Author's Note: After the last chapter, this story has now more than two million pageviews! Wohooooo! I never imagined that I'd write a story with more than one million, much less two. Thanks a lot to all of you guys, you made it possible.

Now, onto the next chapter:


Chapter 116:

Embers

or

Some rest at last

Undisclosed Location, a few days before the present time

"There he is!"

"Don't let him escape!"

"Be careful, that guy can kill you in one hit if you let him!"

Jugo was a man that, above all things, appreciated the quiet and calm.

Calm that he was denied due to being born with a Bloodline Limit that brought his most primal, animalistic, and downright violent impulses to the forefront, transforming him into a sadistic monster, both on the inside and the outside. His only hope was to seclude himself on a cave and pray that nobody would get close to him, since he didn't want to have more blood on his hands.

That's it, until a certain white haired man arrived, an Otogakure ninja by the name of Kimimaro Kaguya. Not only did Kimimaro managed to subdue Jugo when he succumbed to the rage and the violence of his curse, but introduced him to Orochimaru, a man who promised to help Jugo if he allowed the man to research his genes. Naturally, Jugo accepted.

Jugo spend most of his time under Orochimaru locked inside a cell, not that he would have wanted anything else. From time to time, Kimimaro would visit him and tell him about the missions the last member of the Kaguya clan completed. Then, one time Kimimaro requested Jugo to accompany him to a mission, to capture some old ninja from Iwa. Kimimaro almost lost his life to the dreaded Itachi Uchiha, but in the end, the mission was a success, and Orochimaru only lost one man to the enemy.

Then, Kimimaro visited for what he felt would be the last time in a long time, to tell him about the war that was going to happen. The days following that, silence reigned. The base was almost entirely empty, devoid of any activity. The only visits he received were the Oto ninjas who brought him food and water twice per day.

Until one day, the silence was no more. He could hear screams, shouts, metal clashing against metal. He was then released by an Otogakure ninja, and his words made no sense.

"There has been a revolt! They outnumber us! You have to help us!" the Oto ninja cried.

Those were his last words, as the man was then slain, much to Jugo's surprise, by another ninja also wearing Otogakure's uniform. So, these people would dare betray Orochimaru-sama? He would make them regret it.

At first, Jugo had no trouble beating the ninjas who tried to fight him, only needing a smidge of his curse to even the odds and stay at a comfortable advantage. Then, she showed up. And with a few jutsu, she showed that he wasn't a rival to her. The orange haired man decided that the best thing he could do was to escape and find either Kimimaro or Orochimaru-sama, and warn them about the betrayal among their own ranks.

So that's how he found himself running away from men that by ll accounts should have been his comrades, but were now his enemies.

"Earth Release: Mud Trap!"

Suddenly, the ground beneath Jugo's feet turned into a pit of mud, breaking his escape, as he started to slowly sink. This trap would stop most ninjas, but most ninjas weren't Jugo. Activating his curse, Jugo grew several tube-like appendages on his back. Said appendages fired jets of chakra, propelling the orange haired man upwards, allowing him to escape.

Escape which was also short lived as the ball end of a kusarigama wrapped its chain around his ankles, making him drop to the ground. Growling, Jugo pulled the chain, and the hapless ninja with it, towards him, before slamming his fist on the man's face, sending him flying backwards. He didn't know if the man was dead or not, and frankly he didn't care.

More traitors landed around him, weapons drawn. They were cutting his escape, but not for long. All he need was-

"Wood Release: Wood Binding Jutsu!"

Too late. Multiple wooden roots broke from the ground beneath him, and quickly wrapped themselves around his body and limbs, immobilizing him completely.

"Well done," the jutsu caster, a young white haired woman in an Otogakure uniform, said as he landed near them. She walked towards Jugo, and smiled. "Now he won't escape."

Jugo growled at her. "We always knew that there were traitors among our ranks. But you, Orochimaru-sama's own daughter, to be one of them, is beyond shameful."

Hebiko's face morphed into a mask of fury, stomped towards Jugo, and slapped him across the face. "Traitor!? You think I'm a traitor!?" she screeched. "It was our beloved father who abandoned his son and my brother to Konoha! Then he promised me that he wouldn't rest until he was back with us, but he lied! He lied to me, and lied to him!"

"You were the one who killed Kabuto, right?" Jugo asked, as he know realized who was behind the silver haired medic-nin's mysterious death. "You now lash at Orochimaru-sama by killing people he considers valuable."

Hebiko turned around, and seethed. "I'm done with Orochimaru. I want him to pay for his betrayal, to lose everything he has and cherish. Though my reasons behind killing him were more pragmatic rather than emotional."

"Then what do you want to do with me?" Jugo asked.

Hebiko turned around, and gave him an unnerving smile. "You're a bargaining chip. Wood Release: Blooming Garden!"

