A/N: First, thanks to my new (I haven't dropped the old by any means, just have two now) beta, Mike, who has graciously gotten this chapter back to me within an hour (though I forgot to upload it... . ... /sheepish). He's done a great job, too.
I know it's been a long wait, but as those who read the ANs for TROLL already know, I've had an interesting couple of months. That's mostly past, now, and I have a lot more time to write for now. So expect more rapid updates- I'm going to try and finish LB2 in the next month or two, then finish OH since it's getting down to the final arc or two, before moving on to TROLL as my main Naruto story... but I'll probably also be putting up an HP fic, maybe one of the crossovers (I'm working on 3) to update regularly alongside TROLL... and hopefully, heavens willing, also finish the second Bleach story I've had up but not updated in a couple years. lol
Chap. 57 Doldrums
Temari couldn't believe her ears. She had worried, while slowly waiting for her chakra to recover, mentally preparing for her father's harsh words, for his certainty of rebuking her for turning traitor before he killed her (and idly wondering, as she did so, whether Kankuro would speak out in her defense or not), whether or not her father had even survived.
By all accounts, as the remaining Suna forces had retreated- it was not a rout, as some would claim in later years- the battle had been lost hours before.
Yet her younger brother, her last surviving sibling, had sat silently, watching and waiting with her, while the troops continued to pass them by.
The sun had set when the low knoll she had started the fight on was bathed once again in light, this time the low orange of a flickering torch. The stumps that littered the area cast strange shadows on the more distant forest canopy as the searching squads approached. She, like Kankuro, had known they were coming.
The quick checks to see if each body they came across responded. A quick slice of metal through flesh if the person was alive and wearing Suna armor, the call for a medical specialist if Ootori or civilian.
Simple, brutal, effective.
It was what she, or Kankuro, would do, as well as their father.
Yet, as they approached the clearing where the still exhausted kunoichi and her much more rested younger brother sat, casually watching both Temari and the advancing party, the Ootori victors made no move to harm either of them.
That is, until a particularly tired-looking voice called, "You alright, Temari?"
"Tch," she snorted, turning her head with great effort to look down the hill.
There, a few steps ahead of the closest of the Ootori ninja, as the group moved around the base of the hill to encircle them, was a swarthy young man perhaps two years younger than her, with a loose topknot of black hair which had come partially undone.
"M'alright," she muttered, struggling to rise to a sitting position. She hated appearing weak to anyone, and especially not this young man, "Just..."
"Troublesome," Shikamaru grunted, "you're Kankuro of the Desert, right? The Kazekage's middle son?"
Kankuro, eyes still coldly appraising the apparent spokesman for the Ootori forces, nodded, "What's it to ya, kid?"
Shikamaru's dark eyes rolled, gesturing around, "Your sister did a number on Suna, that's all I'm saying. Look... I know it's a lot of work, but I've been asked specifically to retrieve Temari. She's an ally of Ootori, and it would be way too troublesome if I had to fight you for her."
Or did he volunteer? Temari found herself thinking, wondering about the younger teen's motives. He had not, she knew, volunteered for anything... yet she thought maybe, just maybe, he might have come for her.
Kankuro snorted, knowing exactly how his sister would take that comment.
With new-found strength, Temari lurched to her feet, "Fight for me? What do you think I am, Nara, some dainty, useless civilian girl?! I'm a proud kunoichi of Sunagakure! Even if I did fight on your side! I'm not some prize you can-"
Shikamaru pointedly ignored her, keeping his eyes and focus on Kankuro, "So what's it going to be, kid? Do we fight, or do you come peacefully... to keep an eye on your troublesome sister?"
Kankuro sniffed, shaking his head once again, while Temari fell silent, though he knew she was seething. "I'm pretty sure I can take all of you... since, you know, I've had six hours to seed the area with traps using my puppets. But I'll come quietly, no reason to get your panties in a twist."
Some part of Shikamaru knew he should be offended by Kankuro's comments. All of them, in fact. But it was what the puppet master said next that really got under his skin.
"Besides," the older boy continued, "you've already gotten Temari's panties all twisted up. … Or so I heard, anyway."
"My lord, they have my children! Both of them!"
