The strong summer breeze churned up dust in the streets of Konoha, the fine particles drifting skyward to mingle with the hundreds of leaves that had strayed from their branches. The din of construction echoed off the massive cliff-face that loomed above the dense forest, the sound of hammers mixing with the laughter of the local children to create a bizarre symphony.
Shikamaru Nara ambled slowly through the streets, on route to the Hokage's mansion. He shuffled through the stacks of paperwork in his hands, an endless stream of curses racing through his genius mind. Despite his protests, Tsunade had put him in charge of overseeing the reconstruction of the Hidden Leaf Village. His thin eyebrows twitched into a frown as he remembered the Hokage's no-nonsense tone, her hands folded gracefully in front of her while she reamed into him.
"As Konoha's head strategist, I thought you would jump on the opportunity to ensure that the village was as efficiently designed as possible! If only you were more motivated, with a mind like yours, you could easily become the Hokage!"
Shikamaru had smirked, rubbing at his head as he replied, "Even if I did have motivation, there's no way I could become Hokage. We both know that Naruto has one hundred percent of the votes. And that's the way it should be. I'll be happy just helping him out, whenever he needs me."
"And besides," He mumbled as he swerved to avoid a group of children playing tag, "Naruto probably won't dump so much crappy work on me."
"I wouldn't be so sure."
Shikamaru turned with a deadpanned glare, face-to-face with the prodigious Neji Hyūga. Neji had recently been recruited by ANBU, so it surprised Shikamaru to see him in his white robes. He cocked an eyebrow as he began walking again, Neji falling into step beside him.
"What a drag. Do you have the day off?"
Neji nodded in response, shielding his eyes from the sun.
They continued on in silence, bits of conversation drifting past them on the breeze. Although the world was still recovering from the recent war, Konoha and its citizens were encompassed by a sense of bliss: the aftermath of the miracles created by the hero of the Leaf, Naruto Uzumaki. The son of the Fourth Hokage, and current Jinchuuriki of Kurama the Nine-Tailed Fox, was now said to be the strongest ninja in the world. Lately, it seemed that all anyone could talk about was Naruto. It was only natural, of course: Naruto had saved hundreds, if not thousands of lives in the past year. He was, by any sane persons account, a hero. However, the hero in question had taken to disappearing as of late.
As if he had read his thoughts, Neji asked softly, "Has Naruto still not been around much?"
Shikamaru shook his head slowly. "No. And it's not just the amount of missions he's been taking on either. Even when he's home, he's off doing who-knows-what. Something really seems to be bothering him. Even Sakura has no idea what's going on."
When Shikamaru took a moment to consider it, Naruto's personality had changed rapidly over the past couple of years. The first major change had come when Naruto had become a Sage and saved the village. In that case, the changes had doubtless been for the better. But ever since the war had ended, Naruto seemed to have become a different person overnight.
The baby roundness had fallen away from his face, leaving him angular and handsome. His abrasively loud voice, and his habit of being the embodiment of ecstatic energy had also faded: leaving behind a voice that rumbled with authority and an aura of silently humming, pulsating strength. He no longer sought out company, preferring to steal a moment of peace whenever he could. But the one change that shocked Shikamaru the most was that his laughter, which had once been so abundant, had all but faded into memory.
He couldn't help but think that, if he hadn't been by Naruto's side through everything, he might not recognize the blond anymore.
When Neji didn't immediately answer him, Shikamaru added in a low voice, "He's…changed."
Neji seemed to consider everything he had said as the Hokage's mansion came into view. "War changes people, Nara, especially someone like Naruto who was the spearhead of the attack. I agree that he has changed enormously – he's no longer a child – but in my mind the changes are for the better. And to answer your concern about where he wanders off to: I've noticed that he's taken to sitting on top of the Fourth Hokage's figurehead and meditating."
"So that's where he runs off to…" Shikamaru sighed, kicking a stone on the road and frowning towards the giant faces carved into the cliff above them.
"It's probably best for him to be alone now." Neji mused, the breeze making his long hair dance slowly behind him. "I suspect that he is meditating on a great many things, the least of them being -"
"Yes," Neji hummed. "The fact remains that Sasuke is still missing, and his defection is of the highest priority. I'm sure that this must trouble Naruto greatly."
The papers wrinkled in Shikamaru's grip. "That damned bastard Uchiha. Where the hell is he hiding?"
Shikamaru scowled. Although many teams had been sent out over the past year, trying to track down the rouge ninja, none of them had found even the faintest trace of him. Not to mention that Naruto, the one man who could probably find him with embarrassing ease, had flat out refused to look for him.
"It doesn't make sense." Shikamaru mumbled, shoving the papers under his arm.
