As the monstrous wall of Kaimugakure loomed into sight, Sakura could only feel sadness. The days of travelling at top speed had been exhausting, but the movement kept her from thinking too much about Sasuke. Yet, now that she and her sensei had slowed to a walk as they approached the main gate of the Shell, the lump in her throat tightened and the pain in her chest worsened.
"Sasuke…" she whimpered.
Her fury at Itachi had dulled the pain at first, but now that she had had time to absorb the reality that the person she cared about most in her life was gone… she couldn't hold onto the hate enough to drown out her sorrow.
"We're almost there, Sakura. Be strong. A ninja never shows his tears, remember?" Kakashi consoled.
Sakura bit her lip and wiped her eyes with the heel of her hand. If only it were so easy as that, she thought bitterly. She decided she wouldn't show her tears; she would show her hate. She brought Itachi's image to her mind's eye and envisioned the ways he would suffer before she ended his life. She clenched her fists as she walked, gritting her teeth. Whenever thoughts of Sasuke threatened to surface, she would punch at the air as if Itachi were before her. Kakashi didn't say a word until they were finally before the gate, staring up at its demonic visage, frightful images burned into the wood.
"It's good to see you have returned," a Naruto clone stated, giving them a solemn look. "I'm sorry for what you had to go through. Head straight for the Tower, we'll talk more there." With that, he dispelled in a puff of smoke.
The large gate seemed to open of its own accord, allowing passage for the two returning ninja. Once inside, the hellish gates lurched and moved in the opposite direction. Though construction was still going strong, Sakura could actually see the fast improvements that have been made since she left less than two weeks before. Hinata and Naruto clones were everywhere there, as usual, but other workers could be seen as well.
With a leap, Kakashi landed on a half completed tower, and then launched himself at another. Sakura followed, channeling all her focus into the movement while nurturing her hate for Itachi. Despite being exhausted, she was determined to use her rage to power her movements until she was finally able to rest. By time they entered the Outer Core, her body was on fire and her lungs were heaving, but Kakashi never let up. When they entered the village's core, Sakura thought she may pass out. Sweat drenched her beaten body and her muscles were beginning to feel as if they would fail her. But she made her way across the bridge, disregarding a few villagers as they eyed her because of what she assumed to be her scruffy appearance, covered in dirt with torn clothes. No matter, she reached the Kage Tower all the same.
They ran up its length until they were able to scale the battlements at the top. Naruto and Hinata were there waiting.
Hinata bowed deeply, and Naruto grimaced.
"Kakashi, Sakura." Naruto nodded in turn to both of them. "I'm deeply sorry for your loss. What happened… I will admit, I had thought it possible. But I never expected it. I…"
Sakura, despite being at a loss for breath, managed to speak, "Itachi…" she gasped, "is mine."
Naruto looked at her for a moment, as did the Lady Utsurokage. Hinata frowned, and Sakura could see sympathy in her pupil-less, lavender-white eyes. They did not speak. With one look at each other, they nodded.
"If you can kill him, and if the time ever comes, we will not stop you." Hinata said solemnly.
Something inside Sakura released then, and tears came unbidden to her eyes. She turned away from the Kages, sobbing silently. She had expected some sort of rebuttal. But their compliance caught her off guard, and seemed to sap the strength from the resolve that she had made to resist their refutation. But they had agreed. She was both relieved and scared. She had now sealed her fate with her declaration. She would have to get stronger. She would have to get better. For Sasuke.
When Sakura was dismissed, Naruto, Hinata, and Kakashi retired to the Utsurokage office. Naruto paced around the room restlessly as Hinata waited patiently, leaning against the curved wall. Kakashi merely waited, his visible eye gazing lazily at the male Utsurokage as he marched around. Finally, Naruto stopped.
"You're absolutely sure he killed him? Are you sure it was Sasuke, and are you sure he was dead?" Naruto looked at Kakashi with his intense, blazing blue eyes. Hinata had fallen into those eyes so many times, yet now his ferocity gave him a sense of determination. She could almost hear the gears grinding in his mind.
