spiral dragon 19: Epilogue

a dragon ate my disclaimer, complained about the lack of ketchup.

- Invasion + 1 week -

Shikamaru Nara took a bite of apple, sitting atop the roof of the school, and watching clouds. For what he considered a rare moment in his life - he was content.

Cleanup from the Invasion was proceeding, but several things had puzzled him about the whole thing.

Okay, quite a few things had puzzled him about the whole thing.

Take Temari. His prisoner from the Chunin Exam/Invasion. Who'd apparently had a concussion from being blasted back into a concrete stair. Who had a brother who had likewise been blasted into a set of seats. Who had another brother who was the jinchuriki of the one-tailed tanuki. A kunoichi specializing in wind-manipulation. Who was currently being watched while she recovered but who had requested his presence and apparently thought she owed him something for pulling her out of a situation where she could have been killed or at least trampled at any given moment.

Ino didn't like Temari. That was just Ino being troublesome, something she excelled at. Due to everyone being short-handed, his team was frequently going over to the hospital as part of a guard duty rotation, so the two of them sniping at each other had become almost familiar over the past week.

At least now he could take a few moments and just watch the clouds.

- break -

"Clan Uzumaki," said Hiruzen Sarutobi, "now has enough members to apply for official clan status. Naruto, his Aunt Keri, Karin, Naruko. Though the relationship between Keri and Karin seems to be more complicated than that. I cannot determine if Karin is more enamored with Keristraza or frightened of her."

The figure in the hospital bed didn't reply.

"As for the state with the other villages," continued the Third Hokage, "Kumo is blustering and talking about their own strength in public while negotiating with us in private. Suna is facing reparations for their hand in the invasion but lost a good portion of their forces and were manipulated by Orochimaru. Sound is pretty much driven to become truly hidden, and we have bounties out for their survivors. Fortunately, most of those who fled are no longer associated with that village so the number of bounties aren't expected to be high. Kiri is now an ally, or at least as much an ally as anyone ever is in the ninja world. Iwa is, according to my sources, digging themselves in and trying to not draw attention to themselves. Almost like they are afraid of something. I wonder what that could be."

The figure stirred slightly in the bed, but what expression it held was obscured by the sheer number of bandages covering them.

"The survivors of ROOT are being... processed," said the Third Hokage. "Oh, and your special fireproof safe with all your notes and trophies? It survived."

The figure on the bed stirred a bit.

"Oh yes, Danzo," said Hiruzen. "We have quite a lot to discuss."

- Invasion + 2 weeks -

"Damn, both of you are acting different."

"None of us came through the same as we were," said Temari, managing to sound philosophical as she walked alongside her brothers.

"Yeah, not much happened with me though. They just took away my puppets, put me on parole, and kept checking up on me," Kankuro said. "At least after they patched me up. Still sore where I landed. What about you?"

"Some time being patched up in their hospital, house arrest - being held by the Nara Clan. Mainly played shogi, go, and watched their deer," said Temari. "Nothing much."

"Well, it went bad but it could have been a lot worse," agreed Kankuro as he sat back on the wagon. "You know. We could probably walk faster than this."

The wagon stopped.

"Oh," said Kankuro as he looked at where they were. "We're riding to Suna."

"Well," said the jonin in charge. "You ARE the Kazekage's children. And this way Naruto's dragon knows where the Sand Village is if we need to get there quickly in the future."

"Huh," said Kankuro, seeing both the promise and threat in that. If they stayed allies, Konoha could have their dragon deliver supplies or a strike force quickly. If they did NOT stay allies, Konoha could have supplies and/or a strike force there very quickly.

Temari looked thoughtful for a moment as she interpreted that in a similar vein. "You only have the two so far, right?"

"Yes, but some people are apparently working on that," said the jonin. "I understand the Hyuga clan has staked an interest and there's some independent work as well."

"The Hyuga?" mused Temari, pretty sure that bit of intel was being leaked for a reason and coming up with five possible reasons off the top of her head. She knew a bit about the Hyuga Clan and their dojutsu after all.

"Already got the net on, eh? Good," said the jonin to the dragon.

"Thought it would save time," grumbled the dragon, shifting a bit where the cargo net around his torso was bunched up.

Strapping in was an odd experience, but once it was done she laid her hand on the thick scales covering the summons. Temari was a kunoichi, and thought about angles and weapons. To get through the thick metallic-looking scales would require either a chakra-natured weapon of either wind or lightning and that would tend to burn away any poisons on the blade. To slide up under the scales would be difficult. The scales were slightly flexible and felt warm, but that might have been how long the dragon had been sitting in the sun waiting for them.

