Sorry this is late. Blame the website that lets me watch every episode of Stargate SG-1. All ten seasons worth. It is evil. Pure evil.
Still don't own.
Night fell and the team finally settled down to rest after the evening's shenanigans. While they were still on a bit of a deadline, there was something comforting in actually having a destination, so some of the tension was gone. Instead of setting up tents or unrolling bedrolls, they had opted for just making themselves as comfortable as possible using the terrain. The ground was soft in the grove of trees, and their low hanging branches gave an element of security. Most of the team were fast asleep propped up against the trees themselves. There could still be enemies around so they didn't have a fire, but as it was summer, even at this altitude, they really hadn't needed one. It was a full moon and a crystal clear night. To sharp eyed ninja, the sun may as well have been up.
Gaara was perched on a low hanging branch in a spot where he could see everyone scattered around the grove. As usual for the middle of the night, he seemed to be the only one alert. It was normal for him to take most of the night watch. Sleep had not come easy for him after sixteen years of insomnia. It taken nearly a week after the extraction to convince himself that it was even possible.
Even now, several years later, he would sleep for only a few hours, then jerk awake, as if his mind had been caught doing something it shouldn't. So, when traveling, and even though his older Jounin would complain and say it was demeaning for the Kazekage to take a shift on watch, he always took the longest one. He usually pointed out the fact that he had never been a very conventional Kazekage anyway. Besides, a turn at watch gave him something to do. He had found early on that laying in a bed pretending to sleep got boring very quickly.
He scanned the camp and saw that everyone was sleeping peacefully. Hearing a noise below him, he decided that some were sleeping a little too peacefully. His brother was beneath him, mouth agape. Gaara rolled his eyes slightly. Kankuro was famous among his fellow Suna Jounin for his snoring. Gaara booted him in the shoulder with his dangling foot, causing him to roll over. The noise stopped.
He still didn't quite know what to think about his sister sleeping with her head resting on Nara's shoulder, but he was learning to accept it. He was slowly coming to terms with the fact that the shadow master was a good man and respected Temari just as much as her brothers felt she deserved. So he wasn't trying to cause him bodily harm every time he saw them together, much to the disappointment of his brother and Naruto, who seemed to take great entertainment out of the situation.
He looked over the rest of this group that had accepted he and his sibs as one of them. When younger, he had only ever seen them as either opponents, or as Naruto's fellow nin. He'd really only had dealings with Naruto on a regular basis, and saw Rock Lee as a sort of friend, mainly because it was impossible not to like someone who was so ridiculously friendly to you even though you had once tried to kill him. But through Kankuro's friendship with the Inuzuka and Temari's relationship with Shikamaru, he had started to get closer to the rest of them, and saw them as not just allies, but as friends.
As his gaze shifted over to another huddle of humanity, eyes shone back at him from some deep shadows. It would seem that he wasn't the only one who couldn't sleep.
He rose and made his way silently across the clearing and settled back down next to the man he considered his best friend. Naruto had his back up against a large tree with low hanging, sheltering branches. Sakura was tucked up against his side, her head resting against his chest.
"Can't sleep?" Gaara asked quietly, so as not to disturb those around him.
"Nope. Too keyed up, I guess. I need to ask you. How did you feel? What did you do when it sunk in that Shukaku was gone?"
"Well, my transition was a little more troublesome, to quote my sister's…boyfriend. I wasn't feeling much of anything at first."
Naruto chuckled gently, trying not to wake Sakura. "And people say you have no sense of humor. Yes, I know that. What I meant was later. Were you happy?"
Gaara cocked his head and studied his friend. "Few people can tell when I'm happy, even myself. Are you saying that you are not?"
"Of course I'm happy. It's just a big change, that's all. It's great, but a little scary. I don't know if people are going to treat me differently now. Maybe people will respect and like me more. Or they'll think I'm not as strong now, and I'll lose what respect I have. I just don't know."
Gaara gave what passed for a smile for him. According to his brother, it was something he still needed to work on. "You just answered your question for me, my friend. I felt all that, along with a certain amount of relief. My job was much easier afterward."
Naruto raised an eyebrow. "Easier?"