As Neji glanced at him curiously, the sound of rapidly approaching footsteps caught their attention. Both Jounin turned in unison, tense as the approaching ANBU ninja stopped a respectful distance from them and bowed quickly. "Captain Hyūga. We have just received troubling intelligence from our patrol unit."
"Captain? You've been promoted already?" Shikamaru asked under his breath, raising an eyebrow at his fellow genius.
Neji raised a silencing hand, frowning. "Yes, please report."
"It appears that Sasuke Uchiha is approaching the village."
Shikamaru and Neji exchanged a wide-eyed glance, wondering at the strange workings of fate, before Shikamaru turned and dashed towards the Hokage's mansion. Neji activated his Byakugan, quickly scanning as he said to his subordinate, "Return to your team immediately and tell them not to engage the enemy. He is too powerful for any of us to handle alone."
"Yes, sir!" The ninja saluted as he disappeared.
It didn't take long for Neji to locate the chakra he had been searching for, blazing fiercely as it hovered sentinel over the village. After noting the positions of the ANBU scouting the perimeters, he raced after Shikamaru, a sense of dread hanging over him.
The dark, well-polished wood of the Hokage's desk growled in protest as Tsunade's palms slammed down on it.
"He's what?" She exclaimed, her voice reaching an interesting octave of totally-pissed-off.
Neji remained still as a statue while Shikamaru flinched, feeling like he would be receiving the brunt of her anger.
"As usual." He complained to himself. "Troublesome woman."
"Like I said," Shikamaru drawled, sounding deceptively bored with the whole situation. "Sasuke is strolling towards the village as we speak. We received the information from an ANBU scout."
Neji nodded, his milky eyes sharp. "He was a member of my squad. I can assure you that the information is reliable. I have given orders for them not to engage in combat. It appears that he is still far enough away that I cannot sense him with my Byakugan."
"Good." The Hokage said, dropping down into her seat. "Though we don't know his reason for reappearing so suddenly, I think it's best to assume that he is still an enemy. I will put the village on level two alert, although I don't think we'd be able to stop him with the personnel we have available at the moment, should he decide to attack."
Neji and Shikamaru exchanged a grave look. As two of the Leafs most skilled tacticians, they knew better than anyone how vulnerable Konoha was. Even with Naruto's help, there had been many casualties during the war.
Neji cleared his throat. "Tsunade-sama, shouldn't we summon Naruto?"
"Naruto?" The Hokage said distractedly, searching for something under the piles of paper on her desk. "He's on a mission."
As Neji opened his mouth to reply a gust of wind blasted into the office, scattering papers across the room. The three jolted in surprise, turning to stare at the golden-haired ninja who had appeared on the windowsill. Due to the heat, the Jinchuuriki had opted out of wearing his orange tracksuit lately, his Sage cloak flapping overtop of his black pants and undershirt, which was visibly straining over his muscular torso. His hitai-ate was securely in place, holding his bangs away from his piercing, offensively blue eyes.
"N-Naruto!" Tsunade spluttered. "I didn't know you had returned!"
Naruto Uzumaki's face, concealed by the blinding sunlight streaming in behind him, was blank as he replied, "Yeah, I just got back this morning, you know?"
The Godaime frowned. "But, didn't I assign you to escort Sakura to the Sand Village?"
Naruto nodded, leaning comfortably against the frame of the window. "I'll go back and get her when the mission is over. Sakura-chan said herself that there was no use in me hanging around. It's not a big deal; it still takes three days to get there while I'm with Sakura-chan, but by myself, I can make the trip in just over a day."
"Shit…one day?" Shikamaru muttered, impressed. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Neji nod in unspoken agreement.
"Granny Tsunade," Naruto said, his unwavering blue eyes gleaming. "Please leave Sasuke to me. If anyone else were to attack him, they would be killed instantly. I'm the only one who stands a chance."
"Ah," Tsunade folded her arms across her torso, leaning back into her chair. "So you knew that he was coming?"
"Yeah," The blond replied. "I noticed him yesterday."
"Yesterday?" Neji repeated, his eyebrows rising in surprise. "Why didn't you say anything?"
Naruto's gaze flashed over to Neji. He smiled meekly, shrugging apologetically as he replied, "Well, because I knew you guys would-" He gestured around the room airily, as if searching for the right word, "freak out."
The three shinobi stared at him in disbelief.
"Oi…" Shikamaru muttered. "We're not…freaking out."
"Granny," Naruto said, ignoring Shikamaru. "You know I'm going out to meet him no matter what. So please, promise me that you won't let anyone interfere."
"H-hey, Naruto," Shikamaru said, stepping forward. "It doesn't matter how strong you are. I can't let you go out there alone. We're your comrades, so let us go out and fight with you."
