Author's Notes: This brings an end to this story. I may write another one in this setting at some point in the future. Or I may not. I hope those of you have read this have enjoyed it.
Matsuri ran through some hand signs. In a puff of smoke she was gone, hunk of wood taking her place.
Kanaria nodded her head approvingly. "I'd say you've got it down."
Matsuri jumped down from the tree limb she'd teleported to. "Thanks to you. I know you might have gotten in trouble for teaching this to me, I really appreciate it."
Kanaria just shook her head. "You know you could have just learned it from Naruto-sensei, like me and the others did."
"No," she said frostily. "I won't take any help from him. To be honest I don't know how you can. You're from Grass, he actually served there. Grass didn't suffer the way Wind did but it was still harsh. How can you stand to be near him, let alone learn from him or call him, 'sensei?'"
"It was a long time ago." Kanaria answered. "And what happened then was the fault of Orochimaru and Konoha. He was just a soldier obeying orders, like us."
"We're nothing like him!" Matsuri insisted loudly.
"Are you sure?" Kanari asked. "We burn down villages and turn innocent people into slaves. That isn't too different to what happened in Grass country."
"We've never massacred innocent people!"
Kanaria looked at her coldly. "Haven't we?"
Three Years Ago
The trouble makers had been arrested and beaten, and now finally they would be made examples of. They had been going about trying to stir up trouble, leaving treasonous pamphlets, spray painting graffiti with dangerous messages. They had been trying to stir up opposition to the emperor's authority. Now they would pay the price. And the entire village had been forced to come out and bear witness.
There were a total of ten criminals that would be executed. Wanting a big show Gato had decided to have them all executed at once. And each one would be killed by one of his fearsome ninja.
Matsuri had felt honored to be chosen to execute their ring leader. Her best friend Kanaria was also one of the executioners. The prisoners were all tied to wooden posts. Their arms had already been hacked off. The others were all screaming for mercy of crying and pleading. Their leader at least faced his death with some courage.
He was about her age, just a teenager. A local boy whose father had been a fisherman. His name was Inari.
"I won't beg," he said as he was tied to the post.
Matsuri had shrugged. "I don't care if you beg or not. You're just getting what you deserve for opposing the emperor."
"Emperor?" the boy had mocked. "He's nothing but a rich thug." Maybe the boy was brave. Maybe he was stupid or light headed from blood loss. Or maybe he understood he had nothing more to lose.
Matsuri slapped him across the face. "Shut up! The Emperor is a great man!"
The boy had just looked at her and spoken in a calm voice. "That's what they used to say about Orochimaru too." Matsuri had flinched at that. "He killed my dad for trying to stand up to him when he began taking everything and leaving this whole country in poverty. He killed my granddad for trying to build the bridge that could have given the people a chance to get back on their feet. He's no emperor; he's just a killer and a thief."
"Shut your damn mouth," she hissed at him. "He gave me a place and a reason to exist. I have a home now because of him. He is a great man."
Despite his situation the boy had actually smiled then. "You really do believe that don't you? Do you think you're special to him? Do you imagine he has some sort of loyalty to you? You're just a tool like everyone else. He'll use you and then throw you away the second he has no use for you."
"Liar, the emperor would never do that to those who are loyal to him."
"He does it to everyone, and he'll do it to you to eventually."
When the order had finally come she'd actually been relieved to kill him.
"That was completely different!" Matsuri insisted. "They were rebels!"
"They were kids spray painting walls and handing out leaflets." Kanaria replied. "They didn't deserve what happened to them. Just like all those people who we forced from their homes didn't deserve that."
"It's not the same! The emperor has never asked us to slaughter whole villages and cities!"
Her friend looked at her knowingly. "If he did what would you do?"
Matsuri shook her head violently. "He would never do that!"
"But if he did?"
"Don't ask me that!" She shot back. "What we're doing is different! We're fighting for the emperor's dream to bring peace and unity back to this world."
"Orochimaru had the same dream." Kanaria pointed out. The hard look her friend gave her made her sigh. "Look Matsuri, there's something you should know. I'm leaving; I've had enough of this."
"Leaving?" Matsuri was stunned. They'd known one another for years and had joined the emperor's service together. She was the closest thing that Matsuri had left to family.
"That's right," Kanaria said firmly. "Maybe you can fool yourself into thinking there is some sort of nobility to all of this, but I can't anymore."