The launch immediately demonstrated the need for those straps and the tether holding them to the netting that the dragon wore as a sort of vest-arrangement. Without them, she'd have trouble holding on even without the lingering injuries. On the other hand, with her fan handy, she could cut loose at altitude and glide down. Potentially useful - less so for Kankuro or Gaara. Kankuro would need some kind of glider-wing puppet, but from his expression he was already designing one.

The speed of the dragon, when she curiously looked at the ground, was surprising. It took three days to go from Suna to Konoha under normal conditions. The blurring ground beneath them indicated that hours would be needed.

One of the jonin had some kind of jutsu up that was deflecting wind. Now that she was aware of it, she could feel the way the air curved around the area where the passengers and cargo were strapped. Clever and necessary considering the force of the air that would otherwise be tearing at them.

Temari settled down into place. Konoha having only two dragons made for a formidable defense. If they had more, they would be able to take missions all over the Elemental Countries. Something to consider.

- break -

Onoki of Iwagakure, called by some "Onoki the Fence-Sitter", was an old man with a bad back. Some of those who didn't know him tended to dismiss him as someone who had outlived the years where he was a strong and dangerous ninja.

Such individuals would not contemplate that Onoki had not risen to his position through indecision or hesitancy. They ignored that Onoki was still a formidable ninja with a technique that could end the career of many of those who might try to challenge him.

"Go to war," he said, fixing the jonin with a glittering gaze that seemed more amused than anything else. "Against Konohagakure. Before they breed these dragons."

"Yes!" said the jonin, clenching her fist. "They've just gotten weakened by repelling the Sand and Sound forces. It's the perfect time."

"The 'perfect time'," said Onoki, nodding. "They're weakened. Right. Got it. Kakogan, when was the last time you had some time off?"

"Uhm," said the jonin, a bit put off as Onoki was still seeming slightly amused. "I... don't remember."

"I think it's been too long," said Onoki. "Yes, I think I'll put you down for a week of down-time. Maybe you should head over to Fortune Beach? I hear it's lovely right now and we're getting into the hot-and-humid season here. Be good to get out of that and just try and get your bearings."

"Sir?" asked the jonin.

"Konohagakure is on high-alert now," said Onoki. "Also - the number of ninja they lost is marginal. Admittedly, they go for the whole 'quality over quantity' route so they have fewer jonin they we do - but the ones they have are elites. Then there are the dragons - admittedly two dragons are easier to deal with than a group of them. Having two people able to summon dragons through some bloodline would be a problem for the average chunin or genin. How would YOU deal with a dragon attacking?"

"Errr. I'd go underground, avoid it, strike when its attention is elsewhere?" asked Kakogan.

"Viable strategy. Which is why you're a jonin," said Onoki. "We need more information about these Uzumaki dragon-summoners and my spies are working that angle now. One of them is a young genin by all accounts - and not a terribly bright one. Getting secrets out of him should be easy. Then there's the alliances Konoha has made. There's indication that the new Kage of the Bloody Mist making nice with Konoha."

"What about Akatsuki?" asked Kakogan.

"They were spotted there in the failed invasion," admitted Onoki. "I'm requesting details from them as well. Since we have hired them in the past - if they're doing something untoward and being obvious about it - it could be blamed on us. Which I would have to publicly denounce while privately getting details. Do you understand? We are NOT attacking Konoha in their moment of weakness because they're NOT weak at the moment. My secretary will have your paperwork for your little vacation ready by this afternoon. Dismissed."

* break *

Shino Aburame puzzled over the attention of the kunoichi from Takigakure. There were many things he did not understand about her or the situation.

Why were his father and mother smirking whenever the situation was mentioned? An outsider might not be able to tell, but among those of the Aburame compound it became fairly obvious that there was considerable amusement being had on the subject.

Her statements that her life had been saved by him were questionable. He merely had been able to successfully delay attackers until they'd themselves gotten attacked by others and driven off. For those purposes, the colonies he carried had performed quite well.

On the other hand, there was this photo she had sent him. Yes, this was a nice photo for all that it was not up to professional standards. It had been taken by the girl herself after all.

Yes, he'd just study it a bit more. Just in case there was a hidden message or something. Ninja, after all.

* break *
"A training journey?" asked Naruto.

