Hogosha and Sasuke walked with their swords drawn towards Naruto, who was still chained to the wall and appeared to be unconscious. "Hey, Hogosha! What the hell is going on?" Kiba yelled at them. The two figures ignored him and, when they reached Naruto, drew their swords back to strike.
"No! Stop!" Sakura cried out as their swords came swinging down at Naruto. She shut her eyes and mentally braced herself for the sound of steel slicing flesh. Instead, all she heard was the metallic clinking of chains hitting the cave floor. She opened her eyes in time to see Sasuke and Hogosha catch Naruto's arms as he fell from the wall. The rescue group looked on in disbelief as Naruto was carried over to the group and laid out on the ground.
"Wh- what just happened?" Ino asked, breaking the silence. Naruto stirred below them, bringing group's attention to him as his eyes cracked open.
"It's... a long story," Naruto spoke weakly as he breathed laboriously. Sakura immediately ran over to him, collapsed on her knees, and activated her medical ninjutsu. Naruto craned his head back to the side and looked at Hogosha. "You did well," he quietly addressed the hooded man. Hogosha gave Naruto a small nod and, to everyone's surprise, disappeared in a puff of smoke. The group's eyes widened before being directed back at Naruto, who gave a dry and crackled laugh. "I guess… that explains… some of it," he managed to get out between forced breaths.
"Wait, so… was that a… a shadow clone?" Sakura asked in confusion. "How..? When did you make it?
A small smile crept to the corners of Naruto's mouth. "Heh… Thank Sasuke for that. We had plenty of time to come up with the plan when he caught me in his Mangekyou Sharingan."
Sasuke spoke as confusion filled the faces of those around him, "My team happened to find Naruto before Akatsuki, I needed to talk with him in private; thus, Mangekyou was the best option."
"Why did you need to talk to Naruto?" Shikamaru inquired.
Sasuke hesitated for a second before answering. "After I found out the truth about Itachi, I made the decision to follow in his footsteps. I kept up appearances with those around me, but as soon as we found Naruto, I knew it was time to act."
"Was he part of the plan?" Neji asked, casting an uneasy eye at Jugo, who was tending to Karin and Suigetsu. Hearing his name, he slowly drew his massive form from the floor and lumbered toward the group. He addressed them, "I was only informed of this plan recently, after I approached Sasuke about my desire to leave the group." The young ninja's inquisitive faces prompted him to continue. "I don't like fighting, and I don't like harming people through my power. I wanted to leave so I could isolate myself and protect others."
"He approached me a few days ago tell me he wanted to leave, and I decided it would make out job much easier if we brought him on," Sasuke finished. "I knew that Karin and Suigetsu wouldn't make this easy, but having Jugo with us rendered it a non-issue."
Naruto groaned and struggled to push himself upright, only to be restrained by Sakura, telling him, "Naruto, don't push yourself! I need to keep healing your wounds."
Despite this, Naruto, continued to try to prop himself up and eased her worries by smiling and saying "Don't worry, Sakura-chan, I'm going to be fine. I just want to sit upright for a bit." Knowing it was useless to try to argue, Sakura helped him up and leaned him up against her knees.
"Hold on a minute, something doesn't add up," Kiba started, grabbing Naruto's attention. "If Hogosha was one of your shadow clones, how come Neji didn't notice your chakra when we first met you? He used his Byakugan, there's no way he could have not known!"
Naruto turned his head to Neji, locked eyes for a second, and chuckled. "I'll admit, I was pretty worried you were going to say something."
Neji replied flatly, "I figured that, if you were going through the trouble of disguising yourself, I would allow you to maintain your façade until I knew why."
"You knew!?" Kiba exclaimed, pointing a finger at Neji.
"Hate to break it to you," Shikamaru interjected, "but Naruto let me and Hinata in on it too."
Kiba was about to continue his rant, but was stopped when he glimpsed Naruto hold his hand up to him. "Believe me, Kiba, I would have let everyone in on it if I thought it would be safe, but I had to make sure nobody knew the connection. I had to tell Neji and Hinata because they would have noticed my chakra, and I wanted to let Shikamaru in on it before he figured it out on his own."
"But Naruto-kun, why did you not tell us? You know we would have been able to keep a secret," Lee asked.
"I do trust you all," Naruto replied, "but we had to make absolutely certain that nobody found out. The forests have eyes, and if even one person said something at the wrong time and that information got back to Akatsuki, the whole plan would have fallen apart. That's why I only told people I knew would figure it out. Plus Tsunade, of course. That's also why Sasuke had to disguise himself as Meibatsu."
"Wait a minute," Ino exclaimed suddenly. "Where is Sasuke?" The group looked around and, sure enough, Sasuke had mysteriously vanished from the cave.
"Sasuke wanted to leave quietly," Jugo explained. "I don't think you can blame him."
"Why doesn't he want to come back to Konoha? What is he going to do?" Lee asked.
"When Sasuke and I had that long talk," Naruto answered weakly, "he told me he wanted to follow in his brother's footsteps. He decided to honor Itachi's memory by gathering intelligence for Konoha and working with Jiraya's spy network." Naruto arched his back in an attempt to stretch, but only succeeded in renewing the pain his body was experiencing, resurging dull pain throughout his spine. He groaned in pain, eliciting a worried look from Sakura. "Don't worry, Sakura-chan, I'll be fine." Craning his head back to the unconscious Suigetsu and Karin, he asked, "What should we do with these two?"
"It's troublesome," Shikamaru started with his signature lethargy, "but we should probably bring them in to Konoha and deliver them to interrogation. Neji, help me?" He and Neji walked over to the prisoners and bound their limbs. Choji then approached and hefted the two bodies over his shoulders. "Okay, everyone, are we ready to head out?" Answered with unanimous nods, he added, "All right, let's go."
Sakura helped Naruto to his feet before gently hoisting him onto her back. "Ready to go, Naruto?"
Naruto smiled. "You have no idea; I'm looking forward to seeing Konoha again." With that, the group began their long journey back. Within minutes, Naruto was close to falling asleep, chin supported by his girlfriend's shoulder. "It's so good to be home again," he murmured into her ear.
Confused, she clarified, "We only just left, Naruto. We have a ways to go."
Naruto lightly chuckled and stated simply, "Home is where my friends are."
Sakura smiled at the sentiment. "You're right. Welcome home."