"Yes. It's so much easier to lead and protect people when a loud, insistent voice in your head isn't telling you to kill them all the time. As you never had that problem to begin with, I feel very little will change for you. It hasn't changed the man you are, as my experience did little to change me, much to my siblings dismay. I wouldn't worry about it too much. Just live and enjoy it. As I have learned to, in my own way."
Naruto smiled as Gaara reached over, gripped his shoulder briefly, then moved back to his original spot to resume his watch.
"He's right, you know."
Naruto looked down to see Sakura's eyes glittering up at him in the dim light. "Right about what?"
"That this hasn't changed who you are at all. I think it would take a lot more to change you. " She grinned mischievously." I've been trying to change some things about you for the past couple of years, and look how well that's gone. "
She giggled as his fingers found the ticklish spot on her ribs. She tried to pull away, but he was merciless. He only stopped when she could barely breath. "Cheat," she huffed. "Now, tell me what else happened while you were in your head that made it take so long."
Naruto shook his head and kissed her softly on the forehead. "I can't get anything past you, can I? Remember when I told you that I saw my father during my battle with Nagato."
" Come to find out, the sneak put another seal in the mix that nobody knew about. One that would activate when the Kyuubi's consciousness was gone."
Sakura's eyes widened and her arms tightened around him. "You got to see him again?"
"Yeah. He explained things to me." Naruto lowered his head, and Sakura saw that his eyes were wet." He told me he was proud of me. And I finally got to tell him that I didn't blame him. You know what? He saw some of the stuff that happened to me from in there." He grinned wryly." So I guess my dad was at our wedding after all."
"Oh, Naruto, I'm so glad. I'm sure he was happy."
"It gets better. Now that the Kyuubi is no longer a threat, it means that Dad's free as well. He's gone to be with Mom finally. And Jiraiya, and the old man."
Sakura reached up and cupped his chin in her hand. "You'll see them again. The ones we love are never gone forever. But," and she gripped his chin tightly and pulled his head down so his eyes met hers." It better not be anytime soon, got it?"
He laughed. "Got it." He started to raise his head, but the grip on his chin never loosened. She pushed herself up and kneeled next to him, her face inches from his. "Sakura?"
She was studying his face, her eyes squinting in the low light. Finally she sat back and shook her head. "I can't wait until we get home and you look in a mirror."
"I think the Kyuubi figured that if he was going to go, he was going to leave you with something to remember him by."
Naruto was more than a little alarmed. "What did the damn furball do?"
"Your eyes. The pupils are more slit than usual." Naruto's pupils had always been slightly vertical, but you had to know what you were looking for to see it. It was one of his jinchuuriki traits, like his whisker marks and his larger than average canine teeth. But now they were noticeably fox-like. Sakura had to admit it was sort of striking. She had only seen his eyes like that when they were an enraged red, not the mild blue gaze he was giving her now. She ran her fingers across his cheeks, ignoring the twitching the action caused. His whiskers were a bit darker. "Smile. Yup, your teeth are longer," she observed when he complied.
"Great. Just great. And I don't have anyone I can yell at about it anymore. I'm stuck with it." He was trying to sound nonchalant about it, but Sakura could tell he was more disturbed about it than he was letting on. He hated to have the fact that he was different from most people rubbed in his face. She quickly tried to reassure him.
"Oh come on, it's not that bad. The changes are very slight. If you needed to, you could hide them with a low level genjutsu that even you could do. And it's not like you have to hide it around us. Most of the group probably hasn't even noticed yet. And besides," she grinned. "I think it looks pretty attractive."
She laughed. "Yep."
He looked thoughtful. "Makes me wonder what else will be different. Like my healing. I always thought my healing ability was due to the fox trying to save his own ass. Now that's not a factor anymore."
Sakura tried not to look worried for his sake. She hadn't thought of that. Naruto's style of up close and personal fighting only worked for someone who was either very fast or very tough. Luckily he was both, but he rarely came out of a major fight unscathed. Though she was usually there to take care of any wounds he picked up, his fast healing had always given her some peace of mind. If that had been affected, he was going to have to start practicing some restraint.
"Yeah, right. When Shishou wins the lottery. Wait. On second thought, maybe not. Every time that happens, something bad is happening."
