Without Uchiha Sasuke

Chapter 42

Sabaku no Gaara stood in his office, looking out his window and upon his village.

His village and his people.

The village he had once hated with every fiber of his being, for all the pain he had to endure.

The village he had come to see differently, because of one boy like him.

The village he now loved, and was also sworn to protect.

A soft knock on the door told him that Temari had arrived as he had asked, the door opening to let his sister in, along with Kankuro and Baki.

"You called for us, Gaara?" She asked, curious as to why there had been a summons so early in the morning.

Gaara took a deep breath as he pondered upon how to break the news to them.

He wasn't the best at communication, after all, he had started late, and it made him worry as to how he would sound saying such things.

"There has been news from Konoha."

The slight pause, the hesitancy shown by Gaara, caused more curiosity and even more apprehension at his next words.

"Jiraiya of the Sannin, is dead."

When they came, the words drew actual gasps from his siblings, Baki looking equally stunned as Gaara had been when he had heard the news.

Temari, ever the logical one, maybe due to the constant contact with Shikamaru, started filling in the blanks.

"Akatsuki?" she asked, her voice a whisper, as she tried to figure out what this could mean, not only for her brother, but the village as well.

Gaara simply nodded, his gaze fixed out the window.

"Shikamaru told me this morning. Both Uzumaki Naruto and the Sannin were attacked, it seems as if the Sannin gave up his life to save Uzumaki."

It hadn't sounded right to Gaara, not at first, not even now.

His head, couldn't wrap around the fact that a normal person, could sacrifice their life for a Jinchuuriki.

For someone, as cursed as they were.

But deep down in his heart, Gaara knew, that it was exactly what had happened.

"What does this have to do with us?" Asked Kankuro, not sure where Gaara was going with this.

Temari looked at the elder of her two brothers, a slight look of surprise and disgust on her face.

"What do you mean what does this have to do with us? Naruto is the reason for Gaara's change, it has everything to do with us." She hissed, obviously not pleased with what Kankuro had just said.

"You know that's not what I mean." Protested Kankuro. "I meant, what does the Sannin's death have to do with the Village?"

Gaara smiled a little at the banter, some form of normalcy returning to the day, even if it was just for a moment.

"The current Hokage, is also a Sannin, one of Jiraiya's team mates."

The room fell silent as the majority of the situation sunk in, both Temari and Kankuro immediately forgetting their little argument.

They now knew that it wasn't just a normal Shinobi that the Akatsuki had killed, that it had been one of the strongest shinobi in the entire Elemental Nations.

One on level with the Kages.

The Akatsuki were S ranked nin, they had known that.

But they had not known, exactly to what extent the Akatsuki's powers had grown in the time they had gone missing.

With Jiraiya, a Sannin, dead by their hands, the Akatsuki suddenly, seemed very, very scary.

"Do you know how it happened?" Asked Baki, his voice solemn, both with grief at the loss of a great shinobi as well as with concern about what it could mean for Gaara.

The look in the Kazekage's eyes told him all, the leader of Suna shaking his head as he spoke.

The fact that they didn't know anything, made all things worse.

It left too many things open, too much room for error, and that scared everyone in the room, more than Jiraiya's actual death.

"Shikamaru says he will keep us up to date on any information he gets through Yamanaka. Until then, all we can do is tighten our guard, and kick up our training a few notches."

X—X—X—X—X

Uzumaki Naruto had woken up, interestingly, in less pain than he had been in, the night before.

Not only was the pain almost all gone, but he also felt better, as if something had rejuvenated him.

He felt more like who he had been a few days ago, than the person he had been yesterday.

A thought immediately ran through his head, his spirits rising at it.

If he was indeed right, then that would mean he would be able to get back to training sooner than he had assumed.

Flexing his hand and relishing in the movement he had regained, the blond boy had set off towards the Hokage tower, hoping to find either his girlfriend or the Hokage there, or someone that could confirm his hopes.

His walk to the tower, however, was spent in thought.

Almost all of his friends were on a mission somewhere, and Naruto had taken the low chance of meetings to spend the time letting his eyes and his thoughts roam.