The older man nodded gravely, "I understand, Kazekage-dono, I really do. But look at it from my perspective. While Hi no Kuni may be a lawless, leaderless nation, the other countries will not look kindly on your... aggression. Any further aggression will surely call down the wrath of Iwa or Kumo on us, when you have already cost us a sizable portion of our forces. Ten percent... a shameful loss, Kazekage-dono."
Tanaka no Sabaku, the most powerful ninja in all of Kaze no Kuni, fumed. He wanted to rail, to shout, to yell and threaten this old man who, once again, undermined him. Weakened him, weakened his own country.
But he could not. He was the Daimyo, the lord of the Land of Wind. Tanaka controlled most of the military might directly, but even he would not dare to directly opposed the ruler of the nation. His Hidden Village's financial livelihood depended on it. If the old fool withdrew even five percent of his funding...
Sunagakure would fall into the wastes of the desert once more within a generation. They would, once more, be little more than roving tribes of ninja, always at war with each other, competing for scarce resources...
And just as it had a generation before, one of the Great Nations would swiftly fall, this time to it's own foolishness, not the machinations of powerful enemies and a lucky (for him) catastrophe.
"My lord... my children. I will go rescue them myself, if I must."
The Daimyo was silent for several seconds, no doubt measuring the strength of Tanaka's resolve. He knew the Kazekage would not override his decisions as far as the Hidden Village went. As far as that matter was concerned, he was the victor in their eternal contest of wills. Yet...
"I propose a compromise," his aged voice grated, "You will offer to return your two Ootori captives, in exchange for your childrens' safety and freedom. Make it clear to Ootori that we understand this deal is not fair... and that you will offer your own life as a sacrifice to make it right. Inform this new 'Hokage', the Lady Senju Tsunade, that it is my will that you be given one day to spend with your children before someone of their choosing witnesses your seppukku.
Tanaka blinked. It was not a surprise, being asked to perform ritual suicide, especially after so drastic a failure as this. What was a surprise was the chance to see his children first, to apologize for shaming them and his family. There was no question in his mind, this was the only way to prevent his own shame from tainting their honor forever. Except...
"And if my proposal is not accepted... well, I will still want, hm, resolution."
This time, the Kazekage only nodded. He would still be dead, by his own hand with his family's ancestral wakizashi, one way or the other. The choice was purely in Ootori's hands, however, as to the manner thereof. He would live a few more days in shame but get to see his daughter and son, or he would die without seeing them that much sooner.
"Yes, my lord."
And that was the end of the conversation, and the end of the meddlesome, warlike Kazekage as far as the Daimyo of Kaze no Kuni was concerned. With the man's daughter's traitorous bent, he would only be able to choose his last remaining child as his heir. And he knew the boy was an extremely skilled puppeteer, and had considerable training in politics, and a successful Jonin in his own right.
But while it pleased the old Diamyo that the Fifth Kazekage would, no doubt, be a puppeteer just as the First had been, it pleased him more that, despite all the boy's training, he would still be far more easily manipulated that his father.
Not that that was a challenge.
Temari still could not believe her ears. Their father was here, in Ootori, to retrieve them, personally. That was not so surprising. The peaceful manner of his presence was, but even that paled next to what he had just said. "You're... you're what?"
Tanaka growled, "It's not that complicated, Temari. You and your brother are being allowed to return to Sunagakure. I escorted the Inuzuka and Akimichi boys here personally, and my honor guard has already returned home. I am being permitted twelve hours to speak with you and your brother before I am to present myself to this Hokage of theirs for seppukku."
For a brief moment, Temari caught her brother's eyes. They looked just as shocked as hers had to be. "But... but..."
"It is the only way," he said simply.
And it was, as far as he saw it. He may not have brought up his children in the strictly traditional way, like the generations of Sunagakure before him (that change had all started with that visit when they were young by Jiraiya and that obnoxious blonde boy, he knew), but he himself was raised with certain almost Samurai-like beliefs.
The first and foremost was what led him to this fate.
"Come on, Temari," Kankuro said at last, "he's decided. It's done. So what next, dad?"
For a moment, Tanaka looked between his children. That statement alone had proven that his earlier decision was correct. Temari... she was a very gifted kunoichi, but even with her questionable loyalty aside, and again even with her skill in squad-based leadership, Kankuro was the better leader of men. "You will be the Godaime Kazekage, Kankuro. From there... things are up to you."
Temari gave an almost-unnoticed sigh of relief.
