A/N: So this has been on DLP for about a month, and I totally forgot that I hadn't posted it here. Here's the conclusion to the Civil War Arc, a nice little happier piece. It felt good to write this after all the grimdark stuff in the past arc.

Somebody had a whinge a chapter or two ago saying that I need to have technique names and descriptions at the bottom of the page, etc, etc. Sorry, but that's dumb, and I won't be doing that. I believe in a 'show, not tell' style of writing, and if you can't pick up or guess what a technique is doing, then I either haven't done my job properly or you need to re-read it. Most of them are pretty self-explanatory.


Chapter Forty-One

Status Quo

Kanoshi was a large city that had been built on one of the Great Plains of the Land of Fire. A large river, drawing water all the way from the mountain ranges of the Land of Earth, flowed down from the north-west, and it cut close to the city, bringing with it the trade of the western nations. Small towns had been built around the river, supporting the burgeoning mercantile economy, and usually a constant trickle of carts and carriages would travel to and from the river docks, bringing in supplies and passengers.

Now, the carts and carriages had stopped. The twinkling stores were blotted out by huge plumes of smoke that rose from the Land of Fire's Capital City and the outlying towns, and large files raged uncontrolled. A shimmering barrier of dark purple enclosed Kanoshi itself, trapping in the occupants of the city as they the army of the revolutionary Kazuma began its attack.

From the vantage point several kilometres away, at the edge of the tree line of the nearest forest, the black-ops operatives- codenamed Team SPARK- crouched at the very top of the foliage of the trees. They all wore dark robes and blank silver masks. Their leader, designated SPARK I, held a pair of binoculars and he watched the beginning of the Land of Fire's Civil War with the quiet sense of achievement.

It had been a difficult mission. Team SPARK had had the support of several other squads at the very beginning of the operation, but that support had dwindled as Konoha had increased patrols its patrols and tightened its internal security. The other teams had returned back to the Village, leaving Team SPARK behind in the deep recesses of the Land of Fire's forests to fend for themselves.

It had been hard avoiding patrols, gathering supplies from nearby drop-points and continuing to run their operations.

Much of their success was due to one of the freelancers that Kazuma had hired. Team SPARK had been initially dubious of the orange-masked man, and even SPARK IV, their best sensor, hadn't been able to get a read upon them. Nonetheless, the man's strange techniques and unique knowledge had allowed Team SPARK to travel around Konoha unheeded. The freelancer had also had contacts deep within the logistical chain of command, and as such they had been able to implement several successful false-flag operations incriminating Sarutobi's latest protégé.

Kazuma was mad, and his idea of a 'Jinchuuriki army' was just as bad. That didn't really matter to SPARK I- his orders had never included the need for Kazuma to win, so long as the revolution weakened the Land of Fire and Konoha as a whole. SPARK I's hands flashed, twisting into a silent non-verbal code that only he and his team knew of.

: Status on Alpha and Bravo :

Spark IV answered. : Bravo has moved away from priority target, seeking secondary target-3: He paused, tilting his head in the air. His loose brown hair ruffled in the wind behind his mask. : Location of Alpha remains unknown :

SPARK III answered that for them, her hands moving rapidly. : Sentry indicates presence of Alpha in sector S-4-G of city. Verifying… : She paused, angling one of her remote spies in for a closer look. : Chakra presence confirmed, visual presence confirmed, olfactory presence confirmed – Alpha has left priority target :

SPARK I nodded in confirmation. : Begin the operation : He signed.

On the tree branch above them, SPARK V clapped his hands in a seal. With SPARK II and SPARK VI maintaining a very sophisticated barrier technique, only the members of the black-ops team could feel the sudden surge of chakra that flowed through the air. SPARK V didn't make a sound, but the strain on his body was nonetheless quite visible. He stood in that position for a few moments and then nodded.

Next to him, the blank-masked SPARK III signed on her brother's behalf. : Infiltration complete- the Palace has been breached. Gas canisters deployed – the Bunker has been neutralised – No life signs :

: Confirm : SPARK I ordered.

The two summoners were silent for at least a minute. Then, SPARK V shook his head silently, and SPARK III's fingers flashed.

