"You're already moving in together? That's pretty fast isn't it?"
The answer was a deadpan look; not from Sasuke, as one would suspect- but Sakura.
"Haven't you and Itachi been living together since before you were officially in a relationship?"
Naruto smiled, scratching the back of his head with an awkward laugh. "Guess ya got me there." He conceded.
"Our lifestyles don't exactly encourage 'taking our time'" Sasuke elaborated, chewing on a bite of his sushi roll.
"Fair." The blonde conceded again, then thought. "Though, I can't imagine your parents are happy. I know your dad threw a fit when he found out about me and Itachi."
"They're not." Sasuke shrugged. "Actually, amend that, my father and Hizashi aren't happy. My mother is quite pleased. Or at least she seemed so when I told her."
"Well I say good for you." Sakura smiled. "And just say the word and I will cut someone for ya Sasuke."
"Thanks. But Hokage-sama is actually warning both our parents not to interfere with us."
"Seriously?" Naruto blinked. "I mean, that's great but… last I checked I don't think the Hokage have the authority to interfere with clan affairs."
"They don't… but in his words to Hizashi: 'She ceased to solely be your successor when she became my right hand' Authority or not, he's forcing himself into the mix."
"Huh." The blonde uttered.
Then Sasuke eyed him, taking another bite of his food. "What about you?"
"What about me?"
"Come on Naruto." Sakura chimed in. "When are you getting married?" She smiled brightly.
Sasuke's face was deadpan. "I was actually asking about his recent promotion."
"Oh." The pinkette started, then giggled as she caught the completely 'done' look in Sasuke's expression. "Right. Yeah, what about that?" Her giggles became snorting snickers.
"It's not a promotion." The blonde protested. "I… well, I'm friends with Gaara the Kazekage and Haku the Kiri diplomat so Kakashi-sensei is making me the official coordinator of the peace talks with them. It's a temporary thing until this whole issue is settled." He shrugged.
"A lot of people are saying it places you one step closer to Hokage." Sakura waggled her eyebrows.
"Quite a few are saying you and Itachi are on the very short list for Godaime in a few years." Sasuke added. "If she gets it, would that upset you?" He asked, genuinely curious.
"If you would have asked me when I was younger… probably." Then he grinned stupidly."But honestly, she'd be a great Hokage. So no, probably not."
"I bet you say that to all the girls you sleep with." Sakura winked.
Sasuke threw down his chopsticks. "I think I'm going to pay the check and then promptly throw up somewhere." He groused.
"You gotta get over it some time ya big baby." Sakura laughed; then quickly stole a glance at the time. "Ahh hell. I gotta get going-"
Noting her sudden rush, Sasuke and Naruto stole a glance at the wall clock too.
"Oh crap!" The blonde balked.
Standing up he quickly grabbed his things and rushed out the door. "Nicetalklateforameetingi'llseeyouguyslaterbye"
Sasuke caught half of that, and then noted Sakura had disappeared as well.
Then, he realized something else…
He took out his wallet, grumbling with irritation and vowing revenge at having been left to foot the bill.
The chains rattled when she woke.
Her hands were bound, her feet as well.
The carriage jostled and lurched as it moved; her back ached and her neck felt stiff.
She could spy the light of the early sun peeking through the small openings of her wooden prison.
She tried to focus, feel her chakra, but of course the shackles immediately glowed.
Chakra suppressant seals.
She was stuck, for now.
And so, Kurotsuchi sat quietly, her back pressed to one side of the cart and listened.
A single horse was pulling her. Two, three, four…
Six men. Four walking around her, one driving the carriage, and another in the trees above.
She didn't know their ranks, or even their affiliation. Now that she considered it, she could barely remember her capture. Something slipped into her drink perhaps? Or her food?
Quietly, the horse and cart plodded along.
Finally, they came to a stop.
Unless she'd been asleep for days- and she wasn't nearly hungry enough for that; there was only one place she could be.