She shifted her attention back to him, as he was still talking. Rambling more like it, as he usually did when he was exhausted. She laid her head back down against his chest and let the soothing sound of his voice and his heartbeat still the thoughts in her head. Soon she noticed his words were becoming more sporadic and his head was nodding. A chill breeze blew gently through the trees, and Sakura shivered. Without even opening his eyes, Naruto pulled her onto his lap and wrapped his haori around her, then his arms. Surrounded by his warmth, and under the watchful eyes of Gaara, she slept.
Two days of hard traveling had brought them to the Shirotora River. A few times they had been forced into some pretty serious vertical rock climbing. The crumbly granite of these mountains made it impossible to run up them with chakra. When they tried, it had looked like someone had let an academy class loose in the mountains, they spent more time on their butts than on their feet. But at least there had been no other incidents of any kind, rogue ninja or otherwise, so despite all of them looking like they had been drug over fresh gravel, they were in pretty good shape.
They made camp that night in a place less than an hour away from the cave. Ration bars were broken out and they munched while studying the map, deciding on their best course of action. Still not risking a fire, a small Rasengan served for illumination, it's light basking the faces around the map in a soft blue glow.
"Well, there's no way we could approach from the river. It's way too open," Shikamaru said, smoothing out some wrinkles in the parchment. "The hillsides behind it and across from it are heavily wooded, however. No one should see us coming, especially if were just talking about priests here and not shinobi. But here's the question. If we get there and there's someone home, do we want to fight them outside, or bring the cave down with them in it and kill two brids with one stone?"
They all looked at Naruto, his hands cupped around the swirling blue sphere so the light wouldn't carry, face deep in thought. Finally, he shook his head. "As tempting as that sounds, their deaths should be quick. Trapped, dying slowly of starvation and thirst, no one deserves that. No, we'll drive the rats from their hole before we destroy it."
"Then the cats will get to play," crowed Kankuro, who then started to crack up at the offended looks he got from Kiba and Akamaru.
Dawn saw them hidden in the trees above their target. They had approached slowly, working their way down into the river valley that had been described to them. It was a very still morning, with no breath of wind at all. Shikamaru had been seriously hoping that the site would be deserted, but unfortunately even he could hear the muted voices coming from within the cave. Even at the high altitude, due to the river the sheltered valley was very moist, almost rainforest like. Deep moss muffled every move they made, and thick clumps of fern and bramble covered the hillsides. The mist rising from the river only added to the spooky ambiance.
Now that he was here and was seeing features not shown on their map, he was getting a better idea on how to handle this. The cave itself was a huge fissure in the hillside, carved out by a tributary of the river over thousands of years. The cave mouth was protected slightly by a mound of rubble, possibly from a rockslide, that formed a wall about forty feet out from the mouth and was about ten feet tall. Whatever had happened had happened a long time ago because vegetation had grown thickly over the pile. At first, Shikamaru was wary of the feature, because it hadn't been in either Naruto's or Ino's descriptions of the place. He had thought it quite possible that it was some sort of defense employed by Akatsuki. The two blonds were quick to reassure him ,though. Naruto had been focusing on bigger landmarks, like the surrounding mountains. As Ino studied the distances between the river and the cave, she laughed and realized that she hadn't seen it because she had been standing on it while in Naruto's memory. She too had been looking at the mountains and had never looked down.
The talk the night before about cave-ins had given him an idea. Instead of collapsing the cave, they would just make those within think it was coming down. Shikamaru examined the ground that made up the top of the ridge. A naturally made cave like this should have some fissures and imperfections in the base rock that made up the ceiling where water trickled down, and sure enough, there were. A few well placed exploding tags would be all they needed. He and Tenten quickly got to work seeding the deepest cracks each with several tags.
It wouldn't be enough to bring the cave down, but it would shake things up in there enough to dislodge some rocks from the ceiling and hopefully freak the occupants out enough that they would come running out right into the waiting arms of those hidden below. It was a pretty simple plan, and not one that would work on most shinobi, but more than likely they were just dealing with civilians here. The priests may be their current pains in the ass, but they shouldn't be much of a challenge.
Shikamaru directed the team to split up. Naruto, Sakura, Neji, Choji, Shino, and Temari would move into position on one side of the cave mouth and wait. Sasuke, Lee, Kiba, Kankuro, Ino and Hinata would go to the other side. Gaara positioned himself off to the side, waiting to block the entrance behind the priests with his sand so they couldn't retreat. He watched as the two teams made their slow, silent ways until they were in position, hidden well behind the clumps of thick ferns that grew on the rocky hillside. In a moment, you would never know there was twelve people down there. He raised his hand and counted down from ten in his mind. At ten, he and Tenten would trigger the tags and run like hell.
