A/N: The final chapter… This is my first story, which has been almost a year in the making. I never thought it would hit the 100-review mark, but as of last chapter Out of the Shadows is in triple digits! Thanks to all of you who have stuck with Team 10 during their ups and downs, and I hope you enjoy the conclusion!

Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto

Chapter 22: Bring Him Home

The plan to retrieve Sasuke ended up working perfectly – up to a point. With the sun starting to peek out over the treetops, and a pink rosy glow painting the dawn, it promised to be a beautiful day. The long shadows cast by the trees were perfect for Shikamaru's Shadow Possession, and by the time the sun was completely above the horizon all six Konoha genin were in place. Their target was a particular branch of a large tree, where Tayuya and Sakon had chosen to rest. Between the two Oto shinobi was the barrel containing Sasuke.

The first step belonged to Naruto, Kiba, and Lee, who threw a hail of kunai at both shinobi, trying to drive them away from the barrel. Tayuya's jump brought her directly into the path of Shikamaru's waiting shadow, which anchored her firmly to the branch. Sakon had moved less that Tayuya, thanks to extra arms and legs that had shot out of his body to deflect some of the kunai. Shikamaru took note of that ability – it explained the extra head that always stuck out of Sakon's neck. He must be hosting some kind of second body, or have an ability that allowed him to grow new body parts at will. Either way, it wouldn't be enough to save him.

Shikamaru waved for the second step to begin, which was where Naruto sent a squadron of clones forward to keep Sakon busy. The Naruto clones were sorely outmatched, but they served their purpose as a distraction. Sakon began to rip through them with extreme prejudice, his extra limbs blurring into motion and dispelling clones left and right. As Shikamaru had intended, Sakon was too intent on the clones to notice that Tayuya was captured by his shadow.

The third step consisted of Lee grabbing Sasuke's barrel and hightailing it back towards Konoha. Watching the blur of green and orange emerging from his cover in the trees, Shikamaru was truly impressed by the genin's speed. When he took his weights off, Lee became a blur of speed and power. Sakon noticed too late, and when he saw Lee running away he let out an enraged howl.

"Damn it, Tayuya!" he shouted, turning his back on the Naruto clones. A few tried to attack him, but the flying kicks and punches emerging from his back kept them at bay. "You were supposed to watch him!"

But Tayuya couldn't answer, and when Sakon saw Shikamaru's shadow he understood why. The Oto shinobi let out an inarticulate cry of rage. That was where everything began to go wrong.

At the same time, both Tayuyu and Sakon activated their curse seals. Black lines spread across their bodies, and their chakra levels exploded. Since this happened while Shikamaru was keeping Tayuya constrained with Shadow Possession, he felt like he had been kicked in the stomach by an elephant. Tayuya broke his hold on the jutsu, and his shadow retreated to his side.

Shikamaru knew this wasn't the place to finish the fight – Ino and Choji were a ways behind, setting traps to foil their pursuers. Lee was moving towards them now, and Kiba, Shikamaru and Naruto were the only ones close to the transforming Oto shinobi. Three against two would normally be good odds, but not with the curse seals that Orochimaru's henchmen were using.

"Retreat!" he yelled. "Naruto, use your clones to give us some time!"

"You got it!" Naruto yelled. He and Kiba sprang from their own trees to join Shikamaru, and after Naruto's hasty jutsu the entire forest filled with clones. They created a living screen between the Oto shinobi and Shikamaru's team – there were hundreds at ground level, and even more in the trees.

"They won't last long," Shikamaru said, though he was impressed by the sheer power necessary for Naruto's technique. "Let's get out of here."

They left in the same direction as Lee, not looking back. But the enraged voices of their pursuers they could hear clearly, as Sakon and Tayuya started to fight Naruto's clone army. Within seconds, Shikamaru reached the first of the traps that Ino and Choji had been setting up. He led Naruto and Kiba through the only safe route, which involved a complicated winding route through the trees.

In the end, that was the problem. Having to evade the traps took time, and Shikamaru had underestimated the speed and power of the Oto shinobi while using the curse seal. At the same time that Shikamaru, Naruto, and Kiba emerged in the clearing where Ino and Choji were waiting, Sakon and Tayuya burst into view behind them.

The chain of explosions hadn't even finished detonating, sending a percussive blast through the morning air. The thud of large trees crashing to the ground sounded ominous and final. Tayuya and Sakon were untouched.

"Trash like you needs to know your place," Tayuya snarled. "Jirobo and Kidomaru should have been more careful."

From behind Choji, Lee stood up, Sasuke's barrel securely strapped to his back. "Do I have to keep running back to Konoha, Shikamaru?" he asked in an aggrieved voice. "It's so unyouthful to run away from a fight."

Shikamaru sighed. "It's too late now, anyway. If you run, they'll just come after you, and we'll have to follow as well. The best thing to do is fight them here."

From his spot beside Naruto, Kiba paused and sniffed tentatively. "Hey," he exclaimed brightly, "guess who decided to join the party?"

He pointed further into the woods, in the direction of Konoha. Hinata and Neji came into the clearing, the latter pale and panting. He had a bandage wound tightly around his leg, and leaned heavily on Hinata for support.

"I see…" Neji gasped, brushing a strand of dark hair away from his sweaty forehead, "that we're right on time."

"Were you successful?" Shikamaru asked.

Hinata and Neji nodded. "He's dead," the girl replied frankly.

Tayuya and Sakon gave twin gasps of surprise. "You killed Kidomaru?" Tayuya spat. "I don't believe it! He would never lose to trash like you!"

Neji pushed Hinata away gently, and stood on his own. His face grimaced in pain, but he refused to sway. "We're here, and your friend is nowhere to be found. The evidence really only supports one conclusion, doesn't it?"

It looked like Tayuya was about to shout back, but Kiba cut her off with a frantic shout. "Someone's coming, Shikamaru! He's strong!"

But even with the warning, there was no way to avoid what happened next. Directly above Lee, a form materialized as if from nowhere. Shikamaru got a glimpse of purple and white, and the next thing he knew the straps keeping Sasuke's barrel attached to Lee's back had been cut.

The intruder had moved so fast that Lee had no time to react – a fact which was, in itself, extremely frightening. The Konoha shinobi stood frozen, looking at the intruder who now crouched, poised to spring, on top of Sasuke's barrel.

The newcomer wore a flowing white robe, securing it with the purple rope that seemed to be typical of Orochimaru's henchmen. He had two red dots on his forehead, and his hair was parted in the middle in a zigzag line. His face was pale and sickly, but his eyes flashed with a cold and determined strength.

"You!" Sakon gasped. "Why are you here?"

The white-haired shinobi stood to his full height. "Because Lord Orochimaru grows tired of your failures, Sakon. If these insignificant little children weren't still here, I'd kill you myself. But instead, you'll get one chance to redeem yourself. I will deliver the new vessel to our leader, while you clean things up here."

To Shikamaru's considerable surprise, the two-headed shinobi didn't respond with anger, but only murmured, "Yes, Kimimaro. We will do as you say."