"Halt." Someone cried outside.
"You approach the gates of Konohagakure no sato. State your business."
She wasn't allowed to see the village, though she could hear the sounds easily. The sound of hammers against wood, saws grinding, people calling out to others;
It sounded as though they were still rebuilding from Kumo's attack, if she had to guess.
She wondered briefly, how much damage had been done. Or if she'd live long enough to perhaps see it for herself.
They moved along the road, and the sounds of construction changed to something different, more lively, more people moving closer, gossip, chatter. Not military, civilian, moving through the village proper now; perhaps the central plaza, or the market square.
Then, after a while, the chatter died down. Silence reigned saved for the song of birds in the nearby forests and of course the plodding of the horse.
Finally; they stopped.
She wondered if they were at another gatehouse, or guard post, if she would hear the sentinels demand their information again, maybe she could get an idea of who was in charge, recognize a voice or two.
Then the lock of her door cranked open.
The sunlight burned her retinas, she shut her eyes tight and flinched away, peeking them open slowly as the guard stood just outside.
As her eyes adjusted to the light… She recognized the person outside.
"... I should have guessed they'd have sent you to catch me."
It was true. She should have. But a part of her had hoped the woman would say no to such an order.
She'd thought Itachi and she were friends after all.
The Uchiha nodded. "I am one of the few who could capture you without running the risk of unnecessary force."
Kurotsuchi huffed out a breath. "So it'll be a public execution then?"
She hadn't wanted that.
For months she'd worked to run, to get away. But her options quickly vanished, one after the next after the next.
Iwa would never take her back. Not again.
Even if all of the witnesses to her betrayal were dead; her returning as the lone survivor with their dead S class Shinobi and yet another dead Tsuchikage left in her wake… at best her execution would be a quiet thing. A slash across the throat when she was asleep, or assigned to a suicide mission with partners who would make sure she wasn't quite so lucky again.
Suna's close alliance with Konoha, along with Kiri, ever on the hunt for lucrative deals with the other villages would turn her over in a heartbeat to either Konoha or Iwa.
The minor villages had been in a similar vein. Too afraid of defying Konoha or with too much to gain from betraying her.
Kumo had been her best option.
They caught her before she could cross the border.
One more day.
That's all she'd have needed.
But the Gods she'd learned long ago were petty, cruel things.
She would have opted for Iwa now if she had a choice. At least there her death wouldn't be a spectacle for the public.
Itachi stepped into the carriage, leaning close and- much to Kurotsuchi's surprise -removed the shackles on her wrists.
The metal clattered to the floor of the carriage, thumping onto the floor with a heavy crack.
The former Iwa Kunoichi stared at the discarded chains, rubbing at her wrists.
Her eyes panned upwards, staring into the Uchiha woman's black orbs. "What is this?" She asked.
Itachi stood. "I did not bring you here to kill you."
"You don't have the authority to prevent it." Kurotsuchi argued back.
"No I don't." Came the simple answer, before she gestured to the open door.
Slowly, cautiously, the Iwa princess stood, and made her way outside.
Stepping out of the inner gloom, Kurotsuchi found she wasn't standing in a prison courtyard, or within the IT. compound.
No. She stood in the courtyard of an estate.
It was large, almost lavish. Traditional architecture, two stories- it rested at the edge of the village itself- she could just catch a glimpse of the walls beyond the canopy of the tall trees.
"What is this place?" She asked.
Itachi didn't answer.
They made their way through the halls of the estate; and immediately, Kurotsuchi realized where she was being led.
It wasn't through some epiphany, or some marking or symbol.
It was the guards.
After all; only one group of guards was authorized to wear the red armor of the royal house of the Daimyo.
Immediately, her desire to flee nearly overwhelmed her- it had been present before of course, but almost in a dispassionate, base desire- Now; it was almost a genuine, cloying fear that ripped through her insides, slowing her steps and searching for an escape.