He had been really focused on the loss of Jiraiya, but as he walked through the village, he saw what the Sannin had sacrificed himself for.

It hadn't been only for him.

It hadn't been only for Konoha.

It had been for the whole of the elemental nations.

Every single person alive, and every single person that was yet to be born.

Everything that had been built, over decades and centuries, with hard work, blood and tears.

Everything that had been fought for, killed for, and died for, by countless generations of Shinobi.

All of which would be threatened if all the Bijuu were to fall into the hands of the Akatsuki.

The Sannin's sacrifice had taught him more than just that.

It had taught him, that life, his life in particular, was worth more than he had ever thought.

That his life, even though so insignificant, mattered in the grand scheme of things.

That the way that he lived, that the way that every single person lived, mattered, in deciding the fate of the world.

It had also taught him that he wasn't strong enough yet, not strong enough to take on an organization of Akatsuki's strength.

Without the Kyuubi, he now knew he didn't even come close.

And he now knew that there would be situations where he would have to be capable of fending for himself without using any of the Kyuubi's chakra, or the abilities it granted him.

After all, it had taken a lot out of him, just to get back to Konoha alive that very day, and he was truly grateful that he had even managed.

Naruto knew he would need to get stronger, and there was only one place, that could give him that boost of power, he so badly needed right now.

A boost that would make him strong enough, that his small insignificant push, could possibly start a rotation that would change the entire Shinobi Nations for the better, or at the very least, prevent it from going down a disastrous path.

"Naruto-kun."

The voice cut through his thoughts, all threads vanishing into thin air, their effects lingering within him.

The boy had to blink a couple of times before he realized that he had reached his destination, and that he had nearly walked into the owner of the voice, Nara Shikaku, who was walking alongside Hyuuga Hiashi.

"Shikaku-san, Hiashi-sama."

"Hiashi-san is just fine, Naruto-kun."

"Hiashi-san." Corrected the blond boy, realizing that the man, would be one of the few people who could actually confirm, if the Kyuubi chakra had returned to his body.

"Here to see the Hokage?" Asked Shikaku.

Naruto nodded, not surprised at how Shikaku had guessed his intentions.

"The Hokage has a council meeting in a few minutes, and if you don't mind, I'd like to talk to you about the other day, before."

The meaning of the words, though it would seem vague to any bystander, was clear to Naruto.

Shikaku wanted to know what he knew, of the attack, and Naruto completely understood why.

But if he went along with Shikaku, it would mean that he wouldn't get to see Tsunade, nor would he get to confirm his suspicions.

Unless.

"If you have some time, Shikaku-san, I'd like a small favor from Hiashi-san first."

The pale eyed man looked at the boy curiously, a slight glance over to Shikaku asking if the Nara didn't mind this putting on hold the Commanders reasons for calling out to the Chuunin.

Shikaku simply nodded, tucking his hands into his pocket, a sign that he would wait while this favor was asked, causing the Hyuuga to turn his attention back to Naruto, nodding to him.

"Could you take a look at my chakra coils?" He asked, slightly nervous at asking a favor from a clan head, much less the Hyuuga clan head.

The look Hyuuga Hiashi gave him, told Naruto that the Hyuuga elder hadn't really caught on to what he was saying.

It was either that, or the elder wanted to know why he was being asked this.

"My arm feels much better than it did yesterday, and I was hoping you could confirm the Kyuubi is healing me again."

A nod followed by a flash of a hand sign turned the Hyuuga Clan's Byakugan on, and off just a second or two later, a smile spreading across Hiashi's face as the veins around his eyes faded.

"It's not fully recovered, but there are slight wisps of red from within the seal. I don't think it should take too long now." He said, the smile on his face genuine.

Naruto smiled back, bowing and thanking the Hyuuga Clan Head before he turned to Shikaku.

It wasn't easy, to think of it, or how the attack had happened, and he knew it would be even harder to talk about it.

But he also knew he had to do it someday and that it had to be sooner, rather than later, if they were to take advantage of what he knew.

A nod to the strategist, Uzumaki Naruto waited for Shikaku to lead the way, following him into the Hokage tower, and whatever questions the Jounin Commander had for him.