"Hai, Utsurokage-sama," Kakashi replied emotionlessly, though his line of vision moved to the floor and he shook his head. "My Sharingan was activated, and it was definitely Sasuke. His chakra and everything. And with the First's enhancement of my eyes… there's no doubt. Sasuke is dead. There was no life left in him."
"His body…" Naruto's fists clenched. "You left his body there-"
"Itachi wouldn't h-"
"I know, Kakashi-san. Itachi must have wanted Sasuke's eyes for himself, or for some other nefarious purpose. Dammit!" Naruto glared at the floor for a moment, then looked back up. "Sakura. Will she ever be able to kill him?"
"I…" Kakashi began, running a hand through his dirty, snow-white hair. "I can teach her how to fight the Sharingan. Teach her to fight by only looking at her opponent's feet. I will teach her everything I know about Genjutsu. I will do everything I can to make her ready."
"Yes," Naruto said softly, "but will it be enough?"
"No, Utsurokage-sama. She… lacks the ability, I must admit. She has made recent improvements, but even now her progress is too slow to ever reach the level that Itachi is on. She doesn't have a kekkai genkai, she doesn't have any secret clan techniques, and her physical abilities are only typical for a Genin. However… She is smart. Perhaps she can learn her family's trade and become a medical ninja. She would do much better in that field than in an attack squad, as my team was meant to be."
Naruto snickered, "Abilities mean nothing, Kakashi! It's a person's ambitions and will that matter! If Sakura has the willpower, she will find the strength to beat Itachi. Yet, you would have her train as a medic?"
"Naruto," Hinata said politely, smiling, "you seem to be forgetting a certain Sennin that specializes in medical jutsu. I believe she is the ultimate counterargument to your current train of thought."
Naruto turned to look at her, a sheepish smile plastered on his lips. He laughed and scratched the back of his head, "Oh, right. The old lady… who is not so old anymore." Then he blinked. "You're right, Hinata!" He suddenly yelped with delight, pumping his fist in the air. "Tsunade and Sakura can train together!"
What little of Kakashi's face that showed was cast in a shadow of doubt. "Utsurokage-sama, Lady Tsunade is not likely to take on an apprentice she doesn't even know."
"She owes me a debt," Naruto said with a foxish smile. "I did give her what she wanted most, after all."
"By accident," Hinata pointed out helpfully, stifling a giggle. "And you got the necklace in return." Naruto gave her sour look, but shrugged it off with a smile. He eyed the Shodaime's necklace, which hung around Kakashi's neck, the crystal resting against his chest atop the beaten flak jacket.
"Still," the blond Kage continued, "I think Tsunade would be better off with Sakura. I'll arrange for the two of them to be together as much as possible upon her return."
Hinata wondered about his optimistic outlook sometimes. He could be the gloomiest person at times, and yet, the most confident just a second later. It's what she loved about him: his ability to bounce back from anything. Though that cube had proved a difficult mistake to recover from, she thought bitterly, remembering his reclusive behavior of those times.
"We know you've had a terrible mission, Kakashi-san," Hinata spoke up, her voice as soft and kind as always. "You can deliver the details of it tomorrow. You may go rest now, and we are truly sorry for your student…"
"Thank you, Lady Utsurokage," Kakashi said with a small bow of his head. He looked at Naruto for a moment, as if her were going to say something. Instead, he only inclined his head, bid goodnight to them both, then left through the overhead trapdoor.
When the two of them were alone, Naruto sighed and plopped into his chair. Hinata joined him at the desk, staring at the place where she had declared her love for him only a couple days before. It made her blush, and she was thankful that Naruto's attention was on the papers before him.
"Tsunade reached Konoha," he observed, "and Asuma seems to be recovering with her attending him. Kiba has been dispatched to return to the village." He looked up at her, his eyes nowhere near as fierce as before. She smiled down at him.
"There's other news too, about our village. The Berserker clan grows daily, and the Harunos are working fervently with them on their Sharingan project. Genetic testing is still a required part of joining, but it seems it only takes the smallest of relationship to the Uchiha to gain membership."