: Negative- Priority Target missing :

SPARK I nodded calmly. : Locate target – search for multiple life signs in a small area – confirm locations:

The two operatives did so, and for the next few minutes SPARK I watched the city burn. The faint sounds of screaming and yelling rose up into the air, but the man was unaffected. He idly noted a series of flashes- explosive tags, class-three, clustered within one metre radius- near the South Gate. The Third Hokage was undoubtedly on the move- and it wouldn't take the God of all Shinobi to scatter his enemies to the wind and bring down that barrier. When that happened, SPARK I and his team were not going be there.

: Contact – clustered life forms detected, body-heat, increased level of humidity and carbon dioxide- first floor – two shinobi present, sash of the Twelve Guardians confirmed :

: Begin the operation- infiltrate and assassinate :

: Understood- Assuming direct control :

SPARK I watched as SPARK III and SPARK V took control of their tiny rodent summons. They would undoubtedly be sneaking up on the two Guardians, waiting for a chance to leap at them and inject them with a cocktail of drugs, hormones, several powerful mind-altering substances and a dose of chakra. It would be enough for the two black-ops shinobi to influence and control the actions of the Guardians for afar, entering the room where their priority target waited and terminating him in a matter of moments.

: Direct control assumed – moving to terminate :

Both SPARK III and V radiated a sense of intense concentration, their hands twisted up into the snake hand-seal. For a few moments, nothing happened. Then, SPARK V jerked back and let out an audible groan, his head snapping back. He stumbled, loosing his place on the branch, and began to fall, but SPARK IV jumped from her branch and snatched him from the air. SPARK III let out a little shriek a second later and collapsed, leaning against the trunk of the tree, panting harshly.

: Report! : SPARK I's hands flashed.

: Mission failure – Alpha present in the room – proxies terminated : SPARK III managed to report with trembling fingers.

The backlash of the aborted technique was significant enough that SPARK I could see a trickle of blood oozing out of SPARK V's ears. He nodded, emotionless, and raised his hand to signal his team to withdraw- they had failed in their chance to eliminate the Fire Lord, but it had merely been an attack of opportunity, and not a requirement. His superiors would be pleased enough to hear that the Land of Fire's capital was in flames- and there was always a chance that Kazuma could win, however small that it was.

Then a sudden burst of red light flashed in the corner of his eye, and he jerked his head back to the city. A crimson light was glowing at the base of the Fire Palace, the light pulsing ominously. There was a cold feeling in the air, and something heavy settled down upon them. SPARK I was legitimately surprised at the sheer power he could feel, and it was something that he had only felt once before when Kazuma had demonstrated the power of his Tier-1 weapons.

The other man had always been assured of the next weapon, the Tier-2, and SPARK I could see why. How had the man managed to create such a powerful Jinchuuriki? This changed thing- a Tier-1 weapon had been decided by his superiors to be insignificant. The level of power that the Tier-2 weapon was displaying, however, was immense. Should such a thing be replicated... SPARK I took a deep breath and made a field decision.

SPARK I's hands flashed. : New priority orderssecure rebel leader and extract to home village for debriefing – II and VI, continue ma- :

He was cut off by a flash of bright light and a thunderous boom that echoed around them. A large explosion had just gone off at the base of the Fire Palace, and for a moment the crimson presence of the Tier-2 disappeared underneath the rising ball of flame. Then, it reappeared and the presence came off even stronger than before. For a moment, nothing happened, and then there was a second presence- just as powerful as the first. SPARK I belayed his orders, waving his hand and cancelling his message.

Konoha had just deployed their Jinchuuriki to counter Kazuma's. It would be an unacceptable risk to enter the city at this point, not until things had calmed down.

The two beasts fought amongst the Fire Palace, crimson light ebbing and dimming as they collided with each other, sprang apart and collided with each other again. A part of the wall was destroyed, something hung in the air and streaks of fire shot up to meet it by the hundreds. At roughly the same time, great plumes of fire burst into existence, and then the two presences collided again. There was a flare of light, a sudden and terrible surge of pressure washed over them- even at the distance they were- and then two beams of brilliant light shot up into the air. One slammed into the spire of the Fire Palace and it disappeared in an instant, shattered under the terrible force of the attack. The other struck the barrier and it too disappeared, cracked purple light falling down to the ground akin to broken glass.