X—X—X—X—X

"Orochimaru."

The growl ripped out of Tsunade's throat before she knew it, her loathing for the Snake clear and venomous in her voice.

The rest of the council, were still in shock as to what they had heard.

It had been hard for them to swallow Jiraiya's death, but it was harder for them to swallow the fact that Orochimaru had had a hand in it as well.

"There is still no way that Jiraiya-sama could have died that easily." Said Inoichi, to which many a council member nodded. "He can't have gone down without a fight."

"I agree, but Kakashi, who recovered Jiraiya-sama's body, says he could find no others."

"Doesn't mean they didn't die." Growled Tsume, clearly as enraged at what she had just found out as Tsunade was.

"Doesn't mean they died either, someone could have come and picked them up while they were alive." Countered Shikaku to which Tsume let out another growl.

The Nara was right.

There was nothing to support that any of the Akatsuki were dead, and assuming that they were, could be a fatal mistake upon Konoha's part.

"So we assume that all of them are still alive." said Senju Tsunade with a sigh, as she massaged her forehead, half trying to clear the building headache and the other half trying to dissipate the rage inside her.

"I don't like it, but we have to, we can't afford to make mistakes."

"Okay, so what do you make of this?"

"This was no attempt at taking the Kyuubi. This was an attempt at taking out our source of information." Stated Shikaku.

"This was an attempt on Jiraiya-sama's life. Naruto-kun himself can vouch for that."

"So Orochimaru was their way of evening up the odds?" Asked Inoichi.

Shikaku nodded, but it was Tsunade who spoke.

"Strength wise, yes, Orochimaru was their way of making sure they weren't beaten."

"but simply taking out a nin isn't enough to warrant an alliance with someone, especially Orochimaru, someone who left them in the first place." Stepped in Shikaku.

"According to Jiraiya, Orochimaru was the only one to ever leave the Akatsuki, leaving as soon as Itachi joined, knowing that the organization would get in the way of him acquiring Itachi's Sharingan eyes as long as he was part of it. No, for the Akatsuki to go to Orochimaru for an alliance, they would need more than removing a strong shinobi from Naruto's guard."

"Akatsuki needed Orochimaru for Jiraiya-sama. Not only strength wise, but Orochimaru, would also be the person who'd know Jiraiya-sama the best. After all, it is Orochimaru who's avoided him for the longest time."

"Jiraiya-sama's spy network."

Shikaku smiled at Shibi's interaction as the quiet Aburame spoke.

"Exactly. This wasn't only an attempt at Jiraiya-sama's life, this was an attempt to put us in the dark. We knew too much for their liking."

"Suna. They know we sent a team." Groaned Inoichi, the pieces falling into place for the entire council.

"So that means they have an insider in Suna." Mused Tsume.

"A puppet."

The words from Hiashi turned heads, not knowing what Hiashi's point was.

"The Akatsuki are a group with a fixed number. They will not have a member inside Suna. Instead, they are more likely to have someone with control over someone in Suna. Like a puppet."

Hiashi's words made sense, if anyone could have a puppet, a literal one or a metaphoric one, it would be an ex-Suna nin.

"Inoichi, contact Ino, have her warn Shikamaru and the Kazekage of the new developments. Ask them to be wary of their own."

"It might also be good to tell them that they are sure to face more than two Akatsuki members as well." Shikaku added to Tsunade's orders.

The Yamanaka nodded, opening his communication link to his daughter, relaying all the information to her as he listened to the rest of the conversation between the council members.

X—X—X—X—X

Uzumaki Naruto stood on top of his apartment building, looking out on the village he was to leave soon.

He had used the council meeting as an excuse to summon Fukasaku and discuss his training, something he was now glad to have done, for it had alleviated another part of his worries.

Naruto considered himself lucky once again, thanking Kami for the change in fortune.

Fukasaku, under whom he'd have to complete his training with, had assured him that he would not require vigorous use of his arms for the first part of his training.

That meant that he could begin as soon as possible, even tomorrow, if he was allowed to leave.