That moment, flowers started to grow on the roots that were immobilizing Jugo. They reached maturity in a few seconds, and upon blooming, showered the orange haired man with glittering yellow pollen. The moment he inhaled that pollen, Jugo fell deeply asleep. Tentatively, Hebiko released Jugo from the restraining roots, and he fell to the floor like a puppet whose strings had been cut. Yes, he wouldn't move in quite some time.

"It is done. Bind him, and cover him in chakra suppressing seals. I saw him in action, and while he lacks finesse, his raw power is impressive," Hebiko ordered. Two of her men were already picking the unconscious Jugo up, and dragged him away. "Then burn this place down. We're already done here."

"Yes ma'am!" the rest of the ninjas say.

"Once we finish this task, what are we going to do next?" one of her ninjas asked. "Where are we going?"

"To the Ninja Alliance HQ," Hebiko said. "It's about time to get my brother back."

Land of Fire, Nightime, present time

After the battle was over, Division Commanders A, Kurotsuchi and Tsunade ordered their troops to find a suitable place for a base camp. The first order of business was to attend the wounded and gather the dead. The second order of business, naturally, was to report HQ of the result of their battle. The three of them were now isnide the Communications Tent, with Ino Yamanaka being the one linking their minds to those in HQ.

"Congratulations for your victory," Jiraiya's voice said, sounding satisfied. "This will bring us one step closer to put an end to this war."

A grumbled, clenching his fist. "This wasn't much of a victory if we needed no less than three divisions to break their advance."

"I'm afraid I'll have to give it to the big guy," Kurotsuchi agreed with a nod. "We've been winning most of the battles, but I have this feeling that Akatsuki is just playing with us. The quality of the reanimations have been increasing with each passing battle. I'm afraid of what are they going to throw at us next."

"Tsunade and her Rinnegan were of much help this battle, but she can't be in every battle at once," the Raikage concluded.

"I see your point. We're suffering many casualities," Jiraiya's voice said, as Shikaku's image flashed in their minds for second. A tear dropped from Ino's eyes hidden by the psychic enhancing helmet. "But so is Akatsuki. We destroyed many of their Zetsu Clones, as well as their reanimations."

"But Orochimaru can replace the reanimations we kill, can't he?" Kurotsuchi asked.

"Technically yes, but I'm afraid it won't be that easy," Jiraiya replied. "Impure World Resurrection needs a living sacrifice to reanimate somebody, and I presume Orochimaru isn't in position to kidnap people to kill. Also, according to our research of the jutsu, the piece of DNA used to revive the intended target is consumed by the jutsu, and I'd bet the royalties of my Icha Icha series that Orochimaru used most of his available DNA of the deceased ninjas to create this batch of zombies. The fact that we haven't seen any of the zombies we previously destroyed support this claim."

"Still, to let such line of thinking drop our guard when we don't have hard evidence to sustain it would be beyond foolish," Chiyo's voice chimed in.

"Relax, nobody said anything about dropping our guard," Tsunade replied, rolling her eyes. "If anything, I'd say that things will get even harder from this point onwards. There are many ninjas that Orochimaru could have resurrected but we haven't seen yet. Like former Kages."

"Did Orochimaru resort to do that in the past?" Ao's voice asked.

"Indeed. When he attacked Konoha a few years ago, he had brought the First, Second and Fourth Hokages with him," Jiraiya explained. "The fact that he was able to resurrect my former apprentice is especially troublesome, given that his soul should be sealed inside the stomach of the God of the Dead."

"And now that he has a much greater mastery of the jutsu, he will resurrect them, as well as more Kages to bolster Akatsuki's forces," A said.

The Raikage clenched his fist even harder when he realized that his late father, the previous Raikage, would be among those resurrected. The Third Raikage was one of the strongest ninjas Kumo ever produced, being more than a match for the Eight Tails, and needing an army of ten thousand Konoha and Suna ninjas fighting him for three days straight until he finally died of exhaustion.

He wondered if he'd be able to fight his father if his worst fears went to pass. He heard how Fugaku Uchiha, who was among the reanimations that contributed to his previous defeat, had been fought and destroyed by his two sons. He didn't want to imagine what those two kids had to feel while they were fighting that mockery of their deceased father.

Then there was also the Copy Ninja Kakashi, who also had to put down his own father, the White Fang, as well as the father from Takigakure's young leader. And of course, the father of the Yamanaka girl that was now linking their minds with HQ, the one who had scanned his mind looking for the jinchuriki's hideout.

"By the way, I have bad news," A interceded. "During my division's battle with Akatsuki, a reanimation of what I've been told was the former Yamanaka Clan head," Ino flinched upon hearing that. The fact that her father was still out there tormented her. "Managed to ambush me and scan my mind. Despite my best efforts, he was able to pry from my mind the location of the three jinchuriki."

"What!?" Tsunade said, almost screaming, turning at him.

"These are grave news indeed," Onoki's voice said.

"Raikage, you know that island. What are Akatsuki's chances of finding it?" Jiraiya asked. His tone was firm, but the Raikage could tell that there was worry in his voice.

