Hello all!

So it hasn't been too long since the last chapter, I don't think! And this is the penultimate chapter; or the last chapter, if you will, with an epilogue to follow. Wow, it's been so long since I started writing this it's wierd to finally be so close to the end! It's also somewhat relieving though; I'm hoping it'll be liberating to be free from such a large undertaking. Well, we'll see; I can't imagine the feeling just yet.

I hope you enjoy!


'I wouldn't worry,' Temari replied icily. 'It'll be me who's doing the harming.'


The air was stifling, the bustle and crowds nauseating and the white walls too hash; with her senses utterly assaulted Shizune hurried to the reception desk of the hospital, following the young medic who had informed her of the guest. It was an ANBU member with an unconscious Tsunade; what would she do if the Hokage wasn't there to order her about? She had been working like a robot to heal the influx of patients without Tsunade's help but the thought of her mentor's aid not being there to be offered scared her. Emerging into the room at last she saw the ANBU member immediately. He was, indeed, carrying an unconscious Tsunade who looked battered and singed.

'This way,' Shizune urged, pushing him past a couple of citizens sobbing over the body of their child who looked too charred to be rescued. She had to steel herself against her emotions when she saw sights such as these; there was nothing that could be done so feeling sad was useless yet she was too soft to be a medic under these circumstances. She wondered how the other nurses coped.

Tsunade was deposited on a bed, the patient previously occupying it having been moved to share a bed with another sufferer, and Shizune hovered nervously above the blonde, resting a hand on her wrist to feel her pulse. It was faint but it was there. The Hokage's chakra was almost gone though and she could feel that what little was left was mixed up as if she had been through serious trauma.

'What happened to her? How did she get like this?' She demanded of the ANBU, her voice higher than normal as she fretted. At first the man seemed reluctant to speak and when he did his voice sounded funny as if he was trying to alter it.

'In the flames. I found her like that.'

For a moment Shizune stared at him blankly, trying to work out why he was trying to avoid detection. Then the voice registered in her fuddled brain and she blinked in surprise. 'Naruto? Naruto, is that you?'

Sheepishly the ninja removed the mask, scratching the back of his head worriedly. 'I had to get out of the base,' he pleaded with her to understand. 'I couldn't let anything happen on my behalf but I was too late.' Now his eyes trained themselves on Tsunade's pseudo-youthful features. 'Will she be alright? Did I get her here in time? Can you heal her?'

Shizune frowned at the questions. She didn't mind that Naruto had escaped his prison; she had always felt sorry for his position though she thought it had been for the best. Now he was asking her to heal Tsunade though and she wasn't sure she could. Her chakra had been drained by the many previous citizens entering with serious wounds; now she would have let them die to save just one person.

That's not a very good ninja philosophy, she chastised herself but it lacked sincerity; could she really be angry at her wanting to save the Hokage? Naruto was looking at her now, expecting an answer, and his eyes revealed with their increasing fear how long she had remained silent.

'I don't know where to start,' she replied at last. 'Her chakra is very weak but her pulse is there. She won't die but unless we find out what's wrong she's going to take a long time to recover.'

'But we don't have a long time!' Naruto protested; 'Look at the village; we need her now!'

'There's nothing I can do!' Shizune snapped back at him, annoyed that he didn't seem to grasp the situation. Naruto had always held to the unreasonable philosophy that anything was possible so long as you wanted it badly enough which was why he couldn't accept the truth now. In that respect he didn't seem to have grown up at all; but he had grown stronger in his isolation and taller and he looked much more like he knew what he was doing. Now he was quiet and stared at Tsunade's face for a long time. Shizune, watching him, sighed and massaged her temples with her left hand.

'We're going to need a new Hokage,' she informed him quietly. Seeing the dark look that swept across his face she added to placate him, 'Maybe you'll finally achieve your dream.' He shook his head though, surprising her.

'Don't say that. I'd much rather Tsunade woke up and took back her position.'