The fact that he'd have to go to Mount Myobokuzan, and that he'd have to stay there for the entire duration of his training, was minor compared to the valuable time he could have otherwise been losing.

After all, he had planned for a long absence before his unannounced return.

He was glad, that he could get something done, while he waited for his arm to heal properly, and then, he would get to proper work.

A gust of wind behind him told him he was no longer alone, the boy turning around to fix eyes on a familiar and weirdly enough, a missed green outfit.

The vest put him off for a few seconds, until he focused on a much younger face than the one he was expecting.

"Lee! You made Jounin!" Said the Chuunin as he laughed and embraced his friend in a hug before they separated.

Naruto honestly considered himself lucky that he was one of the few people Lee hugged like a normal person.

"Hai, Naruto-kun!" Said the Taijutsu specialist, in his trademark thumbs up pose and toothy grin.

"You would have been promoted too, if it wasn't such hard days upon our village."

Naruto nodded, Jiraiya's face once again coming to memory.

He knew that it was the case.

He knew, that he would have and probably, still feel that it was only Jiraiya's death that had warranted his promotion, and he fully understood why he hadn't been given one.

Maybe, if he stayed a little longer, he would, but he knew he wasn't going to.

There were far more important things on the line than a promotion to Jounin.

"Gomen, Naruto-kun, I cannot stay long to discuss the past year or two, Hokage-sama would like to see you, now."

Naruto looked at Lee, one of the few of the Konoha 11 that were still in the village and realized that there was no continuation, it was an order.

She wanted to see him now, and she wouldn't have it at any other time.

Uzumaki Naruto nodded, giving Lee a smile which the Jounin returned along with another thumbs up, just before he vanished from his spot.

From the direction he was going, Naruto safely assumed that he was one of the messengers that Tsunade was sending to inform the other Kage's of the time and venue for the Summit, and if it required Lee to remove his weights for the trip, then, he realized that things were getting serious after all.

All thoughts shoved from his head, Naruto turned towards the Hokage tower and leapt off.

He knew that today, was one of the few days that he didn't want to be late.

X—X—X—X—X

Inside the Council Chambers, Tsunade constantly rubbed her forehead, knowing that it was only beginning, and knowing that now, they were the ones playing the chasing game instead of Akatsuki.

Jiraiya's loss, had not only hit them hard emotionally, but she now realized, just how much of Konohas strength they had taken out with their one move.

Jiraiya's networks, had played a very important part in their 'war' against the Akatsuki.

It had been through them that she had found out the targets and it had also been through them, that she had hoped to find out where the Akatsuki were based.

Now, her best hope was Shibi and his Aburame, and even she had to admit, that the hopes of them being as good as Jiraiya's networks, were very low.

Along with Shikaku's help, Tsunade had tried to come up with a plan of utilizing her Shinobi to the best, and had set it in motion.

Shibi and his Aburame formed the first layer of what they had termed 'the net', spreading out of Konoha's borders.

The Aburame were the only ones who could easily spy on the villages, or at least come close to it.

With their use of their insects, and their inter-hive communication, they were the ones that would be able to spread themselves within enemy territory, and remain hidden while doing that.

One of the Aburame's targets was the Hidden Village in the Rain, a village that was once amongst the Five Great Villages, the only one that had seemingly disappeared from radar, the only one of whom Jiraiya himself had raised concerns about.

If indeed the Akatsuki were based in a Hidden Village, then Tsunade knew that the Rain was their best bet.

Tsume and her Inuzuka, formed the second layer of the net that Tsunade and Shikaku had created.

The Inuzuka and their ninken were the ones closest to knowing every bit of the Land of Fire by heart and by smell.

It would be them that would patrol within and along Konoha's borders, smelling out any would be intrusions by the Akatsuki, before they reached Konoha.

The Hyuuga were Tsunade's third and last layer of their net, spread along the walls of Konoha, as well as throughout, their doujutsu giving them the vision and the range to cover everything within a good distance.

Their job was to make sure that no one entered Konoha without them knowing, be it legally, or illegally.

The orders had been given, and the Clan Leaders had long left the council chambers to muster their clans, leaving her with Shikaku to discuss the Summit of the Five Kages.

