Ch. 9 : History

A/N: Sorry about the length of this chapter. I've had it this completed for months now, and I'm tired of looking at it. Important Authors Note at the end, so make sure to read.

Warnings: Angst. So much angst.

Disclaimer – I do not own Naruto, Star Wars, or any obscure references to other owned or written material, either official or those of fandom. They are all property of associated parties. I wonder if anyone actually reads these? Its not like I'm creative or anything. Perhaps this should change? Hmm...


XxXxXx

- Naruto / Convoy -

The first few hours of their journey were the worst. The three humans and the active battle droids waited anxiously for signs of the enemy. Those piloting the massive troop transports pressed the machines for every ounce of power they could, and those on escort duty scanned the treeline constantly, waiting for the ambush they were all expecting. For some reason though, there was no sign of pursuit by Konoha forces. It just didn't make sense. They had done catastrophic damage to three of the clans of Konoha in the span of hours earlier that day, and if Konoha were to look into it any farther, it wouldn't be that hard to blame the rioting on Naruto as well. But they were not pursuing. Granted, it was a good thing and better than they could have hoped, but it was still unsettling in its own way. There was just no way to tell if their enemies had gone on ahead and was preparing an ambush just a couple of klicks down the road. Really all they could do was wait and be vigilant.

Naruto released his hold on the Force as he felt the strain begin to develop into a headache as his body protested the extended connection. Despite the droids working at maximum efficiency to scan their surroundings for any activity, Naruto had been doing much the same. The woods around them were teeming with insect life and the few smaller mammals that had opted to try and hide as opposed to run from their passage, but there was no sight of anything that could pose a threat to them. He really had no reason to be as paranoid as he was. As far as he could tell everything was fine and he wasn't getting a bad feeling from the Force or Mikhail, who always kept one eye open for any danger he might have missed. It was possible he was just having trouble unwinding after all of the excitement of the last two days. It seemed like it had been weeks since he had a chance to just sit and take a deep breath.

He sat up from his command chair and took his legs off of the console before him, where they had been propped up. Since things were all quiet up here, he really didn't have any reason not to have that talk with Sasuke like he had planned. Even now the young man hadn't said more than two words to anyone. The Uchiha had just found a relatively empty section of the transport and was doing... pushups. Naruto rolled his eyes and made his way toward him, stepping around a pair of B1s that were working diligently on something he didn't understand. Or maybe they were just staying out of the way and trying to avoid work? Really there was no way to tell with them.

"Do you ever take a minute and just stop working?" His best friend continued his exercises, standing on his hands with legs bolt straight and pointed up to the ceiling. The Uchiha had his back to a wall, no doubt to catch himself if the repulsorcraft hit a patch of uneven land, as had happened before. Sasuke didn't stop his steady rate of a pushup every second and a half, but grunted in reply.

"Look who's talking. I saw you up front. You're working just as hard as I am, but at least I have something to show for it."

The answer had a barb to it, and Naruto cocked an eyebrow. Still, he had a point there and there was no denying it. The droids had everything handled from a strategic point of view, he was just killing time in his own way.

"Yeah, I guess you're right. So what do you think of the situation? We all got out alright, but we sure left one hell of a mess behind us. How many do you think died that first night? I was paying more attention to getting out of there than I was to the fighting, but it sounded intense."

Two hundred seven. Two hundred eight. Two hundred nine.

"Fifty? A hundred? I wasn't counting. There were a lot of explosions. Now was there something you wanted, other than to complain about my regimen?" Two hundred ten. Two hundred eleven.

Naruto sighed and leaned against a pipe leading down the wall of the vehicle, into some ducts below them. The metal was searingly hot, and he hissed and leaped back from it with a hand pressed down on the burn, waiting for his body to heal the damage from the short contact. It was a pity his armor didn't cover his arms, like Ino's did.

"Not really. I wanted to know how you were holding up. I noticed you kicked Kiba's ass back there. Where exactly did you stab-."

"Why? You pissed off that I didn't kill him? I noticed you left Shino alive as well, and so did Ino, so don't get in my face about it."