Shikamaru had just reached four when something happened to could bring even this simple plan to a screeching halt. From out of the cave a high pitched wail sounded. The agonized scream of a child in pain.
A sudden surge of chakra from below made Shikamaru curse as a blond head suddenly popped up from behind a moss covered rock.
"Shit." It was the only word he could think of to sum up the situation.
Naruto'd had a bad feeling about this place ever since they had arrived. He chalked it up to the miasma of demon chakra that rolled out of the cave in clouds, right into their faces. It was so thick in the air, his first impulse was to bat it away from his face like smoke from a campfire. He was trying to keep up a appearance of calm for the sake of his team, but the hair on the back of his neck was standing up and goosebumps were raised on his arms. Seven jinchuuriki had died in the grasp of the evil thing that lay in that cave. He didn't even know most of their names. How easily he could have been one of them. He had the feeling he would have already lost it if the Kyuubi had still had any kind of control over him. He fidgeted uncomfortably, bumping into Sakura as he did. He felt her eyes on him, and smiled at her reassuringly. As uncomfortable as he was, it was nothing he couldn't handle. For the time being.
Until the scream. It was a long, drawn out sound, full of pain and despair. If Naruto knew anything, it was this. No child should make a sound like that.
As the sound echoed out of the cave mouth, he stiffened. Fury rose up in him, and he did nothing to quell it. "Son of a bitch," he growled. His body started to move on it's own volition, and he stood up, all pretences at stealth forgotten. He was prepared to storm in there and rescue the nameless child that was being hurt. That is, until he was brought up short by a firm grip on the hem of his haori. He looked through his rage clouded vision into a pair of jade green eyes. The eyes held him and wouldn't let him go. They too were filled with anger, but controlled, channeled anger.
With something else to focus on, he brought his mind back to the here and now. He blinked a few times, his field of vision expanding. Looking around, he found Sakura and everyone was watching him closely. He realized that all this had occurred in a matter of seconds. He gave his wife a wordless thanks, and nodded to the rest of his team. Looking up, he caught Shikamaru's eye. He was leaning over the rim of the cave, watching the happenings below with an extremely concerned air. Naruto nodded curtly at him. Lets do this.
Shikamaru nodded back and disappeared over the ridge. Naruto settled back down into hiding, still taking deep breaths to calm himself down. Some of the team nearest him were still giving him interesting looks. He had to imagine they were still getting used to the way he looked now. At one point the day before, he had caught a glimpse of himself in a clear pool. He had to admit, it was startling at first seeing a pair of feral blue eyes look back at him. As his face had gotten leaner as he got older, his whiskers had become less noticeable. Now they were etched deeper into his skin and stood out once again. He had grinned, bearing inch long canines that came to wicked points. Sakura was right though. The changes were so slight that a simple henge would hide them. So simple that with his chakra reserves, he could pretty much keep it up indefinitely if he wanted to. Or at least until people got used to him looking like this. If they did. He shook his head. Now was not the time to be thinking about this. Shikamaru and Tenten appeared next to him. A moment later, he could feel the deep concussion in the ground as the first of the tags started going off.
Now, it could be said of the twelve of them, that when all hell breaks loose in their vicinity, it does so with considerable style.
As the series of tags went off, several large boulders that had evidently been precariously perched on an outcropping further up the slope came loose and bounced down, knocking others loose on their way. The whole mess came crashing down the mountainside and hit the valley floor nearby. The noise was deafening. The sound echoed and reverberated up and down the valley-
-and alerted the squad of Iwa nin who had been camped just upriver.
Within seconds, they had a lot more to deal with than they had been expecting. Several priests stumbled out of the cave coughing just as ten shinobi appeared on the riverbed. The Konoha team whirled to face the immediate threat. Seeing the fight that was about to begin, the priests immediately did an about face and dashed back into the cave before Naruto or any of the rest of them could do anything about it. Gaara had focused his attention on the more dangerous opponents, and had let them go. Three of the Iwa nin broke off and began to work on something while their fellows instantly began to attack.