SPARK I watched in silence.

Something had happened, and one of the foul presences had considerably weakened- the second one to have appeared. For a moment, it seemed as if Kazuma had had his victory, but then the first one abruptly disappeared and the city fell into silence. With the failure of the barrier, reinforcements were rapidly approaching, hundreds of shinobi from Konoha sprinting at the city at breakneck pace

SPARK I had seen enough.

The battle was lost. Konoha had been weakened, but they had ultimately prevailed. Team SPARK did not have the military might to take the capital themselves, and their assets seem to have either perished or were about to fall into the rapidly closing net of approaching Leaf-Nin.

Operation SPARK was concluded.

: Contact! : SPARK IV's hands flashed in sudden alarm. : Close range, twenty metres- four shinobi from the east : She paused. : Seven shinobi from the east, nine from the west : She paused again and quietly shook her head. : We're surrounded :

SPARK I felt the barest flicker of frustration forming at the pit of his stomach. He stood up, casually brushing aside the emotion as he had been doing all of his life, and surveyed the area around them. However they had done it, a full platoon of shinobi surrounded them, not even trying to hide their presence now. They wore black robes and blank white-faced masks, and stood on the branches of the trees all around them, staring silently at them.

They made no move to attack as Team SPARK fell back in a close, defensive formation. The barrier around them, apparently useless, fell.

From one of the branches came the first sound that the approaching enemies had made, and it was the sound of wood hitting wood. From the shadows came an old man leaning heavily on a wooden cane. His arm was bandaged and drawn tight to his chest, and he wore strips of cloth around his forehead and down on of his eyes. He stood on the branch, surveying them with one half-closed eye.

"So you're the ones who have been playing in my backyard," the old man said quietly. His mouth twitched. "Of course you would come to observe the results of your efforts."

SPARK I did not move. Behind him, he could hear a faint buzz of insects moving in the darkness, and the shadows cast down by the bright moon were slowly extending their way.

"You should be proud," the old man continued. "Your operations were masterfully done." He drew a sword from the top of his cane and pointed the gleaming blade at them. Then, his voice rose as he addressed his men. "Take them- alive, if possible."

SPARK I knew what must be done. He felt only the slightest pang of regret as he made a single hand-seal in a single instant, just as the other operatives lunged at them. Shadows fell upon them, freezing them in position, and they were suddenly surrounded by a hazy sphere of insects. It was too late, however, and SPARK I watched steadily as his unsuspecting teammates were consumed with blue flame.

SPARK III let out a startled shriek- she had not been expecting the suicide technique- as fire exploded from every orifice, and she managed to raise a trembling hand. SPARK V and her brushed fingertips, both forms alight, and then the rest of their bodies were consumed by the powerful flames. Even as he too burned live, SPARK I held himself strong. He ignored the other shinobi around them, even as the first ineffective water techniques were produced, and instead he looked up at the sky. His mask fell from his face, revealing a scarred, hardened face, but the expression on it was almost wistful.

Whatever SPARK I was thinking at his final moments caused him to smile faintly. Then, he too disappeared underneath the raging blue flame and his entire world went white.

One week after the Kanoshi Rebellion, Uzumaki Naruto stood in the Fire Palace just before a grand set of doors. His armour, vest and mask were gone, and he wore a set of very formal robes. Red silk fell down to his ankles, bound with a bright yellow sash, and a cloak of sleek black adorned his back. On the cloak were a series of images that had been carefully stitched into brilliant fabric, of a terrible crimson figure and a small shinobi with blonde hair fighting. Naruto was currently wearing a set of clothes that was probably worth more than anything he had ever earned in his life. The Land of Wind silk was pleasant to wear, but he nonetheless felt extremely uncomfortable.