Sasuke pushed against the ground hard enough to throw him into the air, and he tucked into a ball and flipped to his feet. He stepped forward so he was almost chest to chest with the blond, staring him in the eyes. His eyes burned with anger and a little bit of resentment, but from what was hard to say. The Uchiha had always been a few inches taller than Naruto had, despite the blond being stockier in the chest and arms, and Sasuke found no small amount of pleasure at being able to look down at his unofficial commander. Naruto stepped back half a step instinctively, then stepped forward again, meeting his friend's aggression head on.

"What the hell are you talking about? No I'm not pissed about that! You did great, and so did Ino. I was all for ignoring them anyway, it was you guys who wanted to stop."

"Which makes it my fault, then? I should have said no to Ino because you weren't able to with her tits rubbing against you?"

Now Naruto was starting to get irritated. Sasuke was making no sense. Where the hell was all this coming from anyway?

"What the fuck are you talking about? What's the matter with you all of a sudden?" Sasuke sneered and took a step back, turning half way to stare out the small porthole looking outward into the dark forest with his arms crossed. A sign of discomfort and a defensive stance.

"You think I don't know the real reason you are here? You came to come check up on me. See what was the matter with little old Sasuke, since I can't take care of myself. He had problems killing a convict. He had problems killing Iruka. Now he let Kiba live when he should have killed him. You think I'm losing my edge? Getting weak?"

Naruto was stunned by the outrage Sasuke was showing, but then snorted in amusement as the truth came to light.

"That's what you're pissed about? God, Sasuke, you might want to get your ego in check at some point. It's embarrassing sometimes." Sasuke recoiled like he had been slapped.

"Excuse me?"

"No, I don't think you're weak. Why the hell do you think I told you to kill Iruka? It wasn't to make you prove your strength or resolve or anything like that. I wasn't sure I would have been able to look into his eyes and shoot him in the chest. And Ino? She would have just dragged it out for the hell of it, and he didn't deserve that. You are the one I count on for that kind of shit, because I am the weak one sometimes. Remember?" Sasuke made to say something a couple of times, but the words wouldn't come out. He just gaped like a fish while Naruto continued, holding back his mirth. "As for leaving Kiba alive, I'm kind of glad. Could you imagine the shit we would get for killing a clan heir? Especially the Inuzuka, you know the temper they have on them. Hell, we are already responsible for killing a shit ton of their members, we don't need to add Kiba to that list. Though I am curious as to what you did to him."

"I uh... severed his spine. He's paralyzed from the waist down now." All of the fire had left Sasuke's voice, and he just stood there without any purpose to his actions. All the wind had been taken from his sails, and he was unsure of what to do with himself. The look in his eye though was much more stable than it was earlier though, and Naruto could sense none of the turmoil from before in him.

"Nice! I'm sure quite a few civilian girls will be glad to hear that they will have one less hound sniffing around and trying to hump their legs." Sasuke snorted despite himself and gave Naruto a rueful grin. "Anyway, like I said man, you don't have to worry about me doubting you or anything like that. I trust you and Ino with my life, and sometimes more than I do myself. Any decision you make I will trust, including who to kill and who to leave alive. Alright?" Sasuke nodded, but didn't say anything. Naruto slapped an arm on his shoulder and forced him to turn to look at him. "Alright?" This time Sasuke agreed verbally. "Now, if you have anything you want to bring to my attention or talk about, you know where I am most of the time. Come find me, okay? We might be traitors and targets of interest to an entire country, but that doesn't mean anything has changed. Even worldwide super criminals need backup sometimes."

Sasuke laughed and knocked Naruto's arm off of him.

"I highly doubt we are worldwide yet, and we are definitely not super criminals. But yeah, I'll probably take you up on your offer before too long. I just need some time to get my head on straight. Sorry about jumping down your throat like that, I just... shit." Naruto grinned in that infuriating way and held his hand out.

"I gotcha. We cool?" Sasuke looked at it for a second, then took it heartily.

"Yeah, we're cool." They held it for just a second, then quickly let go before it got weird. Sasuke cleared his throat and assumed the position he had earlier. "You might want to check out your fan-girl though. She looked like she could use you right about now."