Beside her, though, Kankuro nodded once, even as his shoulders began to straighten. "I won't let you down, father."
Tanaka only shook his head, "You never have... either of you."
Seven hours of half-hidden tears and half-joyful laughter later, Temari and Kankuro were allowed to watch as their father, standing before Senju Tsunade, with the legendary Jiraiya as his reluctant second, Tanaka no Sabaku made the Three Cuts. A moment later, the Sage's own ancestral blade swept downward, ending his agony.
Tanaka's last thought, as his head came to rest and vision faded, was that for an enemy, Tsunade did not seem particularly thrilled with his death.
The next two days were filled with stress for each and every fighter in Ootori, whether ninja or otherwise. It was not, of course, as stressful as the short conflict which had resulted in a spectacular upset and the death of the Fourth Kazekage, but it was stressful all the same.
And that stress, Sakura knew, was taking its toll. Not just on the others, not even especially on the leaders. Tsunade, Jiraiya, Hiashi, Fugaku, Chōza, Shikaku... they had all known war before, and were at least a little more used to it.
So it was, as it always is, that the young felt the greatest burden of the short war. The faces of her friends and lovers (well, one would-be, anyway) were quite telling to Sakura, though she knew her own situation was just as bad.
She, after all, had sworn to uphold and defend life whatever the cost. It was true, and it was the only thing that helped her sleep at night, that in killing so many she had saved many more lives. But she was a healer first and foremost, had dedicated herself to that role ever since she understood why Tsunade had done the same (long before she actually began learning the healing arts in earnest). Before, in fact, Naruto and Jiraiya had left on their eight-year trip.
She could see, as she watched the two blondes trying to relax while hunched over their small cook fire, that each had withdrawn, had hidden inside themselves. She had done the same, but a talk with Tsunade and Shizune had helped bring her back out of her misery, at least a little. Far enough that she could look at the other two in their strange relationship, anyway, and see the hurt there.
It took several minutes for either to register that she had spoken, both sets of haunted blue eyes stayed locked on the small flames, but eventually, Ino blinked and shifted her head slightly to indicate she was listening, while Naruto responded, "Hm? What is it, Sakura-chan?"
"This... this might seem kind of, um... strange. But... I think you need to go to the cabin tonight. I know it's late, but... you might not get another break for a while. Take the night off, come back around, I don't know, noon tomorrow. I should be able to keep Lady Tsunade busy until then."
For a moment, it looked like both of them would take her up on it, but after a few seconds, Naruto shook his head, his still-deadened eyes going back to the flames. "No... they might need us. We can't go."
But Sakura was not above pulling rank, as it were. True, they each were considered Chunin, and anyone who knew them did not question that, in their usual squad (including Sasuke), it was Naruto that was the leader.
Still... she was the team's medic, and she could override anyone if she thought it necessary, even Tsunade, as the active medical personnel for their squad. "Naruto, I'll make it an order if I have to. You know I will. Look... I don't want Ino's f- first time to be, you know, like... like this," she gestured with one hand around the weary campground where the majority of the active-duty personnel, both ninja and otherwise, were bivouacked just outside of the newly-re-founded town, "but you guys... you need to get past this. You've both killed before, I know. I know you're tough. But this is something that I, as your medic, think you need, both of you. You'll come out better for it. Take the night... just go feel again. Take some time to sex each other up, then... I don't know. Talk. Have sex more. Whatever. Both, ten times, for all I care. It's not like this is a competition between us. Just... I hate seeing you like this. So go. Please."
Again, for a few seconds, it seemed both of them would ignore her, forcing her to make it an order.
Then, Ino snickered. "Heh... you said 'sex each other up'... I didn't know you knew how to talk like that, Forehead. I'm impressed."
The rosette's mouth quirked, but not as much as Naruto's did. "Hey... that's true! I didn't think you had it in you, Sakura! We'll make a pervert of you yet, won't we, Ino?"
Sakura's eyes rolled, but she couldn't help the smile that stretched across her face. Yes, it was strained, both of them were forcing the humor out... but it was there. Real emotion, for the first time in two days. "Go on, you two. I'm serious. I'll tell Tsunade and Jiraiya, and I'll let you guys know tomorrow when you get back who the Yamanaka elders chose."
Ino's face immediately fell, but she shook her head a moment later, and looked up with a wane smile. "Thanks, Sakura. For... well, you know."