Without another word, Kimimaro hoisted Sasuke's barrel onto his back, securing it with the purple rope he wore, and was off through the forest.

It was a mark of how much Naruto trusted Shikamaru, that he didn't immediately tear off in pursuit. But Shikamaru only waited a second before giving his orders. "Naruto, Lee," he snapped. "Follow him, and slow him down as best you can. Naruto, if you have to… use it."

Naruto nodded, not needing to ask what Shikamaru meant by it. In fact, as he looked out in the direction that Kimimaro had taken, Naruto was already beginning to look more feral. His eyes were gaining a reddish tinge, and his clenched teeth revealed elongated canines.

"Do you think we'll let you go, just like that?" Tayuya roared. "Don't you dare underestimate us! Summoning Jutsu!"

She bit her thumb lightly, smeared the blood on the ground near her feet, and activated the jutsu. Three giant puffs of smoke appeared, and from them emerged three giants. They were grotesque, horrible things: one's head was backwards, and completely wrapped in bandages. One had claws like a giant crab, while another carried an enormous spiked club. All three had stitches over their mouths, and were more than twenty feet tall.

"Go on," Shikamaru said, gesturing to Naruto and Lee. "We'll be on your trail in three minutes, tops."

His nonchalance further enraged Tayuya, who played a short series of notes on her flute. The giants charged as one, each swinging their own weapon. Lee dodged with ease, and slipped off into the trees after Kimimaro. Naruto did the same, and it was clear that with the help of the Kyubi's chakra his speed was at least as great as Lee's. Sakon and the giants swerved to pursue, but Shikamaru was prepared for that. And thanks to Ino relaying his orders mentally, the rest of the Konoha shinobi were prepared, too.

The first to move was Choji, who charged while making a series of hand seals. "Partial Multi-Size Jutsu: Arm!" His right arm shot out, growing as thick around as a tree trunk. His palm was larger even than the giants, and when he swung they were moving too quickly to dodge. They were sent flying back towards Tayuya, who had to stop playing her flute in order to keep from being bowled over.

Sakon dodged Choji's hand by jumping, and continued on in order to intercept Naruto and Lee. But Kiba and Akamaru were right behind Choji, and they jumped into the air as one. Akamaru gulped down a food pill, which allowed him to fuel his transformation into a Kiba clone. Then the two Kibas activated their favorite technique, and became two rapidly spinning drills crashing through the forests.

They didn't have very good accuracy, but their speed was such that they got around in front of Sakon. Then they began an interweaving motion, forcing him slowly back toward Tayuya. Ino and Hinata ran to position themselves behind Kiba, between the Oto shinobi and Naruto. Ino used her most powerful Wind-style jutsu, which whipped up a cloud of dust that completely enveloped Sakon, Tayuya, and the three giants.

Then, just as Shikamaru had ordered, Hinata raced into the cloud. Her byakugan allowed her to see through the dust, so that she could zero in on Sakon even though he couldn't see her. Neji was next to Shikamaru, according to the Nara's orders – he had wanted to charge with Hinata, but Shikamaru didn't want to risk the older Hyuga. His wound would slow him down considerably, and it was best to keep him out of the fighting if possible.

Shikamaru waited, poised for the next step of his plan. If all had gone correctly, when the dust cleared Sakon would be dead. Shikamaru had given Hinata orders to go straight for the kill – a jyuken strike between the eyes would do the trick.

But when Ino's dust cloud settled down, Shikamaru realized that things had not gone according to the plan. Hinata was frozen in place, her right hand extended for the killing blow. But where Sakon had stood, there was now a monster. It was still recognizably Sakon, but a giant horn had burst from his forehead, and he now had the leathery brown skin and filed teeth of a demon. Holding Hinata's arm in place was a third arm, which had sprouted from Sakon's forehead directly next to his horn.

No one was close enough to help Hinata, and Sakon's new form was strong enough to keep her motionless, just using one hand. Before their eyes a new face appeared, rising up out of Sakon's neck like some evil ghost, yet all too physically real.

"It's about time you stopped playing around, Sakon," the second face said, its voice significantly deeper than Sakon's. "Let's finish this now."

"As you wish, Ukon," Sakon said, and laughed gleefully. "You know how I love to watch you work." Sakon used his arms to grab hold of Hinata, while Ukon emerged completely, forming an entire body of his own. It was almost identical to Sakon's down to the horn and razor-sharp teeth. Before the horrified eyes of the Konoha shinobi, Ukon lunged forward and disappeared into Hinata's body.

"Get away from her!" Kiba roared, and both he and Choji charged toward Sakon. But Tayuya had her zombies back under her control, and sent them forward with uncanny speed. Kiba was forced to break away, and gather himself for another try. Choji activated his Multi-Size jutsu again, but when he did, Tayuya changed her melody on the flute.

The zombies twitched, mesmerized by the haunting notes filling the clearing. Then the stitches keeping their mouths closed stretched, wider and wider, until finally they burst. Ghostly snakes, with mouths all along their lengths, erupted from the zombies' mouths. One darted in front of Choji's approaching fist, and when it connected there was a burst of light, and everyone could see the chakra getting pulled from Choji's fist. His arm shrank immediately, and Choji retreated with a cry of pain. The chakra-draining snakes coiled around Sakon and Hinata, while the zombies constantly circled. Ino tried the next attack, but her gust of wind passed right through the snakes without harming them. When the attack reached the zombies, the wind only knocked them back slightly. Tayuya was aware of Ino's ability at that point, and kept the zombies rotating far enough from each other so that they weren't all vulnerable to a single attack.

And inside that deadly perimeter, Hinata was at the mercy of Sakon and Ukon. "My brother and I have always been together," Sakon said, taking malicious pleasure in his victim's helplessness. "He stays in my body until I need him, and then he can form new organs and limbs as he needs. But in Stage Two, he can enter anyone else's body, entering through channels in the chakra network. Did you know your chakra network winds around all of your internal organs? Thanks to the connections between your chakra network and your cells, Ukon can infect you with a sickness that causes each and every one of your cells to decay and die. It's a terribly painful way to die, and it's the perfect assassination method. Now your friends get to watch while you die. Don't worry too much about it, though – we're going to do the same to them before too long."

Shikamaru cursed silently. He should have been more cautious in ordering Hinata to attack. But how could he have anticipated Ukon's ability? It was so insane, there was almost no way to counter it effectively. But there must be – Shikamaru was not about to give up on Hinata yet.

Kiba appeared at Shikamaru's side. His face was twisted in agony, and anger at his own inability to help his teammate. "I can get rid of the zombies," he whispered, "but it will wipe me out. I won't be able to move much, let alone fight. Can you save her?"

"Yes," Shikamaru promised. He didn't know how, but he would find a way. There was always a way.

"Good," Kiba said, nodding fiercely. "Then it's time to unveil my new technique. Let's go, Akamaru!"