"Any idea where she went?"

"I think she moved to the front of the convoy. Something about needing some fresh air. You know what she's like." Naruto barked out a laugh and nodded.

"Yeah, I know. Catch you later, man. Let me know if you hear anything."

With that taken care of and his bond with Sasuke solidified, he went on to find his other teammate. He knew for a fact that the convoy hadn't stopped since they had left the valley, so that meant she must have gone along the top of the MTTs in order to get to where she had gone. As far as he knew, the metal of the transports were as resistant to Chakra as the walls of the canyon had been, so she couldn't have walked up the sides to get to the top, so she must have jumped from above. Which means she must have taken...

Sure enough, near the end of the transport he was currently in there was a ladder leading up to an open hatch, through which he could see the night air and stars. The metal ladder shifted and rattled as he climbed it, and he wondered idly just how sturdy they were. After all, each of the droids weighed close to sixty five kilograms each, and they must it pretty frequently.

The trip across the domed transports was relatively safe and nothing he couldn't handle, but it might have proven treacherous for someone without formal training. After all, the transports didn't slow down in the least as they continued on their journey, but they weren't subject to the subtle dips and rises of the landscape either. Once he reached the front of the transport he had to take a second to ready himself for the considerable distance between it and the one in front of it. A nimble leap, a tricky application of the Force, and a lucky save from a fall to the ground below, and he was back on his feet and ready to go. Fortunately, this was the one leading the convoy and he could see Ino lounging at the front of it, a couple of meters away.

As he approached her, it occurred to him that he wasn't exactly sure what he had come here to say. Now that he stood at her side, all words had left him and all he could think of was the scared look in her eyes as she watched him throw Hinata to the flames.

"Ino, I..." The words died in his mouth, lacking a certain direction or conviction. He wasn't sure how to deal with the situation, because he wasn't sure exactly where she stood. For all of his training under the supervision of his masters, he was still just a teenager talking to the girl that he had a long standing crush on. As he faltered, Ino refused to meet his eye, but she did pat the roof of the transport next to her. The unspoken gesture gave him a small measure of confidence, and he lowered himself to sit beside her. The two sat in a semi-awkward silence for a little while, just staring up at the starlight and basking in the night air.

"You don't get nights like this in Konoha." Ino whispered quietly, just barely audible over the rumbling of the engines. Naruto considered making a joke about the convoy, but held off. "There are too many lights to be able to see the sky without the glow of the city. The best you could get was from the top of the Hokage Monument."

"I know what you mean," Naruto said as he reclined into a laying position on his back, with his arms crossed under his head. "It's hard to imagine there are that many stars up there, so far away. It makes everything seem so... small. And cold."

Ino's mouth curled up slightly in a smile at the quiet confession from her master. He was usually so confident and sure of himself, but now he almost seemed vulnerable. It was such a contrast to the show of brutal force he had showed earlier that day, that it made her once again examine the thoughts that had been cycling through her mind since the fight had ended. Seeing his unspoken, but desperate, need for comfort, she slid over to close the distance between their bodies and hugged him with her left arm while burrowing into his left side. His body was a warm contrast to the breezy, but not too cold, night. Reflexively, his arm took its place around her waist and rested on her hip inoffensively. Oh, how she wished he would reach lower.

"What is bothering you, Master?" Naruto frowned at her question, but it was more of thoughtfulness than displeasure.

"Am I so easy to see through?"

"Only to me, my lord." His smile was gentle and he hugged her tighter, an action that Ino relished. He was usually accepting, if not occasionally annoyed, at her public affections but this was different. While normally he would allow her to act as she wished, within certain limits, he would refrain from showing his own when they were in the presence of others. When they were alone, however, he was almost as physical as she was. Unsurprising, considering the life he had lead before Sasuke, and herself to a lesser extent, had started living with him. Alone all the time and the only physical contact he had with others being the violent spars between his classmates? No wonder he craved her touch. Of course, she was more than willing to give him whatever he needed, be that comfort or anything else.

"I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. As for what is bothering me..."