"I'd say null, since I gave explicit orders to move the island daily to minimize the chances of being found," A replied. "But if they have those flying Zetsu looking for it from the sky... I'd say they do have a chance to find it."

"That would explain why we saw so few flying Zetsu lately," Kurotsuchi said, placing a hand under her chin. "They must be using them to scour the skies. I think we should send reinforcements to the island."

"No. If we do that, Akatsuki might follow them and find it even faster," A countered.

"I agree with the Raikage," Jiraiya said, "I'll send a messenger toad to tell them to keep their eyes open, and to expect a potential attack. Anything else you might want to tell me?"

"Oh yes, there's something more," Kurotsuchi said, before looking at Tsunade. "And given that Tsunade is with us, she may offer some insight on the subject."

Upon hearing this, Tsunade raised an eyebrow.

"What is it, granddaughter?" Onoki's voice asked.

"Today Akatsuki send a new weapon against us. Not a new kind of Zetsu or reanimation but... a colossal creature made of wood," Kurotsuchi said. "I heard some Konoha ninjas called it a 'Wood Golem', and is related to the First Hokage."

"A Wood Golem?" Onoki's shocked voice said. "Good grief!"

"I take you're familiar with the creature. And that it's not good news," Kurotsuchi said.

"Yes. The Wood Golem was my grandfather's most powerful jutsu that didn't involve Senjutsu," Tsunade said. "It's powerful enough to match any Tailed Beast in combat. And you say that you fought against one?"

"Well, not me alone. I had hundreds of other ninjas backing me up. Some of them Sages, from what I've been told," Kurotsuchi said. "But if it wasn't for Dust Release, I don't think we would have been able to put that thing down for good."

"This begets a question," Jiraiya interceded. "HOW did Akatsuki managed to summon a Wood Golem?"

"It isn't obvious? Somebody among Akatsuki's ranks with Wood Release created it," A replied. "After all, both Obito and those Zetsu monsters have the cells of the First Hokage."

"Is not that simple," Tsunade said, shaking her head. "Like I said before, the Wood Golem was one of my grandfather's most powerful jutsu. No other Wood Release user in Konoha, either born with it like my youngest daughter or gained it through artificial means like Tenzo or Rin Nohara were able to replicate a jutsu of such scale."

"Indeed. That's like saying that any Water Release user should be able to flood a coast city with a tsunami," Jiraiya agreed.

"It is as we feared," Chiyo's voice was heard. "Akatsuki hasn't even deployed their most powerful assets yet. I'm sure that wasn't the only giant golem they have in reserve."

"Did any of our scouts find the location of Akatsuki's base?" A asked.

"Unfortunately, we didn't," Jiraiya replied. "We do know that at the very least, Orochimaru has to be relatively close to his reanimations if he wants to directly control them."

"Some of our best sensors are working on it, but given the jutsu's range, it leaves us with quite a vast area to search," Ao's voice interceded.

"Let's hope Naruto and Fu can finish their training soon," Tsunade said, letting out a sight, her arms crossed. "Not only are they in danger, but I'm afraid we're going to need them in the front lines."

"Yes. I'd say that Akatsuki has yet to do their worst," Kurotsuchi said, shaking her head.

"Fortunately, our casualities are lower than Akatsuki's, plus we still have the Fourth Division completely fresh," Jiraiya replied, trying to sound positive. "So, anything else you need to report?"

The two Kages and the one Sannin looked at each other, but none of them said anything.

"No, we believe that's all," A said.

"Very well then. In that case, let's wrap this meeting up. Go and have some rest," Jiraiya said.

Ino undid the mental link, and everybody left the communications tent.

As with every other aftermath of a victorious battle, the mood around the Allied Forces was that of celebration. Many ninjas were sitting around bonfires, sharing meals, chatting with each other, and having a good time, as they enjoyed the feeling of surviving another battle, and that the fact that with each victory, the war'd end was a little closer.

Not everybody was in the mood for celebrations, though. As with every battle, many ninjas lost their lives. And those who died in the line of duty had friends and loved ones, some of them who were also part of the same division. And while many learnt of their loved ones' deaths after the battle, others were unfortunate enough to see their friends and family dying before their very eyes.

Such was the case of Shikamaru Nara. After he saw his father being gutted by the zombie of Fugaku Uchiha, the now Nara Clan Head remained strong for the sake of his friends and comrades, and pushed his feelings of sadness and sorrow away, and continued to do so until reinforcements arrived.

Though, now that the immediate threat was finally over, Shikamaru didn't have to repress his feelings anymore. That's why he looked for a place away from the large crowds, sat down, and cried his eyes out, until his eyes could shed no more tears. It made him realize something: when Inoichi died so many years ago, he thought he could understand how Ino felt, given that both he and Choji were pretty close to her dad. However, now that it was his own father who died, he realized it was much worse.

"Hey."

Shikamaru looked up, a bit startled, since he wasn't expecting anyone to find him there. Then again, if there was someone who could that, that was his Jonin-sensei Asuma.

"Oh... hey," Shikamaru greeted back.