The new bits of information Shikaku had gotten from Naruto changed things a lot.

Her original messengers to the villages, asking them to keep the Jinchuuriki safe, and asking them to keep out a watch for teams of two from the Akatsuki, was no longer valid.

With the knowledge that they had made an alliance with Orochimaru, as well as their much more daring move to taking out Jiraiya, told her that the Akatsuki were no longer thinking of staying under the radar.

Worse, she had no clue if Orochimaru and the Sound were the only alliance the Akatsuki had made.

With other unknown villages and organizations out there, along with a missing Danzo and ROOT, the numbers that Konoha, along with the other villages, could face had gone up exponentially.

Now, all her eggs were in the Summit basket.

Rock Lee, her messenger to the Land of Iron had returned not too long ago, bringing with him their agreement to host the Summit, a month from now.

That in itself, was the best news she had heard in a long time.

With Lee, alongside Gai, who had just returned from a mission, she had her two fastest Shinobi available, and she hadn't hesitated to use them.

The two of them, along with one of her fastest ANBU, had been dispatched immediately to the other villages, notifying them of the schedule.

The fourth and last village, being Suna, didn't really need a messenger dispatched with Ino already being there.

All her moves had been made.

She no longer had any pieces to move on this metaphorical Shogi board.

Worst of all, this was no turn based Shogi game.

The Akatsuki would not be required to give her a move, after they had made one.

No.

If she were them, she'd be ruthless in capitalizing on their weakness, and she knew that she needed to control what damage could be done to them.

They needed to keep things as much under control as they could, within their capabilities as a lone Village, until the Summit could take place.

Until the Shinobi Villages could decide a mutual plan of action to follow.

But that, could only happen in a month, at the very least.

A month after which she would need to convince the other great villages of the threat the Akatsuki possessed and join hands in dealing with it.

A month she'd have to spend in fear, fear of how things may abruptly change.

A month where anything could happen, from the Akatsuki's side of things.

X—X—X—X—X

Haruno Sakura arrived at the Hokage Tower to find her team already there, along with the familiar face of Yamato.

Kakashi as well as Naruto noticed her entrance, the latter walking over to her while the former led them towards the Hokage's office.

"I need to talk to you after this."

The words caused a bit of apprehension inside Sakura, her mind wondering as to what her boyfriend needed to talk to her about.

But she put it out of her head as they entered the Hokage office, the familiar face of Shan greeting them alongside the Hokage and Shikaku.

"Team Seven, meet Haruno Saki. She will be your team's third member from now on"

'Saki' rolled her eyes at the introduction, knowing fully well that she didn't need any.

"Hokage-sama felt the need to establish an identity for me, if I am to go with you on any missions."

Sakura stood there, sort of taken aback while the other members of the team chuckled at Saki's expression, not knowing what to think

"It feels weird, to be my own person." She continued. "But I like the name, better than some Shan."

"Don't blame me, it was your choice to take part of your favorite word." Bit back the actual Haruno, to which Saki didn't bother replying, instead sharing a mirrored grin with her 'sister'.

The chuckles and smiles exchanged at their banter lifted the mood in the room, setting up the floor for Shikaku to step in and bring up the actual issue at hand.

"Due to recent events, the Council of Konoha, has decided that the Akatsuki are a larger threat than we expected, and has decided that Konoha alone cannot tackle this issue."

"With Jiraiya's loss, and since Konoha cannot handle this alone anymore, we have called for a Summit of the Five Kage's to convene in a month's time."

"Each Kage is allowed to bring a guard of five Shinobi to the Land of Iron, and Hokage-sama has chosen the five of you, to accompany her."

"Five? What five?" The voice inside her head was unexpected, and Sakura mentally cleared away the confusion Saki's voice still caused in her.

It would still take time for the both of them to get used to their newly developed mental communication.

"She means you, dummy." Poked back Sakura, a smile appearing on her face as she said that.

"Hokage-sama, with all due respect, I think you should pick a different fifth member for the team."

The outburst was unexpected from Saki, and when it came, Tsunade and Shikaku both were unsure as to whom she was referring to.

