A/N: Wow, it's done... I think I'm in shock - I actually finished it. And now I'm on to the next idea. Still Naruto, but I think anything following these characters is going to have to wait. This other idea has kind of taken over. Anyway, it's been fun everyone.
Thank you to everyone who read this, and especially to everyone who reviewed. Tilders and Veve, thanks for the wonderful encouragement. And Josh Crazy, thanks for the name bit. I had tried to look it up, and most places seemed split between Gen and Shibi, so I just picked one of the two.
Grey eyes glanced up as a pair of golden birds shrieked overhead. A dark-haired teenager made a familiar gesture, smiling a little as the shadows under the wagon untwined from around his fingers. Shaking the darkness off, he stood and walked down the length of the caravan. His smile widened as the sound of laughter drifted in the air. Ducking between two of the wagons, he paused to watch as an older teenager flared his hands out in an expansive gesture, and the little ones gathered around him gasped. A few more minutes saw the end of the story, and the teenager stood, children pleading with the boy for "one more". But he waved them off, picking up a short cane as he made his way to the younger teen, still chuckling at the children's eagerness. "Time already, Kyo?" the elder asked. He nodded. "Yeah." As the pair set off toward the town, the younger boy couldn't help but shake his head. "You know, Karas, I just can't get over you." Karas tilted his head curiously, so Kyoshiro explained. "It's just… you're actually using your cane. You've never done that, you've always been so determined to not need it." His friend laughed again. "Oh, that! Well, we're traveling now. I can't just memorize the way, you know. And besides" the boy's smile turned mischievous for an instant as he spun said cane like a sword. "Whoever would suspect a blind boy of being able to kick their asses?" "You're impossible." a new voice stated, a brunet falling in beside them. Karas spoke up. "So, Midori, the others are meeting us there?" Midori nodded, and then spoke when he remembered that one of his friends couldn't see the gesture. "Yes. Ash has been playing at a café for today, so it won't be hard for him to get off for lunch. Reiji and Shiroji took the girls shopping, and since Talon and Honey just called…" The three boys laughed and teased each other all the way into town as the day shone brightly in the Waterfall Country.
The atmosphere was tense, heavy with emotion. The Hokage watched from her seat, paying no attention to the report – God knew she had it practically memorized – but silently observing the ninjas packed into the stands of the Chunin Exam stadium. Some, such as Hyuuga Hiashi, grit their teeth and clenched their fists in anger; whether at themselves or their comrades she neither knew nor cared. Some, like Umino Iruka and Maito Gai, openly wept. Still others, such as Nara Shikaku and, surprisingly, Aburame Shibi, bowed their heads as they trembled in shame. Most were still and silent, solemn as the damning words went on and on.
In the aftermath of the disappearance of over ¾ of Konoha's juvenile population – 72 children in all – the city had been thoroughly searched for anything with the names of the missing. Anything to explain such a horrendous loss. And among the overflow of noise and annoyance reports, there had been found a number of hand written accounts, posted by the missing children up to nine months before the exodus. Reports of isolation and abuse, of hurt and hopelessness. Each of which spoke of a child desperately trying to reach out, and a city turning its back on the most helpless of its people. Each of which, after the opening of the first few, were immediately turned in to the Hokage.
It had changed Konoha like nothing else ever had. A number of individuals, both civilian and ninja, had been brought in for questioning, and most of those were subsequently arrested. Hospital and clinic policies were re-written, the health care staff horrified at the amount and intensity of abuse that had slipped past their notice because they had assumed that the bruises, the cuts and the broken bones were merely unusually severe training injuries. Budgets were re-calculated after a careful scrutiny of the population that grants and allowances were normally spent on. Families – those that were still whole, or mostly so – clung together. Shinobi Clans began looking inward, placing emphasis on the individual as well as the clan. The change in the Hyuuga clan was shocking. It was rumored that someone had actually seen a Hyuuga child smile at something besides a victory. So many things were changing; so many problems were being tended to. But it was far too late.
Their own laws had been used against them. One lengthy document had quoted article, paragraph and line number of the various laws that kept Konoha from being able to claim their lost ones, even if they could find them. Article 15, paragraph 4, line 7 pointed out that an Academy graduate was not considered a ninja until he or she had been accepted by a Jounin instructor. Therefore, the letter stated, they could not be listed as missing-nin. Article 35, paragraph 2, line 19 allowed for a Clan child – if they declared themselves not related to their clan, submitted the appropriate documentation, and said clan did not challenge the declaration for six months – to be considered independent. Children as young as three years old were now emancipated, simply because no one paid attention when the child declared him or herself cut off. On and on it went, a carefully planned strategy that left Konoha no legal options.
They had been fools; had been blind to the misery and pain within their own borders – and they had lost their most precious treasure because of it. Konoha had, for all intents and purposes, lost its children.