Naruto fended off a brace of kunai with his sword and glanced over at Shikamaru doing the same next to him, only with thin tendrils of shadow. "Damnit! Well, Plan A went to hell. I don't suppose we have a Plan B, do we?"
"I'm officially making it up as I go now. Not much has changed, though. It's just become more complicated. You still need to get into that cave. The rest of us will take care of the-. Hey, what are those guys up to?"
Naruto focused on where Shikamaru was looking. The three Jounin that had not joined the rest in the attack were standing in a triangular formation, their hands flashing through some complicated signs. Naruto didn't recognize what they were working on, and next to him, Shika's perplexed look said that he had no idea either. "I don't know, but whatever it is, it can't be good."
As if in response to that thought, a rumble toward the cave made them turn around. The earth and rocks were starting to stir and rise before the entrance. In defiance of gravity, a huge, roughly human form emerged from the ground and stood up. It was at least thirty feet tall. The golem turned it's lumpy, misshapen head and seemed to look at them for a moment before it took two long strides and took a stance directly before the mouth of the cave.
"Oh," Shika said. "That's what they're doing."
Naruto grinned, baring his new fangs. Now this was a challenge. "This doesn't change anything. Sakura, Tenten, and I can handle this. The rest of you keep the enemy busy. Try to get the three who built that thing in case they have enough chakra left to make another one."
Shikamaru shook his head. "I don't know what you have planned to handle that thing, but it's sure to be interesting. We'll be able to take care of the Iwa nins. It looks like only about six of them are Jounin, the rest are high Chuunin level."
"Good. I might need some time to study the seals on the statue to figure just what to do with the thing. Sakura, Tenten, you're with me."
Various attacks and jutsus began to make themselves felt as the two side met. Naruto and the two kunoichi scrambled over the pile of scree and began to trot toward the cave's massive defender. The trot turned to a sprint as they neared the golem. The two behind him followed unquestionably, trusting him to tell them what he had planned. "Tenten, target the legs! Weaken them!" The weapons mistress nodded and unrolled her thick scroll. Naruto put on a burst of speed and ran ahead of Sakura, then, only about a dozen yards from the golem's feet, he dug his feet in and skidded to a stop directly in Sakura's path. He crouched down one knee with his hands braced on the ground and turned his head to catch his wife's eye. He could see a moment of instant understanding flash across her face. It was a move they had talked about, but never practiced. Well, now was a good a time as any.
Naruto waited until he felt Sakura's foot land squarely on his shoulder. As soon as he felt her full weight, he thrust upward with his legs, putting all the power he could in the motion. The action launched her into the air, straight at the golem's head. As soon as he weight was gone, he was in motion again, continuing his sprint to the cave. He glanced up just in time to see Sakura's blue glowing fist impact the center of the rough face, sending cracks down the length of the massive body. That, combined with Tenten's attacks chipping away at its legs, caused the construct to lose its balance and come crashing down.
Just as Naruto dashed between its legs and into the cave.
It took a minute for his eyes to adjust to the dim light. Behind him he could hear the sounds of the stone construct crashing to earth and spared a thought for Sakura and Tenten. But only for a second. He knew the two kunoichi were too battle seasoned to get caught in the rubble. He instead focused ahead of him, as the narrow corridor that led from the entrance opened up into an immense cavern. Before him, on the far wall, was the King of Hell statue. It's upraised, shackled hands seemed to be framing its multiple, closed eyes.
"Whoa, that's ugly." Was his first thought.
His second thought was slightly less coherent as movement at the base caught his eye. Several figures were holding down a much smaller form as more chanted almost frantically around them. The small form wailed in terror again as a priest brought his hand down across its face, and that was it. Naruto normally had a thing about killing civilians, but for these guys, he was willing to overlook it. He drew his sword and was in the middle of them and mowing them down before they even realized he was there. Some carried wicked looking spears, but soon found that wood was no match for a wind enhanced blade. Several robed men emerged from a side room, also carrying spears, and Naruto quickly made some clones to spread out and deal with them. The child lay in the middle of a circle of seals printed on the floor, and seemed stunned by that last blow. Naruto stood over the small body, shielding it from anything that came their way. A short time later, it was over.
