DISCLAIMER: I don't own Naruto or earn any profit by this.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Every story draws to an end, and this one is doing just that. Last chapter. Hope you've enjoyed reading it as much as I've enjoyed writing it. Thanks to Librastar for beta reading this. Also, thanks to all the fanfic authors who provided inspiration for aspects of this story.


"The last of the invaders has fled or been killed, Hokage-sama," Jiraiya reported. "Oto and Suna are in full retreat and Konoha is secure."

"Excellent, Jiraiya. What is the status of our defenses?"

"Makeshift in places, but secure. The village wall wasn't breached in any significant way. Minor repairs to watch posts have already been started. All of the fires are out and all key points in the village have had guards doubled."


"Secure. He and his siblings are in cells in T&I with their chakra suppressed. I haven't had time to look at Gaara's seal, but I think I can help the boy. In the meantime, the three of them should make decent bargaining chips with the council in Suna."

"Suna may have been deceived by Orochimaru, but they still went along with this invasion. There will be suitable repercussions. Time for that later, though. How is Naruto?"

"Mild case of chakra exhaustion, something I didn't think was possible for him." Jiraiya shrugged. "He'll be fine, and happy to know, I'll bet that because of him we didn't get off nearly as bad as we could have. If Shukaku had gotten through the gates, the casualties…"

"I know," Sarutobi nodded. "He was also an invaluable aid during the battle, feeding me intelligence from across the village with his shadow clones. That made it much easier to rally our forces and dispatch troops where they were needed."

"There were still casualties, though," Jiraiya reminded him grimly. "We should have a full list by the morning. There weren't very many civilian casualties, I'm happy to say."

"Good. Have the final list brought to me when it's ready as well as estimates on repair time and troop readiness."

"Of course, Hokage-sama." He thought a moment, before speaking again. "Sensei? It may not be the time, but the exams were interrupted before they could be properly concluded."

"Not the most pressing matter," the Hokage nodded, "but I am considering. I'll let the Council know my decision in that regard soon enough."

"Of course. I'd best get back to work."

"As should I," the Hokage repressed a sigh, looking at the stack of reports on his desk.


The darkness receded gradually, leaving Uchiha Sasuke confused and somewhat groggy. He looked around what appeared to be a hospital room. It took a moment to recall what had happened. When he did, he took careful stock of his surroundings and condition. He was bound, his chakra had been sealed, and there was a guard outside the room.

He wondered why he wasn't in a cell. Was the old man really hoping to brainwash him into forgiving or forgetting what had been done to his clan? The Third might be that senile, but Sasuke decided he wasn't going to stick around to find out.

Taking a few moments to gather his wits and assess his condition, he decided it was time to go. He freed himself with relative ease, escape jutsus had always been fairly simple for him, even with restraints designed for shinobi.

The room was windowless, so he moved to the door cautiously. There was just the one guard. He was about to open the door, when it opened from the outside. The guard, a burly ANBU in a dog mask, regarded him silently for a moment.

"The Hokage wants to see you," he said emotionlessly. Sasuke wasn't about to be made a prisoner, but he bided his time as he wasn't being restrained. "Return to bed. He will be here within the hour.


"Be grateful you are not in a cell, and do as you are told."

Sasuke gritted his teeth but stood back from the door. It was closed and locked. He knew he had little chance against a trained ANBU, but he'd have less chance when the Hokage arrived. There was no way he could even begin to forgive what the man had done or even pretend to do so.

He briefly examined the room for other possible ways out, but found none. He was considering other options when the door opened and the ANBU stepped into the room before collapsing. Behind him was Kabuto. The boy gave him one of those infuriating smirks before asking, "are you going to stand around all day? Or do you want to get out of this village?"


"Gone?" the Hokage asked.

"Yes, Hokage-sama," the ANBU who brought him the news replied. "He apparently freed himself, killed the guard, and fled. We have patrols looking for him now."

"I see," the Hokage fumed. He had given the boy a chance only to have it squandered in spectacular fashion. "I suspect he'll try to leave the village. Alert the guards along the wall and send some Inuzuka clan members to track him. He is not to be allowed beyond the village wall."

"Yes, Hokage-sama." The man left to carry out his orders.

Sarutobi sat down and closed his eyes in pain at yet another senseless death. He should have taken more precautions with the boy, but wanted to demonstrate a measure of good will. In retrospect, it wasn't a terrible surprise that the vengeance obsessed young man had thrown that in his face. He had been left with little choice. The boy had murdered a fellow Leaf shinobi and was no doubt attempting to flee the village. He would be punished for this as village law dictated, and he would be labeled a missing-nin if he escaped the walls of Konoha.

The only good news was that Naruto's summoning scroll had been found and returned to him. It had been found in a storage seal among Sasuke's belongings. At least the little traitor wasn't going anywhere with that.

Sarutobi was not looking forward to informing the council, and dreaded the message he would have to send to Itachi. On the upside, the term in prison would be far safer than life as an active duty shinobi. Perhaps Itachi would be satisfied with that.

Until the search was completed, regardless of outcome, he did have other duties. Happier duties. A signal to his waiting guards later and three people entered his office. They arrayed themselves before him and stood to attention, even if the one on the end fidgeted a bit.

"The exams were not completed," he began, "but I saw enough to be sure of my decision. The Council and the Daimyo have endorsed my choices, making this official." He rose and nodded to an aide who brought in three chunin vests. "Nara Shikamaru, Rock Lee, Uzumaki Naruto. You have demonstrated not only the skill levels and aptitude of chunin, but the ability to think strategically and adapt quickly and effectively to unexpected circumstances. More to the point, you have proven yourselves loyal to the Hidden Leaf Village, demonstrating a willingness to put the safety of Konoha above your own desires and above your own lives. For this, you have each earned the rank of chunin."

Shikamaru nodded lazily while putting his fingers in his ears. The Hokage blinked at this in confusion until the other two started cheering and he had to resist the temptation to plug his own ears.

He gestured for silence and got it after a moment. "You've all done well. This is merely a step on the path, though. Your missions will become more difficult and dangerous. Konoha expects a great deal from you three."

"We won't let you down, Hokage-sama," Shikamaru promised.

"Indeed not!"

"We won't fail you, jiji. Believe it!"


"So why help me?" Sasuke asked suspiciously once they had reached an isolated spot several miles from the village.

"Mutual interest," Kabuto answered. "Konoha has taken something important from each of us. Oto lost many fine shinobi today as well as our Otokage."

"Orochimaru," Sasuke grunted, having learned the details from his summons.

"Indeed. Do my loyalties disturb you?"

"No," Sasuke answered honestly. "Oto sounds like a good place to get stronger."

Kabuto smiled winningly. "I assure you, it is."