Naruto sat back in his chair then and groaned. "I am all for the growth of our clans, but if the Berserkers turn out to be like the Uchiha of Konoha… But what do I know? I've never been part of a clan, or even a family… what are your thoughts about them, Hinata? You never talk of your own clan…"
Because they're all horrible, she thought with some animosity. But for Naruto, she put on a small smile. "My clan is… was… an exception, I think. They were not like a family at all, really." She felt her smile slipping, but didn't have the strength to play false. Not that she wanted to. Not with Naruto. Her voice grew sad as she said, "Only Hanabi had any resemblance of love in her, yet Father pitted us against each other every chance he could get. He would train us rigorously, then have us spar at the end of each training session. I… always lost," she couldn't go on, and tears came to her eyes.
"I never thought to ask," Naruto said, and she could tell he felt incredibly stupid. He knew that she disliked her clan, but she had never really talked about it with him. She didn't want to dwell on it.
"Don't worry, Naruto-kun," she whispered, wiping her tears away and smiling. "Being with you makes me forget all that. I never talked about it with you because… when I'm with you… it's like all those hard times never existed." She reached down and put her hand atop his own, which rested on the armrest. He smiled his amazing smile at her, his teeth white, his happiness showing in his eyes. Unlike Father, she thought, if he ever smiled, it would only be in a mocking manner. Like when he complimented me on beating Sakura in a Taijutsu match back at the academy… just before asking why I bothered telling him at all. 'Swatting flies is not a commendable feat, and neither is defeating that upstart trash. Her family shouldn't even hold the title of clan. Next time, tell me something that should make me proud, daughter.'
Her anger with the memory must have shown on her face, because Naruto asked, "What's the matter, Hinata-chan?"
She pushed the memories back into the vault of her mind and smiled at the love of her life. "Absolutely nothing."
Renzaki Zen glared out from atop his village's wall. Though the mountainous trees blocked his view, he felt he could still see the ninja in the land. Dishonorable, backstabbing, blood-craving animals that they were. It disgusted him. He loosened his katana in its scabbard, always at the ready. His honor blade sat protected in his belt that wrapped around the hardened, lacquered leather torso of his armor. His battle skirts left him great mobility, and his helmet covered him from head to neck, though his face was completely open.
He had recently been given a high ranking position in the guard, and would lead in the van when they finally attacked. The Leader had promised, when Zen led him into enlightenment. Of course, his powers were different. The Leader hadn't experienced a group enlightening, which had elevated all of Zen's original two hundred to godlike powers… and demonic madness.
Zen merely meditated with The Leader and guided him spiritually to the brink, where the power flowed generously from the unformed multiverse. And it is at that power that he stopped, and told the Leader that he had reached enlightenment. Zen had seen it in the man's eyes; a power so strong and energetic that the man could not stay still. That's when he promised Zen an honorable position, as well as command of the strongest part of the army.
Now Renzaki Zen stood on the wall, looking out into dangers unknown in the cold night, the gigantic trees muffling all sounds and lights that may have tried to escape from the bright city behind him. Samurai were efficient if nothing else, and any damage done by the ninja attack a couple months ago was now as if it had never happened.
The armories were being stocked, the smithies hammering day and night, and at every hour of the day there was a squadron of samurai being drilled in one of the many practice fields. Though the invasion depended upon the ninja warring amongst themselves, Zen knew they'd be ready for whenever that happened. It could be within a month, or in a few years, but it was inevitable at this point. Scouts reported skirmishes along ninja borders, cries for war in nearly every country, and more and more ninjas were out and about… To show off their country's strength, of course, Zen thought with a laugh.
It mattered not to him. When the Fourth Great Ninja War was to occur, Zen would lead the van into Fire Country. From their peninsula, which jutted out just south of Wave Country, they would be able to quickly overwhelm both Konoha and Kaimu in one fell swoop while their forces were out attacking other villages. Or, if the battle was brought to them, the samurai would hold back and let the ninja wear each other out, and creep around to the other defenseless villages.
