And so it ends….

Well, not quite. This chapter was topping 50 pages when I decided to split it into two. So here you have the first half of the conclusion. One more chance to review! One more chance to make requests on loose ends…

White Rain

Chapter 26

By Zapenstap

Rain fell.

Itachi looked up and drops of water splashed against his cheeks and forehead, running into his Sharingan eyes—one perfect, the other frozen in the shape of the red wheel. Clouds rolled across the sky—dark, stormy clouds heavy with rain. His face was soaked, the dirt and grime washed clean from his skin.

It was good to see sky again, even clouded sky. The caves of the Grass might be a fair home for some, but he didn't think he could spend his life beneath the earth. It felt good to be free.

The rain was good for another reason. The structures of the Grass Village above ground had been burning for hours. Now the smoking wood was cooling.

That was his uncle's work. Sasuke smothered Amaterasu the moment Rina—surrounded by Konoha's forces—emerged from the Grass underground. He let the village continue to burn until the rain dripped from the sky onto her dark head. Then the black flames inexplicably went dead. His uncle didn't look back at the caves. He didn't spare a look for the village either. His eyes were all for Rina.

The valley was full of people. Most of them wore Leaf headbands, but there were pockets of Grass captives surrounded by guards. And there were Narutos everywhere, answering questions, providing reassurances, and delegating armies of ninja.

Itachi wanted to stand by his uncle, to thank him one more time, but he also didn't want to leave his mother and sister, who were hovering on the edge of the entrance to the Grass. His mother was looking out across the valley with a far-off look in her eyes. He traced his steps back to her.

"It's over," she murmured when he neared, sounding surprised.

"Is it?" he asked. "What about the Higher Houses? What will they do when they hear of this?"

His mother shrugged, her slender shoulders rolling. She swept dark hair from her shoulders and turned her face into the rain. "I don't care," she said.

Itachi had trouble believing that. "But they might retaliate."

"Having failed with Marnix, there's not much they can do," his mother said. "They were acting in secret before, and they thought that I had no allies." She brought her chin back down and looked out across the Konoha Shinobi, and all the Narutos. "There's not much they can do against this. I think we are safe. For now."

He watched her carefully. She was different. Something about her had changed. Was it just the enormous relief of having survived, of all of her children having survived? He wasn't sure.

He didn't ask her about Gehard. He didn't want to darken her mood.

Juo hadn't lied. Per his instructions, Itachi's stepfather had been found locked in a stone room the size of a closet, deep in the belly of the underground. Itachi had heard from some of the Jounin that he had almost pissed himself when the door was flung open and he found himself staring at hordes of enemy Shinobi armed to the teeth and calling for him by name. Neither Itachi nor his mother had spoken to Gehard yet, nor were invited to do so. Itachi felt fine about that. His mother's face became stormy whenever he was mentioned. He was pretty sure the separation was intentional on the part of the Hokage. The Leaf Shinobi would bring Gehard back to Konoha with them as a prisoner. Naruto would "get to Gehard" eventually. That was all he knew.

Amaya and Haro joined him. They were both a mess—Amaya's hair caked in dirt, dust on both their faces, and with numerous scrapes and bruises between them, but the rain water was clearing some of that way, and at least they were alive and healthy. They had survived an A-rank mission. They seemed content, if weary around the edges.

Itachi noted Amaya's father—Sachio—watching them from a distance. He was bedecked in weapons, wearing the formal gear of Jounin, his Konoha headband displayed across his forehead. He looked…proud when he looked at Amaya. She didn't notice his gaze, but she stood straight and tall, despite the dirt and bruises. Haro hovered close to her.

The sight made Itachi smile.

Yukio's team joined them eventually. Yukio himself had to be supported by both Michiko and Jumei, and took slow, stumbling steps, grimacing in pain every ten feet. Sakura followed behind him, watching Yukio's every movement with a sharp, critical eye. When they stepped fully into the valley, she took off her gloves and flexed hot, sweaty fingers in the falling rain. Her eyes roved the crowds and landed on Sasuke's retreating form.

What will happen with the two of them? Itachi wondered, measuring the distance between his uncle and his teacher.

He didn't know much about love. His only direct example of relationships was his mother—a woman whose parents were murdered, who was forced into marriage at sixteen, who had endured abuse at the hand of her husband, had developed a taste for masochism, and chose to have two children with a known murderer in an extramarital affair that he knew little about. Compared to his mother's issues, the problems between Sasuke and Sakura seemed a small matter—assuming, of course, that they both wanted to overcome it. Perhaps that was the part Sakura was considering, her green eyes following the red and blue Uchiha fan on Sasuke's back.

"So we go home then," Amaya said to him quietly. "It feels strange, doesn't it? Almost too simple."

Itachi nodded.

"Well, I'm glad," Haro said, breathing deeply and lacing his fingers behind his neck. "I can use some simple."

#

Naruto clones transported Leaf Shinobi back to the Leaf Village in groups, using the yellow flash technique that so excited Yukio. Itachi's group—which included his mother, his sister, Sasuke, Sakura, and his and Yukio's Genin teams—were one of the first to be transported.

They materialized on the forested dirt path in front of the main gates rather than in the middle of the village itself. Rows of tall trees spread out before them on either side of the road. The boughs were heavily laden with green leaves, sunlight shining between them. This was the same road by which Itachi had come to Konoha. The ruts in the ground felt familiar. This was the threshold of home.

The gates to the village had been flung open wide. Konoha sentries were waving another group through—the group that had come just ahead of them. With the returning of the troops, it was no surprise to hear a multitude of voices on the other side of the gate. He supposed that people had come out to welcome their return. Or maybe they had never left.

It hasn't been long since we departed, Itachi thought wonderingly. They might have been waiting there this whole time, anticipating victory.

They walked along the road in a group. Rina walked beside Itachi, his mother and Sasuke following just behind them. A month ago, Rina might have wanted to take his hand, but it didn't seem to occur to her now. She walked like any one of the Genin, her chin lifted and her eyes bright, though she wore a dress—dirty and tattered now—and carried no weapons.

When they entered the village proper, a cheer went up from the civilian and Shinobi spectators, hoots and hollers as Rina was recognized, followed by applause. All of the Academy kids from Rina's class were there, and they rushed to greet Rina when they saw her safe and unharmed. Itachi flushed, embarrassed by the attention, and Rina was even more mortified as she was surrounded by her peers, her eyes darting from face to face as they packed in around her, voices piping with questions. But Itachi was pleased too. Not long ago, he would have gotten a different reception, he knew. And Rina—Rina thought she hadn't any friends.

At length, Itachi noticed that not all of the commotion was for them.

There was a caravan in the village.

Six large wagons were parked in a row just to the side of the main gate, each wagon bed filled to overflowing, goods piled high, though what exactly they carried was uncertain they were covered with canvases.

Merchants? Itachi thought quizzically.

They seemed to have just arrived and the villagers had gathered in curiosity. The driver of one of the front wagons was speaking with a pair of Jounin. A few men and women in plain work clothes were climbing down from the wagons to unhook the canvas tarps covering the wares and unhitch the horses.

One of the women was not working. She stood out from the rest, and not merely because she was only one not laboring. Itachi couldn't see her face, as she was facing away, but he noted her dark curly hair and her clothes. Few people in this country had curls. And she wore foreign dress—dark skirts and a plain blue woolen cloak of high quality, but the embroidery wasn't the sort that people around here cared for. Itachi recognized it though. The scrollwork was fashionable in his home country.

The foreign woman turned as their group entered the village.

"Aunt Cecile," Itachi said, blurting the name aloud reflexively as he recognized her face. Rina followed his gaze and started, looking as surprised as he felt. Itachi turned to his mother for an explanation...

She was already crossing the street. Aunt Cecile saw his mother and her face split into a smile. The sisters met and hugged in the middle of the road. The gathered villagers looked on, watching curiously. Confusion growing, Itachi approached, Rina close beside him.