Naruto's gaze never left the Hokage, his voice soft and steady as he said, "Please. This is something that I have to do alone."
Tsunade sat in silence, examining the young ninja. Finally, she averted her eyes, waving her hand dismissively. "Do whatever you want." She said with an exasperated sigh. "But don't act until you receive the order, you got that?"
The blond smiled in relief. "Thanks, Granny. If you need me, I'll be waiting on the wall."
He had vanished in the blink of an eye, another gust of wind spinning through the office in his wake.
Shikamaru sighed, scratching his head. "I wonder if it's true that he's faster than the Yellow Flash, even though he doesn't use the teleportation jutsu."
Tsunade turned away from the window, ignoring the heat in her cheeks as she said, "He's definitely becoming more like the Fourth every day."
That was definitely true. But while Minato had been made of soft edges and a calm aura, Naruto had sharp edges and a blisteringly powerful, intimidating aura. Tsunade, who had known the Fourth, saw the similarities better than anyone.
"Easy there, Tsunade-sama." Shikamaru drawled sarcastically. "Don't go falling for Naruto. That would be really troublesome."
Neji cleared his throat loudly before the Hokage could send the Shadow-nin careening through the wall behind them. "Back to the problem at hand, it's possible that Sasuke is currently working with someone. If that's the case, then he may be attempting to draw our attention while his partners infiltrate from another direction. We cannot rule out any possibilities at this point."
"I agree." Shikamaru said, frowning. "Though we've confirmed that both Kabuto and Madara are dead, we can't know for sure if that Zetsu guy is too. And then there are the members of Sasuke's old team."
"True." Tsunade said, crimson fingernails tapping the desk. "However, if we intend to respect Naruto's wishes, then the most we can do at this point is stand guard and wait. Neji, has Sai returned from his mission?"
"Yes, Hokage-sama. He reported in yesterday afternoon."
"Good." The Godaime said, rising to her feet. "I will leave you two in charge of organizing the ANBU unit. Shikamaru, you will act as Captain to the Jounin unit, since both Kakashi and Yamato are currently out of the village. This is still a level two emergency! We must be prepared to defend Konoha at any moment! Now go!"
"Yes, Ma'am!" The Jounin said in unison, dashing out of the office. They were silent as they made their way down the deserted hallways, the sound of their sandals echoing off the walls. As the exit came into view, Shikamaru sighed loudly. Feeling the Hyūga's moon-like eyes on him, he cocked his lips into an exaggerated half smile.
"Looks like I won't have time for a nap today."
The Jounin on guard duty jumped in surprise when Naruto appeared in a sudden gust of wind, skidding to a halt on the wall that was polished smooth from hundreds of feet. His cloak snapped in the wind as he immediately strolled over to the edge of the wall, eyes fixed on something unseen on the horizon.
"Naruto-sama!" One of the nearby shinobi exclaimed, smiling brightly. "I'd heard that you were away on a mission?"
Naruto returned the smile directed his way as he sat on the edge of the wall, legs dangling. "I just got back this morning, actually."
"As expected of Uzumaki-sensei!" A kunoichi exclaimed, her cheeks flushed. Behind her, some of the Jounin were beginning to crowd together, their voices buzzing excitedly.
Naruto found himself frowning as he looked out over the dense forest that surrounded the village. It wasn't long ago that he had found this sort of attention flattering. But lately, people had taken to referring to him as 'sensei', or 'sama', and he found himself unable to get used to the honorific titles.
"Did you have to deal with this too, Dad?" Naruto wondered, pouting slightly. It was times like these when he truly longed for his parents. With everything that had happened over the past year, Naruto found himself, more than ever, needing someone to consult with. "I wonder if these guys realize I'm still just a Genin…"
"Excuse me, Uzumaki-sensei?" A young ninja asked timidly, blushing furiously as she stepped forward. "Would it be possible to get an autograph?"
A deep, regal voice cut in before Naruto could answer. "I'm afraid that Naruto is without a pen at the moment." Neji said, his intense, pale eyes clearing a path through the group of ninja. "It would seem that you are all neglecting your duties."
The ninja dispersed quickly. Naruto turned to smile at the Hyūga, who had changed into his ANBU uniform. Sai walked a pace behind him, smiling at his former teammate. They came to stand beside the blond, following his gaze out over the landscape.
"Do not think ill of them, Naruto. They simply admire you." Neji said, smiling at Naruto in a knowing way. "As a member of the Hyūga clan, I have experienced something similar."
"Oh, I see!" Sai said, nodding enthusiastically. "I have read in a book that sometimes, you can cheer up a friend by comparing their situation to one that you have experienced. I believe the term they used was 'empathy'? However, in this situation, it is probably exaggerated. Right, Captain Hyūga?"