Whatever battle they fought, it did not matter. Soon, the world would once again belong to the samurai. And then Gisougakure would finally be free to open up its gates to the world, and samurai would once again be held in esteem.
"Naruto," Hinata began warily, as she went through a Jyuuken dance as a cool down, slowly moving through the forms she learned as a child. It bothered her that she wasn't able to learn more advanced techniques, and she knew she would have to find a way around that. "Earlier you said that Tsunade-san owed you a debt. But… she said she already paid it off with her necklace, right? Well… what makes you think she will take on Sakura?"
They were training in the largest Dojo in the Shell of the village, and they had the building all to themselves. While Hinata practiced her Taijutsu techniques on one side, Naruto was currently fighting a dozen clones thirty feet away from her.
Naruto didn't pause from his swordplay, swinging the ethereal weapon in wide arcs at his clones. All of their blades were swooping and clashing, a large melee of grunts and shouts as clones popped out of existence. The blades left a smoky trail of void as they were swung. One Naruto grinned and called out, "Easy. She has to."
Hinata wrinkled her nose at his answer, shifting her feet to allow for a stronger stance as her palms struck out gracefully in slow motion. She upped her speed when she replied, "What makes you so certain, Naruto-kun?"
The grinning Naruto struck down two more clones and ducked under another sword that came from behind him, "I…" he spoke, between breathes as he slashed out, "Just… Know it!" The last clone was split in half by the extra-dimensional blade, and the weapon fizzed into nonexistence as the male Utsurokage turned to her and began to close the distance between them. "Tsunade needs to get stronger. She said as much when she woke up and found herself in a weak body. Sakura needs training and has the determination to improve drastically. The two of them are a perfect match!" He came to a stop not five feet away.
Hinata finished her Jyuuken practice and slid her feet together to stand at her full height, her arms falling to her sides. "But, what if-"
"What if, what if, what if?" Naruto asked with a laugh. "What if we had never left Konoha? What if Tsunade's rescue hadn't gone so well? What if we had never obtained the Negative Chakra? What if? What if-"
"What if we hadn't sent Team Seven on that mission," Hinata whispered, her eyes downcast.
"Yeah…" Naruto conceded, "What if? What-ifs don't change anything, only actions do. Hindsight and retrospect are the most useless of our brain's functions! Dwelling on the past will not help us now. Only what we do will. And if I have to order Sakura to follow Tsunade everywhere and intrude on the old – young – whatever lady's training sessions to make Tsunade take her on, I will. It will happen. Don't worry so much about it." With his small speech concluded, a dark chakra appeared in his right gauntlet, and it took the shape of the sword he had just been using. "What if we spar?" Naruto asked, grinning, his foxish features giving him a mischievous look.
"What if?" Hinata laughed.
Kiba toured the remnants of the warehouse he once lived in. The large, musty-smelling interior was bare, the long and intricate catwalks empty of the dogs that had once roamed them, the puppies that would nap there, the Inuzuka children that would run along them, barking and howling at each other. As Kiba walked across the concrete floor, that was once littered with animals, rugs, bones, chew toys, training weapons, and much, much more… he felt a feeling of longing.
Though the compound that his clan now called home in Kaimu was even larger, it was not as community-oriented as this warehouse had been. His entire life as he was growing up remained here. Looking at the far side of the huge building, Kiba could make out the large double-doors that led to the cafeteria… an entire cafeteria, and beyond that would be the bathing area. But this place, where he stood, made him close his eyes and let himself fall into a nostalgic trance.
After several minutes, Kiba finally sighed and opened his eyes once more, only to recoil from an unexpected sight. Akamaru yelped at his side; even he hadn't noticed the newcomer. "Why are you here?" Kiba called out angrily.
"No one I have asked will confirm what I suspect. You can provide me with the information I seek." The monotonous voice belonged to an average height male, wearing a long, white overcoat and sunglasses. "What truly became of your clan?"
Kiba remembered the boy then; it was Aburame Shino. They had gone to the Academy together. "Well, what do they tell you? Maybe they are right."