As the smoke from his clones dispersed, he examined the child still lying at his feet. He could now see that it was a little girl, no more than six. She was so dirty, it was hard to tell at first. Her clothes were in tatters and her hair was a tangled mess of no discernable color. He crouched down and lay a gentle hand on her head. Suddenly he found himself looking into a pair of wide hazel eyes as the girl woke. She looked up at him and started scooting away across the floor, whimpering.
"Easy, easy. I'm not going to hurt you. Look, see, I'm not dressed like those other guys, am I?" He gave her a wide, comforting grin. She stopped and looked around at the carnage around them without twitching, then met his eyes again. It was said that when a child had seen something so traumatizing that anything thereafter had no effect on them, they had "sky-eyes", when you looked into them all you could see was the sky reflected in them, that their spark had gone. This little girl had such a hopeless and empty look in her eyes that it broke his heart. He knew there was a battle outside that he really needed to get back to, but this was important too. He slowly lowered himself until he was sitting on the stone floor next to her.
"My name is Naruto. What's yours?"
The little girl just stared at him for a long time, and he was becoming afraid that her mind had snapped permanently, when a quiet whisper escaped from her lips.
He cocked his head exaggeratedly. "Sorry, didn't quite catch that."
He smiled. "Suki? Pretty name. Well, I'm here to take you home, ok. Do you know where home is?"
A small shake of the head.
"No? How about your parents? I'll bet they're looking for you."
"I don't have any."
Ah, an orphan. It explained why the priests had chosen her. He gently reached over and gathered her up in his arms. She stiffened up at first, then slowly relaxed and wrapped skinny arms around his neck. His heart melted.
"Then how about you come with me and we figure out what were going to do. Would you like to come with me?"
She nodded shyly.
"Good, it's settled then." He got up slowly, so she could get used to his height. His anger flared again briefly when he realized that Suki weighed almost nothing. This little girl had missed some meals. He felt a dim satisfaction that he rarely felt after he killed. All he wanted to do was get her out of this cave.
He reached the mouth of the cave to find a rather one sided battle still going on. The Iwa nins were beat, they just didn't want to admit it yet. Only five were left, and they were running on fumes. Naruto looked around to see who was near. Seeing the very person he wanted, he called to her. "Sakura!"
Sakura heard him and raced over. "Naruto! Are you-?"
"I'm fine. Sakura, meet Suki. Suki, this is my wife, Sakura. She's going to take care of you, ok?"
The little girl solemnly gazed at Sakura, then seemed to come to a decision and reached her arms out to her. Sakura gathered the skinny, dirty, child to her and looked at Naruto with rage shining in her eyes. "I hope you took care of them."
"They won't hurt anyone anymore. Watch her for a moment. I need to stop this." He shushuned to the highest point of area, which just happened to be the pile of rubble that had made up the stone golem. He whistled, getting his peoples attention. They all stopped, some mid-jutsu. The five Iwa nin focused on him. "The priests are dead! You have nothing to guard anymore! Stop fighting, and we will let you go. There's been enough killing today. But if you continue, we will have no choice but to finish you off. You don't stand a chance against us."
The survivors began to mutter to each other. Naruto caught snippets of what they were saying. The words "Kyuubi Jinchuuriki" and "Yellow Flash" were spoken a lot.
Finally, one of the older Jounin left looked up at him. " If the priests are dead, there really isn't any point to us sticking around. It's not like we know how to use that damn creepy statue. You're welcome to it as far as I'm concerned. Been in this cursed place far too long." He gave Naruto an ironic salute. He draped the arm of one of his injured comrades over his shoulder and started toward the west and the Land of Earth. The rest of his group followed.
"Naruto! You're just going to let them go?" Kiba yelled.
"Kiba, they're just doing their job, like we all do. Now that they don't have to do it anymore, they have no reason to fight us, and we don't have a reason to fight them. It's the honorable thing to do."
"Naruto is correct," said Gaara, as his sand returned to its gourd. And that was that. Kiba sighed, but didn't press the issue further. As Naruto scanned his friends, he saw that they had gotten off pretty light. The opposition had put up a good fight, but in the end just couldn't hold out against the amount of talent present.
Shikamaru joined him as he walked back toward the cave. Everyone else began the process of winding down and recovering from a battle. They entered and stared at the waiting statue. Shikamaru whistled. "Man, is that thing ugly."
"That was my first thought too." Naruto walked forward and leapt onto a finger. Shikamaru landed on another. "Just think, we're standing right where Akatsuki used to stand."