It didn't help that the real fight against the false Jinchuuriki had gone nothing like the fight that had been depicted on his cloak, and depicted of the large tapestry that the seamstresses and servants had been working on all week. Nonetheless, Naruto knew better than to say anything when presented with the clothes as a gift from the Fire Lord himself.

The young, blond ANBU stood there stonily. Two of the surviving Guardians, those that had returned with the Fire Lord's son, flanked him- either protecting him from others, or protecting the others from him. A gaggle of servants and attendants flocked around him, their drab brown robes rather plain when contrasted with his own clothes, and they fretted over him, tucking back his hair, smoothing out his robes and generally brushing against him.

They were too close, and Naruto resisted his well-honed instincts, which were insisting that he should retreat- and possibly bombard them all with a fire technique.

It had been a week since the attempted coup d'état by Kazuma, and Naruto had unfortunately been out for most of its conclusion. The battle with the false Jinchuuriki had been taxing, and he had only awakened three days later under the watchful eyes of Jiraiya and Tsunade. The latter had been there to tend to his medical needs, and the former had been there to inspect his seal. His transformation into what Jiraiya was calling a 'Version Two Jinchuuriki Form' had been hushed up as much as possible, but nonetheless the Third Hokage had been evidently concerned enough about the stability of the seal to call for Konoha's premier sealing expert.

Jiraiya had examined it for about half-an-hour, poking at Naruto's exposed stomach and humming thoughtfully at times. Naruto had took it all stoically, but he had nonetheless felt relieved when Jiraiya had proclaimed that there was nothing to worry about- although the brief look on his face made Naruto think that the spiky white-haired man had wanted to add 'yet' to the end of his sentence.

With Kazuma dying rather unexpectedly, and his false Jinchuuriki falling five or so minutes later, the rest of the rebellion had been rather lacklustre. Konoha reinforcements had come quite from their positions quite quickly, and with the falling of the barrier, they had entered the city in force. Whatever puppetry or medical technique that had somehow allowed Kazuma to field an army of corpses had been no matched for seasoned shinobi, and they had been promptly put down with ease. There seemed to have been a time limit against the technique, because as the sun rose the next day all of the corpses had promptly exploded into heaps of dirt, ash and crumbling paper.

A few of the fake Jinchuuriki had caused some problems. The insane, young, crimson-cloaked children that had been roaming the city had fought to the death. They had not communicated in any way, and attacked with the savagery of a wild animal. There had been some injuries, and even a couple of fatalities- a Chunin Squad had blundered into a house with two of them, and by the time reinforcements had arrived to assist them, fifteen men and women were dead. Nevertheless, they too had fallen in the end- the other Leaf-Nin had picked up about them what Naruto had. For all their aggressiveness and power, the fake Jinchuuriki were ultimately uncoordinated and easy to confuse and mislead. They had been put down within the first hour, and their tiny, broken bodies had been collected for analysis.

Shinobi casualties had been low. Civilian casualties had been high.

Many had been slain in their homes, torn apart by creatures and constructs far more powerful than they were. They had never had a chance, the false Jinchuuriki were too mad to reason with, and the walking dead had shown no remorse as they had cut down all who stood within their path. The death toll was quite easily in the thousands.

Of course, as the Fire Lord had said to his advisors, nobody important had died, so it really didn't matter.

It didn't matter that the Fire Lord and the Hokage, the two people tasked with the protection of the citizens in the Land of Fire, had used them as bait. It didn't matter that the two of them had left them to die, a city full of men, women and children to distract and slow the enemy as they had advanced.

Naruto had taken one look at the Fire Lord and his quirky smile and that stupid fan and had vowed never to underestimate the ruthlessness of the man. As eccentric as the man was- or at least appeared to be- there was a vicious streak within him, and although he was the newly favoured shinobi of the Fire Court, Sarutobi had warned him time and time again that the whims of the nobility were fickle and never to be trusted.

He had felt a surge of anger when he had heard the Fire Lord casually talking to his advisors by his bedside table, and he had clenched his fists underneath the blankets. Nothing had shown on his face as he shovelled the anger and disgust away- but he was briefly surprised when the sounds of chains did not disturb him as he did so. Whatever had happened that night, it had weakened or drained the 'pit'. It wasn't necessarily a nice feeling, more of something empty and hollow inside of him.