For a while she observed him crouching by the former Hokage, his face drawn and looking much older than she'd ever seen him before. For once she could picture him as a Hokage who carried the weight of the village on his shoulders.

'I have to go,' she told him quietly but he didn't spare her a glance. As she left she heard him ordering Tsunade to wake up under his breath.


Kisame blocked the typhoon of wind assaulting him with a shell of water, glad that it also hid his grimace from the sand kunoichi; his chakra was depleting too fast for his liking and he was worn out. He could tell that her attacks were also tiring but he had no wish to stay fighting her any longer. As the wind dissipated and he dropped his water-shield he snuck a glance over to where Itachi's fire was still flickering among the houses; it had greatly reduced from the blazing inferno that it had been before and Kisame was fairly certain that Itachi was no longer fighting. It was a hopeless mission. He had seen neither hide nor hair of Deidara and Itachi since Deidara had given Ino to Shikamaru and rashly ascended the cliff; now it seemed as if Itachi had also abandoned him.

I need to get out of here; the mission has obviously been failed, Kisame rationalised, sidestepping a kunai and lifting Samehada to counter a close-combat attack. The girl facing him was obviously inspired by hatred, most likely born from her concern for Shikamaru who was still sitting on the ground, a hand pressed over his heavily-grazed side. His wound was nothing serious but it had effectively taken him out of the fight and he knew that if he could just manage to do the same to his current opponent then he would be able to leave the village. Temari wasn't giving him any openings though and keeping the ANBU unit confined in their separate water bubbles was sapping his chakra quicker than any of her wind attacks were draining hers.

'What do you think you're going to achieve by fighting me?' He growled at her, hoping to talk her out of the offensive so he could escape. 'Do you think you've got a chance of beating me?' He could only hope she hadn't seen him weakening. Perhaps if he bluffed that he had great strength she would give it up. Temari snorted though, not a good sign.

'I know as well as you do that you're running out of strength. I reckon I've got a chance against you.'

She jumped back from him then and drew her fan out, sending another blast of air towards him. He erected another wall of water and was surprised when the attack suddenly stopped. Immediately he was wary; what trick was she planning? For a moment he increased his shield so that he was protected on all sides, just in case, but when nothing happened he deduced that she was bluffing to waste his chakra and so dropped the barrier. Then he blinked as if to make sure he was seeing right.

'Hello Kisame,' Itachi greeted nonchalantly from where he was standing on the other side of the sand kunoichi; she had her back to Kisame now, facing the new threat with a stance that suggested a wary anxiety.

'Hello,' he replied after a few seconds and when no-one else spoke. Temari, as if suddenly remembering that he was behind her, jolted into action and turned so that she could see them both, retreating to stand protectively in front of the kneeling Shikamaru. Itachi regarded the two enemy ninja with slated, suspicious eyes as they whispered to each other. Kisame examined his partner's stance; he concluded that Itachi must be at least as worn out as himself so why was he insisting on fighting? Was the mission still on?

Temari, her muted conversation finished, attempted to leave the area but, with what Kisame could see was a lot of effort, Itachi blocked her by causing flames to rise up in front of her, blocking her path.

'Where are you going?'

Kisame watched as, obviously disheartened at the showy technique the Uchiha had used and by how much chakra this suggested he had left, Temari drew a kunai and turned to face them again in weak defiance.

'For back up?' Itachi ventured and the way her lips thinned into a bloodless line confirmed the theory. 'That won't be necessary,' he informed a moment later, glancing at Kisame meaningfully. 'We've got what we came for; we won't be sticking around.'

'No!' The kunoichi gasped, surprising Kisame who thought she would be happy that she didn't have to fight someone she thought was so potentially dangerous. 'I won't let you go; not after all the damage you've caused, not after…' here she trailed off, her eyes flicking over to where Shikamaru was still sitting on the ground but he met her gaze with a frown and shook his head.

'Let them go, Temari. There's more important things to deal with right now.'