"That's a pleasant thought. So how do we destroy it?"
Naruto scratched the back of his head absently while he studied the construct. "You know, I don't think we can."
"What? Why? Oh, wait. If we just blow it up or something, we would probably just be letting the bijuu go."
"Yup. I don't know how bad that would be for us. I mean, they could just go back to doing what demons do and leave people alone like they used to. On the other hand, they're probably not too happy with humans at the moment. And who's to say that they wouldn't be captured later and sealed into people again?"
Naruto sat down and began to study the cave and the statue. At this vantage, he could easily see the patterns the seals carved into the ground formed. They were incredibly complex, and stretched his knowledge of seals to the limit. He did notice one pattern though. The writing formed lines that radiated out from a central point, like the spokes of a wheel. At the end of each line was a place. He recognized some of them, most he had no clue. One he did recognize was Ame. Another said River.
"Hey Shika, " Naruto called over to his friend. "Look at this pattern. See how each line of script ends in an actual place?"
Shikamaru's brow furrowed in thought. "Yeah, I see it. Like Ame, right? And River. River Country?"
The same light bulb went on in their heads at the same time. "This tells the statue where to go when it's summoned. To Akatsuki's base in Ame, and the cave where Gaara was taken in River Country. I don't recognize these others, though."
"They don't matter right now. But I have the perfect idea. Watch."
Naruto sprang lightly to the floor and walked around the seal. He stopped beside a empty space between two "addresses". Shikamaru began to get the idea when Naruto drew his sword and cut a neat line down the palm of his hand. With swift, sure marks, he began to write a new address.
"Naruto, there's no way it can be that simple. It took every member of Akatsuki to move this thing. Their combined chakra."
Naruto stopped before finishing the line and looked up at Shikamaru cheekily. "Shika, what did I tell you before about scale? And besides, I think this was designed for one person. Akatsuki was always scattered across the continent. I think only Nagato summoned it from place to place."
Naruto was finishing up the script, and Shikamaru could see the sigil for Konoha at the end. "Shika, you might want to get down from there. It probably wouldn't be a very pleasant trip."
Shikamaru cursed and dropped down beside Naruto. The blond straightened and began to gather his chakra. His hands blurred as he performed the hand seals drafted on the ground. At the last one, he focused his chakra and slammed his bloodstained hand on to the Konoha symbol. The whole summoning seal lit up for a brief second before, with a loud grating noise, the statue began to sink into the stone floor of the cave. In less time that he thought it would take, the statue disappeared.
"See, " Naruto said. "That really didn't take that much power." He looked at Shikamaru, who was staring incredulously at him. "What?"
Whatever Shikamaru was going to say was interrupted by the rest of the team running into the cave, alerted by Naruto's chakra spike. Sakura still had Suki clinging to her as she ran up to her husband. "Naruto, what happened?"
"I've got a better question, " said Kankuro, looking around. "Where the hell's the statue?"
Naruto grinned. "Let's just say that the Hokage Monument just got an interesting addition."
Everyone looked at him with various expressions of disbelief. "The monument?" Sasuke asked, smirking.
"Well, inside it. I sent it to one of the large rooms we use to evacuate people to in case of an attack. At least that's where I told it to go. I guess we'll have to wait and see if it listened to me. Man, Baa-chan's going to be pissed if it ended up somewhere else."
Hinata laughed weakly. "As long as it isn't in her office." That got a laugh out of everyone.
Naruto was howling at the image.
They gathered in front of the cave as the sun began to set. It had been a hard several days, and the team was looking foreword to a rest before starting on the long trip home. They had one last thing to do first. They had to bring down the cave that had contained so much evil.
Naruto stood once again on the pile of vaguely human shaped rubble before the mouth. His change to sage mode was the easiest he ever remembered, and he wondered if the Kyuubi had been making that more difficult for him. He quickly formed a massive rasenshuriken, again with surprising ease. It grew bigger as he tapped the now pure, untainted well of his chakra. He now realized how much the Kyuubi had actually limited him. He hadn't dared use this much chakra before, for as his own ran low, the fox would fill him up with his own. He had always unconsciously fought this, and one could never fully use power that one did not trust. But now, for the first time, he trusted himself completely.