"But where will you go? You don't have any family, you don't have a home."
"I've decided to go to the village of Minato and try to start over. Naruto-sensei has extended an open invitation to anyone who wants to go there."
"You'd betray the emperor?"
"Betray?" Kanaria gave her best friend a hard look. "We weren't born into his service, we came here and signed on as mercenaries, or have you for gotten that? This was never a life long commitment. I joined up by choice and now I'm leaving by choice."
Matsuri looked pleadingly at her friend. "But what about me?"
"I'm sorry, but you won't come with me and I can't stay."
"You sent for me emperor Gato?" Naruto gave his client a respectful bow.
The man sent him a greasy smile and nodded. "Yes I have, tell me Naruto how have you enjoyed working for me?"
"Well you have certainly kept us busy." He was careful to sound neutral. "As I trust you are satisfied with our services I expect to receive our first month's payment tomorrow."
"Well of course," Gato replied smoothly. "There is certainly no denying you earned it. But I have a job for you and your men. There were some rebels that have been giving me trouble and I've recently learned the location of their hidden base. I wan the three of you to got heir and dispose of them."
"Rebels? I haven't heard about any rebels."
"I've tried to keep their activities quiet." Gato handed over a folder with the information. "I'd like you and your men to take case of this immediately."
Naruto took the information and gave it a quick look. He was rather surprised to note the rebel base was only about ten miles away. "I'll take care of this myself; I don't need to bother my friends with it."
Gato frowned. "I want all three of you to take care of this, I insist. This is very important and I want no mistakes."
Naruto gave the man a cold and calculating look. "I understand." He turned to leave but stopped as he opened the door. "Emperor-san, I think you should know something."
"Yes?" Naruto gave him a look that made the man very nervous.
"You will pay us what you owe us, in one way or another." With that Naruto left.
Meeting with his friends Naruto handed them the folder and quickly explained what the mission was. The three veteran ninja shared a look.
"Troublesome," Shikamaru muttered
"But not wholly unexpected," Neji added.
Naruto shook his head wearily. "Come on, let's go and get this over with."
Ten miles away the three ninja came tot eh spot marked on the map. It was a small abandoned mine. With no hesitation the three of them entered.
Well hidden a few hundred yards away were two men. One had a pair of binoculars, while the other stood nervously over a large switch.
"Well?" The second man asked nervously.
"Relax," the man with the binoculars told him. "We have to give them a few minutes to get deeper into the mine." He allowed three minutes to pass, and then nodded his head. "Do it."
The other man pressed down on the switch.
The earth shook with a thundering crash. They could both see the huge cloud of dust rising from the hill side. The entire mine entrance and the whole hill side was gone. The hundred pounds of explosives had done the job.
The man with the binoculars nodded, happy with the result. "The emperor will be pleased."
"What's going on?" Matsuri asked one of the other ninja.
He shrugged. "I don't know, the emperor ordered us to assemble in the courtyard."
There was a sense of unease as she and the others left their quarters and went outside. The sudden assembly was unexpected, and the unexpected was rarely welcomed. As the ninja gathered Matsuri noted that all of them except Kanaria and Shimizu were present. Soon after some of the soldiers came out to assemble as well.
Or so she thought until they formed a huge square around them and took their swords out. The ninja quickly took their own weapons out, but as more and more soldiers joined the ranks around them it became clear they were doomed.
"What are you doing?!" Matsuri shouted at the men. "We're all on the same side!"
All eyes turned to the platform that overlooked the courtyard. On it the emperor had just made an appearance along with Shimizu and a tied up Kanaria.
"Emperor Gato!" Matsuri cried out. "What are you doing? We are your loyal servants!"
"I suppose some of you still are," Gato said dismissively. "Though I'm sure some of you plan on betraying me like this slut here." He nodded to Kanaria. "I think I should let you all know I've decided to do some downsizing. I need to cut my costs, and since you ninja are paid in gold I've decided to get rid of you except for Shimizu."
Matsuri stared up at the man she had served faithfully for years. The man she'd fought and killed for. The man she had given her complete and total faith to. "You can't mean that," she said dully. "You can't really mean to kill us just to avoid paying us."