She nodded, and blew a kiss to the leggy blonde as she stepped past her on one side. Naruto, a moment later, paused to rest a quiet hand on the medic's shoulder, which she quickly covered with her own, giving it a light squeeze. "Sakura," he said quietly, "are you... will you be alright? We don't have to, you know, leave you out..."
She just shook her head softly, "I'm fine... I had a good talk with Tsunade and Jiraiya earlier, and it... helped. But you and Ino aren't the same as me in this way, you need to work your thoughts out with hot, sweaty sex. So go do it, already. I'll be fine, I promise. Thank you for the concern, though, Naruto. I love you... both of you, and you can tell Ino I said that, but if you do, you have to tell her I said 'not that way, perv', too."
"Will do," he chuckled, and gave her shoulder a final squeeze before walking away into the camp after the Yamanaka heiress.
After they had gone, Sakura's thoughts turned to the blonde's clan. She had been, and still was, Inoichi's designated heir. She should have taken over the Clan, but she had turned that down. With good reason, Sakura knew, but it still ate at her in a way.
She was young, for one.
Had not yet mastered the Clan's most powerful jutsu to defend herself, for another.
So she had asked the elders to pick someone else from among their number to lead them until she felt she was ready. She knew them, trusted them, so there would not likely be issues with relinquishing their authority. After all, she did have more natural talent than any of them, and if it came down to a jutsu-based conflict or power struggle, they would lose, more advanced repertoires or no. If it was politics...
Well, Sakura and Naruto, and therefore Jiraiya and Tsunade, were behind her. No contest there.
That left only personal grudges, and of the four elders, two were Ino's direct uncles, one was her favorite grandmother, and the other a slightly more distant aunt that Ino was still on good terms with (and only less than a favorite because she had once been caught by said aunt making out with one of the older woman's daughters. At least, that was what Ino had told she and Naruto the day before).
Besides, they were family. A rather close-knit family, at that, since all of them- even those without chakra or jutsu training- were adept at reading and analyzing each other, simply by virtue of environment, if nothing else. It was how they were raised.
That left the only major worry for Sakura to obsess over: the same thing everyone else was. At least, those not still hung up over the last battle (which were many, she knew, having spent much of the last two days attempting to counsel her own platoon, and half of Naruto's surviving group, including Hinata).
That last worry?
Well, she couldn't afford to worry about that group of S-ranked ninja criminals. They would come for Naruto soon enough, but they had enough on their plates to worry about...
Ootori stood alone, against what seemed like the whole world.
Mizu no Kuni, and it's primary source of military strength, Kirigakure, were embroiled in a civil war, as they had been for decades. They would not help, but also could not spare the forces to attack.
Kumo, at least, was a nominal ally... if their recent trip to the Village Hidden in the Clouds was a reliable indication. But the larger Kaminari no Kuni, the Land of Lightning, was still one of the primary attacking forces that had decimated the Land of Fire a generation ago. They were still a threat, unless Ei somehow convinced his Daimyo that attacking them would be foolish at best. Unlikely, given how small her home was, but possible...
But Iwa, whose expeditionary force alone outnumbered them two hundred to one (even if, were Sakura being honest in her evaluation, their training was not nearly as in-depth as Ootori's current regimen, or Konoha's in the past), that was a devastating margin.
And Oto, Iwa's nominal ally and Ootori's now-sworn enemy, was being led by the one person Tsunade and Jiraiya both feared above all others alive today.
Their old team-mate, Orochimaru, the Snake Sannin.
Their small information network (and Jiraiya's larger, more established one) still had not even been able to pinpoint the location of Otogakure, or even narrow it down to one nation. All anyone could say for certain was that Orochimaru was still doing what he had for years, moving from hidden base to hidden base every few weeks to a month, and continuing to gather strength, as he had done since the fall of Konoha, when Oto had not only come onto the world stage, but established itself as the (at the time) weakest of the Five Great Hidden Villages, beating out even such relative powerhouses as Waterfall and Rain.
And their forces were now known to be advancing on Ootori. If Oto and Iwa kept their 'truce' going to attack the weaker but more annoying threat, it would be a bloodbath. Their only hope would be Naruto unleashing the Nine-Tailed Fox, which she knew would kill him. And she did not trust Orochimaru not to have a method to seal the Fox back up again... and most certainly did not trust that monster not to turn on their own forces.