Kiba led the way, his hound close behind, and Tayuya deployed her zombies to react to the new threat. But the chakra snakes couldn't intercept the agile puppy, and soon Akamaru was soaring through the air over the zombies' heads. The ninja hound twirled, sending spirals of urine through the air. The zombies were soon spattered by it, and Sakon hissed when he realized what the droplets of liquid were.

"Now, Akamaru!" Kiba cried. The hound rejoined his master, and the two underwent a transformation of their own. Where they had stood was now a two-headed wolf, fully as large as any of Tayuya's giants. Kiba's chakra signature spiked, and the giant wolf let out growl that seemed to shake the ground.

Kiba's voice emerged from the throat of one of the wolf heads. "Fang Wolf Fang!" Then the two-headed wolf blurred into motion, spinning so rapidly that a vortex appeared in its wake, and the beast itself was no longer visible to the naked eye. In their new form, Kiba and Akamaru chased down the zombies one by one. Tayuya tried to have her minions dodge, but Kiba's attack had pinpoint accuracy and tracked the zombies down wherever they tried to hide.

Shikamaru understood immediately: the urine was a scent marker, so that Kiba could chase down his targets without needing to see them. It was an almost unavoidable attack. Within seconds the zombies had been cut into shreds – not one had suffered a direct hit, but the high winds and lashing chakra of Kiba's passing created a vortex strong enough to literally rip the zombies apart. When their bodies were completely mangled, the chakra snakes disappeared.

With a snort of disgust, Tayuya dismissed her zombies in a puff of smoke. The wolf disappeared, and Kiba and Akamaru appeared next to Shikamaru. "I marked Sakon," the Inuzuka said, "but I can't attack him without hurting Hinata. If you can get her free, I can use the technique one more time before I pass out."

But Sakon still held Hinata fast, and his brother Ukon was still within Hinata's body, a deadly parasite quickly speeding her demise. But before Shikamaru could decide what to do, Hinata acted. Her skin began to glow as she gathered chakra, and then with a pained cry she released the energy from all her tenketsu points at once. Sakon couldn't maintain his grip, and Hinata began to rotate. It was the technique Neji had used so successfully against Lee: the Heavenly Rotation jutsu. But this time, Hinata's chakra wasn't a clear blue. Instead, it was tinged with ugly blotches of dark brown, the same color as Sakon's leathery skin.

Sakon was blown off his feet by the force of the rotation, and flew to the ground several yards away. Hinata took the opportunity to retreat, standing farther away from Tayuya and Sakon, but still several yards away from her teammate.

Ukon's head appeared from Hinata's neck, and it laughed cruelly. "You do have some interesting techniques, I must say. But your cells are still dying, thanks to ability. Do you have any last words to say to your friends, before your pathetic life comes to a close?"

Hinata ignored Ukon, and looked instead at Shikamaru and Neji. "Cousin Neji," Hinata panted, fighting to get the words out through her pain. "I know you think we cannot escape our destiny. It was your father's fate to protect the Main family, and he couldn't escape it even though it killed him. If that's true, then it must be my destiny to die here. But even if we can't change our destiny, that doesn't mean we shouldn't fight against it."

Neji stared at Hinata, not saying anything. A series of coughs racked her body, and she spit out a gob of blood. Ukon popped up again, and laughed maniacally. "Fight all you want," he said, laughing all the while. "You're still going to die."

Hinata steeled herself, looking inward to draw on more strength. "Maybe so. But I can still take you with me!"

The Hyuga heir grabbed a kunai from her pouch, and stabbed herself in the stomach. It was so sudden, so unexpected, that Ukon was still laughing when the blade penetrated. His laugh turned into a howl of pain, and when Hinata once again coughed up blood, Ukon did the same.

"Why…" the Oto shinobi gasped, "why would you…"

"Because death is not the end," Hinata whispered. "Because we can change our destiny."

She wrenched the kunai out of her stomach, and brought it up high. When she plunged it down a second time, Ukon fell out of her body, landing roughly on the grass. Hinata couldn't stop the knife in time, and it buried itself to the hilt in her stomach. "Kiba, now!" She screamed it loudly, mastering the pain long enough to give Kiba the command. It took the last of her strength, and afterward she slumped to the ground, pressing her hands tightly against her stab wounds.

At her order, Kiba once again transformed into the two-headed wolf. Sakon jumped forward to aid Ukon, and the two barely managed to get to their feet before Kiba activated his Fang Wolf Fang jutsu.

Sakon and Ukon formed the hand seals for a dual summoning jutsu, and pressed their hands to the ground just before Kiba's attack reached them. "Summoning: Gate of Rashomon!" they cried.

A giant construct appeared from out of a puff of smoke, towering high overhead. It was a gate with a giant face looking outward – Kiba's attack, focused on Sakon, ran directly into the gate. It bent inward, crumpling like a tinfoil plate, but it held. The spinning stopped, and the two-headed wolf fell to the forest floor. There was a pop, and then Kiba and Akamaru appeared, the puppy lying in his friend's arms. The Gate of Rashomon disappeared as well, leaving Sakon and Ukon both panting for breath.

"I must sleep and recover, brother," Ukon said, the snarl in his voice communicating the depth of his hatred. "That bitch sorely wounded me. Leave her alive, and kill the others." Ukon disappeared into Sakon's body, leaving behind no trace except for the back of his head sticking out of Sakon's neck.

"You heard him," Sakon said to the Konoha shinobi. "I get to kill all of you. I think I'll start with this one here."

He advanced on Kiba, like a predator stalking his prey. Shikamaru made his move – he'd been of almost no help during this fight so far. At least now he could keep one of his teammates safe. He sent his shadow out in three prongs. The first prong was aimed at Tayuya, who was circling and waiting for an opportunity to strike. The second prong shot towards Sakon, who was forced to avoid it by jumping back. And the third prong, which was the largest and most substantial, Shikamaru sent towards Kiba's unconscious body.

Shikamaru brought all of his willpower to bear. What he was about to do was one of the most sophisticated applications of Shadow Possession: turning his substance-less shadow into a physical manifestation capable of affecting the material world.

When Shikamaru's father had taught him Shadow Sewing, he had specified that the applications were mostly limited to catching kunai out of the air, or breaking the necks of people caught in his shadow. It actually didn't take that much force to break a neck, as Shikamaru found out while practicing with dummies. But what did take a lot of force was turning his shadow into a stretcher, solid and as long as a human body, in order to bring Kiba back to safety.

Shikamaru grunted and felt a nerve pulse in his temple, but he didn't break the technique until his shadow had delivered Kiba and Akamaru to his side. He would have done the same for Hinata, who was still bleeding heavily, helpless in the middle of the battlefield, but Choji was already on the move.

When Shikamaru ended his Shadow Possession, Kiba and Hinata were safe behind Shikamaru, Ino, Choji, and Neji. "Looks like it's down to Team 10," Ino declared. "Let's show these goons just who we are."

"I think you may have miscounted," Neji said coldly. "I am still here, and ready to fight."

"You're injured," Ino pointed out. "You should leave this to us."

