "let those on the island know" as if he wouldn't be there . . .
"Are you staying in Kumogakure too, Naruto-kun?" Hinata asked.
Naruto looked at her and said nothing for a long time.
Finally he whispered "No. I'm . . . I'm going to try to find a way to . . ." he shook his head, "I'm going to be on a mission of my own . . . alone."
"But then who will lead us?" Hinata asked.
"Gaara will have control of his own forces and technical control of the Konoha ninja in a combat situation, but otherwise Sakura, Shikamaru and Sasuke will form a military council until I get back." Naruto said.
Hinata looked out at the waters as Naruto had been doing, "You're sure about this? About this exile?" She asked.
Naruto nodded, "It's the best thing. Right now most of the Fire and Wind soldiers aren't interested in continuing the fight as long as their families can be kept safe, and our ninja have their families already so they won't be eager to leave them so quickly just to recapture the charred remains of a city . . . this'll give us time to restore our strength . . . and even enjoy the peace for a while. Maybe Orochimaru's empire won't be so bad and we can just enjoy a life of freedom, if that's the case when my mission is complete I'll call you and the other Hyuga to the island.
"But in the more likely event that Kabuto is a tyrannical despot . . . well not only will waiting give us time to train more ninja and sharpen our own survivors, but give the people time to see that peace in and of itself isn't the goal, freedom is. It'll give them time to decide which side they're on . . . when, and if the war begins again it won't be about country lines, Hinata-chan . . . it's going to be them or us, ninja or empire, freedom or servitude. Give the common folk time to recognize that some things are worth fighting for even if it puts you at risk.
"If Kabuto and Orochimaru need to be overthrown--and lets face it, they probably will--it'd be easier for us and harder for them if there's a civilian uprising at the time of our attack. Until then . . . like I said, we just lick our wounds and enjoy the peace."
"I'd enjoy the peace better if I knew where you were going." Hinata said.
Naruto smiled, "Don't worry . . . when I get back you'll be the first person I come to."
Hinata took a deep breath and said "All right . . . the Hyuga clan will be your honor guard."
"Thank you, Hinata-chan . . ." Naruto whispered.
Hinata swallowed a lump in her throat and asked "Just . . . when are you planning to leave? For your mission?"
"As soon as possible . . . but before that I should make sure the village is on its feet so I'll go to the island for a month or two to oversee the planning and as soon as I'm sure they'll be okay I'll set out."
Hinata felt nervous, not afraid or ashamed, just nervous as she said "Then . . . we have some time to spend together before you go."
Naruto nodded slightly, "Yeah . . . Not sure what we'd do in this place, dattebayo."
"I-I can think of at l-least one thing." Hinata barely managed to say without fainting.
Naruto smiled, she could tell he'd guessed what she had in mind. Seeing him smile at her, she didn't feel nervous anymore.
Naomasa sat on top of a wall near the Kumogakure barracks.
Most of the city was off limits to ninja and soldiers, the public didn't want to be bothered but more importantly the Raikage didn't want anyone to know that Konoha and Suna's surviving ninja were staying in his city.
So Naomasa and Yomiko couldn't wear their forehead protectors, couldn't even carry them on their persons even though they were within the confines of the Kumo-nin barracks.
Things were starting to get sorted out now, Naruto-sama had made the announcement, they'd be falling back to an uninhabited island and building a new village, a new life for themselves.
They would wait . . . they would rebuild their lives.
Most everyone's family had escaped the city, Anbu and Hishu units had been abducting the families of surviving Suna ninja and Wind soldiers for the past week, Shikamaru-sensei said that it was a dangerous thing to do because no one knew who was or wasn't a Sound operative.
But he hadn't seen or heard from Eri. If she was alive she'd stayed in Konoha for whatever reason, and nobody had tried to get into Konoha, it was too dangerous.
They wouldn't forget those who might have been taken prisoner, Hokage-sama had said that there would be no lasting peace unless Orochimaru agreed to hand those people over, but for now it was necessary to lick their wounds.
Naomasa had been told that since many Jounin had died in the fighting Chuunin like himself might be expected to help in the training of Genin teams, he doubted it would come to that.
Besides what would he teach them?
He wondered how Hitomi was doing. Would she get a Genin team? What would she teach them? Her killer Jutsu? Something milder?
He wondered how she was doing . . . he hadn't been able to see her, Haruno Sakura had forbade anyone without official business from going to the hospital and Naomasa had no official business.
So he sat alone on the wall, thinking about Hitomi, thinking about Eri, thinking about Kotaro , who'd been captured right before he and Kyoko could escape.