'Good, that's settled then.' Itachi's voice, now much closer to Kisame, surprised him and he turned his head to see that his partner had transported himself to a spot only a few feet away. 'Until next time,' he uttered the farewell with a carelessly waved hand and, grabbing Kisame's arm, set off for the town walls. Kisame allowed himself to be taken away from the fight gladly, sudden relief setting in as he realised his lucky escape.

'Did we really get what we came for, Itachi-san?' He asked as his feet hit the floor of the forest, matching the Uchiha's forced pace. Itachi snorted softly at the question and Kisame saw a hint of amusement in the weary black orbs but there was no verbal answer.

Sasori and Deidara aren't with us either. Kisame noted with a hopeless air. I guess we lost a lot more than just the mission this time.


Smoke trailing into the air had spelt foreboding long before the team arrived at the gates of Konoha, out of breath from their flat-out running. They entered the village by jumping over the walls, too worried to wait to be let in, and immediately headed towards the scene of greatest destruction.

Everywhere citizens were moving in crowds towards the exits in panic and Hinata felt sick at the looks of horror on their faces. Flames licked at buildings near the hospital but the fire was dieing and the more pressing concern was the large area of flattened houses which they were heading for. She had long since departed from Akamaru's back and now her own legs propelled her forward with the others to the fight.

Konoha had taken a great blow but at least they had the energy and chakra left to fight with; at least they could help the cause. As they neared the battle scene though Kiba was struck by how little action he could see. He felt that something was wrong; where was the fighting? Shino, in front, came to a sop first and the others followed suit, barely ten meters from the first Konohagakure shinobi they could see.

'We're too late,' Shino informed tonelessly and Hinata exhaled sharply in hopeless frustration. They had pressed themselves to breaking point in trying to get to the village in time once they had seen the smoke but it still hadn't been enough. Kiba growled under his breath, Akamaru mimicking the sound. Shikamaru spotted them from where he was sitting on the ground, Temari fussing over him, and then Temari looked up and saw them.

'We're too late,' Shino repeated as they approached the duo and Shikamaru shook his head as if to dismiss the truth.

'You can still help. Hinata you know a little medic knowledge, right?'

'A l-little,' she stammered, unsure whether she'd be able to heal anything caused by this fight.

'That's enough,' he reassured her. 'Kiba, Shino, I need you to take care of the citizens; the village is under no threat now but obviously some of them can't return to their houses. Try and calm them down and get them somewhere to stay for the night. Hinata; go with them and tend to any injured you see.'

In respect for Shikamaru's calm, logical tactics in such a situation as this they agreed and set off for the outskirts of the town where most of the people had congregated. The ones who had escaped the village were huddled around the walls and in the surrounding wood so it would not be hard to find them. If only it would be so easy to sort them out; but, spurred on by their need to help in some way and having missed the fight, their enthusiasm was unbeatable in their task.


So it's over, Sai observed as he watched the ANBU members tending to his injured comrades. Tenten was in shock as a masked member tried to explain that Neji wouldn't be coming back. Gai and Lee were both being healed though their injuries were not major, Kisame having been distracted before he could deal any real damage. Shikamaru was braving the pain of his side injury, having Temari help him to walk as he gathered together the ninja that had no jobs and instructed them on where to go. And Kakashi? Well he was still unconscious. Sai had administered as much healing chakra as he dared, not being particularly skilled in that area, but knew it would never be enough to completely heal the white-haired ninja's eye.

How would Konoha survive these terrible scars? How long would it take? Would they be attacked by other countries when the news that they were weak and vulnerable spread? For surely citizens, now homeless, would perceive the benefits of betraying their city in return for wealth in another land?

Being a member of root he had been taught to mask his emotions but being a member of team seven had forced him to unlock them. Now he felt remorse for the city he had come to call home and the state it had been reduced to. Admittedly many of the houses and buildings still stood but too many of the ANBU and other ninjas had died and it would take too long to rebuild their forces to their former glory. If Konoha suffered an invasion it would not survive.

Kakashi stirred in his arms and slowly blinked open his good eye to reveal the unnatural crimson orb marked by three black commas that remained his only source of light. He studied Sai's face for several seconds and then turned his head to examine the damage done.