For a long second, Neji looked down at Hinata. The expression that crossed his face was a strange mixture of emotions: shame, frustration, anger, and perhaps a hint of respect. When he looked back at Ino, his face was set in its normal expressionless mask. "I think not," he said simply. "Sakon is mine. I… I owe her that much."

Shikamaru could see Neji struggling with his distaste of having to owe anything to anyone, least of all a Hyuga of the Main family. "All right," Shikamaru declared, cutting off Ino before she could respond. "He's yours. We'll take care of Tayuya."

Neji nodded his head, almost bowing. Shikamaru knew it was Neji's way of thanking him for the opportunity to avenge Hinata.

Neji advanced on his own, moving directly toward Sakon. The Oto shinobi snarled, as he saw the injured Hyuga coming toward him.

"So the cripple wants to play," he spat. "I'm the strongest and fastest of the Sound Four – even if you were uninjured, you couldn't hope to keep up with me. Prepare to die!"

Neji appeared bored, as if Sakon's voice was nothing more than the buzzing of an insect. "I believe you've met my teammate, Lee," he said. "Bad haircut, terrible fashion sense… Well, I learned something very important from Lee. The power of the mind is far greater than the power of the body. With enough motivation, we can push ourselves far beyond the limits of our bodies, even if doing so takes a terrible toll."

Neji drew himself deliberately into a jyuken stance, putting his full weight on his injured leg and extending one hand. "My injury won't slow me down, because I refuse to let it. That is the genius of hard work, and it took my cousin and my teammate together to get me to believe in it. But now you will suffer the consequences of what I have learned. And in case you missed it…" Neji coiled himself tighter, ready to spring, "you're in range of my divination."

Sakon had no opportunity to dodge. Neji was upon him like a terrible whirlwind, and his fists flew like sparks of light. This time no extra limbs extended to protect Sakon from the onslaught. With each new pass, Neji doubled the number of attacks, until 128 jyuken strikes had taken their toll. Sakon collapsed to the ground in a bloody heap.

Neji limped over to his fallen foe, and delivered a final strike to Sakon's heart. The Oto shinobi had no time to scream, dying instantly. Ukon's body materialized, unable to remain in a corpse. But apparently Neji's last strike had hit Ukon as well – the body-swelling monster was dead as well, his heart no longer beating after Neji's burst of chakra.

Silent and proud, Neji made his way back to the unconscious bodies of Hinata and Kiba. The wound in his leg had torn open again, spilling fresh blood and soaking the makeshift bandage. After driving himself forward with nothing more than determination, Neji allowed the toll to catch up to him. He fainted, but even unconscious he managed to sink gracefully to the ground.

Off a ways into the woods, Shikamaru, Choji, and Ino stood face-to-face with Tayuya. The Oto kunoichi had gone into Second Stage as well, her red hair morphing into an antler-like growth, and her skin becoming leathery and reddish-brown.

"That's the last of your comrades," Shikamaru said, when they heard the sounds of fighting cease from behind them. "You're all alone, and our teammates are fast on your friend's heels. Orochimaru will never have Uchiha Sasuke. If you give up now, you don't have to die. You have information on Orochimaru that is extremely valuable – I can get you amnesty, but only if you surrender to us now."

"Piss on your offer, and piss on you!" Tayuya spat. "I would never betray Lord Orochimaru. Kimimaro is the strongest of us all – he'll kill your friends without a second thought. Just like I'll kill you!"

Tayuya brought her flute to her lips, and played a new melody. As soon as the first notes hit Shikamaru's ears, the world instantly became a nightmare. He froze, his muscles clenched rigidly, as everything around him seemed to dissolve. His own arms dripped and disappeared, like a popsicle melting in the sun. He couldn't move, couldn't breathe… but he could still think.

This was a genjutsu, meant to immobilize him. Normally he could dispel a genjutsu, but with the raw power that Tayuya possessed in her Second Stage form, he would need a considerable shock to break free of her hold. Shikamaru would have to cause himself enough pain that his mind would temporarily break free of Tayuya's hold.

It was a good thing that Shikamaru already had his Shadow Possession activated. He didn't need to be able to see things as they really were to force his shadow up his arm and to his hand. He didn't need anything more than his mind to force his shadow to take on substance, and apply just enough pressure to break his finger.

At the same time that the bones in his pinky snapped, Tayuya's genjutsu disappeared. It worked! Shikamaru thought exultantly, ready to continue the fight. But to his surprise, Tayuya was not where she had been, standing on the branch across from Shikamaru and his teammates. He looked down, and a gruesome sight met his eyes.

Far below, on the forest floor, was Tayuya's body. Or, more specifically, half of Tayuya's body – the other half was yards away, half hidden behind the trunk of another tree. Tayuya had been sliced cleanly in half.

Shikamaru looked back up, first taking in the reassuring sight of both Choji and Ino, unharmed and released from the genjutsu. Then he saw the two figures behind them, and he couldn't help but grin.

"That's right," Temari smirked, leaning with one hand on her fan. "You'd damn well better be glad to see me!"

Ino scoffed loudly, though she wobbled a little bit as she stood up. "Yeah, right! I was just about to break that genjutsu, anyway. And I'll bet you 1,000 ryou that Shikamaru already did."

Kankuro pounced on that opportunity. "I'll take that bet! Listen you," he said, pointing rudely at Shikamaru. "Be honest. Did you or did you not break that genjutsu before we arrived?"

"I hate to disappoint you," Shikamaru said, "but I did." He held up his left hand, with the little pinky bent totally backward. The searing pain, which he had completely forgotten about, came back with a vengeance. He swore loudly, ruining the nonchalant effect he had been trying for.

"Shit!" Kankuro cried out. He shook his head ruefully, looking from Temari to Ino. "Guess I owe Blondie here some money."

"That's all right, Kankuro," Temari laughed. Shikamaru liked the sound of her laugh. It almost distracted him from the feeling of red-hot pokers stabbing his hand. "Besides," she added, grinning wickedly, "it's worth it for the irony alone. Pineapple-head breaks his finger for no reason at all. Classic. Now I don't mind how fast we had to run to get here in time."

Shikamaru grimaced. This wasn't exactly the reunion he'd expected, although he was grateful to the Suna shinobi for showing up. "If you're here, then your brother isn't far behind, right?"

Kankuro nodded. "Yeah. Gaara took off to track Naruto and that creepy kid with the bowl cut."

"That's good to hear," Shikamaru said. "From what Tayuya told us earlier, I think they're heading into one hell of a fight. Having Gaara for support might make the difference between life and death."

Then Shikamaru realized there was another way that Temari and Kankuro could be useful.

"Speaking of life and death," he added, "we have injured teammates back in that clearing." He gestured with his thumb over his shoulder. "Can you take them back to Konoha as fast as you can? Tsunade can save them if you bring them back by the end of the day."

"The Hokage said you're in charge of this mission," Temari said, her mouth twisting in slight frustration. "So I'll obey whatever orders you give. But don't you think we'd be of more use fighting? Let them borrow our first aid kit, and let's set out after Sasuke."