That void had been quickly filled with a vicious sense of satisfaction as Sarutobi had described the fate of the black-ops team that had crossed him all those times. A special team of highly-trained infiltrators- who that was Sarutobi was quite vague on- had set up observation posts all around the edge of the city, and they had located the enemy team observing the rebellion. When confronted and cornered, they had killed themselves with a powerful suicide technique, burned alive in a matter of seconds.

The downside was that they perhaps would never know who had sent them.

Perhaps examinations from Kazuma's body would bring something to light. It had been collected, as had two more bodies found on the outskirts of the city. Judging by their equipment and scrolls, they had been the ones responsible for the raising of the barrier techniques and the coordination of the walking dead. They had been killed with single, fatal blows- and all evidence and lack of apparent resistance indicated that the two shinobi had known their attacker.

Naruto knew who had been responsible.

Tobi, whoever he was, had ultimately been the one responsible for all of this. He didn't really understand why, but he had told Sarutobi everything the man in the orange mask had said. When it had come to Tobi's final message to the Third Hokage, Naruto had watched as the old man had visibly staggered back. The Hokage had looked stunned, even dazed, as he leaned on the table, his mouth parting in shock. His face had shown a myriad of emotions- despair, shock, anger- and a sudden clarity that had made the old man straighten up and press his lips thinly together, exhaling loudly.

Regardless of whom Tobi, was and however true his claim may nor may not have been, he had just made an enemy out of the Third Hokage. Very few awarded that status tended to survive for very long.

Naruto was interrupted by the sound of creaking doors. A boy, barely out of his teens dressed in fine white robes, poked his head out.

"Please enter, Uzumaki-sama," he said nervously, and then disappeared before Naruto could respond.

Naruto straightened as the attendants left him, bowing and murmuring. The two Guardians swung open the doors, their faces blank and their crimson sashes gleaming under the light, and they stood to the side as Naruto walked through. He had entered a large room. A red carpet had been laid from the door to the front of the room. Large polished-wood tables had been put to the side of the room, and a large crowd of men, women and children stood there. They wore the robes of the nobility, the men were rather portly, the women were thin and wore heavy-make up and the children were bright-eyed. They stared at him as he walked past, his footsteps echoing loudly in the silent room.

At the front of the room was a set of steps. At the top of the steps was a large table, and standing in front of that table were some of the most important people in the Land of Fire. On the left stood the Third Hokage, dressed in his ceremonial robes of red and white, and flanking him was Mitokado Homura and Utatane Koharu. On the right stood Akiko, surrounded by two of her ladies-in-waiting, and behind her stood half-a-dozen nobles. Naruto picked out Lord Shinji as one of them, the portly man nodding approvingly as Naruto approached them.

The Fire Lord stood at the head of the group. His fan was up, half of his face hidden by his fan. His one visible eye watched Naruto carefully, something lurking within its depths, and his body language was unreadable. He wore giant red robes that flowed to the floor, tied with a huge yellow sash that draped down to his knees, and a tall, rectangular head with the symbol of 'fire' adorned his head.

Naruto approached the Fire Lord and bowed deeply. He remained crouched down as the Fire Lord took a step towards. Then, the leader of the Land of Fire spoke, his voice loud and audible to all those in the room.

"Today we are here to celebrate the actions of a most wonderful shinobi," the Fire Lord began. He snapped his fan shut, the instrument disappearing in his sleeve, and he opened up his arms with a wide smile. "Oh yes, a most wonderful shinobi indeed. Uzumaki Naruto has served the Land of Fire well. He has fought against its enemies and protected its citizens, and oh my, what a wonderful job he has done indeed!"

With his head bowed, Naruto couldn't see anything apart from the Fire Lord's luxurious robe trims pooled against the Feudal Lord's feet. Nonetheless, he could hear the rustle of robes as the man shifted, and he could swear he could feel the eyes of the man staring down at him.

"He has saved our nation against the perilous threat of Sky Country, single-handedly defeating the wicked leader of that villainous trash! He has saved this city from the treason of a man who should have been our protector!" He stopped, and a hand came down to rest on his blond locks.