'I don't know how Konoha will recover from this,' Sai muttered. 'All I can see is more suffering.'

'That's because you're not looking right,' Kakashi replied cryptically.

'We are weak now, an easy target. The other countries will seize the opportunity.'

'Suna will help us; that's why the treaty was made to begin with. We have our friends, Sai.'

'I'm not convinced,' was the wary reply. 'Politics is full of fair-weather friends.'

For a long time they watched the column of smoke twist into the darkening sky in silence. Then Kakashi sighed and Sai returned his attention to his unfortunate companion who managed a wry, lopsided smile.

'Don't worry, Sai,' he murmured; 'Konoha always wins out in the end.'


Night had fallen and already he felt as if he had travelled for days. No one was pursuing them, something he was unused to in a situation where he was running away, and Ino was so exhausted that she'd fallen asleep in his arms. He was aware that he could slow his pace if he wanted to but he was nearing the border of Konoha and he wanted to make sure he was clear of the country before he even considered relaxing.

Less than half an hour later and Deidara entered the Tea country, slowing his pace to a walk as he listened to his heart beat and the sound of his ragged breathing. Lights from a tea-house glowed invitingly not far down the road but although he was tempted to stop for a short rest he knew that the Tea country had strong ties with Konoha and two ninja as bedraggled as themselves were sure to bring unwanted attention; he couldn't risk leaving a trail of where they had gone behind them.

Thus thinking he kept his legs moving, walking past the shop with a light yawn. Ino stirred in his arms but remained sleeping and after a few more minutes he began to jog. Forest surrounded him still, either side of the path, but after a couple of hours he saw mountain peaks rising above the trees to his right and so steered his path left into the forest. The trees looked exactly the same as they had in the forests of Konoha but after a while he began to smell fresh, salty air and knew the sea wasn't far away. He quickened his pace into a run and not long afterwards the forest ended and Deidara found himself standing at the top of a cliff, staring at the vast blue expanse of the eastern sea. The moonlight reflected off the clear, calm water and where it sparkled it looked as if there were precious jewels floating on the surface.

To his right the cliff sloped down to level ground where there was a small fishing village, the wooden residences nestled closely together as if for warmth in the face of the cool sea breeze. Ships were anchored a little way from the shore, their masts casting long shadows over the houses, and the creaking of wooden timber mixed with the swish of the waves sliding onto the shingle beach below to provide an incredible aura of secluded peace; Deidara felt as if he had left everything he had been running from far behind.

Ino shifted in his hold again and this time her breathing changed as she blinked open an eye to gaze for a while at his face. Then she turned her head and opened her other eye, observing her surroundings.

'Did you sleep well?' Deidara murmured the question, not wishing to disturb the tranquil atmosphere, and Ino lazily returned her eyes to his.

'Aren't I still dreaming?' She wondered in much the same pitch; 'I feel too safe to be awake.'

He chuckled at the words and looked back down at the village, a smile tugging at his lips. It was true, he suddenly realised; he felt safe. He wasn't sure if they would be able to remain in the spot for long because it was still too near Konoha for any lasting comfort but for now, at least, it was a welcome relief.

'We're in the tea country,' Ino noted as he lowered her to the ground and helped her to stand. He hummed an agreement and she looked pleased; 'I thought I recognised the landscape. Are we going to stay here?'

'I'm not sure, hm.' Seeing her face he added quickly, 'But for now yes.'

'The inns won't be open this late.'

'Then we'll sleep somewhere else.' Glancing around him Deidara steered her over to a mossy patch of ground a few trees into the forest and helped her to sit. Resting his back against a thick trunk and stretching his legs in front of him he was pleased to find that the sea was still visible from his chosen spot and that Ino wasn't perturbed by the change from the thought of a pillow to the reality of his chest.

'We're going to make it through this, aren't we?' Ino breathed after a while of watching the full moon make it's slow journey across the cerulean sky.

'We already have, hm.' Deidara assured her.