"Lucia," Aunt Cecile said. "You look well."

"Do I?"

She didn't in Itachi's estimation. Her clothes were stained. Her hair was mussed. And there was a welt on her cheek from where Marnix had struck her face. It would be purple by nightfall.

"Considering the troubling rumors we've been hearing, you look alive, and that is well indeed," Cecile said. She turned to look at Itachi and his sister. "Itachi, Rina, you are safe. We are all blessed." His aunt smiled.

Itachi didn't have any response.

"How did you find the village?" his mother asked. "You were supposed to wait in town."

"With much wandering and cursing," Aunt Cecile said. "I could not abide in town, not after we started hearing the rumors. So we just rode into these woods and… looked." She made a face. "Shinobi found us eventually—all wrapped in cloth and bandages and bedecked with weapons. They gave us a fright. No exaggeration to the stories at all! But they've treated us well so far and we are glad to be found. We'd had an abominable time of it, stumbling around in the woods in circles. I told them I was your sister and they brought us here."

"They would," Lucia murmured. She eyed the line of wagons. "I thought I told you to bring only the essentials."

Cecile raised an eyebrow. "These are the essentials," she said, sounding amazed. "And you had best appreciate the pains I took to bring them here! Don't you want our mother's bureau? You were so fond of it as a girl."

Itachi was shocked. His mother's bureau? But then the canvas tarps were being pulled off the wagons and he could see it all for himself. Itachi began to see what was under them. He became too distracted to listen further.

He recognized almost everything, some of it from Cecile's country estate, where he had spent a lot of his summers, but much more from his own house. There was the beautifully painted wooden chest that had once been in his mother's closet. And there was the heavy, engraved armchair that had been in the study. He saw the silver and gold gilded mirror from the front hallway that he and Rina used to make faces in. And there were many, many unopened wooden crates. He began to imagine what could be inside—Clothes? Dishes? Heirlooms that he had once been forbidden to touch? Books? His guitar? What did Aunt Cecile consider essential? He had forgotten about all of this. He had completely given it all up…this old life. To see it all now brought back part of himself that he thought had left behind and lost forever…

A small cry escaped Rina's lips.

He turned toward where she was looking. It was one of the last wagons. In the holding bed, lashed down with ropes and boxed in by more crates, was a piano.

He stared at it for several moments. In his Aunt Cecile's living room, where guests were nearly always entertained, it had looked appropriate, surrounded as it had been by upholstered chairs, plush carpet, heavy drapes, crystal vases, and embroidered cushions. In Konoha, in a wagon sitting still on a dirt street, the piano seemed both enormous and bizarre.

That didn't stop Rina from darting to the wagon as soon as it was fully uncovered. With ninja litheness, she clambered up the side and lifted her small body over the upper slat. She dropped down to the wagon bed. Her fingers touched the piano's shiny black casing, stroking the outside as if the instrument was sentient and her touch could sooth it. She lifted the cover to inspect the keys, each one individually hand-carved, all in a line. She touched one, softly, and a single note—the middle C—rang out clear as a bell. Rina's eyes shimmered faintly. She sucked her lower lip into her mouth and trapped between her teeth.

"What is that?" Yukio's voice carried from the group they had left.

Sasuke was staring at it too, his brow furrowed slightly in confusion.

"A piano," Itachi answered.

"It was not easy to transport," Cecile confessed to Itachi's mother with a sigh. "We've had to transfer it several times, and it is quite heavy. In this last leg, the crate broke and we just tossed it in the wagon and lashed it down the way you see it now. I do not think it has been damaged, and something told me it would be worth the effort."

Rina was on her knees in the wagon bed now, face in her hands. She was weeping.

"Thank you," Itachi's mother whispered quietly.

#

Sasuke watched the little girl, his brother's daughter, his niece, kneeling in the wagon bed—weeping. Outwardly, he knew his face was impassive, that he looked like a stone. Inside, he was a tangled knot. He had been running on high emotion for hours. Those had burned low. All that was left now was something raw, something that ached. When he looked at Rina, his heart swelled with it.

He missed his brother.

I wish you could see her, he thought, thinking to his brother in a way that he had not in a very long time. I wish you could see them all.

He looked at Lucia, the woman he was certain now his brother had been—if not in love with—at least very fond of. Without rage and hate and regret clouding his vision, he could see why. She was beautiful, of course—tall and full-bodied, dark haired, dark eyes, with skin like cream. She was also intelligent; shrewd even, but not unkind. But it was more than that. Lucia, like his brother, she was driven to something greater than herself, something that had given her hard edges, that had forced her to make harsh choices, for a better world. Itachi Uchiha had seen that in her. Of course he had. Itachi had always seen everything very clearly.

Not like me, he thought. I have the power, but not always the vision. I always think I see everything better than those around me. But the truth is that I miss a lot, and often what is most important.

He had almost missed Rina completely. Emotion had blinded him, as it often did. She had been under his nose for months and he had never really looked at her. Due to his prejudice, and his obsession with his own suffering, he almost hadn't seen her at all. He had no doubt now that this quiet, astute girl was his brother's child. He would not make that mistake again.

He turned to look for Sakura. She was behind him, giving instructions to the Genin to get Yukio to the hospital.

He waited until the children had started off, and then stepped forward, getting close to her, close enough to touch her, though he did not reach out.

"Sakura," he said.

She turned, startled.

"I want to talk," he said.

She hesitated.

It was slight, but he saw it—a tensing in her shoulders, a bit of a hunch—as if his words pained her. "I can't right now," she said, eyes flickering away. "I have to go to the hospital. There are injured to tend. I am needed there. Tomorrow maybe."

Tomorrow? Did he dare to wait that long? He couldn't risk...

"Are you still planning to leave the village?" he asked her.

She bit her lip. "I still think that is best. I mean, I heard what you said, that you want to talk, but what will we talk about?" Her eyes lifted to look at him. They were aqua green, a color he associated with summertime, bright and clear and lovely. "I don't want to hear that you don't want me to leave the village," she said. "Not if that's all you have to say. I want...more than that."

He didn't say anything. He was thinking, though. He remembered their fight. And now he was thinking rapidly about all the ways he had kept her from being close to him, all the ways he had shut her out. It wasn't because of her. It wasn't anything she had done wrong. He just had old wounds and deeper fears. He couldn't find any way to express them to her, and he was not sure he wanted to burden her with them even if he could. He wanted to be everything that she needed, but…

"I have to go," she said when he didn't speak, and turned away.

He stood in the dust, watching her head toward the hospital, following the Genin.

His heart was beating hard.

I have to do something.

He found himself fighting just to breathe.

That was how Naruto found him.

"I have to stop her," Sasuke said firmly, with more conviction than he had felt in months. His heart was not only beating hard now. It was racing. Sweat beaded on his face. He wiped it away with his forearm. What was wrong with him? "I have to think of something to make her stay."

Naruto frowned. "If it is anything except that you love her and are ready to be with her forever… don't."

Sasuke stared at him.

"Don't," Naruto repeated. "You'll only string her along and she might legitimately try to kill you when she realizes it."

Sasuke couldn't seem to relax. His muscles were tense, clenched so hard his arms were shaking. Sweat was pouring down his face. His clothes were sticking to his body. His head was starting to swim.

"Sit down," Naruto said, guiding him toward one of the benches that sat scattered across the village. "You're having an anxiety attack. You need to calm down."

This had happened to Sasuke before, when Itachi had first arrived in the village, when he realized who he was. Nodding, Sasuke allowed Naruto to ease him down.

For several minutes, he just sat there, waiting for his body to cool off and his emotions to calm down. He knew this bench. He recognized it. His fingers brushed the white stone. He had left Sakura on a bench just like this when she had confessed to him for the first time that she loved him. And then he had left the village. Nothing she had said made any difference.

It would be fair, he thought, if she did leave. After everything I said to her, how I've treated her… I need more time.

"How do I get her to stay?" he asked quietly.

"You say 'I love you and I want us to be a family'."