"Why?" Asked the Hokage.

"I'm a technique." Was the only reply and everything suddenly clicked inside Sakura's head.

"Wherever I go, she goes." Said Sakura, her smile spreading into a grin on her face much like it did on her 'twins' face.

"All she needs to do, is to make a clone, and I'm there."

"Take a different fifth, and we'll have six Shinobi present at the summit if the need ever arises. I like it." Added in Shikaku, beaming at the development, and how the new batch seemed to impress him all the time.

Tsunade smiled along with her chief strategist, before she gave a nod.

"Do you have a fifth in mind?" She asked, to which each of the team looked at one another, trying to come up with another name.

"Fine, Kakashi, have a fifth ready for when we set off in a month." Cut in Tsunade, her eyes showing how tired she was, and that she would rather end things for today.

The silver haired man nodded at the order, his mind already going through the list of available nin, trying to find someone that would easily pair up with them, as well as offer them something they didn't already have.

"That'll be all for now."

The dismissal was quick and sudden, and Sakura glanced at her boyfriend, her mind back to what he had said just before.

A quick signal of Go home, I need to talk to Hokage-sama first, was all Sakura needed to figure out what he wanted to talk to her about.

He was leaving to Mt Myobokuzan already, and he wanted to spend some time with her before he did.

Communicating with Saki through their mind link, Haruna Sakura set off home, knowing that her alter ego, would make up for every bit of training Sakura missed today.

X—X—X—X—X

Nara Shikamaru took a deep breath, as he entered the Kazekage's office, Temari alongside him.

Shikamaru knew immediately, that it wasn't going to be easy, watching nervously as Temari went to her brother and whispered in his ear.

The curious glance towards the Shadow user told him that the moment the privacy seals went up, that he'd be treading on thin ice.

Gaara considered it for a moment, before he leant back, his hands coming up in a seal, activating the seals that lined the room.

Shikamaru watched the seals as they glowed, hoping that whoever had made them, had been good, and that it indeed blocked all sound and vision from within the room.

"Speak."

The word was spoken cold and unhappy, something Shikamaru had expected out of Gaara, considering the circumstances.

The Nara took in a breath as he spoke, knowing that it would be wise not to waste too much of the Kazekage's time.

"My father tells me that the Akatsuki attack, was not directed at Naruto."

The first sentence in itself, brought attention from the room's occupants, which included only Kankuro apart from Temari and Gaara.

"The attempt, was made on Jiraiya-sama's life, the head of our spy network."

"Spy Network?" asked Temari.

"Konoha possesses one of the largest spy networks in the Hidden Villages, one that is able to keep tabs on almost each and every other village. Jiraiya-sama, is the one who is said to be in control of this network."

"Still doesn't explain why anyone would target your spy network." Said Temari.

"Not unless, the Akatsuki knew just how much Konoha knew."

The simple words from Kankuro, took all attention off of Shikamaru, and to the painted man that stood inside the room.

"Their presence here, has been communicated, to the Akatsuki. It's the only way. The Akatsuki, must be aware of all the counter moves Konoha is making."

Shikamaru nodded.

"What is that supposed to mean?" asked Temari, lost as to what one of her brothers was insinuating.

"It means we have a spy, Temari."

The words Gaara spoke, told volumes of the situation.

One, it told Temari what had happened, but more importantly, it told Shikamaru that Gaara now understood the measures he had been made to take.

"Now, Nara-san, what information is so critical, that you'd have to ask us to put up seals?"

Shikamaru calmed down, knowing that the Kazekage's full wrath was no longer directed at him.

"The attack on Jiraiya-sama was made by two members of Akatsuki, in tandem with Orochimaru and a few of the Sound."

Shikamaru paused, letting the words sink in.

"Hokage-sama no longer believes attempts will be made with just two members."

"Then it is even more important that we stay in the village, isn't it?"

"No."

All attention diverted to Kankuro once again.

"The Akatsuki are made up of missing nin from each village, each of S rank. With a spy in our ranks, there has to be an ex Suna nin in theirs."