But she couldn't- Itachi had always been stronger than her, always been stronger than all of them, and that had been before her ascendency into the realms of impossibility with the unlocking of that legendary eye.
She would catch her.
And just like her fear, her pride still carried some sway within her, some kernel of its flickering flame demanding she not be dragged before a girl she'd seen as a toddler like a pitiful animal, dragged to the slaughter pen.
Even if the thought of that little girl ordering her death was something she found too sickening to contemplate.
Finally, she settled on a compromise.
Her words had an effect.
Itachi turned, looking over her shoulder with a gaze of aloof indifference.
"Don't do this." She pleaded, and in spite of herself, felt the beginnings of tears burning at the back of her eyes. "This is cruel." She hissed.
Itachi stared back at her, features unreadable.
"I did not bring you here to kill you." She repeated.
"That's the only way this ends." Kurotsuchi protested. "She wants me dead for Magojiro, your whole damn country wants me dead for Magojiro- Catching me and letting me go will throw a wrench in those supposed peace talks so stop lying to-" She started, the answer coming to her.
They were going to trade her.
Catching her and letting her go wasn't an option. Itachi supposedly hadn't brought her here to kill her, so they would simply be transporting her elsewhere to get it done.
Likely she was here to satisfy little Sasame's curiosity. After that, Hi-no-Kuni avenges their Daimyo, and secures a better peace deal by handing her over.
Her shoulders sagged and the urge to cry grew in the depths of her chest before she ruthlessly stamped it down.
"Lets… let's just get this over with." She swallowed thickly, forcing every feeling, every hurt and agony down again as she had so many times before.
Itachi watched her and Kurotsuchi could see nothing in those eyes. No hint of her own feelings, of anything that would reflect the friendship they'd shared.
"I didn't bring you here to kill you." She repeated quietly.
Kurotsuchi didn't respond. No point.
She began to walk, Itaci did the same.
After another few turns and hallways; they came to a door, guarded by two heavily armored Samurai and two Shinobi, the symbol of the Fire Guardians emblazoned on their shoulder guards.
The Samurai eyed Itachi, and Kurotsuchi.
"The prisoner is not in chains." The man's voice growled out of his helm.
"She is not a prisoner." The Uchiha answered simply; startling her.
The Samurai seemed ready to argue.
Then his partner beside him leaned close, whispering something.
The man backed off, but stared at Itachi.
"By standing order; you may enter. But her acts are your responsibility within."
Itachi nodded. "Understood."
The doors opened.
They entered into a small indoor shrine.
There was another fire guardian within, a young woman, with wild, fire red hair. Unlike the others, she wore no mask.
Beside her, Naruto and in spite of the circumstances a wellspring of genuine relief bloomed in Kurotsuchi's chest. Cooling the burning within briefly with genuine happiness.
And there, kneeling at the base of the shrine; one dedicated to Magojiro Koutou and his late wife-
She was a small, tiny thing still. Dressed in robes of opulent red, dark hair tied in a topknot fitted into a crown of rubies and emerald.
She turned, adjusting her kneeling position to look over her shoulder and Kurotsuchi found herself staring at the young girl she'd met so very long ago here, at the foot of her father's grave.
The father who the whole world believed she'd killed.
Naruto could feel the grin on his face, wide and bright, and it was a struggle to not immediately rush over and take hold of the dark haired beauty.
He noted her eyes close, the barest hint of an exasperated smile beginning to form on her face before it evaporated as though it'd never been there. "You really must stop with that name." She complained.
Akane grinned, waving merilly. "Hi Itachi-chan"
There was movement beside him, and Sasame's hesitant voice called up.
"This is her then-"
Immediately, the mood within the room shifted, growing sombre and serious.
Naruto's eyes turned towards Kurotsuchi.
The Iwa princess looked thinner, haggard. There were dark circles under her eyes, her skin pallid.