"Naruto, it's not that easy. I've been thinking…something along those lines, but I can't yet. I'm not ready."

"Then don't say anything."

"She'll leave!"

"She had a right to," Naruto told him. "If you don't feel that way, then don't talk to her. Let her go to another village. She'll be fine."

Sasuke dropped his head in his hands. "I do feel that way. I'm just not ready. I love her. I don't want her to go. Doesn't that mean anything?"

"Of course it means something," Naruto said. "But you can't half-ass your relationship with her anymore. She's having your baby. If you can't be there for her, don't make her think otherwise."

"It's not that I don't…" Sasuke struggled to explain his feelings. "I don't want—" No. That was the wrong way to begin.

Naruto was silent, staring at him with those bright, piercing blue eyes that seemed to see even more than the Sharingan.

"I'm afraid," Sasuke said.

It was a raw confession. Uttering the words was like stripping off layers of dried flesh. What lay underneath was tender and sore.

"I do want to be with Sakura," he said. His tongue felt thick. "But I'm afraid of having a family."

Naruto looked unsurprised. "Well, okay."

"Okay?" Sasuke said, aghast. "Okay? What's okay? What could possibly be okay about being afraid of the woman I want? Of being terrified of the child she's carrying?" He was shaking with enormity of it. "That's…that's what this has always been about."

"I know," Naruto said, so matter-of-factly that is surprised him. "But this is first time you admitted it."

Sasuke didn't know how to respond.

"What specifically are you afraid of?" Naruto asked him. "And don't give me any crock about being a bad husband or father. That's not it. That's an excuse. You can control that."

"Losing them," Sasuke answered instantly. "I'm afraid I will lose them. Or hurt them."

His hands were trembling. Naruto just listened.

"I'm afraid I won't ever be able to overcome how I feel about my brother, about what happened to my family, that I won't even be able to explain it. I'm afraid that I will hurt Sakura, and my child, that I will drive them away."

Naruto was quiet.

"But I'm more afraid of losing them," Sasuke added in quiet revelation. "I realized it when Rina was taken. She might have died, despite all my power. And despite everything I did, with all my rage, that kid Genin almost did die. You know that I just stood there? I just stood there, Naruto. Sakura saved that kid. I did nothing. If she hadn't come, he would have died. Rina would have watched it. And all the while I was thinking that if not for that kid, Rina would be dead already. And what if it was her? What if she was lying there, dying? Or already dead? My brother's daughter. What would I do? What is my power be good for? I couldn't think of anything."

"That's not going to happen, though," Naruto said firmly. "For lots of reasons, Sasuke. And I know you know the reasons. You wouldn't let anything happen to Sakura. You do have the power to protect her. And even if you didn't, it's unfair to Sakura to think she'd be easy to kill. If some deeply scarred part of you needed to pick someone really physically durable to love, you made a good choice. It just… it won't happen. Sakura will be fine. She's strong, with or without you."

"Yet it's all I can think about," he said. "Whenever I think of a future with her, or of children in general. Some terrible emotion creeps up from somewhere deep inside of me. I can't help but think I'm going to lose it all. I feel like I'm choking on that feeling, like it's pulling me down, killing me. I remember that place. I lived there for a long time. I don't want to go back there. And I don't want to bring that place to her."

"You were a child then. You're a man now."

"I know, but—"

"A child is coming," Naruto said. "Your child. So no matter what you fear, you have to be there. You want to be there, don't you?"

Sasuke shivered, not answering. But his shaking hands clenched into fists, and he gave a curt nod.

He had to find some way of working through this, of letting go of his fears, of letting go of his brother. The thought terrified him.

#

Yukio watched Sakura Haruno from beneath a thin cover of crisp white hospital sheets.

She stood at the foot of his bed, checking the paper stuck to the clipboard that hung from the iron rail of the bed frame. She read it in silence, not saying anything.

Yukio wondered what was making her brow furrow, right between the eyes.

"Is it bad?" he blurted, unable to contain his curiosity. He didn't feel as if he was dying anymore, but he had a lot of cuts and bruises and abrasions and he struggled to take deep breaths.

"What?" Sakura said. "Oh. No. I was thinking about something else. You're going to be fine. There's a trace amount of poison remaining in your system, but it's not enough to keep you here much beyond today. They'll probably let you go tomorrow."

Yukio heaved a sigh of relief.

"Although," Sakura said.

He straightened. "What?"

"Well, it may be nothing," she said. "But according to this, your heart has undergone some strain from the experience. It's not anything to worry about," she added hastily. "You're going to be able to do everything you've always done. But you will want to be careful for a while. Take it easy."

"Careful?" he said. The word felt strange in his mouth.

"Don't overdo it."

"But I always overdo it," he said. "It's my style!"

Sakura sighed. "Well, you can't right now. For at least a couple of weeks anyway, maybe months, you're just going to do things with a little less…style. Be more…I don't know…sensitive."

She left, taking the chart with her.

Yukio leaned back against the pillows, brooding. He had a lot to be grateful for. He was alive. He was going to make a full recovery. He had earned back some of his honor even. But he didn't like the thought of having to "take it easy." He had never taken it easy in his life. He had never let anyone else get away with it either. He was always pushing himself, forcing himself to do more, to achieve more.

How was he supposed to keep up with Itachi? The kid had a Sharingan. He'd learned two or three new jutsus just from this one mission, and he would learn many more, and much faster than Yukio could ever hope to. It wouldn't be long before Yukio's worst fear was realized: that this kid from another country—not even another village, but another country—would outclass him.

He chewed his lower lip, thinking furiously.

The door opened. It moved imperceptibly, swinging so softly on its hinges that he almost didn't notice. A shadow spilled into the room, a small shadow. It was followed by the hesitant steps of the girl.

He perked up instantly. "Hey," he said to Rina. "Fancy seeing you here."

She wore a purple dress—a frilly thing, un-ninja-like, with plum satin trimming and dark lace around the sleeves and the hem of the skirt. He kind of liked it. It was different. She softly shut the door. Her gaze traced the frame, seeming to linger on the details, before dropping slowly all the way to the tiles.

"Rina," he called to her. "Don't look down at your feet like that. I know you're thinking, but it makes you look weird. No offense."

She spooked. Wisps of straight dark hair clung to skin as her head jerked straight up. Her gaze jumped right to him. A blush stained her pale cheeks pink.

He winced. Be more sensitive, he thought. Yeah right.

He couldn't tell if she was shy or just strange. She seemed confident enough in the times that he had observed her in the village, but she was very quiet. Right now she was acting more oddly than usual.

"Why did you come to see me?" he said.

Her eyes darted away from his face and then back again. She took a breath. "I wanted to see if you were feeling better," she said. She kept her eyes on him, but it seemed hard for her to do.

"I'll be perfect soon enough," he told her. "How's your brother?"

"All right," she said. "He hasn't dropped the Sharingan, but he says he doesn't need to. His vision is perfect with it activated."

"Ah."

The kid was going to run around with the Sharingan activated all the time? How the hell was he going to keep up with that? So much for maybe catching Itachi with his guard down… He was going to have to find himself a teacher—someone skilled in Taijutsu perhaps. Yukio was never going to keep up on Ninjutsu alone and trying to beat a Sharingan with Genjutsu was a waste of time. He had to unlock something unique, some tricks that couldn't just be copied.

When my heart is better, he thought. As soon as I'm able to push myself to my limits again, I'll start training.

"I wanted to thank you," Rina said suddenly, interrupting his thoughts.

"Thank me?"

She nodded.

"You don't have to thank me," he said. "I'm just glad…" He paused, not sure what to say. Glad that she was alive? Glad that she hadn't been killed? Glad that he hadn't been responsible for her death? Glad that he had reached her before… that that Grass kid hadn't…that instead, he had…

His mind shied away from that train of that.