He trailed off, deep in thought, and Ino allowed him to gather himself. Naruto would speak when he was ready, and she wasn't going to press him any more than she already had. Instead she simply pressed her face into the crook of his arm and breathed deeply, taking in his scent. They had changed into less bloody clothing while on the transports once they knew they would not be immediately pursued, but had yet to actually take a shower. The vehicles weren't intended to be inhabited long term after all, and as such they lacked the required facilities. Hell, it was more likely that the intended users, the B1s, didn't even need to shower, so it would have been pointless in the first place. As such, her lover bore the scent of battle and bloodshed, as well as the smell of sweat, though it was not unpleasant.

"I guess the last couple of days just have me shaken up. I mean, Iruka dead, Konoha's still burning, hundreds either dead or wounded by my order. Plus I can't stop thinking about everyone we left behind. I know there had to have been a better way! I shouldn't have had to order them to stay behind and just die like animals." His voice was shaky and it bore just a hint of a growing hysteria, but Ino allowed him to talk. It was important that he get this out of his system. "Look at us! We're not even old enough to drink yet by civilian standards, and we are fleeing the country as not just traitors, but practically war criminals! We haven't graduated the Academy and here we are, riding off into the sunset toward god knows what with an army of robots and the blood of innocent people on our hands. I'm still not to the level of power that my Master wants me to be, and Mikhail still sees me as being weak. I am expected to lead an army and build a new empire with my strength, but I'm not sure I can do it. I'm... I'm scared, baby, and I don't know what to do."

He took a couple of deep breaths after his tirade to steady himself, and covered his eyes with his free arm. When he had regained his composure, Ino stroked his chest in slow and wide circles, calming him further.

"I know you and Sasuke trust me with your lives, you would have to in order to still be here with me now, but sometimes I wonder if I am worth that trust? I have a basic idea of where I am supposed to go from here, and I know there are people who will help me on the way, but I don't know if I am confident enough to risk the both of you in the process. I'm scared of losing you, and Sasuke too I guess." His sad joke had the desired effect, and Ino giggled a little bit into his side. Her laughter worked wonders on calming him down, and he was able to get himself back under control. "There are times when all of this just seems too much. I think back on everything we have done and everything we still have left to do, and I wonder if it is all worth it. We have all made sacrifices and lost things, Well, you and Sasuke have at least. I didn't have a whole lot to lose in the first place. Then I think about the two of you. I know why Sasuke is coming along. He has hated Konoha this entire time, even before the incident with Itachi, and now the only thing he wants to do is meet up with his brother again. But... but what about you? Are you here because you want to be, or is it just because of what I did to you? Would you hate me, if you had the chance, or are you nothing more than a slave?"

He obviously had more to say on the subject, but he was cut off by Ino's hand on his mouth. She shifted her entire body and rolled over on top of him, holding him down with her body weight. Her free hand was propping her up, braced on the right side of his head, and they were almost nose to nose. The blazing fury in her eyes made it clear that he had gotten lucky, because this was the closest he had ever see the girl coming to slapping him. Hard.

"Naruto Uzumaki, you shut your mouth right this instant." Her order was obeyed immediately, not just because of the hand blocking his mouth, but because this was the first time she had used his full name in the time that he had known her. "Now I know how afraid you are, and that you don't think I have feelings of my own, but I will have you known that that is the farthest from the truth as it could be. The feelings I have are nothing but sincere, and they have little, if anything, to do with the fox." Here the heat in her voice eased off and she removed her hand, but she remained on top of him, straddling him with one leg on either side of his hips. "Do you remember what you asked me when we met Count Dooku for the first time? During the training exercise outside of Konoha?"

The memory was ingrained in his mind, and he of course had no trouble recalling exactly what the girl was talking about.

"He mentioned that you had hatred. I asked you about it, but you weren't ready to share it."

"Exactly," Ino said, nodding. "You could have demanded me to tell you, and I would have. You are my Master after all, and it was a screwed up time. I certainly wouldn't have blamed you for wanting to know what he meant when he was trying to make us doubt each other. But you were so gentle. So kind and understanding. That was when I knew for certain that what I felt wasn't just from Mikhail changing things around in my mind. Before I wasn't entirely sure, and sometimes I would wonder. Doubt. I would have thoughts that were inconsistent and that ran contrary to what I felt most of the time. I think it might have been my subconscious trying to regain control of myself."