He thought about Yomiko, Shikamaru-sensei, and his parents who were in Kirigakure.
He wouldn't be able to see them unless he joined Mist, the island they would be going to was separate and for security reasons wouldn't be getting any visitors.
But he'd have Emiko at least. She and her husband would be going to the island too, once the building started he'd probably stay with them until a barracks could be finished or until he managed to find some place of his own.
He briefly imagined a quiet home, maybe even a farm . . .
But no. That wasn't for him.
He was a ninja, his house would be a place to sleep and nothing more, when Konohagakure was recaptured, restored, then he'd worry about things like farms or shops, until then only one thing mattered . . .
He had to become a powerful ninja, he had to help take back Konoha . . . and he had to fix Hitomi's Jutsu, like he said he would.
"Naomasa . . ." Shikamaru-sensei called up the wall, Nao turned and looked down to see his sensei and Temari-sensei standing together looking up at him.
Nao leapt down from the eight foot wall and landed softly on his feet, "Yes, Senesi?"
Shikamaru-sensei put his hands in his pockets and said "Yomiko says your friend is in the hospital and you can't get in to see her . . . She asked me to write up some fake authorization for you because you were, according to her, 'too damn gloomy'."
Naomasa frowned, Yomiko had gone and told Shikamaru-sensei that? Asked him to do that? It surprised him because Yomiko didn't really approve of his liking Hitomi, and he was amazed she noticed his gloominess at all since he'd been careful to be gloomy only when she was around her mother, when she was around him he'd tried to pretend to be upbeat and enthusiastic, "Kotaro was just captured" he'd say, "we'll rescue him" or "Eri's probably fine, she's too valuable to kill" he'd tell her and himself.
Now a chance to see Hitomi . . . but did he even have it in him? She was strong, did he want to see her in such a weakened state? He knew the answer; he wanted to see her no matter what . . . But Shikamaru-sensei couldn't possibly send him, probably wouldn't approve himself of Nao liking Hitomi . . . so he said "I . . . I don't know, she's probably not even conscious and if you wrote some fake authorization you might get in trouble, sensei."
"Exactly, which is why I'm not doing it." Shikamaru shrugged, "On the other hand . . . as you know, Temari is getting exceptionally f--"
"Say "fat" and I'll drown you in a pool of your own blood," Temari said cheerfully.
"Pregnant," Shikamaru-sensei decided. Naomasa didn't think Temari looked any different at all, but he let Shikamaru-sensei continue talking, "she really should see a doctor and so she'll be going to see Sakura. She should have an escort in this alien city but I can't go because I . . . well I just don't want to. So I'm assigning it to you to take my wife to the hospital . . . occupy yourself while she's being examined or cut open or whatever it is doctors do to pregnant women, then escort her back. Consider it a D ranked mission that I'm not paying you for."
Naomasa smiled weakly, he could see now that while Shikamaru might not be writing him some fake authorization he had still found a way to do Naomasa this favor, whether or not he approved. All Nao could think to say was "Thank you, sensei."
Shikamaru just shrugged and Temari said "Well, let's go."
Naomasa followed her out of the barracks gate, she flashed some paper to the two Jounin guards, and the two of them walked casually through the streets of Kumogakure, blending with the civilians as any ninja could.
Naomasa was able to see the city for the first time, or at least the parts of the city that led to the hospital.
It was pretty, but it wasn't beautiful, it wasn't Konoha.
Hitomi was awoken from her sleep by Uchiha Sasuke, who stood towering over her, his red Sharingan eyes activated, similar to her own eyes and yet still different.
"Your friends never made it back." Sasuke said calmly, "We have no way of knowing if they were killed or if they were captured, but there are a lot of ninja who are missing in action . . . they might just be lost, unsure of where to go."
Hitomi frowned and sat up, "Thank you . . ." she trailed off, hoping Uchiha would explain his reasons for showing up and telling her all this out of the blue.
She hadn't asked him anything, in fact hadn't seen him at all, even though Endo had said that Uchiha had barely left her side since they arrived in Kumo.
She'd assumed he'd been satisfied by the knowledge that she'd pulled through and went about his business, she wasn't expecting him to bother visiting her now, and wasn't entirely sure she welcomed his visit if all he was going to do was tell her what she already knew; Miyuki and Hara were lost or dead.
She noticed that Sasuke wasn't wearing his usual Uchiha jacket, but instead was dressed like a civilian, a traveler, he even had a large pack on his back, "Sakura says your arm should be more or less healed by now, if you feel like you can use it you're free to go. If you're prepared to go . . . you can come with me and we'll see if we can find your friends."