"I appreciate the offer," Shikamaru said. "I really do. But we have no medical specialists on our team, and without proper treatment Hinata and Neji won't make it longer than a few days. Trust me – this is the best course. My team and I will catch up with Lee and Naruto. With Gaara helping us out, we'll be a match for anything we come up against. All right?"

Temari held his gaze for a few seconds, then nodded. "Understood. Kankuro and I will be waiting for you three back in Konoha. You'd better bring my brother back safe, understood?"

"Yikes, Temari, Gaara isn't a child," Kankuro muttered. "Honestly, he's much more likely to bring them safely back."

Shikamaru, Choji and Ino all nodded their agreement. "Still," Ino said, "we promise. We'll all be back safely, including that no-good arrogant bastard of an Uchiha, even if I have to beat him up every step of the way home."

Shikamaru wrapped a bandage tightly around his injured finger. He could still make hand signs, so his fighting ability wouldn't suffer much. "If that's all," he said, "we shouldn't waste any more time. Thanks for your help, you two – we really appreciate it. Ino, Choji: let's go!"

Temari waved good-bye, and Team 10 raced off in pursuit of Sasuke.


When Shikamaru and his teammates found Gaara, he was locked in battle. It was a fearsome sight to behold – the forest emptied out into a grassy plain, but almost none of the grass was visible. Giant white spikes covered the field, and huge swirling clouds of sand swept across the open area. Barely visible was a brownish-red blur that was Gaara, fighting a streak of white and purple that must be Kimimaro.

Shikamaru saw Lee lying motionless at the edge of the field, lying in a soft bed of sand. The almost imperceptible rising and falling of his chest revealed that he was not dead, merely unconscious.

Gaara saw them at the same time as Kimimaro, and jumped on a wave of sand that brought him closer to Team 10. He sent up random gouts of sand to ward away Kimimaro, long enough to talk.

"Sasuke woke up," he said quickly, not wasting any time with unessential information. "Naruto took off after him. They're heading for the Valley of the End."

"Do you need any back-up?" Shikamaru asked. He wanted to go reinforce Naruto immediately, but it seemed as though this final Oto shinobi was truly formidable. As strange as it sounded, perhaps Gaara could use a hand.

"No," Gaara shook his head quickly. "This is my fight. Go retrieve Sasuke."

He turned his back on them, dismissing them as if they were no longer there, and charged back in to fight Kimimaro.

"Well, that was rude," Ino said wryly. "No 'hello, how are you? It's nice to see you since that last time I tried to kill you.'"

Neither of the boys responded – they were too busy watching the fight restart. As fast as Gaara's sand moved, Kimimaro stayed a step ahead. Shikamaru was getting a bad feeling, but he had to focus on the mission.

"Come on," he ordered. "We go after Naruto."

He led his teammates away from the furious battle, in the direction that Gaara had pointed out. The landscape changed, becoming more rocky and desolate. Soon the grass disappeared entirely, and there were only occasional trees and bushes capable of surviving in unforgiving soil.

"Where are they heading?" Choji asked as they ran. "What's the Valley of the End?"

"Honestly Choji, didn't you ever pay attention during the Academy?" Ino scoffed. Shikamaru shook his head, somehow more reassured than annoyed at finding out that Ino could still play "Who's the best student" while in such a serious situation.

Although, now that he thought about it, Shikamaru guessed that Ino was doing it on purpose - probably to try to lighten the mood before the next fight. These days, she didn't say many things without thinking them through first.

"The Valley of the End is at the border of Fire Country, where Uchiha Madara fought the First Hokage. They tore a crater into the land, and afterwards the village created statues of the two of them, on either side of the giant waterfall that filled the crater."

"That's pretty much it," Shikamaru agreed. "The statues should come into view fairly soon."

But even before they saw the statues, they felt the two surges of chakra. "What the-" Ino began, startled by the almost physical shock of the enormous chakra signatures.

Shikamaru grimaced. "One's Naruto, and I'll bet the other is Sasuke. I think that barrel was meant to give him extra power, like the Oto shinobi had – those Curse seals. This means their fight has already started. Come on!"

He poured another burst of speed through his legs, expending more chakra to propel himself faster. Choji said what the other two were thinking: "I hope we're not too late."

Soon the tops of the two statues came into view – the infamous Uchiha Madara faced off against the First Hokage, their hands forming the traditional sign of shinobi before a duel to the death. In between was the waterfall, gushing hundreds of yards straight down.

They heard Naruto's battle before they saw it. The clash of metal on metal rang out in the cool air, and the crack of numerous explosions rebounded off the stony surroundings.

"Where are they?" Ino asked. "I don't see them."

Shikamaru surveyed the scenery, and made a calculated guess based on the direction and volume of the sound. "I think they went to the bottom of the waterfall. Hurry!"

The three of them raced straight for the waterfall, running right next to the river that rushed over the side of the cliff. They kept perfect formation, Choji in the lead, with Ino and Shikamaru slightly behind on either side. Without missing a beat, the three ran off the cliff, turned ninety degrees, and kept running down the vertical rock face. Months of training gave them the chakra control necessary to keep from rocketing away from the cliff face and plummeting to their deaths.

With the whole valley spread out before their eyes, it was clear where Naruto and Sasuke were. Naruto was cloaked in red chakra, a brilliant point of light with angry tails waving over his head. As for Sasuke… at first, Shikamaru wasn't sure that it was even the last Uchiha at all. Naruto's opponent had wings, and in place of Sasuke's black hair were long, flowing white locks. The creature moved with unbelievable speed, and met Naruto's vicious attacks without backing down. Their fight raged across the standing water at the base of the cliff.

The entire valley rang with the sound of their battle, and the chakra they generated was so great that it was even causing small rocks and water droplets to rise into the air. Shikamaru realized that what he was seeing was the same as before, with Sakon and Tayuya – Sasuke had activated Stage Two of his Curse seal. Sasuke, Shikamaru thought with anguish, why are you doing this? How could you have fallen so far?

Shikamaru and his team were only halfway down the cliff when it happened – the final attack. Naruto created a swirling ball of energy, which was blue but speckled with an angry orange, the same color as the Kyubi's chakra. Sasuke countered with an energy weapon of his own. The air filled with the sound of chirping birds, and Shikamaru recognized the attack from when Sasuke used it against Gaara in the Tournament. Only this time, the lightning blade crackling in Sasuke's monstrous palm was made from black chakra.

There was nothing that Team 10 could do. Naruto and Sasuke flew at each other, their power making the very air seem hard to breathe. In the moment before they met each other, it was as if the world held its breath. Then they clashed, and Shikamaru had to shield his eyes from the explosion of white light.

It was lucky that they were closing in on the ground, because the shockwave of chakra that emanated outward after the collision completely disrupted the chakra anchoring them to the cliff face. Shikamaru, Ino and Choji tumbled down, but they managed to right themselves and land lightly, several yards away from the river.

When the world righted itself, only Sasuke was still standing. Naruto was lying prone, completely unconscious, at his feet. Slowly, casually, the monster that was Sasuke turned to look at Team 10. His sneer, though made by a different face, was 100% Sasuke. He watched them approach as if they were ants scurrying on the ground.