"They claim your entire clan perished on a mission," Shino informed doubtfully. "Is that the truth, Inuzuka?"
"So what if it is?" Kiba snarled. "Why are you in my home?"
"Actually…" Shino shook his head, "this is no longer Inuzuka property. My clan has acquired your land to accommodate our kikai insects. To find you here has been a very unusual occurrence."
Kiba blinked in astonishment. First Konoha listed his whole clan as KIA, now his home belonged to someone else!
Shino tilted his head slightly and continued, "And what brings you back to Konoha, I wonder?"
Kiba turned away from the Aburame, his fists clenched. What did he care if his former home belonged to a bunch of bug-lovers? He belonged in Kaimu now. And that's where he should be headed for now. After Tsunade arrived, the man Kiba had carried back to Konoha was doing much better. His burns would leave scars, she warned, but he would be able to return to duty within a month. Despite never seeing the Sennin before, he had never imagined her to be so… young. She looked no older than twenty, a stark contrast to the Toad Sage that had stood beside her when Kiba first saw them. It must be a genjutsu, he told himself at the time, but he couldn't help but blush at her ample cleavage. He had left shortly after, seeing that Tsunade had everything under control.
"Business," Kiba replied, turning back to the boy. "But I'll be gone soon enough, so don't worry about me messing up your precious bug house."
"Unfortunate. I had hoped we could exchange mutually beneficial information. You of your clan, I of breeding techniques." Shino shrugged then.
"What makes you think I don't know everything there is to know of breeding? Akamaru here is a prime example of my clan's breeding methods!" Kiba pointed down to the snow-white pup, the small dog barking in agreement.
"Be that as it may, I couldn't help but notice your clan's logs as I was cleaning. Mating third cousins may seem a superficial risk when dealing with a litter as small as yours, but there are mathematical formulas that can be used to diversify the gene-line as much as possible before having to reconnect certain lines of heritage. Maximizing the potential matches for as long as possible before mating distant relatives, allowing for a truer breed and a minimized risk of unwanted mutations."
Kiba pondered that for a bit, until he finally gave in. "All right," he said, holding up a finger, "but if any of your questions are too specific, I may not be able to answer. You have five questions."
Shino readjusted his sunglasses, nodding as he did so. "Agreed. First query; are your clan members still living?"
Kiba smirked, "As if anything could kill off my clan!" Akamaru howled in agreement.
"Just answer, please."
Kiba rolled his eyes with a groan, "Yes, all right?"
"I thank you. Next question… where did they all go? Where did you go?" Shino cocked his head slightly.
Grinning, Kiba answered, "I'm counting that as two questions. We… relocated. For the benefit of all."
Seemingly satisfied, Shino nodded. "I'll hold those next two questions for some other time. You've given me a lot to think about." He produced a small notebook from a large pocket on his side. Tossing it in Kiba's direction, he said, "Within that notebook lays my personal observations for breeding, as well as a few of my clan's equations. Use them wisely." He turned around, took three steps, and then stopped. Turning his head to the side, Shino remarked, "Your clan's disappearance coincides with the exodus of the Harunos. Something unusual is transpiring, and I intend to discover just what it is. Good day, Inuzuka."
Kiba watched the strange boy leave the warehouse, before opening the notebook. It only took a glance to figure out that it would be better off in his sister's hands. Stashing the boring material away, he exclaimed, "C'mon, Akamaru, let's head to the 'kage and ask for his leave to return to Kaimu!" The young pup barked his agreement, and the two raced out of the former Inuzuka complex.
The Hokage sat behind his large desk, staring across the mounds of paperwork at his former students. "Well, Tsunade," the old man sighed, "are you finally happy? You get your life back."
Tsunade sneered, turning her head. Jiraiya shrugged peaceably, a sad smile on his face. He said, "There's something very odd happening with Minato's boy. His seal has been partly transferred to the Hyuuga girl, he's obtained a new chakra, and he's creating techniques that make absolutely no sense… if you take what we know of physics and apply it to what he's done." He looked pointedly down at the twelve-year old Tsunade, who had her arms crossed, not looking at her old sensei.