"Now, if I go with my gut, and say, that this Suna missing nin is Akasuna no Sasori, not only do we have a spy, we have a puppet inside Suna."

"And if they are willing to go after a Sannin in the open."

"Then we are no longer safe here." Finished Gaara.

X—X—X—X—X

Haruno Sayaki was sitting in her living room, sipping at her cup of tea when her Sakura came down the steps.

"How is he?" she asked, concerned with the boy that a moment ago, was up on the roof with her daughter.

The pink haired Jounin sat down next to her mother, picking up a bowl for her rice, and started serving herself as she spoke.

"He's recovering, still can't make too much use of his hand."

Sayaki watched as Sakura sat down and slowly started to eat.

She knew it wasn't easy, for both her daughter, as well as Naruto.

Starting off with their loss, of a teacher that had taken care of them for two years.

But while Sakura had her, Sayaki knew, that Jiraiya was one of the rare people that Naruto had to honestly consider his.

The fact, that Sakura had said nothing about Naruto's state of mind, meant that it wasn't the best.

"When is he leaving?"

Haruno Sakura stopped mid bite, glancing at the clock mounted on the wall, a sad faraway look in her eyes.

She had been the last one he had come to see, and maybe, even the only one.

"So, what did you two do up there? Was quite noisy." Asked Sayaki nonchalantly, staring into her tea, trying not to smile too broadly.

The spray of rice from Sakura's mouth, followed by a splutter of "We didn't do anything!", however, made it impossible for the elder Haruno to withhold her laughter.

The laughter, of course, didn't help the younger female and neither did the statement her mother made not too long afterwards.

The scream of "MOM!" that resulted from her statement, echoed throughout the house, and was rumored to have reached the deserts of Suna as well.

X—X—X—X—X

A knock on his door, late into the night, woke the slumbering form of Baki.

The man's shinobi instincts kicked in immediately, knowing something was wrong, and that something was going on for him to be woken at such a time.

Creating a clone to go open the door as he got dressed, Baki headed for his battle gear, knowing that if indeed their spy was making a move now, then he would be amongst the first people they would go for.

However, the moment he saw his Kage's face, Baki knew that he had read the situation completely wrong.

"Gaara?" He asked, looking over the leader of his village, finally noticing the people that stood behind him.

Behind the Kazekage, stood his siblings, and behind them, stood the team from Konoha.

"Baki."

His name being called brought his attention to the boy that stood in front of him.

"I need to leave Suna."

"Why?"

"The Sannin was attacked not by a duo, but a group of Akatsuki. Konoha believes they will no longer work in groups of two, but more."

"You're safer here."

Gaara shook his head.

"I am weaker here. If I'm here, I cannot let loose."

Baki understood what Gaara meant.

If the Akatsuki were to attack the village, it would force the Kazekage to defend his people.

And endangering the very people he was sworn to protect, was not something Gaara would do.

That, also meant limiting himself to his less destructive, less powerful sand techniques.

"What guarantee do you have they won't attack the village anyway?"

"Because they won't have any guarantees I will be drawn out."

"Nonsense, a village will always be the best way to draw out their Kage."

"Which is why I'm resigning."

The surprise announcement caught the elder off guard, and Gaara took the opportunity to win the debate.

"I've made up my mind, and no one can change it."

"I want you to lead the village in my stead, and I shall simply become a shinobi under your command."

"But, this is so sudden."

Gaara nodded.

"I know, but there is no other way, without my title as Kage, they cannot draw me out and any time we can buy, is time that is won for the entire Nations."

"Besides, there is no guarantee I will live through this. I have to have a replacement prepared , why not have him take over now?"

Though sudden, and shocking, Baki saw the argument his once student had.

"Where will you go?" he breathed and Gaara smiled.

"Somewhere only those of us who go, will know. I'll see you in a month, Kazekage-sama."

Without a further word, without any goodbyes, the eight Shinobi that stood outside Baki's door vanished, leaving the inhabitant of the room, to come up with a story to tell the council, the dawning day.

Baki closed the door, and went back to bed, one thought on his mind.

He prayed, as much as he ever had, if not more, that he got to see his students alive, again.

X—X—X—X—X