She looked frail… beaten down.
"Yes." He nodded. "This is Kurotsuchi." He stepped forward, away from Sasame and towards his friend.
"How have you been?" He asked.
Pink eyes met his blue ones, and she offered a shrug.
He felt a pang of sadness. "I heard you're the one who saved me." He ventured tentatively.
"Guess I did." She offered, with a shrug. "I'm glad… that you survived. There were a lot of insane rumors. I wasn't sure if you made it out."
"I did." He nodded. "There was a lot of insanity. I can tell you some of it later-"
She raised a slender eyebrow, then turned her gaze from him towards Sasame.
The lady of Fire looked at her, not rising from her kneeling position before the shrine.
Then, adjusting the billowing sleeves of her formal wear she gestured across from her.
"Will you sit with me Kurotsuchi-san?"
Naruto could see her hesitate, see the confusion ghosting across her features.
Then, with a halting step,she marched forward, kneeling on the mat across from the diminutive ruler.
She sat stiffly watching the young Sasame in the same way one would look at a primed explosive.
It was the girl who spoke first.
"My advisers counseled against this meeting, despite Uzumaki-san's assurances."
He caught the quick look out of the corner of Kurotsuchi's eyes- fast, barely a moment before it returned to Sasame.
"And what, exactly- did you bring me here for?"
Now it was Sasame's turn to dart her eyes away, not to him, at first, but to Akane, who nodded encouragingly and then to him.
He did not know the girl, not really. It was Akane who had her trust, and through that trust she was extending it to him.
"Naruto-san believes you're innocent." She finally said. "So I brought you here to ask- did you kill my father?"
Kurotsuchi stared the girl down. "Would you believe anything I say?"
"I am willing to judge for myself." She answered back, eyes now fixed and fierce.
Kurotsuchi lowered her head. "Everyone's already told you, I did."
"That's not an answer."
There was a silence now, thick and pregnant. Naruto stood back, beside Itachi waiting with what he could admit was baited breath.
"No." She finally said. "I didn't"
Sasame seemed to sit perfectly still, watching Kurotsuchi.
The incense candle on the shrine burned, thin trails of smoke passing between the two of them.
"Did you love, or hate my father?"
The laugh Kurotsuchi let out was startling in its abruptness, almost breathless before she quickly covered her mouth.
Now her eyes moved with something other than lethargy, other than apathy. Naruto couldn't identify it.
"The world isn't a simple place and your father wasn't a simple man. Did I hate the man who took me from my home for a political victory? Yes. Did I also love the man who raised me in his home, next to his children, had me trained to the best of his ability? I did. Did I hate the man who sent me off as a piece on the board for his schemes? Who lied and manipulated a bad situation in his favor and damn the pawn he'd so readily discarded? Absolutely. Do I love the man who tried to warn me of danger and gave me his weapon as the last measure of his protection before it was snatched away from me by others who answer to you? Yes."
She took a deep breath through her nostrils, and looked down to the floor.
"Did I love or hate your father? Both, is the simple answer." She shook her head. "But life doesn't conform to simple answers." She brought her eyes up again. "Whatever I feel, whatever I've done- it's mine, Magojiro-san. And I'm not going to explain, justify or make excuses about it to you or anyone else. No matter what they're dangling infront of me."
The silence came again. Overbearing and suffocating.
"Uzumaki-san-" Sasame finally said. "Believes you're innocent." The admission came.
Sasame reached behind her, pulling free a small, pencil thin scroll.
Unfurling it, she placed the parchment on the floor between them.
"He wishes for me to extend to you a full pardon." The Girl finally declared.
Kurotsuchi felt her heart stutter in her chest, her breath hitch. Her head turned facing Naruto; he offered a nod, though he couldn't bring himself to smile.
Kurotsuchi stared at him for a time, then she turned and looked into the lady's eyes.
"And you, What do you want, Sasame? What do you believe?