No... they were well and truly screwed, she knew it.
But she would not admit it, even to herself.
So when the once bright-eyed young man Naruto had introduced as her new savior Asuma's nephew, Konohamaru, followed by a bleary-eyed, white-haired girl a few years between them in age plopped themselves down in Ino and Naruto's old spots, Sakura forced herself to paste on an optimistic smile. "So, what can I do for you two? It's... Konohamaru and Zankako, right?"
As the final piece of her outfit fell to the floor, Ino was overcome with a bout of shyness. Even though Naruto had stared, avidly even, at her while she had slowly taken off her clothing, even though she had flat-out reveled in the obvious lust growing in his eyes (and his trousers), now that she was bare...
Naruto, for his part, couldn't hold back the slight grin as he noticed pink spreading down his blonde girlfriend's neck, between her large breasts (which were quite pleasingly pushed together and up by the teen's sudden modesty, though her small areolae and relatively large, erect nipples were once again covered by her arm, the other stretching down to the now-closed meeting of her thighs, covering all but the edges of the patch of golden hair there.
"First time I've seen you shy," he teased, taking a half step across the bedroom toward her. It was dark outside, though the sun had set only an hour ago, and the curtains were drawn, so the only light in the room was from his single lamp- the main light source in his bedroom, since his sensitive eyes had never liked bright artificial light unlike the rest of his adoptive family- and two candles, one each on his writing desk and the bedside table.
Ino frowned and forced her eyes back up to his, "N- No. Just... I've never let... well, no one except my sisters, aunts and uncles have..."
"I understand," he said sincerely, "when I first, well... with Sakura, I had the same problem. She did too, a bit. But you have nothing to worry about, okay? You're beautiful, and I love you. I knew the first from when you Mind-Walked me that first time, but the second... that's been a bit longer coming. I believe it, though, a hundred percent."
Somehow, though the words were awkward and clearly not well planned-out, Naruto's honesty convinced the girl. Slowly, she dropped her hands to clasp them together in front of her crotch, and leaned forward slightly as she pressed her breasts together more deliberately this time. "So... you do like it? Them? M- me?"
The last word was probably the quietest Naruto had ever heard the Yamanaka speak. He nodded, taking care to- no matter how tempting the sight was- keep his eyes on hers for a few seconds to display his feelings.
He could not hold that for long, however, and Ino was pleased to see his eyes jerk downward to her chest, then back up, and then slide down shakily, as if he was actively fighting himself while checking out her body.
Now there's a sight for sore eyes, Naruto thought to himself, I missed this view...
And he had. The last time he had seen this much of Ino was when she had first mind-walked him, and then, overwhelmed by the Kyūbi's influence, had embraced her darker desires and frigged herself off in his mindscape, in the mental projection of this very room. That had been one of his fondest memories ever since, and now... now it was real.
Naruto stepped forward once, closing the distance between them by half, and raised his hands, but they froze half way up. "Can I...?"
Ino started as if she was unaware that he was there. Perhaps, given the glazed look in her eyes, she had forgotten? Or was she, too, remembering that vivid experience? "Oh, uh- s- sure. Yes, Naruto... please."
His calloused palm had just grazed the tip of Ino's left nipple when the cabin door slammed open below. "Naruto, Ino, we've got a problem!" Temari's voice, anxious and almost fearful, shocked both of them, and ruined the moment forever.
"We're coming!" Ino called, turning away from Naruto to hide her blush (unsuccessfully, because he could see it traced down the girl's back underneath her ponytail), before bending down to snatch up her clothes.
Naruto had just enough time to look downward and commit the sight of his girlfriend's unclad posterior, bent over almost completely, before he spurred himself to action, as equally frustrated as Ino.
But there was one bright side to that particular series of events, Naruto mused around the campfire later that evening. His blonde girlfriend had a new nickname... something only he would call her, true, but something that anyone who heard it would think was associated with flowers or somesuch given her love of gardening and family business. Something that almost made him not want to punch Temari's and Shikamaru's lights out for interrupting them again.
Lily of the Valley, what a classic...
Yeah, I know it's cheesy, but I like cheesy jokes on occasion. ;)
If you have questions, concerns, comments, want to welcome back to fanfiction life (not that I ever left, I HAVE gotten a lot written in my absence, just not for these few fics), etc etc, just remember:
Read and review!