"I only wanted to fight him," Sasuke called out, pointing to Naruto. "He is the only one I ever considered to be my rival. You aren't even worthy of my attention."

Shikamaru turned his head slightly, making eye contact with Ino.

He's too strong, he thought, broadcasting his thoughts so that she could pick them up easily. You're the only one who can level the playing field.

It won't be hard, as long as I get a clear shot, Ino replied. He's awake, so I won't have to struggle against his subconscious. He has no training in mental defense, so he'll be at my mercy. But if he dodges my attack, that's it. He'll be on his guard after that.

Shikamaru nodded. Tell Choji to make the first move. Keep Sasuke from flying, long enough for me to catch him in my shadow. Then it's all up to you.

Choji grunted as soon as he received Ino's mental command. He ran faster, pulling out in front. He made a hand seal, then threw himself into the air. "Multi-Size Jutsu!"

Choji's body expanded in mid-air, and he became a hundred times his normal size. He turned a half-somersault, and his shadow cast all of them into temporary darkness. In Stage Two form, Sasuke didn't even appear fazed, but only looked up and set himself for when Choji would come down. Choji finished his somersault and rotated, ending up on the far side of Sasuke, his giant legs planting in the ground.

He brought one giant fist down with all his strength, aiming directly for Sasuke. Sasuke's wings rose up over his head, and the muscled arms attached to the wings caught Choji's descending fist. In defiance of all proportion, Sasuke stopped Choji's fist cold. Choji's attack had enough destructive force to smash a hole through Konoha's walls, yet Sasuke managed to stop his house-sized fist even after a long fight with Naruto.

Luckily, Shikamaru hadn't been counting on Choji's attack to land. The only important thing had been the giant shadow, which allowed Shikamaru to form the fastest, most powerful, and most desperate Shadow Possession jutsu of his life. He felt the slight shift that accompanied a successful Shadow Possession, and nodded to Ino.

While holding up Choji's fist, and simultaneously trapped in Shikamaru's jutsu, Sasuke still managed to turn, fighting off Shikamaru's hold enough to focus on him. His mouth was opening, presumably to taunt him before breaking Shikamaru's jutsu. But Ino's timing was perfect, and her astral projection slammed into Sasuke before he had a chance to say anything.

Ino's body slumped to the ground, and Shikamaru broke his jutsu in time to catch her as she fell. He turned back, waiting for the effect. Sasuke gave a jerk, his wings surging upward and sending Choji flying. There was a puff of smoke and Choji's jutsu broke as well, replacing the giant with a normal-sized Choji sailing away toward the cliff wall.

Sasuke turned toward Shikamaru, and the scornful sneer on his face disappeared, replaced by a look of utter confusion. "Wha-"

He stopped midsentence, and his eyes glazed over. He slumped to the ground and landed in a heap. Shikamaru placed Ino down gently next to Naruto, and approached Sasuke's fallen body warily. Choji, having anchored himself to the cliff face, used it to jump off of, and landed next to Shikamaru.

"She did it," Choji said, peering down at Sasuke's body. Suddenly, the transformation reversed itself. Sasuke's skin and hair went back to its normal color, and his wings retracted into his back.

"How long will it take?" Choji asked.

The sound of ragged coughing interrupted Shikamaru's answer. They both turned, and saw Ino struggling to get to her feet. "Not long," Shikamaru answered. He tried not to cry out in relief, even though his heart was singing. Naruto was still alive, as were Choji and Ino… and Sasuke was down.

But Ino, as she walked over to them, did not look happy. Her face was ashen and haggard, and her eyes were filled with a deep sadness. As she looked down at Sasuke's unconscious form, her eyes filled with tears.

Shikamaru put his hand on her shoulder, and didn't speak. He remembered how affected Ino had been by her experience in Gaara's mind. No doubt this would be similar – whatever had spurred Sasuke to leave Konoha, it had no doubt left some very painful mental scars.

Choji rubbed Ino's back gently. "Are you all right?" the gentle Akimichi asked.

"I'll be all right," Ino responded. "But I don't know if Sasuke will."

"What happened in there?" Shikamaru asked.

Ino took a few moments before replying. "I don't know how long I was in there for, but it felt like days. I saw his anger, growing and growing, until it became a cancer that was eating away at his very sanity. I knew there wasn't much time, so I had to overpower his mind. Even though he's never had any training, it wasn't easy. The sheer strength of his hatred almost overwhelmed me."

"How did you do it?" Choji asked.

Ino crouched down, squatting on her heels. She concentrated on taking deep breaths, to get her heart-rate back to normal. "I erased the source of his anger. It was his brother, Itachi. Sasuke was obsessed with killing him, because his brother slaughtered his clan. He would never be content to stay in Konoha while his brother was alive, so I… made him forget."

Choji gasped. "You mean…"

"Yes," Ino nodded. "I went through his mind, erasing every memory associated with Itachi. If he met him right now, he wouldn't know him. I had to take a lot of residual memories as well – it's almost impossible to do a perfect mind wipe, and I had to rush it. He'll be unconscious for a day or so, until his mind has recovered from the strain."

Shikamaru looked at Ino in awe. Even when he had known of the Yamanaka clan's abilities, he had never really understood how powerful they could be. Dominion over the human mind – it was a truly terrifying concept. But he was grateful for it – without Ino's ability, Sasuke might have beaten them. And now that he had no memory of Itachi, he wouldn't try to leave the village to seek out vengeance.

"We've done our job," Shikamaru said wearily. "Now Sasuke is Tsunade's problem. Let's get him and Naruto back to Konoha."

A sibilant voice responded from behind them, sending a chill down Shikamaru's spine. "I'll thank you to step away from Sasuke-kun. How rude of you, to take away all of his lovely rage. At least it will be easy for me to reshape him in my image, now that you've made his mind a blank slate."

Shikamaru turned, dropping into a ready crouch. The Snake Sannin and traitor was standing before them, casually staring at them as if they were helpless prey.

This was the end of the line. A shinobi of the Sannin's power would wipe the three of them out before they could so much as blink. There was only one small, desperate hope, but Shikamaru wasn't going to let long odds keep him from trying. He sent his shadow out, not at Orochimaru, but at Sasuke.

He sent a second prong out, making a wide circle surrounding himself, Ino, Choji, Sasuke, and Naruto, but keeping Orochimaru out. Then Shikamaru touched his shadow with one hand, and whispered the words to activate his barrier. "Burning Fireball jutsu."

The flames shot up and spread rapidly, creating a dark blue barrier around the Konoha shinobi. Just like with Temari, Shikamaru exercised his will to keep the fire from consuming Sasuke. With the speed that came from endless training together, Ino and Choji grasped exactly what Shikamaru was trying to do. Ino sent her mind into Sasuke's body once more, and her body slumped to the ground. Choji jumped across to Sasuke, taking care to avoid the flames that stopped just before consuming him. Choji held his kunai across Sasuke's throat.