"Idiot." Neji muttered, while Naruto snorted.
"Thanks, Neji." Naruto said with a smile. "It doesn't really bother me, but it is a little hard to get used to. And-" His voice lowered as his smile faded. "For every person who admires me, there's another who's afraid of me."
"Well, that's to be expected." Shikamaru's lazy drawl reached them before he did, as he ambled along with his hands in his pockets. "Rumour has it that you won the war almost single-handedly. Everyone's saying there isn't a ninja alive who could lay a finger on you."
Naruto frowned, his right hand resting over the seal on his stomach.
"I know, kid." The fox said, lifting his head from the cradle of his paws. "I'm ready whenever you are."
"Is everything ready?"
Naruto looked up in confusion, before realizing that Neji had directed the question towards Shikamaru, who was now standing beside him.
The strategist nodded. "Everyone of Chunin level or higher has been alerted of the situation. We're going to be working with three lines of defense: the wall, the business district, and the perimeter of the Hokage's mansion. Is ANBU ready to act?"
Sai nodded. "I will be performing aerial surveillance to compensate for our inability to send any units beyond the wall. The rest of ANBU will be divided between the outer perimeters and the Hokage's defense."
"Good." Shikamaru said, sliding his gaze cautiously to Naruto. "Are you sure you don't want anyone to go with you, Naruto?"
Naruto sighed as the wind ruffled his spiky hair. Shikamaru noticed, for the first time, that it had gotten quite long recently. No doubt Sakura was nagging him to get it cut.
"If Sasuke seriously came to fight, then I won't be able to hold back. In that case, the village will be the safest place to be. I would be worried about accidentally hurting my comrades, if anyone were to come with me." He closed his eyes, hiding whatever emotion passed over them as he said, "If we're lucky, today will be the end."
His comrades stood in shocked silence, not knowing how to respond to the sudden statement. Shikamaru frowned in discomfort, willing Naruto to look up so he could study those deep blue eyes. Instead, the blond folded his hands into a meditative stance, orange markings appearing on his eyelids as he mustered his Sage powers.
"If you guys have everything organized, then I'm going to head out."
Neji hummed lightly, putting on his bird-like mask. "In that case, you had better get in the air, Sai."
The pale ninja nodded gravely, then pulled out his Super-Beast Scroll in one, fluid movement. After a moment of scribbling, he formed the hand seal for his unique jutsu, and a giant bird burst out of the scroll to perch beside him. He hesitated before jumping on its back, a concerned frown playing across his face.
"I'll be fine." Naruto replied, smiling reassuringly.
When Sai was airborne, Shikamaru glanced sideways to take in Naruto's face. He was surprised to see a faint smile on his lips. Shikamaru was suddenly hit by nostalgia, remembering the days when the Konoha Eleven were young, innocent, and naïve. Back in those days, Naruto had always been smiling, with Sasuke's name on his lips.
It had been a long while since Naruto had been able to smile without a shadow lurking in his eyes.
"Damned Uchiha. I won't forgive you for what you've put him through."
"I'm glad Sakura-chan is in the Hidden Sand." Naruto said suddenly, interrupting Shikamaru's train of thought. "After all this time, she still loves Sasuke."
"So do you," the Nara thought.
"Okay!" Naruto exclaimed, turning to point purposefully at the Shadow-nin. "I trust you to take care of the village while I'm away!"
He jumped up, crouching on the wall as his eyes focused on an unseen chakra on the horizon.
"Jeez." Shikamaru grumbled, rubbing his temple as he sensed ANBU members as well as regular ninja gathering behind him. Picking up on their mood immediately, Shikamaru sighed. "Be careful out there, Naruto."
Naruto reached behind himself to flash 'thumbs up' before rocketing off the wall, turning into nothing more than a blur as he disappeared down the main road.
"He has too much energy." Shikamaru mumbled to Neji, whose Byakugan eyes were already scanning.
"Naruto is prepared to die to stop Sasuke." The ANBU Captain replied, crossing his arms. "We should honour his dedication by doing our best at the tasks assigned to us."
"Irritatingly noble, as always." Shikamaru jabbed, raising a taunting eyebrow.
"Noble?" Neji replied, smiling in response to their banter. "I prefer to think of it as loyal to an old friend. I think we agree on that particular point."
Shikamaru returned his smile, nodding. "Alright. Let's do this."
The Leafs' head strategist crabbed his hands as Neji went about organizing the ninja on the wall, his regal tone leaving no room for objections. However, he kept his focus on the sun-like chakra of the Uzumaki, who was rapidly approaching a person with chakra as cold as an Arctic winter.
Sasuke Uchiha had come out of hiding.