"Do you mind some company?" Asuma asked, noticing Shikamaru's reddened eyes. "It looks like you need it."

Shikamaru didn't say anything. He did want to be alone, but the rational part of his brain told him that talking to a friendly face would do him good. The young Nara nodded, and the Sarutobi Jonin sat besides him.

"First of all, let me tell you I'm very sorry," Asuma said, placing a hand on Shikamaru's shoulder. "Even before taking you under my wing, I was close with your dad. He was a great man. He didn't deserve to die like that. He didn't deserve to die in this war, either."

"Just like how Ino's dad didn't deserve to die in the Uchiha insurrection, along with many others," Shikamaru said, letting out a mirthless chuckle. "You know, I should have expected this. I mean, we're ninjas, death is part of our job description. You hear missions going wrong and ninjas dying all the time, but those are people you don't know, and you think it's never going to happen to you... until it does."

"We might be ninjas, but we're also human," Asuma told him. "Feeling sad for those who left us behind is only natural."

"I know..." Shikamaru said. "You know, I'm happy that Choza was assigned to that Kumo secret island, away from the battles. At least one of us will still have a father when all of this ends."

"Also, why are you here, all on your own?" Asuma asked. "Given what you're going through, you should share how you feel with your friends. I'm sure they'll make going through this much easier."

"I didn't want to bother them... and I didn't want them to see me like this," Shikamaru replied, his voice almost a whisper. "Plus... I wanted to be alone."

"Yes, I can understand that feeling," Asuma said, nodding. "But in my own experience, that's never good. You have wonderful friends, Shikamaru. Friends who are in this very same division. Don't push them away when you need them the most."

"Your own experience?" Shikamaru repeated, as the gears in his brain started to turn, and quickly realized whom he was talking about. "Oh, right, Biwako Sarutobi..."

"My mother, yes. She died the night the Nine Tails attacked, though ironically, she wasn't killed by the beast, but by that damn Uchiha traitor," Asuma said almost in a growl, his hand clenching into a fist at the memory. "And I wasn't the only one who lost family or friends that day. My wife also lost her father. Kakashi lost his sensei."

"Iruka-sensei also lost his parents that night," Shikamaru remembered.

"Yes. This life is far from easy," Asuma said. "That's why relying on others when we're at our lowest moments is so important. The pain didn't go away in an instant, and in a manner of speaking, it never went away. But my friends and remaining family made that pain a little less unbearable."

"There you are!" a new voice said.

Shikamaru raised his eyes, and saw Ino and Choji approaching him. While maybe not bad as him, the two of them looked like they also did their own share of crying.

"Shikamaru... what are you doing here?" Choji asked.

"Asuma-sensei?" Ino asked.

Asuma didn't say anything, and merely nudged Shikamaru. The young Nara got up, and took a step towards his teammates.

"I... sorry guys..." he felt like crying some more, but his reddened eyes were completely dry. "I just wanted to be alone..."

"No, it's... it's okay..." Ino said. "I felt the same way when... when my dad died."

Then, without any warning, Choji pulled Shikamaru into a hug, hug that Ino joined in as well.

"Hey man... just so you know... we're here for you, okay?" Choji asked, tears streaming from his eyes.

"You were there for me when my dad died, and I'll be here for you as well," Ino added, crying as well.

"Yeah! We're the Ino-Shika-Cho! As long as we have each other, nothing can stop us!" Choji said, trying and failing to reel in his tears.

"I... thank you... thank you guys..." Shikamaru replied, his voice quivering.

Meanwhile, at other side of the camp, while a member of the Koniha 15 was mourning the death of his father, another reunited with his.

"Father," Neji said.

"Neji!" Hizashi said in surprise, rushing to greet the young man. Hikari was slowly walking behind him, leaving the man enough space as not to intrude with the reunion. "My son! I'm so glad to see you're okay! How have you been?"

"I've been good, father. Despite the constant danger, I never felt myself in danger." Neji reassured him. He then looked at Hikari, and bowed. "Hikari-sama."

"Come on Neji, you can drop the honorific already. I'm not the Clan Head anymore. 'Aunt Hikari' would be fine," the woman said.

"I'm sorry Hikari-sama, I mean, aunt," Neji replied, bowing again. "Even if I treasure being free from the yokel of the Caged Bird Seal, there are some habits that are a bit hard to break. Anyway, I can see that the two of you have been doing good. You don't appear to have any kind of visible wound."

"Physical, maybe. Our wounds are more internal, boy," Hizashi said.

"Your father and I were forced to fight the undead reanimation of my late husband," Hikari said, as she averted her gaze.

A frown developed on Neji's face, as he clenched his fist. "Of course. Hiashi-sama was a formidable ninja. It's only logical that Orochimaru would decide to recurit him for his army of abominations. I trust you dealt with him?"

"Yes. My brother returned where he belonged," Hizashi said. "Still, fighting him was a harrowing experience."