Shikamaru swallowed, his throat parched from the heat of the flames. He met Orochimaru's gaze squarely, refusing to flinch before the unbridled malice that wanted to utterly destroy him.

"You can't have Sasuke!" Shikamaru declared. "The moment I lose my concentration, these flames will consume him. Even if you kill me, the fire will reach the end of my shadow before my shadow loses its hold on Sasuke. If you target Ino, her mind will remain in Sasuke's body forever. She will die, but her last act will be to kill Sasuke as well. She will obliterate his brain from inside it, taking away not only Sasuke's life, but the ability of his body to control his sharingan. He will be of no use to you – just another corpse."

"Do you really wish to oppose me? Me, Orochimaru, Sannin and holder of the secrets of immortality? What do you hope to accomplish with this pathetic stalemate? I only have to wait for your energy to run out. As for your little friend, don't make the mistake of believing that the Yamanaka are the only shinobi with knowledge of the mind. Sasuke will be mine!"

"You're right," Shikamaru said, sweat beginning to bead on his forehead. "I will run out of chakra soon. But I am a shinobi of Konoha, and that means I never have to fight alone. My comrades will take care of you, even if I can't."

"What comrades?" Orochimaru scoffed. "Your little teammates? They have as little chance of defeating me as you do. Which is to say, none."

"They're not the comrades I meant," Shikamaru said, looking out over Orochimaru's shoulder. "But you'll see them soon, unless I'm mistaken and that giant toad coming toward us is actually on your side."

Orochimaru screamed in rage and frustration, turning to take in the sight of Boss Gama soaring down from the cliff. He landed with a thunderous crash, and an impact that formed a crater in the rocky ground. On his head were Jiraiya and Kakashi. Up on the top of the cliff, a wave of sand became visible, and it shot down to the battlefield, carrying Gaara and Baki.

Jiraiya's normally genial expression was cold and deadly. "Hello, old friend," he said. "I hope you're ready for a fight, because I would like nothing better than the chance to wipe your scaly, slimy hide from the face of the earth."

Orochimaru gave a snake-like hiss. He looked over his shoulder, his eyes lingering for a second on Sasuke's prostrate form. Then he tore himself away, and addressed Jiraiya with venomous hatred.

"There will come a day when all you cherish lies mangled at my feet," Orochimaru spat. "Konoha's walls will burn, and its people will perish by the thousands. Only then will I finally consent to kill you."

Jiraiya jumped off of Boss Toad's head, and landed in a fighting stance. "You always had a way with words. Why don't you try and back them up?"

But Orochimaru shimmered out of sight, disappearing into the distance. Kakashi made as if to pursue, but Jiraiya made a slashing gesture with his hand.

"Let him go," he said. "This mission has gone on far too long as it is. And thanks to young Shikamaru and his team, we have obtained our objective."

With a grateful sigh, Shikamaru broke his fire jutsu, and then allowed his shadow to retract. Ino woke up, her mind having returned to her body. And Choji put his kunai back into his holster, grinning with relief. The cavalry had arrived – they were safe.

"Come on, you three," Jiraiya said kindly. "It's time to go back to Konoha."

Baki coughed politely, and addressed Jiraiya. "It seems you have everything under control here. Gaara and I will head back to Suna. Please give the Hokage our regards, and tell her we were glad to be able to be of service to you."

Jiraiya bowed low. "Of course. Thank you for your timely aid."

He rounded on Shikamaru's team, rubbing his hands together excitedly. "Ok, everybody on the toad! We're traveling back home in style."

On the trip back to Konoha, Shikamaru kept a careful watch on both the members of his team, and Sasuke and Naruto's unconscious forms. He wouldn't truly relax until he got back to the village.


Many hours later, Shikamaru stood at attention in the Hokage's office. Tsunade sat behind her desk, regarding him with an expression of respect and gratitude.

"Excellently well done, Shikamaru," Tsunade began. "Your mission was a success. Of course, your casualty list was fairly impressive. Hinata, Neji, Lee, Kiba, Naruto and Sasuke are all in the hospital. Of the eight shinobi who started the mission, only your teammates are unharmed. A little favoritism while giving orders, perhaps?"

Her small smirk told Shikamaru that she was only joking. Shikamaru didn't find it funny, although he understood that she was just trying to lighten the mood. Any one of them could have died easily on that mission. It was only by good planning, a lot of luck, and the timely arrival of some of Konoha and Suna's finest that Orochimaru hadn't retrieved Sasuke.

"Thank you for sending Jiraiya and Kakashi," Shikamaru said. "Without them, the mission would have been a failure."

"We were lucky," Tsunade agreed. "We will need to be even more prepared in the future. After all, we have not seen the last of Orochimaru, and there are even stranger threats lurking in the shadows."

Tsunade gave Shikamaru a tired grin. "Of course, I'd rather have our enemies in the shadows than anywhere else. As long as I have the Nara clan on my side, that is."

Shikamaru tried to shrug off the complement. "Thank you, Hokage-sama. Did Jiraiya brief you about Sasuke's status?"

"Yes," Tsunade answered, and sighed. "That's a problem and a half, and no mistake. That boy is a lit fuse waiting to explode, but at least he won't be running off anytime soon. I'll be dedicating much of my time in the coming months to working with him, and seeing what he needs in order to come back to full health. Even if he can't remember some things, he can still fight and carry out missions. In time, I'll decide what to do about telling him the truth."

She broke off, changing topics without warning.

"There's something you should probably know. Normally I wouldn't discuss this with a chunin, but you've proven yourself worthy of my full trust. Now that Orochimaru is on the defensive, at least momentarily, Sasuke is no longer the shinobi who is most at risk. That dubious honor belongs to Naruto."

"How so?" Shikamaru asked curiously.

"There's a shadowy group called Akatsuki, that we believe is collecting jinchuriki. Naruto will be on their list. They are all S-rank Missing Nin, and extremely powerful. In order to protect Naruto, Jiraiya is taking him on a training trip for the next two years. We believe that Akatsuki will wait at least that long to make their move. In that time, our village needs to be much stronger than it is now. As one of our most capable leaders, I'm assigning you to a task that will be essential in strengthening Konoha."

Shikamaru blinked. Another mission, so soon after bringing Sasuke back? "What is it?"

Tsunade grinned. "I'm appointing you Konoha's official Ambassador to Sunagakure. Your duties will involve frequent trips to Wind Country, as well as working together with Suna's Ambassador in Konoha."

From Tsunade's grin, which reminded Shikamaru of Ino at her most cunning, he was beginning to realize that he was being set up. "Suna's Ambassador? Which would be…"

"Me!" Temari's voice rang out clearly, and she stormed through the door from the Hokage's waiting-room. "And don't think I didn't fight it, either! But Baki wouldn't change his mind, and Gaara…"

Temari continued protesting loudly, but Shikamaru didn't hear any of it. His grin reached from ear to ear. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Tsunade wink.


Asuma and Kurenai had both been out of the village on diplomatic missions during Sasuke's retrieval. So, when they returned to find that their students had almost died in bringing him back, and that the Uchiha genius was recovering in the hospital after losing a considerable chunk of his memory, they were more than a little shocked.