Naruto looked like he was about to interrupt her and speak up, but she put one finger on his lips. This time it was all it took to silence him, as he gazed up into her eyes with confusion, and he allowed her to continue.

"Back then, I may have been fighting it subconsciously, but not any more. See, after that day something changed in me, I started to see you other than the idol I was to obey and trust intrinsically. I saw you for the growing young man who cared for everyone and everything that would let him. The boy who would grow to be strong and powerful, and would command respect from thousands. I saw what Sasuke saw when he took your advice and followed your commands, and I started to fall for you all over again. This time not because you were perfect in every way and it would hurt not to, but because I wanted to, with all my heart. All Mikhail did was give me another chance to see you for who you were, before I made the biggest mistake of my life. You were the one that saved me, not him."

Naruto saw the strength it took for her to say all this, and whatever arguments he might have still held fell away. He put his arms around her and pulled her to him. Her arm relaxed and Ino allowed the young man to pull her down, until she was lying on his chest, the entire length of their bodies pressed together and held with the strength of his arms. He still wanted to say something, but she wasn't done.

"It all comes back to that day, when my resistance was at its greatest and when I might have really started hating you, deep down, for what had happened to me. But when you stopped me from shooting him, and you looked into my eyes and placed your trust, and your life, in my hands..." She sniffed lightly, and nuzzled into his chest. "That was all the confirmation I needed on who you were and why I should devote myself to you. I'm ashamed to admit how long it has taken me to put all of my trust behind you, but I hope you will understand in a few minutes. See, I'm finally ready to tell you everything. All the dirty little secrets that Dooku mentioned, all the hatred I had at the world and at my father, all of it."

"Are you sure, Ino? I didn't press you then and I won't now. If you have any doubts about this..." Her laugh put him at ease once more, and one of the hands that was caught between them relaxed from its fist and the palm lay flat against him, right over his heart.

"No, I'm sure. Even now you are protecting me, if only from myself. I don't know why it took me this long, but I'm not afraid anymore."

With one last, deep breath to steady her nerves, she started talking and didn't stop until she was through. She told him of how when she was a little girl and her mother was still alive, she was the happiest child the world had ever seen. She was the only daughter of a highly intelligent father who would do anything to keep her safe and see her happy. She had a loving mother who, happily and without any regrets, put her family before everything else. Things were hard after that October night that had left Konoha in jeopardy and left so many dead, but her family had managed to get through it relatively safe, despite both her mother and father fighting to protect their village. They had both been extremely lucky to get out of there unscathed, but there were longer term effects that neither of them had known about. The stress had taken a toll on her mother, who had never been particularly skilled as a Shinobi. The night had left her broken in ways the doctors and medics of Konoha could do nothing about, and despite her father being the single most skilled practitioner of her family's techniques, there was nothing he could do but slow down the degradation of her mother's mind. Over the years, her mother got sicker and sicker, until she was no longer capable of even taking care of herself. Her ability to move went first, then her memory, then her speech. Ino had been forced to watch as her mother wasted away before her very eyes. The woman hadn't lasted long enough to see her daughter get the acceptance letter for the Shinobi Academy of Konohagakure.

At that point it was only her and her father, who had devoted everything he had to his daughter and his work, though he refused to tell her exactly what it was he did in the service of his village. When she had come home and waved the acceptance letter in her father's face, he had been so proud! He had lifted her up and swung her around in his arms with tears in his eyes. He promised to do everything he could to help her succeed in her new life as a Kunoichi. For the next three years, everything was great. Her father would help her with her homework, give her tips on how to succeed, and even tell her stories of his own time serving their village. Through all this though, he still gently refused to tell her what it was that he did for a living.