"There were many of our clansmen that that traitor raised as his undead slaves," Hikari said, her face contorting into an angry grimace. "Not only Akatsuki was responsible for the greatest blow our clan ever suffered, but now they have to reopen old wounds and rub salt into them."

"This war is unlike any other ever fought, indeed," Hizashi said. "Akatsuki is not only using brute force, but they expect to demoralize us by forcing us to fight our late loved ones. We must not fall to such cheap tactics."

Hikari let out a weary sigh. "I know. But it's easier said than done."

"You weren't the only ones fighting a loved one. I heard that Sasuke and Itachi Uchiha had to fight their father," Neji told them. "I managed to catch some of the fight through my Byakugan, and I can confirm that they were the only ones capable of fighting him on even terms."

"Poor kids. They didn't deserve that," Hizashi said, shaking his head. "Let's hope they don't have to go through such horrible experience again."

Neji couldn't help but raise an eyebrow. "I must say, I wasn't expecting you to show so much sympathy to the Uchihas. Did Natsu getting close to Itachi changed all your perception of them?"

"Itachi Uchiha helped evacuate our weakest clan members during the Akatsuki's invasion of Konoha. We owe him a lot," Hizashi explained.

"Plus, we know that neither him, nor Sasuke or Shisui are like the the rest of his clansmen who betrayed the village for power," Hikari added.

"Too bad there's still one Uchiha left that's a rotten apple," Neji replied, reminding his father and aunt of Obito.

"Indeed. But thankfully, his days of undermining Konoha will soon come to an end," Hizashi said. "Not only is he's losing more and more troops with each battle, but he also lost the puppets from that Toneri man."

"Really?" Neji asked.

"There were reports from a couple battlefields of the puppets suddenly stopping working all of sudden," Hizashi explained. "And we haven't seen any more since those news arrived."

"Then that means that Hinata's mission was a success," Hikari said, placing her hands over her heart. "Hopefully she will come back to us soon enough."

"And with her help, the war will end even sooner."

"There you are!"

Choji was a bit startled by the girl shouting behind him, but when he turned around and saw Karui walking towards him, he smiled.

"Hey, Karui!" he said, waving at her, as he walked towards her as well, meeting the Kumo Kunoichi in the middle.

"So..." the redheaded kunoichi began, rubbing her arm, looking a bit uneasy. "... how is your friend?"

"You mean Shikamaru?" Choji asked. Karui nodded. The Akimichi heir's expression understandably saddened a little. "Not too good. But that's as expected. He saw his dad being killed in front of him. That's not something he's going to recover from soon. Though he said he's going to make an effort in order to keep his head in the war."

"Poor guy. It has to be tough, to repress his feelings like that," Karui replied, as she and Choji started to walk together towards nowhere in particular. "But maybe that's how he chose to honor his father's memory. I still remember when the news of B-sensei's capture of Akatsuki reached us. Both my teammates and I were so devastated... and I decided that the best we could do is to continue with our jobs to the best of our ability for that same reason, albeit in our case we were lucky he turned out to be alive."

"Shikaku was Konoha's Jonin Commander, and he took his job pretty seriously, so yeah, I can believe that that's what he'd want Shikamaru to do. At least, as long as the war continues," Choji said, sounding downtrodden.

"So, where is he? I don't know him much, but I want to give him my condolences," Karui sympathetically said.

"Um, he said he felt tired and went to his tent right now in order to sleep," Choji told Karui, who deflated a little.

"Well, he isn't going to get much sleep with all the noise going around us," Karui said, looking around to all the celebrating ninjas around them, as well as the multitude of bonfires.

"Eh, besides his intellect and strategical skills, one of Shikamaru's biggest talents is being able to sleep pretty much anywhere and anytime," Choji replied, making the redhead chuckle a little. He then sobered up a little. "We better let him rest. He might feel a little better tomorrow."

"If I don't see him, please give him condolences on my behalf," Karui requested.

"Will do," the Akimichi replied.

There was a moment of silence. Then, Karui began to think about something Choji had said earlier, and asked: "Were you and your friend's dad close?"

"Yes. Our clans have been pretty close to each other, as well as Ino's clan," Choji began. "And thus, Shikaku was not just like an uncle, but like a second dad to me and Ino."

"I've never heard of three clans being that close to each other," Karui noted. "Or at least, being so close yet still remain relatively independent."

"Yeah. I know our clans are something of an aberration. Before the time of the villages, some clans would make alliances here and there, but never permanent or even long term. Our clans, though, became so close upon realizing how our unique jutsu worked so well with each other," the Akimichi Clan heir explained.

Karui looked pensive, as if analyzing Choji's words. "Well, I kind of understand that. After all, clan unity was the foundation of the ninja villages. Yours started earlier than the rest."

"Though, speaking of clans, and now that I think about it... I don't think you ever told me your last name," Choji told him.

"Oh. Well, I do have a last name, but in Kumo, we don't give them much importance, so we don't use them that often. Mostly for legal matters and stuff like that," Karui told him.

"That's... pretty odd," Choji said.