Naruto resisted the urge to shudder.

"He has saved my daughter from the tyranny of a murderer," the Fire Lord continued quietly, and more sombrely. "He has saved my life. He has saved all of your lives. He has fought against the darkness to keep us safe. He has battled a demon, and foiled a plot on my own life. Uzumaki Naruto is a true protector of the realm."

There was a short silence. Then, somebody behind him started clapping. First one, and then two- and then a dozen, and then hundreds of clapping men, women and children echoed out in the large room. For all the applause they gave, not a single one made any other noise apart from that. The pressure on his head was removed as the Fire Lord lifted up his hand.

"Rise, Uzumaki Naruto!" He ordered.

Naruto straightened up and stood there, his eyes locked firmly a point of the wall behind the Fire Lord. The eyes of hundreds bore down on him and he did not like it. Nonetheless, it was his duty to withstand it, and so he did as he always did and obeyed.

"Naruto is a true shinobi. He is the epitome of the Will of Fire. He will protect the Land of Fire as long as he shall live!" the Fire Lord cried out.

A sly smile had crossed his face, and he looked distinctly pleased as the nobles clapped for Naruto again. Then, he raised his hands and the audience went quiet in an instant.

"For his actions here, and his impeccable service record of the last seven years, I am gifting Uzumaki Naruto with an adage," the Fire Lord continued. He swelled up, patting Naruto on the head almost as if the blond shinobi was a dog. "His friends call him the Right Hand of God. His enemies call him nothing, for they are all dead! Oh ho ho ho!"

He laughed, and many of the other nobles chuckled politely.

"However, for those foolish enough to challenge the Land of Fire again, they will first have to come through our protectors!" the Fire Lord boomed out. He flung an arm out, gesturing towards Naruto- and almost hitting the shinobi in the face. "Standing at the front of our protectors will be this shinobi, Uzumaki Naruto, the Right Hand of God and the Demonsbane!"

The nobles burst out into applause as the Fire Lord plashed a sash around his chest. It was much like the sash of the Twelve Guardians, however it was gold and a terrible demon had been stitched upon it with crimson silk. A shinobi stood above it, a hand frozen in a seal, a permanent battle between man and demon depicted on the award.

Through all of this, Naruto was smiling, not because of the award but because the irony was really not lost on him at all.

There was a feast. The tables were brought to the centre of the room and servants and attendants streamed out of the kitchens with platters and plates laden with rich foods, exotic spices and goblets and pitchers of the finest wines. Naruto sat on the right of the Fire Lord, while the Third Hokage sat on the left, and the two powerful men chatted to each other over their glasses of wine. The Fire Lord's face was red as he finished his third cup, saying something to Sarutobi, who merely responded quietly and smiled faintly as the Fire Lord erupted into a fit of laughter, clapping the most powerful shinobi in the Land of Fire on the back.

On Naruto's right sat Akiko, the Fire Lord's daughter. She was dressed in her finest clothes, silks and cloth draped in such a way that revealed tantalising flashes of thigh and shoulder as she moved. It shimmered around her, sparkling underneath the light as if it was made from blue diamonds, and her hair flowed down her back, twisted in an elaborate braid. She looked absolutely beautiful and Naruto would have loved to have talked to her, but Lord Shinji sat on her other side and was engaging her rather enthusiastically. The Fire Princess responded politely, laughing demurely and blushing at the most appropriate times as a man three times her age and six times her weight drank from his goblet. The more wine he consumed, the more he seemed to leer at her.

From what Naruto understood, an important Justice in the Fire Court had been found dead in the ruins of the city. Lord Kinjo had been struck down by his enemies after refusing Konoha's protection, tortured and beaten, but he had remained a patriot to the very end- or so the official story went. Lord Shinji was a popular option to replace the man, and Naruto could only feel a flash of indignation at the thought of what incentives the Fire Lord would offer.

Perhaps even the hand of his daughter.