The child ruler breathed slowly.
"I…" Her eyes grew glassy, her gaze distant. "I don't want wars. I don't want fighting… I don't want people dying pointlessly… for me or anyone else."
Her eyes refocused and fixed themselves on Kurotsuchi. "I don't know what to believe regarding you Kurotsuchi-san. People say you killed a man I barely remember. People say you've betrayed Konoha. But they also say you've betrayed Iwa. That you murdered my father and caused the death of the Godaime Tsuchikage. That you work for us, and you work for them."
She shrugged. "Perhaps pardoning you is foolish. Perhaps Uzumaki-san is wrong and you did kill my father."
She rolled the scroll up, then held it out to Kurotsuchi.
"What I believe doesn't matter." She declared. "What I want is an end to this pointless bloodshed… if you would be another step on the path to that goal- then reach out and take hold of it."
The sun was beginning to fall, by the time Naruto returned home.
The door closed behind him. And he reached over, pulling the heavy cloak off of Itachi's shoulders.
"It's… been a long day." She said,
"I'll get some tea going."
"No." She called. "Let me."
"You sure, you've been traveling an-"
She leaned closer, and the kiss she pressed to him, shut him up right quick.
"And you've been busy." She declared. "Go. I'll be there shortly."
Turning, she made her way to the kitchen, grabbing what she needed as Naruto folded her traveling cloak and placed it in the pile to wash soon.
He started to get rid of some of his own outerwear, vest, heavy boots, headband and other items and left them in the pile to wash as well, before stepping out to the hallway.
Itachi was there, standing at the doorway of a room.
He stepped beside her, looking inside and finding the first designs on the walls.
"You've started?" She asked.
"Preliminary research." He said slowly, not meeting her eyes. "It was a collaborative effort last time. I… don't have all the pieces."
"Hn." She said simply, looking onto the designs for a time before she looked at him.
He mustered the courage and looked back.
He expected disapproval, a reprimand, a cautionary warning of how Tobi might be released completely in his effort to rescue Kurama.
"You're not in this alone-" Is what she said.
His heart stuttered, staring into onyx black.
No… No he never had been alone.
Kurama was gone. Sasuke and Sakura too…
But every step of the way-
"I'm here." She promised, one hand rising to press against his heart. "No matter what you do. What risk you take. You only have to promise me one thing."
"Don't be stupid?" He smiled weakly.
She pressed another kiss against him and there was nothing quick or chaste to this one. Away from prying eyes, isolated from the distractions of the world, he reciprocated until they were both short of breath, pulling away to press his forehead against hers, their breaths mingling.
"Come. Back:" She demanded, and when he opened his eyes he saw her eyes shift to red, the sharingan spinning gently within the iris.
There was a command there. A compulsion… and he didn't try, or even want to resist it.
Come back to me. She demanded.
He closed his eyes. Nodding against her.
Well, here we are ladies and gents. It's finally finished.
Quite clearly a lot of things have been left "up in the air", the decision of Orochimaru and Kurotsuchi, the status of the peace talks themselves and how they're progressing. This is by design because I personally prefer some things to be left up to interpretation. The endings of my fics can be as bleak or as hopeful as readers choose them to be in this way.
This will likely be the last Naruto project I write truth be told; or at the very least the last Naruto project I write that's anywhere near this length. There are simply other fandoms that catch my interest these days and more than that after so long I believe I can start dipping my toe into potentially writing published original works. So that will be my next major venture .
I made some mistakes in this fic, but regardless it was an enjoyable journey.
On the final farewell for this fic I'd like to thank the Beta's who helped on the project and ask that you read, review, leave your thoughts and also, to anyone that's able to contribute to the TV tropes page of this fic, to reflect both changes and the story itself since it's sat a little neglected for some time.
Thank you all, have a great day and to all the other writers out there, you're never too good to stop learning and improving. See you all later.