That changed one day in her third year. Some of the other kids had been bragging about what their daddy's did, the ones who were Shinobi at least, and they had been so happy. They had asked her what her papa did, but she hadn't been able to tell them. This came to the ridicule and laughter of the other kids. They claimed that her dad must not be important, and that he might even be a Genin, the lowest rank possible for a graduate to hold. Despite this, she still remained proud. She told Inoichi that she had told the kids that it didn't matter what her father did, that she loved him and respected him just as much as she always had. This had almost broken her father's heart, and he made a decision that night. He would show his daughter what he did to keep the village safe! He would make her proud so that she wouldn't have to put up with the teasing and bullying that was to come. He convinced himself it was the right thing to do, forgetting that she was still only a thirteen year old girl, still just beginning her life as a soldier.

That night he took her to work with him. Through the boring government building and down the closed off stairs meant for personnel only. The deeper they got the darker it grew, and soon she could start to hear sounds coming from down below. Screaming and crying, mostly. Here she had gotten scared. She wanted to go home. She didn't want to see what went on down there. Her father refused to turn around, though. He was certain that she would see that what he did was noble, and important! Something that she could be proud of. She wouldn't be scared anymore once she knew what was going on down there in the darkness.

He was wrong.

That night, the young girl had been forced to watch as her father and a very tall man in a black trench coat questioned a young woman, older than she herself by only five years or so. The prisoner was very pretty, with long dark hair and green eyes, but she wore a headband that had a rock on it. And that made her bad. They asked her questions about her village, and her team, and what her orders had been, but the girl refused to answer them. She screamed, and she swore, and sometimes she cried. Occasionally she even went a stretch of silence before repeating the process. Before long, Inoichi and the tall, scary man got tired of her not answering. They stopped asking for a while and just hurt her. They did things with hammers, and nails, and electricity, and fire, and little vials of glass with liquid inside them. The entire ordeal went on for hours, and Ino was forced to watch the entire time. Eventually, the young woman passed out and Inoichi took the chance to leave the room to the adjacent one, that had a tall glass window that could only be seen through from one direction. Here he found Ino curled up in a ball in the farthest corner, tears and snot streaming from her eyes and she pressed her hands into her ears and screwed her eyes shut, trying to keep the sights, sounds, and memories away.

Her father was angry.

He left that night, and the walk home was made in a forced silence. She tried to apologize over and over again, but every time she started to speak he would just pull on her arm to make her shut up and walk in silence. The whole time he was said nothing. When they got home, he let it all out. He shouted at her about how ashamed he was. She was training to be a ninja, and she had broken down like a pathetic little girl as she watched what her father did. This wasn't something to be afraid of, but she still acted like a baby. She cried again, begging for his forgiveness, but he wouldn't hear it. He swore that her training would intensify, and he would make her into the soldier she should have been that night. That night everything changed.

From then on, her loving daddy had stopped being a father and started acting like another Iruka, only worse. Every day when she got home from the Academy, her training would begin anew. He would put her through the stances and movements of their family's style of martial arts, and would spar with her over and over again until she couldn't stand up on her own. Every day was filled with training of some kind, whether academic, physical, or sometimes even on the job with her father. Her time at the Academy became less of a training center and more of an escape. For a couple of hours every day, she could go to a world where girls could be girls, and laugh and play. Where the only things they had to worry about was cute boys and looking pretty. Even that didn't last forever. The training in the Academy intensified, and many of her friends dropped out, unable to keep up with the strain.

At this point in her story, Naruto had felt the girl in his arms begin to quake and felt a dampness on his chest. When he looked down, he saw that Ino was crying heavily, and the tears were streaming down her face, but her voice hadn't changed. Her tone was still rock steady and detached, obviously as a means of keeping herself together. This was still fresh, and must have been horrible for her to relate to someone. No wonder she hadn't been eager to share her story with him. He comforted her with a kiss to the top of her hair, and though she bunched his shirt up, squeezing it tightly in her fists, she refused to allow herself to be deterred. Now that she had started this, she couldn't stop it.