Hitomi blinked, "What?"
"The Kage are all going to play the waiting game, they're going to retreat and lick their wounds, they say they're not going to just forget those we've left behind but I know better. They might make an attempt to rescue any prisoners they can find but they won't look for missing-nin, they'll just hope they make it to Kumo on their own. Your friends, Kiba, Tsunade, Shizune, my old sensei Kakashi . . . if they're out there I'm going to find them before I even think about hiding away with the others and accepting defeat."
Hitomi considered it for a moment, then nodded, getting out of bed and moving her bandaged arm around just to see if she could do so without pain.
"For Hara and Miyuki, for anyone we can find . . . sure, I'll follow you."
Uchiha nodded, "One hour, be dressed for the road and at the gate, I'll have supplies ready for you."
Hitomi nodded, Uchiha left without another word.
Hitomi paced for a few moments, then called for a nurse and asked her to bring her things.
But it turned out her clothes had been ruined, apart from her resilient flak jacket, which she couldn't wear if she were pretending to be a civilian, it'd be just a tad obvious.
Someone had "donated" civilian clothing for her, all of it just happened to be road worthy so she suspected it was from Uchiha. She dressed in the clothing she'd need, took only the ninja pouches and equipment she could easily hide, the days when ninja could stroll around with their kunai holsters and equipment pouches in plain sight were gone.
But she didn't want to just throw her flak jacket away, and she couldn't risk carrying it with her, so instead she wrote a note and left it and the jacket with one of the nurses to deliver to the first Konoha ninja who had the time.
He thought briefly of seeing Tomoko or Naomasa before she left, just to be sure they were okay, thought of seeing Naruto-sensei too but in the end she decided against all three.
Naruto-sensei might ask where she was going, she didn't get the impression that Uchiha's mission was officially sanctioned, finding Tomoko just to say "goodbye" would take time she might not have, and seeing Naomasa would only feed the boy's unhealthy attraction to her . . . There was no reason to lead him on, and even if it might be comforting to see him before leaving she'd only be going for her own selfish reasons, no point in bothering him or being bothered by him.
So she just left and headed for the gate.
It would be mere minutes after she left the hospital that Naomasa would arrive, and be given her flak jacket and the simple, short note she'd composed.
Please keep this safe until my mission is complete.
But she never knew he was there, and really it wouldn't have mattered, she didn't want anyone to try and stop her . . .
She rushed through the streets as fast as she could without attracting attention, she didn't know where anything was in Kumo, but finding the main gate was a simple matter since, like the gate of Konoha, it was so large.
Sasuke nodded when Hitomi arrived at the gate, "Any later and we'd have left you." He said flatly, "Let's move out."
"Lets . . ." Hitomi grunted, "Who else is in our . . ." she trailed off as she got her answer.
"Your arm will still need tending as we go, so for a little while at least I'll be helping you out. Besides, my father's missing same as your friends," Endo said, "I travel with you two I figure I can find him and then you can bust him out of whatever prison he's in, assuming he's still alive that is."
Hitomi sighed, then shrugged. "Let's get moving then." She said, but looked and saw Uchiha Sasuke had already started down the road.
And so she followed him, Endo followed her, and the three of them left Kumogakure unimpeded, though hardly unnoticed.
Hitomi noted the Hishu who watched them go, but didn't pursue.
She hated to think that Naruto-sensei would find out that she'd deserted from the enemy's black ops team . . . But then again it was more likely that they wouldn't even bother to tell Naruto-sensei, that they'd tell the Raikage and no one else.
And before long they'd probably find out someone was following them, intent on stealing those Uchiha eyes.
Hitomi smiled, in spite of herself. The journey had only begun, and already it was exciting.
Toshiie stepped into the audience chamber of the Tsuchikage, his liege said "I am most pleased to see our Immortal Hero returns to us."
Toshiie registered the words but didn't pay them much attention.
They were unimportant. Lord Orochimaru had brought him back to life with one single purpose in mind. It wasn't to kill Nara Shikamaru, that would just be a bonus if he carried out his other duties properly.
Orochimaru's desire was simple: Toshiie had to be loyal.
The phantoms leapt out of an amulet Toshiie wore, they were invisible to the naked eye but Toshiie felt their presence attack the Tsuchikage and his assistants. In an uninjured state the great ninja might resist the phantom serpent, but Toshiie wouldn't give the man the time.