"That's how Kumo rolls. The first Raikage wanted to make sure that his ninjas were Kumo ninjas first, everything else second, as a way to create unity and avoid clashes between the clans that formed the fledging village, so he wanted to downplay clan identity in favor of village identity," Karui explained.

"Heh, I don't think if such thing would have flown in Konoha. The clans that formed it, mine included, were very proud of their name, history and identity," Choji mentioned.

"Well, people didn't nod and happily accepted such thing at first. The original clans that formed the nascent Kumo were like that as well, if history books were anything to go by," the redhead continued. "That's why the first Raikage, in order to set example, not only did he give up his clan name, but his own name as well, and merely adopted the name 'A', as a symbol of being a servant of Kumo first and foremost. The following Raikages did the same as well."

"Wait, so your Raikage isn't really named 'A'?" Choji asked. "Well, it makes sense, having a single letter for a name is kind of dumb."

Karui couldn't help but giggle. "I see. I'll tell my teammate T what do you think of her name."

"W-wait! I said that without thinking!" Choji sputtered, as he shook his arms wildly. "I mean, one letter names can be kind of cool...!"

"Relax, silly," Karui said, chuckling a little. "I don't plan to tell her anything. But yeah, thanks to our first Raikage, one letter names became kind of common in our village."

"Still, I better watch my tongue from now onwards. I'd hate to accidentally insult one of your friends," Choji sheepishly said.

Despite the recent victory, both for the Ninja Alliance and on a personal level, Sasuke wasn't in the mood for parties. That's why, instead of joining the others in their celebration of their recent victory, the youngest Uchiha decided to stay on a place away from the main camp, albeit not too far away, for cautionary reasons. Finding a not too tall tree, Sasuke climbed it and sat on one of its highest branches, and looked at the starry sky.

After so long, he finally did it. He had mastered the Mangekyo Sharingan. No matter how many times he used it, he wasn't forced to relieve that horrible moment from his past. The complete powers of the Uchiha were now at his disposal. And all he had to do was to follow the advice from his pink haired smartass of a girlfriend.

"She's never going shut up when I tell her about it," Sasuke chuckled good naturedly.

However, even then, dark thoughts managed to push their way into his mind. Had he realized the key to mastering his power sooner, maybe he should have been able to complete some missions that ended in failure. The fight against Akatsuki to stop them from capturing Yugito being chief among them.

"Had that battle gone differently, maybe Akatsuki wouldn't have been emboldened to start a war with only five Tailed Beasts. Not to mention that we would have one more perfect jinchuriki among our ranks," Sasuke said in realization. However, Sasuke then did something his past self would have never done: pushing those negative thoughs away. "No! There's no use in lamenting about the past. All that I can do is make sure the future is better. I can't obsses over a single issue, that's why I was unable to master the Mangekyo Sharingan."

"You should latch onto that train of thought. It would do you a lot of good," a new voice said. "In fact, I'd say is doing you a lot of good."

Sasuke turned around, and saw his Jonin-sensei perched on the same branch. She then sat besides him. "Do you mind some company?"

Sasuke merely shrugged. "Knock yourself out."

"I heard about your battle against the reanimation of your father. Itachi-kun and you did a pretty good job," Shizune said. "And you managed to master your Mangekyo Sharingan just in time. I'm proud of you."

"Thank you, sensei," Sasuke replied, averting his gaze so his teacher wouldn't see the faint blush across his face.

"So, what are you doing here all by yourself?" Shizune asked. "I'd figured out you'd be with Sakura. Or with Itachi."

"Sakura is helping Tsunade watching over some injured in grave condition. I think her shift will end in a couple hours," Sasuke said, before a scowl developed in his face. "And Itachi is with Natsu."

Shizune flinched upon hearing how Sasuke practially spat the name of Itachi's almost-girlfriend. "Wow. You're not that fond of that girl, are you? I'm glad that you were okay with me dating and later marrying your cousin."

"Not you too..." Sasuke groaned.

"Yeah, Itachi already told me you aren't that fond of the girl," Shizune said, giggling a little.

"If you're going to tell me that I'm being irrational and petty, save it," the Uchiha scoffed.

"While you ARE being irrational and petty, I'm going to tell you that," Shizune said. "I know it's just a phase, and that you'll eventually learn to accept that your brother has the right to love someone like you and Shisui have."

"Whatever."

Shizune's smile didn't faltered. "Anyway, let's talk about something more positive. Like your victory today. Did it make you feel good?"

"It felt like... like a door of my past that had been opened for years has finally been closed," Sasuke replied. "Seeing father after so many years wasn't a pleasant experience, much less being forced to fight against him. But now that I did, I feel... liberated."

"The Uchiha Insurrection left many wounds that took very long to close," Shizune agreed with a nod. "What most people don't realize is that the remaining Uchiha were just as hurt as the rest of Konoha."

"Hearing father saying that he regretted what he did helped. As well as the fact that at least we got to say goodbye to each other, unlike that time," Sasuke said, letting out a sigh he didn't know was holding. "It would have been nice if I had the same chance with mom but... on the other side, I would have hated seeing her as a other undead slave of Orochimaru."