Over the summer between years four and five however, things got worse than they had ever been. After Itachi was driven from the village in disgrace and the Uchiha clan was massacred, suspicion was turned on the T&I department of Konoha. Questions were asked about why they, who were so ingrained on keeping the village safe from internal threats, hadn't seen this coming. Were they incompetent? Or perhaps they had known the whole time, and just refused to pass on the memo? Maybe they were even behind it, and had helped in the whole ordeal? As one of the two department heads, and the head of a clan himself, Inoichi got the worst of it. As less and less work came in due to distrust, he poured his ever increasing amount of spare time into two things. Ino's training and alcohol. He quickly stopped caring about what jobs he did get, and put all of his energy into making his daughter what she had once promised she wanted to be. What had once been training, albeit brutal, could now only be considered outright abuse. His spars were less about making her better, and more about punishing her for not being good enough. He could no longer take his daughter to work, and so told her horrible stories about the different ways he had extracted information from the people put under his tender care.

All of this had taken place over the summer break, and the only thing that kept her going from day to day was the thought that soon the Academy would start back up. For a couple of hours, five days a week, she would be able to pretend everything was okay. When she came back however, she found she had been mistaken. So few of her friends had bothered to re-enroll, and those that did had changed fundamentally. Gone were the girls concerned with normal childhood pastimes, and in their place were up and coming Kunoichi, determined to get stronger to prove their worth in a male-dominated career. Adding to the overwhelming stress of her home life, this was just too much. Ino had been planning her own suicide when Naruto had come to her.

"You see? You saved my life that day, when you visited me in my mind. I was so scared when I was dragged into my own mindscape. I thought you were going to see everything and I panicked. After you gave me over to Mikhail all he did was take away my fear. My indecision. Everything that was holding me back, he stripped from me. In it's place, he left a compulsion to look at you. To speak to you. To serve you and see who you were. I would have obeyed you, even if you were someone else, but in the end it wasn't slavery! You, more than the fox, gave me the strength to do what I had to do. You taught me to face my father, and to accept his training for what it was. I got stronger faster than I had ever imagined possible. Soon I was holding my own against him, instead of just trying desperately to survive. When I struck him for the first time in one of our spars, I will never forget his face, and it was you who made it possible. Not Mikhail. You saved me in more ways than one, Naruto, and if I had ever given you the time of day I would have loved you even without Mikhail's influence."

At this declaration, Naruto's eyes began to burn and his vision wavered with unshed tears. Despite his embarrassment, Ino saw them and smiled. Her own shakes slowed down to a mere shiver, and she nuzzled deeper into him, kissing him in the juncture of his throat and chin.

"I love you, Naruto. And I will for as long as you will let me. I promise..."

Her tale must have taken almost everything out of her, because she soon fell into a deep sleep in his arms, and Naruto did nothing to rouse her from her slumber. He had enough to mull over after all, and what better way to do it than with a beautiful and dedicated girl in his arms, under the starry sky.

XxXxXx

Naruto awoke to the sun shining in his eyes, a soft body still pressed tightly against his side, and an annoying buzzing in his ear. It took him a fraction of a second to recognize it as his mind rebooted from the surprisingly restful sleep, and he frowned in annoyance at the communicator.

"Yeah, what is it Sasuke?"

"Sorry to interrupt the beauty sleep you so desperately need," Asshole. "But you are going to want to see this. Get up and look ahead of us about three miles and you'll see what I mean."

With a grunt at the discomfort sleeping on cold hard metal had put him through, Naruto jerked his head up without having to move the girl on his chest. Any lingering effects of sleep were immediately thrown to the wind as what he saw dawned on him. Off in the distance and sitting in the middle of a small clearing was an even smaller village. Directly in their path.

"Shit. Is there any way around it?" There was silence on the line as Sasuke checked his resources and asked the droids.

"Not that wouldn't push our schedule back about two hours. The forest it too thick on either side for us to squeeze through, and it would take far too long for us to make a path. It seems like we will be able to push straight through the middle of the... town? With minimal damage."

"Do it. Ino and I will be down shortly. Alert the STAP teams to pull up alongside us. I don't want anyone getting separated as we go through there. Are we still in Fire country?" As he was talking, he was gently shaking Ino awake. The young woman was reluctant to awaken from whatever dream she was currently enjoying though, and she murmured something inaudible and rubbed her hand over a particularly stiff part of his anatomy that made him go cross-eyed. "Come on, Ino, we have to go."