There were plenty of other girls who would be eager to take her place, Naruto noted dryly. He wasn't an expert on social relationships and girls and all that stuff, but even he, oblivious as he may be, could tell that he was receiving quite a lot of attention. Several of the ladies of the Fire Court, some his age, many a great deal older, threw him looks. Many of those looks were coy, suggestive smiles, twirling skirts and swaying hair. Others were more speculative, as if the matriarchs of the great noble families were looking at him wondering just which daughter they would throw at him.

Now that he was the Fire Lord's favourite, he was very popular.

Naruto could only smile thinly and look away. This fake level of adoration, the false smiles and the blatant praise and hero-worship, it was sickening in a way. Some part of him definitely liked it, but another part- the shinobi part- could only see all of it as a threat. That was probably the smart part, Naruto decided.

Somebody touched his hand. Naruto jerked and looked up. The dark eyes of Akiko met his and she smiled. As a troupe of entertainers entered the room and began playing music, and nobles began to rise and pair off, the two of them rose. Naruto took the Fire Princesses hand and they entered the crowd. Then, Naruto used a near-perfect Body Flicker to take both him and Akiko out of the room. The last thing he saw was the blatant disapproval of the Twelve Guardians and the Third Hokage, both watching him.

Sometime later, Naruto and Akiko broke apart from their latest kiss. The branches, twigs and leaves of plants around them dug into his back, but the blond boy found that he really didn't care. His heart was pounding, something heavy pushed against the pit of his stomach and his senses were heightened. Akiko's presence filled him, her smell, her taste, the sound of her voice, and the feel of her hair. Naruto licked his lips, feeling a surge of affection for the girl as she smiled at him, tenderly brushing his hair out of his eyes.

There was a member of the Twelve Guardians nearby, but Naruto honestly didn't care. Akiko's warm body was pressed against him, his fumbling hands roamed her back and she shuddered, mewling into his ear, her soft hair tickling his face. He kissed her again and when they broke apart, Akiko giggled and laid her head down on his shoulder.

The ground around the palace gardens was still cratered. Big chunks of the wall still littered the grounds and the wall itself had been shored up temporarily. Large swathes of grass and plants had been burned in the blaze, and some of the blackened husks remained. Other sections of the garden were just in tatters, resembling the rocky fields of the Land of Earth rather than the fertile plains of the Land of Fire. The Fire Princess was looking up, staring at the scaffolding that covered the top of the Fire Palace. The eternal flame burned once more, this time through the use of natural gas rather than an elaborate seal-matrix, and repairs had already begun on the spire.

"It must have been so terrifying," she murmured into his shoulder. She stroked his hair, nestling deeper into him, and turned her head to stare up at him with her lovely eyes. "What a terrible battle it must have been. You were so brave."

Naruto didn't really know what to say to that. He settled with a small shrug, and Akiko giggled.

"You're so tough," she cooed, flicking him on the nose. Naruto flinched and she outright laughed. Then, seeing his wounded expression, she leaned up for another kiss. "Don't worry. I like that about you."

Naruto couldn't help the smile that crossed his face, and he stroked her hair. Akiko was quiet for a little while longer, content to just lay there as Naruto played with her hair.

"That woman…" she trailed off, sounding a touch nervous. "The one that pretended to be Shizu… what happened to her?"

Naruto paused in his ministrations. "I fought her," he answered quietly.

"Did you kill her?" Akiko asked. She gazed up at him, and there was nothing but sincerity on her face. At Naruto's blank expression, she let out a shuddering breath. "Oh…" she trailed off.

She lowered her hands to her lap and wriggled out of Naruto's grip. With her head bowed, Naruto was suddenly fearful that he had offended her. Then, her hands clenched, bunching up the material on her thighs, and she looked back up at him. There was a fleeting look on her face, something vicious and dangerous, and Naruto was abruptly reminded who her father was.

"Good," she whispered darkly. "I hope she suffered, the…the…the bitch." Then her look faded into sorrow. "I liked Shizu…" she trailed off in a quitter, sadder voice.

Naruto embraced her and they kissed again.

"Did you really fight a demon?" Akiko asked between kisses. "A real demon?"

Naruto nodded and pointed to the spire. "It did that," he murmured huskily.