"I'm sorry," she whispered. She approached the bed, moving with slipper softness across the floor. "I know," she said, and tears welled up in her eyes. "I know. And I'm—"

He stared at her, at the faint shimmer of undulating light in her eyes. He couldn't help thinking about it. He thought about it every few minutes, though he never let his mind linger.

He had killed.

It had felt nothing like he had imagined it would. He had thought, growing up as he had, that he was ready for death, for killing. It was battle after all. He had thought it would be great in a way, a kind of badge, and that having endured the death of his parents would make it seem like nothing. But it hadn't been like that. He didn't quite know how he felt. He just knew he thought about it a lot.

"It's okay," he told her. "You remember, right? What I told you? Don't ever be sorry."

She nodded wordlessly.

He leaned back against the pillows, eyes slipping closed. He was suddenly exhausted.

She touched his hand. He felt it, the brush of her fingers. He opened his eyes, startled, but she had already slipped out the door.

#

By the time Naruto had finished his work with the Grass and returned to Konoha, it was quite late and he was quite tired. It was a good kind of tiredness, the sort that came from a good amount of productivity. A lot had happened. But there was a lot to do yet.

He climbed the stairs to his office.

He stopped dead in the hall.

Lucia and the two Feudal Lords—Daichi and Hiroki—were sitting outside his door. They sat across from each other on opposite benches. The Feudal Lords glared at Lucia like a pair of angry dogs. She ignored them like a well-fed cat sitting high on a fence. When he entered the waiting room, all sets of eyes swung to him.

"Uh, hi," he said.

"Hokage!" Lord Hiroki, the younger of the two lords, said forcefully, standing up. "We must insist upon an audience!"

"You'll get one," Naruto said, grinning weakly. "Just as soon as today's business is-."

"Now," Lord Hiroki snapped.

Naruto frowned.

"Is this the real you?" Lucia murmured to him. "I've seen so many Narutos today."

"Only the real me handles official business," he said, shooting her a smile. He wondered if she believed that. "Lord Hiroki, your concerns are very important to me, but unfortunately, I've got business with the recent raid that I have to handle immediately. So if you'll all excuse me…"

Lucia inclined her head politely. Lord Hiroki seethed.

Naruto slipped between them, feeling rather odd to be so dismissive of such powerful parties, but he wasn't lying. Official business did await, and it was important. He walked into his office and shut the door behind him. He turned, back pressed up against the door, and whispered.

"Lucia and the Feudal Lords are sitting right outside!" he hissed.

He spoke to Shikamaru, the only other occupant in the room. His advisor's arm was bandaged, but other than that, he seemed fine. He was sitting in a padded chair on the other side of Naruto's desk, his good arm flung over the high back.

"I know," Shikamaru said. "I brought them. They said they won't leave until they get their audience with you."

Naruto slowly made his way around the room and sat in the chair behind his desk.

"But we need to discuss the Grass," Shikamaru said. "The crisis is officially over?"

"Over enough," Naruto said.

He had clones in the Grass still, and a good number of qualified Konoha Shinobi guards had been left behind to oversee things. The Grass's former leadership—a self-elected "council" of hardened Jounin—was either dead or had been taken prisoner, along with everyone in Marnix's retinue, which included a handful of even more terrified children and a family of three with the last name Lassen. These had been all brought back to Konoha. The children in particular were being well-cared for. The orders he had left with the Leaf Shinobi remaining at the Grass Village was to restore stability and start taking accounts from anyone who would talk about what had happened over the past few months. It would take some time to sort out.

Shikamaru regarded him levelly. "That's good, but what is the long term plan?"

"I don't want to destroy them," Naruto said. "I know that is what some will recommend, but that's not what I want to do."

"You can't just leave them alone either," Shikamaru warned. "If we withdraw, we will leave a leaderless, destitute and demoralized village on our border. Their Shinobi will turn to raiding and bandit work to feed their families and we will take the blame."

"I don't want that either," Naruto said. "I want to save them. Can't we work with them? We can join the villages together somehow. We can support them."

Shikamaru grunted. "That's noble, but we don't have the resources. We can barely sustain our own village, and at the rate we are growing, we won't even be able to do that in a few years."

"Have we learned anything from our prisoners?"

"The surviving members of the council mostly just curse us. I don't think they will be useful for much. Their own village doesn't seem to view them kindly, based on early reports. Then there's Juo and his team. Juo keeps asking for us to kill him. He asked last night and again this morning."

"Really?"

Shikamaru nodded.

"What do you make of that?" Naruto asked carefully. He had a suspicion about Juo.

"Juo's interesting," Shikamaru said. "I talked with him awhile, like you asked. And you're right. He's not quite what we thought. He's a hard man, but he cares for his village. I don't think he wants to die. I think he wants to make himself a scapegoat. It might have been his plan all along, from the moment he came to Konoha."

"He meant to fail in kidnapping Rina?"

"No. But I think he knew it would go wrong, that the Grass would not get away with it, no matter what Marnix thought, and that someone would need to take the blame for the Grass. I think he planned from the beginning to be the one to die for it. He is highly respected, at least for what he does. I think he hoped that if he was killed in retribution, that the Grass would be allowed to survive. He seems to be holding to that belief."

Naruto tapped his fingers against the desk. "That is interesting," he said. He had thought so yesterday too. "What's our biggest obstacle where the Grass is concerned?"

Shikamaru rubbed a hand over his head. "The biggest problem? Honestly, it's a lack of leadership. The council that was in power killed the former heads. Most anyone of consequence in the village was either part of that coup or died as a result of it. We are in control now, but the Grass won't accept us ruling over them forever. Someone from the Grass needs to be in charge of the Grass, someone they trust."

"What if it was Juo?" Naruto asked.

Shikamaru blinked at him. "We just raided the Grass because of Juo. And he tried to assassinate Itachi."

"Under orders," Naruto said, waving a hand. "He's tough, but I didn't sense animosity in him. When Lucia paid him for that bet…" He shook his head. "I trust my instincts on this one, Shikamaru. I want to save the Grass. To do that, I need someone from the Grass who cares about the Grass to lead the village down a new path. From what you just said, Juo cares enough about the village to sacrifice himself for its welfare. And I think the village will listen to him—both the old dogs and the younger, new thinkers. We could do a lot worse."

Shikamaru chuckled. "It's an idea," he said. "I'm sure he'll think you're mad, and he won't be the only one, but I can try prodding him—and his team—to see how they react to the idea. I'll learn a lot just from the conversation."

"Okay," Naruto said, lacing his fingers and stretching out his arms and hands. "What of our other prisoners?"

"We've got Gehard Berculo under lock and key. He wants to know what we are going to do with him, and has asked repeatedly to speak to Lucia, unsurprisingly."

"She hasn't asked to see him?"

"Not yet. Also, there's the Lassen boy, Jared. He also has a request."

Naruto didn't know much about this minor House. He had been intending to ask Lucia about them.

"The boy is apparently an old schoolmate of Itachi's. I was intending to send him and his family home along with the musician children and the rest of the foreigners, but the Lassen boy wants to stay in the village, as a civilian. And he wants his mother to be granted asylum to stay with him."

Naruto was surprised. "Really?

"That's what he said."

"Not his father?"

"No," Shikamaru said. "The family seems to have separated under the duress."

"I'll ask Lucia about it," Naruto said. "But I don't have any objections to the mother and son staying as civilians."

Even if Shikamaru disapproved, he didn't make any remarks. "Then that leaves only Lucia herself," Shikamaru said.

Naruto took a deep breath. "How long has she been waiting?"

"About an hour."

Naruto sighed. "And the Feudal Lords?"

"For all I know, they've been there since we left for the Grass."

They were going to be so mad. "Bring Lucia in first," he said.

#

Lucia took one of the padded armchairs in the Hokage's study. She sat gracefully across from him and Shikamaru, folding herself onto the cushions, one slippered foot bobbing as she crossed her legs.

Naruto eased back in the chair behind his desk. Shikamaru remained standing, leaning against the side of the desk with his arms crossed.

Naruto started by asking about her sister.