"Many people are being forced to fight deceased loved ones," Shizune said.

"What about you, sensei? Are you afraid that Orochimaru might raise from the grave a deceased loved one?" Sasuke asked. Then again, he couldn't think in anybody that Shizune could consider precious that wasn't still alive. "Now that I think about it, I don't think you ever told us about your family other than Tsunade."

"Because, for a good part of my life, Tsunade-sama was all my family," Shizune replied. "My parents died on a mission when I could barely speak, and before Tsunade-sama took me under her wing, it was my uncle Dan who raised me. In case you don't know, Dan was Tsunade-sama's former lover. He tragically died during the Second Ninja War. It was his death who prompted Tsunade-sama to abandon the village and become a vagrant."

"Was he strong?" Sasuke asked.

"Very," Shizune said with a nod. "There were talks that, once the Second War was over, he'd suceed the Third as the new Hokage. But alas, it couldn't be, and it wasn't until Minato took the hat that Sarutobi-sama retired. Not that his retirement lasted that long."

"A powerful ninja with potential to cause emotional damage to our two best medics. Then surely Orochimaru brought him back from the dead," Sasuke stated.

Despite the possibility, Shizune remained unperturbed. "I think I may jinx it, but I don't think there's anything Orochimaru has to throw at us that can take us down for good."

"You seem awfully confident in us," Sasuke noted.

"How can I not be, after seeing the amazing work you did today?" Shizune smiled at Sasuke. "Especially now that you're stronger than ever."

Strong. Yes. That word resonated in Sasuke's mind. After awakening the Mangekyo Sharingan, Sasuke felt powerful. But his control of said power was very little. Not anymore. Now he felt truly strong. Because the burdens of the past weren't slowling him down anymore. Yes, he felt he could take down any enemy.

Fate, however, would take Sasuke on that statement soon.

Ninja Alliance HQ, Land of Fire, Next Day

Iruka Umino had never been in a war before. The closest thing to an acutal battle he had been in was the night the Nine Tails attacked Konoha, and the night the Uchiha Clan rebelled. Two nights that would never forget, no matter how much he tried. So of course, the idea of being deployed to a war didn't appeal to him in the slightest, even if he was ready to lay his life down for the sake of his village.

So, when he was assigned to the Ninja Alliance HQ Defense Platoon –because of his skill with defensive and barrier ninjutsu–, to say he was happy was an understatement. Of course, he didn't voice those thoughts out loud, he didn't want to appear like a craven to both his fellow Konoha ninjas and the ninjas from other villages he was working alongside at the moment.

Then again, it has been almost a decade since Iruka had been an active ninja the strict sense of the word. Shortly after being 18, Iruka was asked to fill a temporal position as a teacher at the Academy. While reluctant at first, he grew to love the job, to the point that he applied to become a full time teacher. Even if Iruka continued training and honing his skills on his own, he saw very little combat during that period.

So, needless to say, Iruka was glad that that he was assigned to a position that, even if the possibility of being attacked was there, it was quite small.

The explosions that rocked the entire area made the teacher realize that a small probability doesn't mean zero.

"We're under attack!" an Iwa ninja cried.

This managed to alert all the ninjas inside the building, who poured outside of it, kunai, shuriken and other weapons ready. From the forest around the place, ninjas wearing Otogakure uniforms leaped into the ground, weapons ready as well.

"The thick of Akatsuki's army have been the White Zetsu clones. But Orochimaru still has his own army of ninjas," Iruka thought, pulling out a kunai, joining the fray. "I guess his plan is to attack the brains of the Alliance so the rest of the divisions lack any tactical support and intelligence."

"How the hell didn't our sensors notice enemy ninjas getting so close to our base?" an Ame ninja protested.

"Who knows! Now shut up and keep fighting!" a Kiri kunoichi replied. "We need to push them back!"

Suddenly, the ground started to shake, and a giant snake burst from the floor, sending the poor ninjas that were standing on that spot flying in multiple directions. The snake then opened its huge jaws, and more Oto ninjas poured from its mouth.

"Guss that explains how they were able to evade our sensors," Iruka bitterly said.

"Damn! A giant snake means that Orochimaru is here!" a Konoha ninja cried. "Hokage-sama! We need your help!"

"Don't call for the Hokage, you idiot!" Iruka chastised his fellow Konoha ninja. "Don't you realize that maybe that's what the enemy wants?"

"Orochimaru isn't the only one who's able to summon snakes," a feminine voice said. "Wood Release: Deep Forest Emergence!"

The earth started to shake again, and this time, multiple wooden roots grew around them, forming a small forest almost instantly. The Allied ninjas leaped away as soon as they could, but others weren't fast enough to do so, and found themselves trapped when multiple vines and branches wrapped around them.

"Wood Release: Deep Forest Bloom!"

Flowers started to grow all over the wooden trees and vines, and upon blooming, sprayed a yellow powder into the air.