Then he smiled, the cruel smile she'd seen often before, just never directed at her. "It's just good business. Human life is cheap, gold is precious. Besides you weak ninja aren't worth it, you're not that much tougher than regular soldiers and your way too expensive." He chuckled. "And the ninja that are worth it? Well they're really too expensive."
"Naruto-sensei will make you pay!" One of the ninja shouted.
That drew a large laugh. "I doubt that, he and his two men are already dead." His laughter was harsh and choppy. "Did any of you really think I would ever hand over so much gold?"
"You mean you were always going to betray them?" Matsuri asked.
Gato nodded. "As soon as I realized who they were I knew they were too dangerous, and too expensive, to keep around. But it worked out just fine. I got a lot of good service from them and it didn't cost me a thing. That really is the best sort of business."
Matsuri was surprised to actually feel sorry that Naruto was dead. She had wanted to kill him, and yet now that he was gone she regretted it. She wondered how that could be. She thought that perhaps, despite who he was, she had come to respect him. In the end Naruto had proven an honorable man.
Unlike the man she had chosen to serve.
Gato nodded to his captains. "Well then, let's start the killing."
With those words the slaughter began.
But it wasn't the ninja who were slaughtered. The soldiers began to screaming as their throats were sliced open. Amid a series of yellow flashes hundred of armed men began going down like wheat before a scythe. Seeing their comrades being massacred right in front of them the rest dropped their swords and ran away screaming.
With that a familiar figure appeared in front of all of them. He calmly took out a rag and began wiping the blood from his kunai and hands.
"You know, for someone who supposedly spent so much time in Konoha you have no idea what a real ninja is." Naruto sounded quite calm and relaxed. One would never guess from listening to him that he had just killed a few hundred men. He looked up at Gato with a look of contempt. "Did you really think we would fall for such an obvious trap? Do you even have any idea how many battles and ambushes I've survived?"
Gato stared down at the man and felt the blood draining from his face. "But… but… you were blown up!"
"Shadow clones idiot." Naruto said disdainfully.
Shikamaru and Neji appeared on the platform. Shika performed a quick jutsu and Gato and Shimizu were held in place.
"We suspected from the very start that you were likely to betray us." Shikamaru said.
"One does not expect honor from a man who is a thief and a coward." Neji said. He promptly cut Shimizu's throat while freeing Kanaria.
With a flash of yellow Naruto appeared on the platform towering over Gato with his kunai in hand. "I told you that you would pay us in one way or another."
"Wait! Just wait! Don't do anything hasty! We can work out a deal! I have a fortune in gold and jewels, let me live and it's all yours!"
"Believe it or not Gato, we aren't thieves and we didn't come here to rob you. We came here to fulfill a contract. You owe us 700 pieces of gold for services rendered."
"And for your betrayal you owe us your life." Neji added.
Naruto nodded. "And that's what we'll take, no more and no less."
"Naruto please stop!"
Naruto turned to see Matsuri climbing the steps of the platform.
Gato felt some hope. "Matsuri, I knew I could count on you!"
Matsuri came to a halt in front of Naruto. "Please, I beg you not to kill him." Gato smiled while Naruto looked amazed. "Please let me be the one to kill him."
"What?" Gato looked at her in horror. "How can you betray me?"
Matsuri gave him a look of smoky hate. "It's easy since you were about to do that to me."
Naruto stepped aside. "Be my guest."
Naruto would have made it quick and clean; he was a professional and always killed like one. Matsuri was neither quick nor clean. She had trusted him, given him everything, only to be told she was less important than a few shiny coins. She had some frustrations to take out.
It was twenty minutes before he finally died.
It was almost an hour before she finally stopped.
In the treasury vault they had counted out seven hundred pieces of gold.
"All right, we're done here." Naruto said.
"That's it? You're just leaving now?" Matsuri asked.
"You and he others are welcome to come with us." Naruto said.
"But what about the people here?"
Naruto looked at her. "What about them? They aren't my responsibility."
She crossed her arms. "If you just leave this entire place will fall into chaos. Someone needs to be in charge of putting things back in some sort of order."
"You know Naruto; we could add a lot of territory and people to our village." Shikamaru pointed out.
Neji nodded. "It would greatly strengthen the village. And the people here would finally have a government that wasn't bent on just stealing from them."
Naruto saw all the eyes turn in his direction.
"You think we should take over?" As one they nodded. He sighed; this was going to be troublesome.