"I didn't know she would be here," Lucia explained. "I did know that she would come eventually. That was always the plan. If I was to ever leave, she was to wait as long as she could, until it was no longer safe, and then follow with her husband and any trusted servants she might have. I didn't know if it would be weeks or years for that to happen."

"Why didn't you tell us?" Naruto said. It was interesting to see Lucia on the defensive. She seemed to be earnestly trying to convince him that this was something she hadn't plotted. It was amusing to him in a way, He hadn't meant to put Lucia on the defensive. He has just been curious.

"I didn't think she would come to the village," Lucia added. "I thought she would set herself up in a nearby town or city and would write to me."

"She came just as you did—found wandering around in the woods," Naruto said, crossing his arms. "Kiba's team brought her in." Naruto had to laugh. "Don't worry about it. It's nice to see you have some family that you like. Do you think she'll want to settle here permanently?"

"I think she wants to be close," Lucia said. "But she doesn't necessarily have to live in the village. If you won't allow it, she would be content with someplace nearby, I'm sure. So would I."

Naruto blinked. "You aren't thinking of leaving, are you?"

"I will do whatever the village decides is best," she answered.

"Why would you think I would want you to leave?"

She seemed surprised. "Because I've caused you a lot of trouble," she said.

"If by trouble you mean the Grass, that's all going to be taken care of," he answered. Then he hesitated. "You should know that I'm not going to punish them. Their leaders—those that survived—have been deposed, but most of the Grass—."

"That's your decision," she answered calmly. She didn't seem upset. "I have my children back. I don't need retribution. The Grass is not my target."

Naruto noticed Shikamaru eyeing Lucia in a considering way. He gave Naruto a sharp look.

We'll follow up on that, he thought.

"I think you should stay here," Naruto continued, "and not just because of your children. You have more in common with the people in this village than you realize. You will never find a group of people more accepting of having to make hard choices than Shinobi. The sooner you start letting us get to know you—the real you—the more you will see that." He leveled her with a steady gaze.

"That may be true," she murmured. "At any rate, you know most of my secrets now."

Naruto leaned forward, elbows on the table. "You told me in the Grass that you would tell us everything. What don't I know?"

Shikamaru grunted quietly.

Lucia's eyes were clear, like windows. He had never seen them like that before. He could clearly read her emotions. She was…relaxed. At ease.

"The inheritance," she said quietly. "Most of it you know already, but there are some details I can clarify. My family is wealthy, as you know, has always been wealthy. Most of our wealth comes from large reserves of silver. When my father was young, he traveled to this country looking for ventures. He made some investments that he kept these secret from the Higher Houses, against their doctrines, because he wanted to build something for the family that was outside of their political control. Those investments did well, better than anyone could have guessed. I inherited them."

"What are they?" Shikamaru asked. "Specifically where?"

"Here." She waved a hand around the room. "Everywhere."

Naruto blinked, confused. "Konoha?"

"No," Shikamaru said quickly. "We would have known if that was the case."

"In the Land of Fire," Lucia clarified. "Factories, mills, textiles."

"You told us that before," Shikamaru said. "I want the details."

"Initially, it was securities," Lucia said, "government bonds with stock ownership of businesses offered up as collateral if the loans defaulted. Stock ownership was a new concept for your lords, but at the time, they were desperate for cash. Their world was unstable and they needed money—spendable money—to sustain their armies. In a way, we were lucky to find each other. Your lords didn't want to take loans from their hostile neighbors. My family had no need of immediate returns. Conditions were favorable to both parties, so we traded."

"What were the terms?" Shikamaru asked. "High rates, I assume, so that when the lords defaulted, they gave your family control of these businesses?"

"Partial control," Lucia said. "In exchange for wagonloads of silver, we took majority ownership in factories manufacturing everything from steel blades to cloth shirts. The Feudal Lords felt they weren't risking much, because they backed their securities with businesses they could stand to lose."

"Not Konoha," Naruto said.

"No," Lucia agreed. "Not Konoha. However, the silver we provided to the Feudal Lords was used to fund the growth of your village, so in a way…" She shrugged.

"There must have been something special about the collateral, though," Shikamaru said. "They're in quite a tizzy over your presence here."

"At the time, what was special about them was how lousy they were," Lucia said.

Shikamaru raised an eyebrow.

Naruto was a little confused by all this finance talk. Securities and bonds meant something different to him than to Lucia. But he was following along.

"Your lords thought they were being clever," Lucia said. Her lips twisted in a wry smile. "They backed their securities with distressed assets. They figured that even if they could not pay us back, that what we collected upon the default of the loan would be of small loss to them. They thought we didn't know."

"What do you mean?" Naruto said. "Distressed…?"

"A business that is doing poorly," Lucia explained. "Due to inefficiencies, poor leadership, rising cost of materials, a market that is in decline, or bad debt the business can't pay off, often some combination. For example, there is a smithy on my books now that can't pay for the iron it needs to produce steel. When peace came, the market for weapons dried up in the area, so now this business is struggling."

Naruto nodded thoughtfully.

"These are the types of businesses that first my father—and then myself—collected when the Land of Fire defaulted. The Feudal Lords did not think much of them since the businesses cost more to run than they earned. They were failing. And besides, they were only giving us partial ownership. They figured that should we be able to squeak anything out of them, they would profit, and it would also still be taxable."

"Why would you agree to that?" Naruto asked. "That sounds like a terrible deal."

Lucia smiled. "For one thing, they were cheap. We got many shares of many businesses in exchanges for our silver, and at very good prices. What your Feudal Lords didn't understand is that turning around struggling assets is what we do. It is the core of my family's business. My father always had a good eye for a venture. He had a keen instinct for which businesses would be profitable when given the right care. He taught me that. Every struggling asset we obtained for our loans was worth something. We looked over the books carefully. We knew which businesses to dismantle or change and which to build back up. Most importantly, we had the resources to do it, which is what your Feudal Lords did not fully understand. Though initially very expensive, over ten or twenty years, a portion of them—not all of them survived—became very very profitable."

Naruto frowned.

"Consider the smithy," Lucia said. "This business needs loans for the iron, so we provide that. In addition to the loans, we also work with the business on what it manufactures and where it sells those goods. The demand for weapons has abated, but the demand for steel is still high. We have ample connections in the marketplace so we can facilitate deals that the smithy was not aware were possible. At the moment, we are focused on shifting production to steel barrels and ship parts."

"Barrels?" Naruto asked.

Lucia nodded. "Steel barrels are actually lighter and cheaper than wood ones."

"I see," Shikamaru said, nodding. "So the partial ownership of all these businesses passed to you, and you—"

"Bought more," Lucia said, "and obtained larger shares, sometimes full ownership, and then bought more, and so on. Like my father, I have an eye for the business."

"So why are you so hated?"

Lucia looked wistful, staring past Naruto, but really looking a place in her mind that he could not see. "That wasn't my plan. I named the institution that finances my ventures White Rain. I thought of it as a cleansing thing, a sort of renewal or rescue. But that is not how I became known."

"We've heard quite a few colorful names applied to you," Shikamaru said.

"Yes," she said, nodding. "The Vulture is quite a popular one, I hear."

"For picking at the dead or dying," Shikamaru said. "I assume the businesses you bought didn't appreciate you taking them over."

"No," she said. "I brought change, sometimes hard change. My…advice…was not always welcome."

"But they needed your money."

"Yes," she said. "You will have heard that I am ruthless, that I don't care about the people in the companies I purchase, that I only care about money. It's not entirely unfounded criticism. I watch the books and I make many decisions that result in other people losing so that I can gain. Not every business could be saved. Many had made more decisions or were holding onto old ways of doing things that were no longer viable. For these, it was better to dismantle the business, or at least oust the leadership and start again. They hate me for that and I can't blame them. But these businesses needed change in order to survive in a changing world."

Like the Grass, Naruto thought with sudden clarity. It's a similar problem. They feared change, and that fear made them make terrible deals and do terrible things. Sometimes you have to take something apart in order to rebuild it. Not everyone will thank you, even if it's necessary, not even if it's the best thing for them.