Or did he do that? His hormone-fogged mind couldn't remember at the moment. If a genin decided to assassinate him at the moment, he probably would have been an easy target, yet Akiko's lips came crashing down on his even hungrier than before and he really didn't care.

"You're so strong, Naruto," Akiko gasped as she came up for a breath. Her hand was tangled in his hair, tugging almost painfully at it, and she had placed his hand on her lower back. "You're so strong!"

Naruto thought about the chains and the darkness and the eyes of the Nine-Tailed Demon Fox.

"Not really," he murmured.

He drew back and flopped onto his back. Akiko joined him, and they stared up at the stars.

"When do you leave?" Akiko asked softly as she curled up around him.

It must have been a ridiculous sight, a teenage girl nearly out of her teens wrapping her body around a boy just entering his.

"Tomorrow," Naruto responded lazily. He took a deep breath, so very tempted just to lie there and sleep with this warm girl beside him. "Before the sun comes up."

"Will I see you again?" Akiko asked, sounding even softer than before.

Her voice wavered a bit and Naruto turned his head to gaze at her.

"Of course," Naruto assured her quickly. "You can't get rid of me that easily."

Akiko looked happy. "Maybe I'll request you for a mission," she teased with a giggle. "You can help me shop and entertain me and my friends. I'm sure you know lots of tricks."

Naruto smiled faintly. "My team only does special kinds of missions," he responded.

"Like what?"

"Dangerous stuff," Naruto answered. "Secret stuff I can't tell you about."

Naruto felt rather proud of saying that, and he appreciated the look of amazement and awe he received from Akiko. Her eyes were wide, her pupils dilated, and she breathed in, her chest heaving dangerously close. Naruto smiled, and she smiled back rather wickedly, pulling him down and drowning him in another kiss.

Naruto and Sarutobi departed from the Capital City early in the morning, before the sun had even risen. They were accompanied by a squad of Jonin Guard, more of a formality than anything else given the large numbers of shinobi present in the region. They returned to Konoha in good time, and entered the Village gates as the sun was beginning to rise. Normally, only the early risers would be up by now, tending to the bakeries and milk deliveries, but as the group of shinobi entered the Village, they were greeted with a large crowd.

Men and women, shinobi and civilian, lined the streets as the group walked past on foot. The Third Hokage had his hat on, his eyes almost disappearing underneath the hem of it, and Naruto walked on his right. As they walked past, the crowds cheered and clapped, hollering and yelling praise and acclaim. Many of the shinobi bowed their heads respectfully, and Naruto was surprised to see that it was at him!

Then, the Third Hokage abruptly pulled ahead, leaving Naruto behind- and the crowds continued to clap and cheer. His eyes were wide and his heart was racing, an unbidden smile crossing his face when he realised that they were all here to see him. Not the Hokage- him!

He stood straighter, pleased at their acknowledgement, proud to be recognised by his Village. When compared to the Nobles of the Fire Court, this was much more honest and sincere, and Naruto felt like he was six again as he beamed in happiness.

His good mood didn't end there as he arrived at the Hokage's Office. The Third Hokage sat behind his desk, while the rest of Team Sigma stood around it. As he entered, they all came to attention and bowed their heads. Naruto stopped, staring as they raised up. Yuuka waved at him, grinning brightly, and Daichi smiled. Kage gave a slight, but meaningful, nod, and Komachi bowed her head respectfully, and Towa gave him a thumbs up. Sasuke stood there and rolled his eyes, huffing and looking away, but there was a slight smile on his face.

The Third Hokage cleared his throat. "We have no time for any more slacking off, Naruto," he reprimanded rather lightly. "You have been officially reinstated as Team Sigma's Captain. The Land of Fire is in a mess right now, and we need every shinobi on the roster."

He paused, and then the ends of his lips rose. Approval. Praise. Acknowledgement.

"Get to work, Naruto," Sarutobi snapped a second later, the moment gone but not forgotten.

Naruto saluted, placing the mask on his face.

He had the respect of the Village.

He had the acknowledgement of the Feudal Court.

He had his team back.

Things were looking good.