But their students were ok, and some were more than ok. Hinata seemed to have fixed the problems between her and Neji, and was acting much less shy and apprehensive. Something during the mission had lit a fire in her veins, and filled her with a quiet confidence that brimmed underneath the surface.

At Kurenai's house, two days after Shikamaru and his team returned with Sasuke, Asuma and Kurenai lingered over dinner and discussed the recent developments.

"I hate that we weren't here," Asuma declared, fighting the urge to light a cigarette. Kurenai was very strict about keeping her house smoke-free. Asuma generally found it easy to obey that rule, but it was tougher in moments of stress.

"But they didn't need us," Kurenai pointed out. "Shikamaru had all the help he needed."

"I know," Asuma said, "I just hate this feeling. I feel like they're still my genin, even though they're all chunin now. Do you think I'll ever stop being scared for them?"

Kurenai toyed with her chopsticks, tilting her head in the way that she did when she was thinking hard. "Perhaps not," she said eventually. "I know I also feel a strong bond for my students, and I doubt it will go away even when they no longer need my guidance. But I'm sure parents feel much the same, even after their children grow up and leave them behind."

At the mention of parents and children, Asuma realized that here was the perfect moment to do something he'd been planning since the end of the Invasion of Konoha. Somehow, he'd never felt it to be the right time. Well, it was now or never.

"Um, Kurenai," Asuma said, determinedly casual. "Not to change the subject, but I don't suppose you remember that bet we made, before the Chunin Exams? What with being invaded and all, I've sort of forgotten until now."

A wary glint appeared in Kurenai's eyes, and she grasped her chopsticks as if they were kunai.

"The bet? I guess I do remember that… and since you're genin all made chunin, while none of mine did… does that mean you're claiming victory? Well, a bet's a bet. But I swear, if you gloat about this to the other jonin, I will kill you in your sleep."

"About that," Asuma began, meeting Kurenai's eyes. "While I think you would be fantastic as the model for Icha Icha Paradise," he paused, winking at her as her eyes flashed dangerously, "I actually hate the idea of every one of Jiraiya's so-called customers seeing you every time they pick up his book. I want you all to myself. So would you allow me to change the terms of the bet?"

Kurenai smiled, warming Asuma down to his toes. "What did you have in mind?"

"After thinking about it a lot, I've decided I like your idea. I want everyone to know we're together – that I'm yours and you're mine. I want to be with you, for as long as you'll have me."

Asuma took a small box from his belt pouch, and opened it on the table. In it were two matching earrings, set with small rubies. Kurenai gasped, seeing the gem twinkle in the light.

"Choji had these made for us," Asuma explained. "The rubies are from his brooch, given to him by the jeweler Toshiyo before he died. Choji wouldn't take no for an answer - he said that we're as much a part of the team as Ino and Shikamaru, and that these earrings will bring us together."

"They're beautiful," Kurenai breathed.

Asuma pushed the chair back from the table, and got down on one knee. He held out one of the earrings to Kurenai. "Will you, Yuhi Kurenai, be my serious, long-term girlfriend?" Asuma winked at her.

"I'd propose to you, but something tells me we should try dating first. Maybe you won't like being in a relationship with me, and dump me for someone younger and more handsome."

Kurenai nodded seriously. "Like Gai."

At Asuma's outraged squawk, she laughed and raised her hands defensively. "Just kidding."

She composed herself, regained control of her expression, and accepted Asuma's earring with mock gravity. "I accept this ring, and with it the offer to become your serious, long-term girlfriend. May Kami have mercy upon me."

Asuma swept her up in a giant bear hug, and twirled her around the kitchen. Their lips met, and then the time for conversation was over.


Before Naruto left for his trip, he visited Team 10 at the training ground. He was excited about training with Jiraiya, but aside from that the irrepressible blond seemed strangely depressed.

"I just feel bad about Sasuke," he explained when they asked him. "He has no clue what happened to him, but I just can't keep our fight out of my head."

Naruto lowered his gaze, looking at his feet in shame. "I wasn't strong enough to stop him. Without you three, he would have joined Orochimaru."

"You did your part, Naruto," Ino insisted. "If you hadn't fought him at the Valley of the End, he would have crossed the border, and we never would have caught him. We all played a part, and it's still only thanks to Jiraiya and the other jonin that Orochimaru backed off."

"I suppose," Naruto said.

Shikamaru did his best to use logic to cheer Naruto up. "Look at it this way," he said. "You've got a chance to become stronger. Don't worry about anything except training with Jiraiya. When you come back, you'll be strong enough to protect everyone."

Naruto grinned at Shikamaru, and clenched his fist with determination. "You bet I will! I feel kinda bad for Kakashi, though… I'm leaving, and Sakura is Tsunade's apprentice now. Sasuke can't train until Tsunade clears him. What's he going to do without the three of us?"

Shikamaru scratched his head. Somehow he didn't think the lazy Copy-cat shinobi would miss the responsibilities of teaching very much. But he didn't say anything to Naruto – who knew, maybe Kakashi actually would miss training Team 7.

"Like I said," Shikamaru repeated, "don't worry about anything except getting stronger. We'll take care of things back here. Deal?"

"Deal!" Naruto stuck out his fist, and Shikamaru, Ino and Choji put theirs on top of his.

"Of course, we won't be hanging around doing nothing for two years," Shikamaru added as an afterthought. "We'll be getting stronger, too. We'll test how much you've improved next time we meet."

"A sparring match? You're on! I'll take on all three of you, and whup your asses!"

Choji grinned. "That's the Naruto I know! Have a great trip, Naruto, and take care of yourself."

The blond left them and headed toward the main gate, stopping often to turn around and wave.

Ino snorted. "There he goes, off on a crazy adventure. While we stay here and train – it's our genin days all over again."

Shikamaru looked over at her, and then at Choji, and smiled. With the two of them beside him, all was right with the world.

"Of course we have to stay here. Somebody needs to make sure the village is still standing when he comes back. But I don't think you should worry, Ino. Something tells me there's plenty in store for us down the road. We'll have our share of adventure."

Shikamaru turned his back on Naruto, who was retreating further out of sight. The future was out of his control – all he could do was make sure that his team would be ready for it when it came.

Shikamaru, Ino and Choji trained until late in the evening, when the sun disappeared fully behind the horizon, and even the shadows melted away into the dark.

The End

A/N: There it is, the conclusion to Out of the Shadows. If you've enjoyed this story, please take a second to review!

As you may have guessed from the issues I left unresolved, I have thought of writing a sequel. It will take place a little more than halfway through the time skip, and will deal chiefly with the infiltration of Otogakure, which Orochimaru abandoned but which still stands. I also plan on developing Shikamaru and Temari's relationship, and starting another relationship which will cause significant drama for Team Asuma.

Many thanks to everyone who has reviewed – this story is dedicated to all of you, because you made it possible. I hope to see you all next time, with the sequel to Out of the Shadows.