"Yes," agreed Keri. "Naruko has found a sponsor within the Land of Iron and will be studying there under a master of the sword. Getting away from all of us will help her develop as an individual. She is NOT, unfortunately, cut out for the life of a shrine maiden."

"Why not?" asked Naruto, curious.

"Absolutely no skill at reading body language or social cues, or understanding people in general," said Keri. "Sometimes you have to be diplomatic or subtle around people and she's as direct as a boulder to the face."

"Ah," said Naruto, not saying that was probably something she got from him.

"You're going on a mission soon yourself," said Keri. "Jiraiya wants to teach you a few things, and you'll need to learn a few more things about being a dragon. The island of Okitsushima will provide a space for some of that at least."

"But what about..." began Naruto.

"Besides, those three shrine maidens want to spend some time with you," interrupted Keri. "It's something you need to do."

"Uhm," said Naruto.

"Yes, I'm sure you'd rather face hordes of murder-seeking ninja than spend time with three young ladies. Sometimes we have to do things we don't want to - that's as true of ninja as it is of anyone else," said Keri.

"But what about..." Naruto tried, his hands darting all over the place.

"Hinata's going on a mission for about six months with her team," said Keri. "They're relieving a border patrol team who are being rotated down here during the rebuilding process. Team Guy left for caravan guard duty for two weeks."

"But..." tried Naruto.

"Team 7 has likewise got a mission," said Keri. "They'll be going to Kiri as part of an honor guard for the Mizukage."

"Oh, well, then I ought to get going," said Naruto.

"Your replacement will be showing up tomorrow morning. Kakashi has already signed off on it."

"WHAT?!" asked Naruto.

* break *

"Yes, you're going to be going on training missions. No, neither Sakura nor Sasuke are going with you. Yes, our paths will cross during your training period," began Kakashi without even looking up from the scroll he was going over. "Yes, we have a substitute to fill your position. Your ability to provide transport is entirely too useful to completely drop, so we're going to make use of that from time to time. So will other teams. So will teams from entirely different villages who want to slip a few jobs or other considerations our way."

Naruto just stood there, one hand raised, finger pointing skyward, having not gotten the first word in.

"When you're done with your training, you'll be back on Team 7. This is a temporary arrangement. Oh, by the way. If you keep your mouth open like that, flies might get in there," said Kakashi before vanishing in a swirl of leaves.

"But..." managed Naruto.

* break *

Sasuke wanted power. Power to avenge his clan. Power to kill his brother. Then and only then could he go to Priority 2 and rebuild the Uchiha Clan.

Except he had seen his brother during the invasion and things had not gone well.

Except his strength, gotten by training himself hard, was insufficient to deal with even the low-life chunin and jonin that had been between him and his goal.

Except for a priestess pointing out that by relying on Uchiha abilities and skills - he wasn't being very ninja. Wasn't it more ninja to find an area your opponent was weak at and strike there?

Sasuke sought power. If there were ways of blinding a Sharingan, if there ways of tricking a Sharingan-user, if there were ways of getting around the Sharingan's abilities - finding them out would strengthen him in a fight against his brother and give him a way of knowing what might be used against him.
There were many such sources of information because of the Chunin Exams. Many had fallen before the might of the Uchiha in such contests. Some prevailed instead.

Sasuke watched as his team gathered. The dobe, who wasn't as bad as he'd thought, was off the team for private training. Which made sense as the Dead Last of the class was actually the bloodline inheritor of very specialized skills. Sakura was over there, reading scrolls on medical techniques and anatomy and chakra techniques. Kakashi was late again.

Kakashi had mentioned the temporary new member replacing Naruto for the next couple of years. Sasuke was curious as Kakashi had mentioned "social skills issues" - which was something that ninja often had some issues with. To actually bring it up, for Kakashi to bring it up, it had to be truly severe.

The boy who wandered in and then took a position off to the side seemed to fit that label. Pale as if he'd spent next to no time in the sun. Genin had no set uniform, unlike most chunin, and so that was no particular tell. The odd sort of smile, the way he was way over there, certain tells of body language - this was someone who wasn't quite sure of how to interact with either him or Sakura.

This could be quite interesting.

* break - two years later *

Flying. Flying was always cool. One could be alone and get one's head clear in the cold air above the clouds.

All the problems seemed to shrink away with the ground spread out beneath him in the distance.

Naruto knew he'd eventually land and at least some of his problems would find him again.

In fact, judging from the orange dot that he could focus on and see one of Jiraiya's huge toads on the island - at least one problem had already chased him down.