"And you profited," Shikamaru said.

"Grandly," Lucia agreed. "I won't apologize for that. Profit was my goal. It took the Feudal Lords awhile to realize just how much my wealth had grown. I obtained a lot of influence over the economy. I was able to remove people from places of power that they had carefully positioned in order to get my way on some deal or another. At times, my ventures got in the way of their politics. And I control a frightful amount of their country's assets for a private entity, if you look at my investments holistically."

"And the last thing they want is for you to be anywhere near their military center," Shikamaru said thoughtfully, rubbing his chin. "Peaceful times or not. We aren't that different from one of your…usual projects."

Naruto perked up at this. That was true. He had been concentrating so hard, thinking about the Grass, that he had missed that.

"But you must have known that they would never allow you any part of Konoha," Shikamaru said. "So what was your intent in coming here?"

Now we get to it, Naruto thought, his exuberance dampening a little. She's explained what she's done. But what does she want to do?

"My intent is to destroy the Higher Houses," she said. "I need a lot of money to do that. More than you can imagine. It has taken ten years—a short time, really—to build my empire."

"Empire?"

Lucia nodded.

"You don't mean a government," Shikamaru said slowly.

"I mean wealth grand enough to contend with government," Lucia said. "I mean to build a House greater than any Higher House, greater than all the Higher Houses put together. I mean to have wealth so immense as to be a fortress unassailable. I don't care how many enemies I make in the process. I don't care much at all how I am perceived. That doesn't matter. It has never mattered."

Naruto had difficulty imagining that much money, or what the cost of success would be, but it didn't sound dissimilar from war. "What does matter?" Naruto asked in a quiet voice.

"Justice."

"Justice," Shikamaru murmured. He still had his arms crossed. He wore a vaguely contemplative look on his face. "So all of this is to avenge your parents? Why not just hire assassins?"

"And kill who?" Lucia said. "Everyone was culpable in some way. I know uncovered enough about it to know that much. But I am not yearning for blood. I mean to instigate change—real, systemic change. That can't happen through the current laws, in the current corrupt system. The Higher Houses reign above all. People with that much money cannot be persecuted for crimes, even when they can be obviously tied to them, and in most cases, they can't be tied, not directly. Even when they are, it is always someone else—someone with less power—who takes the fall. At most, the Houses pay fines, and the amounts—though they might seem high to you—are of little consequence to them, certainly not any kind of deterrent."

"I understand," Naruto said. "They're strong, so you need greater strength to beat them."

"But not military strength," Lucia said. "The war I wage will be on their assets. It is an economic war. I win by whittling down their influence, bit by bit."

"Hmm," Shikamaru said. "Out of curiosity, why not just raise an army? Why not kill everyone and set yourself up as ruler, to make the laws as you wish them to be?" He shrugged. "You could have."

"No," Lucia said. "I find war to be distasteful. It benefits the invaders, not the invaded, and arguably not even them. It is the innocent and the poor that suffer the most. Besides which, there would be too much reliance on other powers that I cannot control. Armies that fight only for money are the worst kind."

Shikamaru nodded. "But you did think of it."

"I thought of many things." She paused. "I may have considered it more favorably—military intervention, I mean—before I met Itachi. But after knowing him…" She trailed off. "He never spoke of it directly, but I could tell that the wars here had deeply scarred him. No. I do not think war is an option."

"Well," Naruto said. "So what happens now? You beat Marnix. Won't the Higher Houses be on their guard against you?"

"Marnix didn't know my strength," Lucia said. "He thought I was joking when I said I have built an empire, but I know his worth. I can bury his House, and those that might come to his aide. They won't see me coming. They think I just want to be free."

Shikamaru turned his head, giving Naruto a significant look.

"What is your plan?" Naruto asked her.

"I am playing a long game," Lucia said. "One that might take most of my life. I will wait until these recent affairs die down, and for my children to get a little older, but eventually, I will make my move on the Higher Houses. Slowly by surely, I will extend my empire into their lands. It will start small—a sentimental business here, a profitable venture there, but it will expand. One House or another will catch on eventually, and they will fight back, but the Houses won't unify against me and they won't know the extent of my resources. Since no one I love lives there any longer, they will find it difficult to intimidate me. I will play it until every Higher House is humbled."

"Eventually, they'll get aggressive," Shikamaru said. "They'll send assassins after you. And your kids."

"Yes," Lucia said quietly. "Eventually."

"And that's why you brought them here," Naruto murmured. "You want your kids to be hard to kill."

"Indeed," Lucia said, nodding. "That's why I sought a Shinobi for the father—one with a kekkai genkai." Then she shook her head. "I never intended Itachi or Rina to become ninja in order to further my personal vengeance," she said. "I just wanted to protect them from it. I knew of the powers of Shinobi. My father had spoken of them to me. I thought—what better preparation could I give to protect them from assassins than to give them such gifts? But I also knew they would have to be trained in those gifts, so I plotted to bring them here, hoping there would be a way. They won't be targets for a while, not until I start making moves, but assailants will come eventually. I wanted the legacy of their father to protect them."

Naruto thought on that silently. "It likely will," he said. "There's not much that can stand against a Sharingan. If Itachi has one, Rina is sure to as well. They'll train here and they'll be safe."

"But you also didn't really mean them to be Leaf Shinobi," Shikamaru said. "You wanted them trained, but you never really meant to relinquish them to us. You mean them to inherit your empire."

Lucia looked at him. "That's true," she admitted. "I agreed to your rules in arrogance. I thought at the time that you could really have no commanding power over me, or my children. My wealth is woven so intricately into this country that the Feudal Lords themselves would ask you to release them, if I requested it. But I underestimated you. I underestimated the Hokage."

Naruto smiled.

"When I first met you," Lucia told him. "I thought you were a fool. You seemed so eager, so trusting. I thought that surely this could not be the man of legend I had heard so much about."

Naruto smile widened into a grin.

"But I learned," Lucia said. "It was me who could not see clearly. I had little knowledge of Shinobi arts and far less of your power particularly. But more than that, it was your person that convinced me of my mistake. You might dream bigger than I do. I had never met anyone like that before."

Flattery? Naruto wondered. But, no. She was being utterly serious.

"As it is," Lucia said. "I will honor our original agreement. Rina and Itachi will remain a part of the village, though I will also wish them to inherit my empire. You should see the advantage there, I trust."

Naruto nodded. "I'll confess too," he said. "I underestimated you as well. You've got expertise that I don't have. I'd like you to listen to my plan for Konoha, if you don't mind. The Feudal Lords said they would put it in front of the Daimyo, but they didn't seem that enthusiastic. I am worried they will reject our requests."

He broke off as Lucia smiled. Genuinely smiled. There was real delight in her eyes. Joy. It transformed her entire face. "If I don't mind?" she asked. "Hokage, my children are alive because of you. My plans have been saved because of you. I no longer feel alone and afraid because of you. You have whatever you want from me, as much as you want, for as long as you want. Yes, I would like to see your plan. And I am confident that if you take my advice and present again to the Feudal Lords, that they will not refuse you anything."

Shikamaru's eyebrows shot up. He straightened up, his arms unwinding. "You sound pretty certain about that," he said.

Lucia's eyes twinkled. "I guarantee it."

Naruto looked at Shikamaru. He just shrugged.

"How about now?" Naruto asked her.

She nodded.

#

Naruto made no changes to his presentation. It was the same as what he had delivered to the Feudal Lords before, over tea with Hinata and Shikamaru acting as his attendants. It boiled down to asking the Feudal Lords for more money—twice again what they usually gave to Konoha—so they could build a new program that would educate Shinobi in skills other than war. That way, the village could keep growing, even in times of peace.

Lucia listened without interruption. She sat in a chair, legs crossed under a long white silk skirt, one elbow on the back of the chair, cheek resting on the back of her hand. She didn't say anything for the entire presentation.