"Five more minutes, baby..."

"According to our records, this settlement is right on the border of Fire and Grass country. Konoha currently has a standing treaty with Kusagakure, but don't trust each other. Apparently Kusa-nin are a little too good at diplomacy, and Konoha doesn't trust them for it."

"Typical," Naruto said, chuckling at that little tidbit. "Distrust anyone that might be able to beat them at their own game. Damn it, Ino, get up already."

At his frustration, Ino finally sat up. Her adorable yawn and the way she rubbed one of her eyes with a fist was enough to make Naruto smile and shake his head ruefully. He was about seventy percent sure she was playing it up, but you really couldn't ever know for certain around her.

"Are we there yet?"

"Not quite. Go inside and get your equipment ready, be ready for trouble." At that she perked up immediately. The thought of a fight, even this early in the morning, was enough to get her energy levels back to their normal zones, and she hurried along the tops of the vehicles with a bounce to her step. Naruto took a moment to examine the town from his elevated position before following.

In the mid-morning light, the small settlement seemed practically serene. None of the inhabitants could have possibly known that their entire lives would change drastically when they woke up that morning. Such was the way of war, and until he had the power to prevent it from happening to anyone else ever again, he would do what he had to in order to secure a world of peace. Even if that meant coating his hands the blood of innocents. It was a price he was willing to pay.

"I want everyone tight as we move through the village. From the looks of it, it would be a solid place for an ambush. As soon as we are on the outskirts, slow the convoy down a bit. Try not to do any damage to the buildings, but be ready to book it if we need to. Lets try not to traumatize these people more than we already are."

"Understood."

Naruto considered heading inside and waiting it out, but decided against it. It was risky, sure, and if there were any ninjas waiting for them between the buildings he would be an open target, but he wanted the villagers to see that there were still people behind this, not just droids. He had been around them long enough to have been desensitized to their existence, but this would be the first time any of theses people would see his soldiers and there was no telling how they might respond.

With the unrelenting finality of the sun and moon, the convoy continued onward into the dawn. By the time they were a mile out, they could see the villagers scrambling around, clearing the streets and hiding in their homes. Through his binoculars, Naruto could see a couple of the men scrambling to the rooftops, trying to see exactly what was coming. The device allowed him to see the fear and distraught on their faces as they stared back in horror. By the time the first MTT cleared the first house the streets were empty. The only evidence anyone lived there was the various carts and baskets left abandoned in the panicked evacuation of the streets.

"Everything seems quiet. Are you picking anything up on the scanners?" Naruto asked with a finger pressed against his ear. With buildings on all sides, the echo of the engines were deafening and it was hard to hear himself think, let alone the response coming from the communicator.

"Negative. We're clear down here. I guess there isn't anyone following us, huh? Any sign of the villagers?"

Naruto glanced around a bit, but the only movements were the shifting of blinds as the brave peeked through their windows, trying to catch a glimpse of those who were making their entire world quake with their passing.

"No, they are all hiding in their homes. Looks like we will be able to get out of here faster than we had thought. Full speed ahead then, lets try to get to the base by sundown."

"You got it." Naruto turned his back on the village around him and made to descend the ladder leading to the interior of the vehicle he was riding on, but hesitated. In the largest home in the tiny town, no doubt belonging to the village's leader, a man stood in the doorway with a boy pressed tightly against his chest. The man was wrinkled and gray and watched their passing with eyes void of any fear, only a cold watchfulness. For some reason his eyes made the blond shiver, and he was glad to be rid of them as he reclaimed his place inside.


A/N: Not going to lie, my faithful readers. I am getting pretty tired of writing fanfiction. I still love reading it, don't get me wrong! But I just don't get the satisfaction of sitting down and expressing an entire world through literature as I once did. As such, I am offering up my various works for adoption to a good home. I may or may not put out another chapter or two whilst waiting for a reply, but as always I promise nothing. I want nothing more for this story than to see it grow and flourish, but I no longer feel that I am the person most suited for the task. If any of you feel you can do it justice, hit me up and I would love to discuss it with you. Thanks, and as always...

Stay Frosty...

- Nik0laiCarpathia