He let the massive wind attack go and stood appreciating the symbolism as he, Konoha's jinchuuriki, watched the destruction of the place where so mane like him had died. As the dust settled on the now sealed cave mouth, Sakura climbed up next to him and took his hand. He turned to her and leaned over to kiss the top of her head. He thought of everything that had happened to him lately, from the disastrous vacation that had served to bring he and the one he loved closer together, to their wedding, to the coming to terms with his identity, his freedom, and now this. It had been a hell of a year.
He turned to his waiting friends. "Come on guys, let's go home."
He couldn't wait to see what next year would hold. But, as always, they would see it through. Together.
1 Year later
"Since when are we back to doing D-ranked missions?' Kiba groused as he and Naruto passed through the gates to the Uchiha compound. "I mean, we should be insulted, right?"
Naruto glanced over at him quizzically. "Dude, that was an A-rank we just did. Weren't you paying attention when we were assigned it?"
Kiba snorted, a noise eerily echoed by his canine partner who was padding beside him. "Well, it sure felt like a D."
Naruto had to agree with that. His team had been assigned a simple escort mission, which had turned out to be…a simple escort mission. It had been the terrain they were passing through that had made it A-rank. Going over the highest mountain chain on the continent. After the events of the previous year, climbing mountains was none of theirs favorite thing in the world. Otherwise nothing at all had happened. The client had been a very quiet, bookish man who had maybe said five words to them the entire week.
They had all been going crazy with boredom within the first day. He had spent more time baby sitting his antsy team than actually guarding the client.
He couldn't wait to get home. At least Sakura always managed to make life interesting. There just didn't seem to be much going on in the world lately. Iwa was still cowed from their defeat the year before. The King of Hell statue, along with its precious contents, was safe in its home inside the monument. The room was kept under guard, and had so many defensive seals around it that anyone foolish enough to sneak in there would very quickly find himself incapacitated and in ANBU custody. It was funny. He had thought that having the thing so close would drive him crazy, but he was actually happy having it where he could keep an eye on it.
Even Suki's story had had a happy ending. On arriving back to Konoha, Kurenai had taken the little girl in until another home could be found, and it had turned into a permanent arrangement when she had fallen in love with the child. Takara had been thrilled to have a big sister. Shikamaru had taken up smoking again when he found out he had two would be kunoichi to train now.
The two friends reached the point where they would part ways, Naruto to his house and Kiba to his apartment. Well, it wouldn't be his apartment for very long as he and Hinata were getting ready to move into a house together. "You better read over the next mission and make sure it's exciting, captain." Kiba called over his shoulder.
"No problem. How are you at chasing cats these days? Hear the Daimyo's wife got a new one." Kiba flipped him off and kept walking.
Naruto chuckled and climbed the steps to his porch. He had slid the door open and was just starting to kick his sandals off, when a loud screech rang through the house. He tensed, sliding into attack mode instantly. He tore across the living room and was almost through the doorway, tanto halfway out of its sheath, when he suddenly skidded to a halt at the sight in front of him.
Sakura was bouncing back and forth across the kitchen, whooping excitedly. She was paying absolutely no attention to him standing wild eyed and panting in the doorway. He was wondering when exactly his wife had gone insane when she suddenly launched herself at him, wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him enthusiastically. Sakura let go, looked at him with a huge smile, and continued her bouncing, this time down the hall toward the bedroom.
Naruto stood there for a moment, letting his brain catch up with current events and hoping it would let the rest of him in on what was going on when it did, when something caught his eye. A piece of somewhat official looking paper was sitting on the counter nearby. He picked it up and read it quickly. Then he read it again, more slowly. And a third time, just to make sure. His face remained blank for about thirty seconds more before a huge grin spread across it. He whooped loudly and sped into the bedroom, where joyous laughter and giggles soon emanated.
The paper, forgotten in the excitement, fluttered to the floor. On it, below the letterhead of the Konoha hospital was the following:
SUBJECT: Uzumaki, Sakura
REASON FOR VISIT: Pregnancy test
Oh my god! That was a long road, but now it is over. Thanks to everyone who stuck with me on this. You all deserve some cookies.
What follows can be found in my one-shot "This Woman's Work". My next story in this series will start up about three years after that. The first chapter is actually mostly written, but I haven't settled on a title quite yet. So, thanks again, and I hope to hear from you all when I release it.