When he finished, Lucia remained silent for a few minutes. Naruto glanced uncertainly at Shikamaru, but his advisor was just as stone-faced, watching Lucia with crossed arms.

"Well," Lucia said after a moment. "That won't do."

It felt a little like she had kicked the wind out of him. "Why?"

"The idea is good," she said. "But we need to change your approach. You keep talking about a desire to keep your people employed and create new opportunities for your young people. The Feudal Lords don't care about that."

"We know," Shikamaru said. "They told us."

"But they will care," she said, "if you frame it right. What the Feudal Lords want is to expand profits and save on costs. You should say that Konoha wants to explore new markets. Konoha is expanding. You are not begging for money. You are asking them to make an investment."

He stared at her. "But that's no different at all," he protested. "That's exactly what I said."

"No," she disagreed. "That's what you meant, but you said it differently. Presentation is everything. Don't talk about how much it costs or how different or difficult it will be. People don't want to buy things that are risky. Talk about growth. Talk about revenue. Talk about expanding territories, happier and more productive civilians, taxable industries. You are not asking the Feudal Lords for money to operate. You are asking them to make an investment so that they can profit in new ways. And from that investment, you will project returns of forty times or greater than they are getting now."

"Forty?"

"Yes," Lucia said.

"But we can't promise that. I'll barely be able to get the program running…"

"Well that was the first thing that I was going to recommend," she said. "You are not asking for enough, not nearly. You should be asking for ten times what you are getting from them now."

"Ten? When they already said they haven't the money for this?"

"Ten at least," Lucia continued. "They do have the money. I happen to know that they do."

"Ten times," Naruto muttered. "With forty percent returns?

Lucia nodded. "To achieve that, you will have to charge more for Shinobi services."

"But they're experimental."

She did not seem to have heard him. "Double, I should think."

"Double?" Now he was truly flummoxed. "You think our clients will pay twice for Shinobi who build bridges than what they pay for assassins?"

"Yes," Lucia said. "I would. Bridges bring trade, and bridges built by ninja will be finished faster. Of course, you will need to teach Shinobi how to build bridges first. Consultants will be needed for that, apprenticeship programs with architects and so on for all of your new solutions. You will need to give them a cut of the business as well—the architects, I mean."

Naruto just stared.

Shikamaru crossed his arms. "What else do you suggest?"

Lucia had a lot to say. They talked for a while. Naruto asked a lot of questions and kept asking them until he felt he understood everything. Lucia was very patient, calmly repeating her advice when he forgot it and providing illustrations and examples when he struggled to understand. At length, Naruto felt reasonably assured that he knew what to do.

"Shikamaru," he said. "Bring in the Feudal Lords."

"Are you sure?" Shikamaru said, his eyebrows climbing. "You don't want to give it a day to practice? The future of the village is riding on their response."

"I'm sure," Naruto said. "They want an audience now. We'll miss our chance if we don't do this immediately. Lucia is here. And I know what I need to say. Besides, you know I won't practice."

Shikamaru smiled a little. "All right," he said, and made his way to the door.

Naruto met Lucia's eyes across the table. They were calm, resolute, and sparkling.

She guaranteed it, he thought, wondering what she meant by that.

The Feudal Lords walked into the room. They came as a regal pair, side by side, bedecked in formal robes and pointy hats. They somehow managed to look both serene and offended. Naruto was underdressed by comparison. He hadn't planned on this meeting and hadn't had time to change since his return from the Grass. He hadn't overexerted himself in battle, she he looked about the same as he always did, but not as formal as he could look, the way he had looked the last time he had met with the Feudal Lords. He was missing his hat.

But this is better, he thought. I over prepared for that last meeting. I was nervous. I even let myself be a little supplicant. The Hokage doesn't have to be supplicant to the Feudal Lords. We should be a team. And my plan is a good idea.

"Sorry to keep you waiting," Naruto said. "It wasn't intentional."

They both frowned at him. Then they turned those frowns on Lucia.

"What is she doing here?" Lord Hiroki asked. "We'd prefer to speak with you privately."

"Why?" Naruto asked. "Are you going to tell me something she doesn't know?"

Hiroki and Daichi exchanged glances.

"I think I know everything I need to," Naruto said, "including how much influence she has in the Land of Fire, how she got it, and why it makes you nervous. So we might as well speak frankly."

The Feudal Lords exchanged glances. But then they nodded their assent.

Shikamaru fetched a couple of extra chairs from the side of the room and set them before the Hokage's desk. Lucia remained in the one she had been in already, though it had been moved to the corner of the desk so the Feudal Lords could take the two chairs directly in front of Naruto. Despite the welt on Lucia's face, which had been reduced considerably by ninja healers, she managed to exert just as much regality as the Feudal Lords.

"We can't allow an alliance between Lucia Van Alsyne and Konoha," Lord Daichi said. "That is the long and the short of it. She must go."

"There is no alliance," Naruto said.

"You aren't in negotiations to take money from her?" Hiroki snapped.

"No," Naruto said. "Not beyond what she's paid for asylum anyway."

"And you aren't going to supply her with military troops?" Daichi asked warily.

"Not beyond what woman might require for safe escort. A few skilled Shinobi to protect her and her loved ones as needed, but no more."

"What of this invasion of the Grass?" Daichi demanded. "Have you not entered into military action on her behalf already?"

"That wasn't for Lucia," Naruto said. "That was for my own. An Academy student was kidnapped. We retrieved her."

"Lucia's daughter!"

"A student of Konoha," Naruto said firmly. "A child of one of our own Shinobi."

The Feudal Lords were silent, but their pursed lips and tense muscles told him that they were not pleased. It also told him that they knew that Lucia had had children by a Konoho Shinobi. They did not condone Naruto claiming those children for the village.

"I'm going to protect my people," Naruto told them. "Always. That's not under discussion. But I am not in any kind of partnership with Lucia to provide military support. She has never requested that."

"Nor will I," Lucia murmured.

"Words are all very well," Lord Daichi huffed, not even sparing a glance for Lucia. "But we would feel much better if she was not here."

Naruto felt his temper flash, but Lucia spoke before she could. She spoke very calmly, almost playfully. "Come now," she said. "You know very well that I manage almost all of my schemes by correspondence. I would think you would prefer me operating out of your military stronghold. That way you can be certain that I am being watched."

Shikamaru smiled a little. He seemed to think that clever.

Lord Hiroki sputtered. Lord Daichi grimaced.

"Doesn't matter," Naruto said. "If I say she can stay, she stays." He dismissed the matter with a clap of his hands. "Now that that's settled, there's something else I would like to discuss."

The Feudal Lords looked like they both wanted to spit.

"It regards our last meeting," Naruto said.

"The Daimyo will not relish the idea," Lord Daichi said. "But we will ask on your behalf."

"That's the same as a no," Shikamaru said.

Naruto nodded. "Besides, I have revised my proposal. The world is changing. You have made that very clear to me in our recent discussions. The ninja way of life cannot continue as it has. It's insupportable in times of peace. Our services simply aren't needed in the degree that they used to be."

Lord Daichi and Lord Hiroki both nodded in unison.

"And yet Konoha can't be dismantled," Naruto said. "You must pay us something. We must be ready and able to defend the Land of Fire in times of strife. The secrets of the Shinobi Arts have to continue in some respect."

More nods.

"For now, the Land of Fire is thinking about its future. You want to direct your resources to rebuild this country after all the war it has endured. Innovation and industry is your focus now."

"Yes," Lord Daichi said carefully, crossing his arms. He was frowning, but not as if he was unhappy. It was more of a pensive expression. He was waiting for Naruto was going to say next. "We discussed this."

Naruto folded his hands across the desk. He counted to three, not saying anything, just letting the silence build anticipation—another tidbit of advice from Lucia.

"The Land of Fire has an opportunity," he repeated. "I think I explained it poorly before."