He drew his sword which had been recovered when Nara left it behind in Konoha. It came to life with wind chakra, and without a word he slashed out and cut through the Tsuchikage's nearest assistant, then through the unprepared Tsuchikage himself, the act was finished before Toshiie himself fully recognized that he was committing it.
His former liege lay dead in a pool of blood, the second assistant recovered enough to try to run, Toshiie let him go, he wasn't the target, and now that the mission assigned to him by Lord Orochimaru was completed the serpents dissipated, there would be no evidence that he hadn't killed the Tsuchikage fairly, or at least as fairly as any ninja would be.
Toshiie turned to the assembled group of Iwa ninja who had survived the fiasco at Konoha, "I'm the Tsuchikage now," he told them.
Only one of them dared to argue, Kuto stammered, shaking her head, "Y-you just murdered the Tsuchikage, that doesn't make you--"
Without a word he slammed his blade into her chest and twisted it, slashing to the side and severing her left arm as he cut the blade free of her body.
"I'm the Tsuchikage now," he said again, this time nobody argued. "Clean the mess," he instructed his ninja, six of whom worked together to drag the dead bodies away as he practically fell into the Tsuchikage's chair.
Orochimaru had brought him back to life not to face Nara Shikamaru in Konoha, but to be a loyal servant, and that was exactly what he would be.
And his village would be loyal servants of Orochimaru too.
And so with just one man, Orochimaru conquered Iwagakure, greatest of the remaining Shinobi villages.
And Toshiie was happy to have been a part of it . . .
Whatever Lord Orochimaru wanted he would do without failure, and now he had an entire army to ensure success.
Shikamaru leaned against the railing of the light destroyer Kagemusha, which Naruto-sama had named in his honor, the second destroyer which the Land of Waters had given the now sea-bound ninja formerly of Konoha and Suna.
The ships were small, decently armed, but not exactly the power of the seas. They weren't built for sea combat so much as transporting troops, and they had a great human cargo capacity, which was why they'd been handed over, the navy of The Land of Waters had too few soldiers and sailors left to fully man every ship returning to their capital island so rather than leaving anything to Kumo and Lightning, they'd somewhat grudgingly handed them over to Konoha and Suna.
All told there was just over a thousand soldiers heading for the island, most of them from Hirate Akira's Wind regiment, though some remnants of Taisho Miura's Fire regiments remained Taisho Miura himself hadn't made it out of the city.
And ninja . . . well if the headcount was accurate--and it was--less than two hundred ninja would be taking residence on the island. In addition to the twelve members of the Hyuga clan remaining behind as Naruto-sama's honor guard to guide new ninja in the right direction, eight of Konoha's ninja had decided to accept a position with Kumogakure, or Kirigakure.
About seventy Suna ninja remained, and just over a hundred Konoha ninja, six squads of which were young Genin.
"What do you think, sensei?" Yomiko asked.
Shikamaru raised an eyebrow at her, "About what?"
"The future. Are we going to make it, you think?"
Shikamaru smiled, "Yes. I don't have any doubt. We'll build a new village, but it'll only be temporary, when our ninja force is strong enough we'll strike back and defeat Orochimaru . . . we'll take out homes back."
Shikamaru watched the ocean roll by beneath their ship. It'd be hard, but they wouldn't give up. For the sake of the next generation, like Yomiko, or Sumiko, they didn't have the luxury of just giving in.
He forced a smile and looked at the other passengers.
Gaara was coming to the village but Kankuro was staying behind, and so was Syako, presumably to be near Kankuro who was ignoring her existence, but Naruto and Shikamaru suspected she really just wanted to be on the mainland in case she needed to contact Kabuto, Syako would never have another unaccounted for moment as long as she lived, the Hishu would see to that.
Neji and Tenten had stayed with Hinata, Ino and Chouji were coming to the island of course, they had a future to think about, a child to raise, and this sanctuary was probably the best place for that.
Kiba, Tsunade, and Shizune were missing, presumed lost. Shino's cousin Kurai, such a promising ninja, was gone too.
In fact most of the promising youths were gone, Oedo Daisuke had been lost and his sister Tomoko had resigned, saying that there was nothing for her with Konoha since her father and brother were dead and her clan were, apparently, to be punished. Kyusaku also had failed to escape, Tomoko had confirmed his death and so Chouji had lost his entire team.
Even though he said he approved of Tomoko's decision to blaze her own trail and join Kumogakure's ninja, Shikamaru knew it hurt Chouji to lose them, they had been like his siblings or even his own children.