'And we can keep this up?'

'Of course we can.'

'I don't want to be caught,' Ino whispered sincerely. 'I want to go somewhere I've never heard of where we'll never be found and we can grow old and die in peace.'

The ex-Iwagakure, ex-akatsuki nin snorted softly at the sentiments. 'I don't want to grow old and die,' he murmured back; 'but the peace part sounds nice, hm.'

Smiling Ino pressed herself closer to Deidara and wrapped her arms around his midriff, content. Embracing her, he stroked her cheek with the back of his right index finger and smiled when she raised tired eyes to meet his.

'Go back to sleep,' he told her quietly, 'I'll keep watch.'

'No. We're safe here. You've got to sleep as well.' He consented but resolved to wait until her breathing slowed before he allowed his own eyes to close. 'I love you,' Ino breathed before she allowed sleep to consume her once more.

After a long time revelling in the safety and comfort of their surroundings and position Deidara finally let his eyes flutter shut. Before he slipped fully into the welcoming darkness though he couldn't help but have the last word.

'I love you too, Ino. Hm.'


Finito!

Oh what an amazing feeling, even if there is still an epilogue to go! Aha, I will revel in this small delight for a while. :D

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Right, good, that's enough.

So what did you all think? A befitting almost-end? Or was something missing? :/

Thanks to all who reviewed the previous chapter;

Leiaah - Aww sorry about Neji; I've got to satisfy my sadistic killing nature somehow though and he was a minor character. I'm surprised I didn't kill off half the cast to be honest! & Dayam I'm obviously making this story too predicatable if you can guess Itachi's 'shocking' change of heart; well done though - some shwed intuition there methinks! I'm afraid I couldn't show much of Temari's badass'ness because I had to finish the fight quickly as this was the last chapter; I hope you still enjoyed it though...? Thanks for the review. :)

*Starlight* - Um, yes, well, 'intense'...and quick! Or 'short and sweet' however you wish to look at it. I'm afraid I couldn't really prolong the fight any longer though! Thanks for the review and hope you liked this chapter too. :)

Yuti-Chan - Yep definitely a happy end for Dei and Ino; it would have been hideously cruel of me to deny them that! Their epilogue piece should be cheerful too so look forward to it; I think it's got to be happier than this bit actually so should be good for you! ;) Thanks for the review.

Ethereal Forest - Ahahaha, yes I'm fine thanks (I think); that said I actually haven't killed off any large number of people or a major character for ages! (Sasori was a while ago and Neji is minor. Not even in other stories have I submitted to the killing urge. Scary! Perhaps I am ill!). I thought it would be nice to slip in a reference to 'nice Itachi' of the manga plotline at some point (besides I think someone asked for that at some point...?) and - shock horror - I have once again avoided your expectations; no deaths in the last chapter (except Neji but he kinda died last chapter...)! Kisame lived too. Amazing, right? :D Thanks for the review!

Gaara Luvr 43 - Thanks for the looong review; I loved it! :D Awesome with the nicknames as well - sounds like the kinda thing I might do! Glad you weren't too upset at Neji dying then; it's a good pairing, right, right? :D & Aha; surprised you with Itachi, did I? Thought it might be a nice twist for once! Thanks very much for the review.

Tori Sohma - Thanks; I hope this was quick enough? Epilogue should be out around Easter. Your review is much appreciated! :)

KaprisTheCharismaticDisaster - Wow, that's one long display name you have there! I'm very glad you're still enjoying it; was this a suitable almost-end chapter? Also - what dedication that you wish to completely re-read it when it's finished. I'm touched! :) Thanks a lot for the review!

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So please review! I have some ideas for the epilogue but if there's anything specific you want to see please tell me and I'll try and fit it in! Especially if there's some minor characters you want to hear about because I might accidentally forget to put in what happens to them unless someone reminds me!!

Every reviewer is much much loved by me and will be mentioned in the final chapter/epilogue. Next chapter should be out around Easter.

Please review!

love,

~WfCP xxx