"I see," Sarutobi muttered. "Has the boy been training? He needs to be ready for what's to come. Especially as the Kage of a village. And if the girl truly has part of Kyuubi's powers… she needs to be just as prepared."
"I trained them at first, but after what happened on our mission to bring back Tsunade, I haven't done much with them. Both of them train daily, refining their techniques. But their unique chakra type definitely gives them an edge over others. I do believe that Hinata is at her limits with Jyuuken, however. She may need a teacher."
"No," the Third Hokage replied grimly. "No one can know who Kaimugakure's leaders truly are. I've done my best to filter any information about that village, yet it is still not enough. People whisper… some only of ridiculous rumors, others of truths that I wished were rumors."
"Why did you allow them to do this, you old fool?" Tsunade asked softly, taking a seat before the desk. Jiraiya followed in kind.
"His greatest dream was to be the Hokage. As the village was… still is, he could not have been accepted as the leader. I gave him his chance. I did what Minato would have wanted, if he had seen how the boy was treated."
"Minato wanted him to be the hero of this village. Not any other." Jiraiya pointed out, crossing his arms.
Sarutobi only laughed. "Jiraiya, Jiraiya. All your years away made you blind. Sure, he may have become just that. But the boy was lonely. He was mistreated. Nothing outright dangerous, or really physical, but the mental abuses were much more traumatic. I took the boy under my wing. I gave him what help I could, for the time I had. I taught him, subtly, everything he needed to know about leadership. He needed strength, courage, and the love of his people. Tell me, does he have that?"
Tsunade grunted, and Jiraiya smiled. "He's a chip off his old man's block, that's for sure. The people adore him, and the girl. They freed Wave country from a tyrannical monopoly, yet they ended up owning much of it themselves. But the people don't see anything wrong with it; their lives have changed for the better, and that's all they care about. Then, they raised the small town to the status of a great ninja village, seemingly overnight. If that's not leadership, I can't say what is."
The Third allowed himself a victorious smile. "And the girl… has she come out of her shell?"
Jiraiya laughed, "She's a vicious fighter, I'll give her that much. But it wasn't until recently that she finally admitted her feelings to Naruto."
Sarutobi turned fully from his former students, hiding the emotions playing across his face. Then I have done as much as I had hoped to do, and more. I wish them all the happiness in the world. "And do they seem content?"
"Besides being burdened with the responsibility of a whole village? Sure, about as jovial as they can be."
Sarutobi nodded to himself, and stared out at the Hokage monument. His gaze lingered on the deeply shadowed face of the Yondaime for a few minutes, before he finally turned back to face his guests.
"Then we'll have to do everything we can to reduce that burden," Sarutobi began, "starting with the two of you watching and helping them full time. They need good counsel, as well as skilled teachers. I can think of none better."
Tsunade arched an eyebrow, "I thought you said I had my life back?"
Sarutobi smiled knowingly at her, "You do, of course. Yet you are still a ninja, and one of this village's finest. Your mission now is to regain your physical strength and chakra as you help Kaimu. We'll need your help in the war that is to come."
Jiraiya sighed, "Is there no way to avoid it? Has diplomacy really been such a failure?"
Sarutobi nodded gravely, "A treaty party from Suna was dispatched to Iwa, yet they never returned. I'm afraid Earth Country is out for blood, and the Kazekage is more than happy to oblige."
"And to the conqueror goes the spoils," Jiraiya grumbled. "This war will just give the other ninja countries an excuse to pillage and gain land. Greedy bastards…"
"Let's not forget those samurai," Tsunade piped up. "They seem to be out for blood, as well."
"Definitely," Jiraiya agreed.
"But who will they attack first?" Tsunade put in.
"You have it all wrong," the Sandaime Hokage stated. "We should not worry about whom they attack. We should worry about when: before or after we ninja destroy each other?"
The three exchanged a very dark look, knowing him to be right.