Hiroki guffawed. "I think I see now what you are doing!" he declared. "You are stoking our interest, talking of innovation, but soon you will tell us that war breeds innovation." He stroked his beard. "In truth, it often does," he said. "But I think not this time. We don't need more Shinobi arts. We need—"

"Bridges," Naruto said. "Causeways. Irrigation. Mountain passes. Canals. Long work. Hazardous. But Shinobi can do these things with jutsu. And we can do it much faster. Imagine a single day of labor for a bridge." He shrugged. "Once we get good at it anyway."

"A day?" Hiroki exclaimed. "That is impossible. Unless the bridge is very small, of course, but that would be useless. What we will need is—"

"I understand what you need," Naruto told him. "And I promise you that I am not exaggerating. Of course, it will take an initial investment. My people have been using the Shinobi arts exclusively for war for a long time. It will take new programs for Shinobi to learn such skills."

"A day," Lord Daichi murmured. "I'll admit, I am not well versed on everything that Shinobi can do. Your arts are very secret after all."

"We must protect the art," Naruto said. "It's our competitive advantage."

"Yes, well…" His voice was dry and dusty. He coughed. "The idea has merit, as I said before, but it will be expensive and risky. We must ask the Daimyo."

Naruto took a deep breath. This was the part he felt less sure about.

"This isn't an expense. It's an investment," he said. "And to do it right, I need more than I first proposed. I need ten times what the Feudal Lords usually provide the village each year."

Lord Hiroki half rose from his seat, shock on his face. "Ten times?" he bellowed.

Lord Daichi didn't move. He studied Naruto silently, but his frown had deepened.

Remembering Lucia's advice, Naruto didn't react to their reaction. He just went on, very calmly, very reasonably. "Ten times," he said, "to fund ventures into new markets. It will take some time, but if we do this right, you will see returns." He took a breath. "Forty percent."

Lord Daichi's eyebrows shot up. "Hmm," he said. "That is an attractive figure, but it will take more than time. If this mad plan is to have any success at all, you will need to develop a whole new client base, and interact with them far differently than you do now. Ordinary folk are more than a little afraid of Shinobi, and for good reason. It will not be easy."

"With resources and support, we can do it," Naruto urged.

"This is absurd," Lord Hiroki objected. "Who would trust Shinobi to do such things? Why are we even discussing it? It is too big a change; it carries too much of a risk. Shinobi have no customers for this kind of work, and no references. Who would trust them? Killers building bridges? It will not succeed. Daichi, to agree to this proposal would be madness. We do not need to do this."

Lord Daichi was quiet. He did not object.

"We can build partnerships," Nartuo said. "We are very friendly with a highly respected bridge architect, in fact. I am sure—"

"It was a fanciful idea," Lord Hiroki interrupted. "But far too foolish."

Was? Naruto felt himself start to deflate.

"You're the foolish ones," Lucia murmured.

It was the first thing she had said since assuring them that she would never ask Konoha for armies. The Feudal Lords both turned to look at her in surprise, as if they had forgotten she was even there. She regarded them frankly, her chin propped up on her fist.

"Blind and foolish," she said. "This is a golden opportunity. Small wonder, though, if you can't spot it."

Lord Hiroki narrowed his eyes. "You insult us so directly?"

"How can I not? You have everything here," she said, waving a hand, "that makes a venture attractive to an investor. All the checkboxes are checked: a viable idea, a reasonable plan to support its development, extraordinary talent, strong leadership. What's more, this Hokage has everything you could possibly ask for in an entrepreneur: energy, passion, talent, and the trust of his people. You think him young and foolish, and let that distress you, but that is what people like me look for."

"You look for young and foolish?"'

"Dreamers," she said, nodding. "Only young and foolish men dare to dream this big. You are conservative. You need people like him to spend your money. Left to your own devices you will just hide it in a hole or squander it."

Hiroki seemed caught between flabbergasted and outraged. Lord Daichi, though… he looked to be considering what Lucia had said.

"Fund him," she said. "The possibilities are limitless. Just think on it. Dream a little. You can own the projects and sub-contract them to Konoha to complete. The people will trust their government, thereby removing the stigma of killers without references. You take the risk and your people get what they need—and faster than they could ever imagine. You will make money, the economy will grow, and all the while you will also be funding an advanced military, the size of which will be utterly secret because in a few generations no one will be able to tell which Shinobi are architects and which are soldiers."

Lord Daichi's face lit up. He looked almost…scared…by the possibilities Lucia had just outlaid. But in a moment, his fear turned to wonder. And then to excitement.

Lord Hiroki still looked piqued. He opened his mouth to object.

Lucia rode right over him. "And if you don't fund him, I will."

"You can't do that," Lord Hiroki objected. "We won't condone a contract…"

Lucia shrugged. "I'll make it a gift then."

Lord Hiroki's eyes bulged. "A gift?" he laughed. "No one would give away that much!"

But Lucia didn't blink. "What do you think the life of my child is worth to me?"

Lord Hiroki fell silent. She would do it. It was clear to anyone who knew her even a little bit that she was being perfectly honest. It was more money that Naruto could even imagine. But Lucia didn't seem even the slightest bit concerned.

Shikamaru looked tense. His arms were no longer crossed and he was staring intently at Lucia.

At length, Lord Daich laid an old, withered hand on Lord Hiroki's arm. "That will not be necessary," he said. "I think we can agree to this plan. Even without your…threat…I am intrigued. The Daimyo will fund this. It will be expensive at first, but in a few generations…." He shook his head. "Well, no one can see that far into the future, not even Shinobi, but something tells me this is an offer we dare not refuse."

He rose abruptly, brushing off his robes. Lord Hiroki stood with him. Naruto and Lucia followed suit.

"You will get your ten," Lord Daichi said formerly. "But for now, my old bones are tired. A body can stand only so much excitement." He inclined his head first to Naruto, who returned it, and then to Lucia. "Come, Hiroki," he said, and began walking toward the door.

Lord Hiroki gathered his dignity around him. He fell in beside Lord Daich, practically floating on a cloud of huffiness. Shikamaru moved ahead of them and opened the door. Lord Daichi chuckled as he walked through it, as if catching on belatedly to a clever joke.

As soon as the door shut, Naruto let himself fall heavily back into his chair. He felt like his whole body was buzzing. He turned to look at Lucia, not bothering to mask his amazement, or his gratitude. "Your guarantees are good," he said.

Lucia laughed. It was a pure sound, light and airy, edged with delight. Naruto wasn't sure he had ever heard her laugh before. Not a real laugh. He sat up quickly in his chair.

"Lucia," he said, grinning. He was starting to feel giddy; his village wasn't just going to survive…it was going to thrive! He made his observation out loud, not even pausing to think of it. "It's nice to see you happy."

Her laughter cut off. She stared at him, surprised by what he had said. Her eyes were big and round, like twin dark moons.

It took him a moment to understand. She had not thought it was possible for her to be happy.

"Hey, Lucia," he said quietly, in a more solemn tone. "You said you would give me anything I asked, right?"

"If it's within my power," she said. "Ask."

"Would you talk to Sasuke?"

"About what?"

"Everything. I think he's ready."


TBC

Thank you for reading chapter 26! Wow, this is a long story, so good job. As mentioned in the introduction, I've written more of the ending, but it got so long, I broke it into two pieces. As always, I'm very interested in feedback from my readers! I know there are a number of people who read and don't like to review, either because they don't know what to say or for some other reason, but as this story draws to a close it would be nice to know what you think! You can consider it a happy birthday present too! I just turned a year older.

Normally this is where I thank all my previous reviewers, but I am currently on a plane and do not have internet access, so I can't go through and look everyone up. If you reviewed the last chapter, thank you very much! Trust me—I read them all…multiple times. Thank you!

Scenes from this chapter to comment on:

Cecile's arrival and Rina's piano

Yukio's recovery

SasuSaku

Lucia's empire

The future of Konoha

Last chance to remind me of any loose ends you want covered that haven't been addressed yet… I'm going to wrap this up!