It hurt Shikamaru a bit to know that he was the cause of part of Chouji's pain, for it had been he who suggested to Naruto that leaving Tomoko in Kumogakure as a mole would be a good idea. The girl had reluctantly agreed to transfer her services on paper whilst taking a vow of secret loyalty to the Hokage.
Nao and Yomiko had made it out, Kotaro hadn't . . . Kyoko had made it, neither Yukio nor Ryu had, and both Nao and Kyoko shared the same sullen, depressed looks. Shikamaru noted that Naomasa wasn't wearing his flak jacket, just a red and white coat, the colors of the Ishida clan without the symbols on the shoulders.
Naruto was on the bridge of the ship along with Sakura, probably discussing what measures they'd take to track down and bring back Sasuke, who'd left a letter refusing to "retire" and insisting that he would raise his own army and then fight his own war, which obviously upset Naruto.
It upset Shikamaru too because he wasn't so sure he didn't want to be with Sasuke. He knew it was the wrong thing to do, that Uchiha and those with him were doomed to failure, but all the same for some reason Shikamaru would almost rather fight and fail than retreat. But what Sasuke failed to realize was that they weren't running away, they were regrouping. Hopefully he'd realize that and they could work together when the time came to really wage war again.
But Shikamaru watched Temari, knew that because of her, Sumiko, and their unborn child he couldn't go, and knew as well that a small, selfish part of him was glad.
He wouldn't be retiring on the island, he'd be planning and plotting and preparing to play the biggest, most high stakes game of shogi the world had yet seen. But part of him wished that Uchiha's accusations were true, that they were giving up, that he could just live the rest of his days with his wife and children in perfect peace and quiet. It made him feel sick to think that way.
He watched the sky as the ship sailed onwards, the clouds . . . they looked so peaceful.
On the surface the world resembled them now, peaceful. The war was over, the suffering at an end, rebuilding could start and peace had come.
But it was all a lie . . . In the shadows the war was continuing, people would be taken to be part of Orochimaru's experiments, just as Shikamaru had been told it was before, and good, honorable men and women would die pointlessly trying to stop it.
The peace was a lie. So many would suffer, so many would die, the war was far from over.
A quiet life with Temari and their children . . . It was all he wanted, all that was required for his world to be perfect and complete, he wanted a quiet life, wanted retirement . . . but first he had to earn it.
He'd carve his happy ending out of the tattered remains of Orochimaru's.
As he saw the island that would be their new home coming up on the horizon he decided they did have one last weapon, something Orochimaru had almost, but had ultimately failed to take from them.
Sasuke was wrong. They weren't running away, they weren't retiring. The ninja of Konoha and Suna would be back, and when they returned, they would take back their world.
The war wasn't lost. For better or for worse . . . it wasn't over yet, this was just the beginning of a new phase of the war, maybe they'd have to fight in a new way, maybe guerilla groups like Sasuke's would be the order of the day, maybe that would be what toppled Kabuto's evil empire.
But one thing was for sure, they would topple it, they would win.
One Year Later
Naruto stood on the outskirts of the new village. He glanced over his shoulder once, just once. It was a thriving little place, all things considered it was doing very well and with Shikamaru and Gaara in charge for a while Naruto had no worries about his little . . . pilgramage.
When I come back it will be time, and I will be ready and worthy, he thought as he slipped away into the night, towards the dock they'd built and the small boat he'd had prepared for his journey.
The journey that would change his life for, he hoped, the better.
Final Word: It's really hard to believe we've come so far. Back when I first started writing New Blood I didn't expect it to go over one hundred chapters, didn't expect it to take three years to finish though that is due at least partially to my own occasional laziness, being disracted by other projects, and so on.
Part of me wonders how many of the people who were with us since chapter one are still around, it's been such a long time sometimes even I'm amazed I stuck with it and, crazier still, plan to write a sequel, but after nearly three years New Blood is finally finished.
The sequel's first chapter should be up, the title is Old Souls and I've written a Gaiden that takes place shortly before Old Souls but isn't required reading, it was just something that I wanted to write one day so I did. It is called Saeki, it's Orochimaru's new world through the eyes of Ito Taiki, Naomasa's nephew, it's my attempt to really illustrate what Orochimaru's world order is like for someone who is more or less raised in it and sheltered from its darker side.
Though New Blood itself is over, the war is far from done, but I'm not making any new forum so check the New Blood message board for discussions on New Blood, Old Souls, Saeki, Red Eyes, and all the fan fictions from the New Blood universe, the link is in my profile, moved to the top so it's even easier to find now.