"Try to hold your breath!" Iruka warned, as he covered his mouth and nose with his forearm.

Unfortunately, the warning came too late, as most of his companions inhaled it, and soon fell to the ground, weirdly enough, the Otogakure ninjas were able to stand inside the clouds of pollen, yet they didn't look any worse for the wear.

"The balaclavas!" he thought in realization. "They must have air filters inside-"

Unfortunately for the teacher, he didn't realize of the Oto ninja sneaking behind him, until he slammed his elbow onto his neck, knocking him out cold.

The battle was over. All the allied ninjas had been neutralized. The commander behind the attack, Hebiko, walked across the small battlefield, examining and nodding in approval of the work her and her men had done. She stopped a few meters in front of the gates of the Allied Ninja HQ. Nobody else had exited the building after the initial wave of defenders poured from it. Probably because they thought she was trying to lure them to a trap or something.

Not that she was going to give them any choice, of course.

"Jiraiya! Come outside and show your face!" Hebiko yelled. "These ninjas are still alive! If you don't show up, I'm going to start killing them one by one!"

Fortunately, the aritificial human didn't have to wait long for the white haired Sannin to exit through the building's front gate, hands in the air, trying to ease her into not doing anything rash.

"Here I am. There's no need for blood to be spilled today," Jiraiya said in a concilliatory tone. His eyes then fixed upon the young woman's face. "What do you want, girl? Or better said, what does Orochimaru want?"

Hebiko bristled upon hearing the name of her creator, however, she was able to rein her more wild impulses in before she could lose her composure. She couldn't afford to make any mistakes here.

"I'm not working for that man anymore," Hebiko seethed. "I'm here of my own volition. I want to-"

"Earth Release: Rock Prison!"

"What the-?"

After a quick tremor, large rocks burst from underground, slamming into Hebiko and the Otogakure ninjas, trapping them inside stone cocoons, leaving only their heads visible. They struggled to break free, but the rocks were too solid.

"You think you can waltz in here, harm our ninjas, and make demands to the Supreme Commander?" a gruff voice was heard coming from above.

Hebiko looked up, and saw an old man floating above her. Despite his small size and somewhat comical appearance, she could feel the power that irradiated from his small form.

"Nice timing, Onoki," Jiraiya thanked the former Tsuchikage, who nodded in return. "Make sure the unconscious ninjas are brought inside and tended over. From this point onwards, I can continue by myself."

"Don't get too cocky. Or lower your guard," Onoki said in an almost chastising tone. "I'm aware this girl has some connection to you, but don't let that blind you."

Ignoring the Tsuchikage, Jiraiya walked towards the clone of his daughter.

"Release me at once!" Hebiko protested, as she continued to struggle to break free.

"I think not. It isn't much better to talk like this? I'm usually not that keen on hostage situations. Unless I'm the one keeping the hostages," Jiraiya said. "Now, you said that you were no longer working for Orochimaru. Care to elaborate about that?"

After struggling some more, Hebiko decided to finally gave up. Sighing, she looked at Jiraiya in the eye, glaring daggers at him.

"Orochimaru abandoned my brother to Konoha. He promised that he would rescue him, but he has made no attempts to do so. I want him back," Hebiko told him.

Jiraiya let out a mocking laugh. "And you thought that if you came here and kidnapped a bunch of our ninjas, I'd trade him for them?"

"I might be young, but I'm not a fool. I only made this to make you come out," Hebiko replied. "I brought actual bargaining chips for you. One that can help you end this war."

This, naturally, drew Jiraiya's attention. "Okay kid, spill the beans. What is it? If I deem your information worthy, I may release your brother."

"Sorry, but no. First of all, release me. I won't negotiate with you if I'm unable to move or defend myself," Hebiko demanded.

"You take me for an idiot? I do that, and you either try to kill me on the spot, or run away," Jiraiya said, crossing his arms. "If there's something Orochimaru excels at, that's being a master of escape. And I'm sure you surely picked up a couple things from him."

"Your brats already defeated me. Am I that threatening to you?" Hebiko mocked.

"I already made many mistakes because I underestimated my enemies. I'm simply being cautious. But I think we can reach a compromise," Jiraiya said, before biting his thumb and making several hand seals. "Summoning Jutsu!"

Jiraiya jumped back, and slammed his palm onto the ground, producing a burst of smoke. From the smoke, a giant toad wielding a shield and a sasumata appeared. Jiraiya then channeled chakra into his fist, and slammed it against Hebiko's stone prison, shattering it.

"Try anything funny, and Gamaken here will make you into his snack," Jiraiya threatened, pointing his thumb at the toad. "Now start talking. For your sake, don't make me regret my decision."

Hebiko started rolling her shoulders. "I have to admit, you're far harsher than I expected."

"Were you expecting a different treatment?" Jiraiya asked. "You might look like my daughter, but you aren't Kaida. And as much as it pains me, you are still loyal to Orochimaru."

"I'm not!" she protested, without realizing that she had yelled. She took a deep breath in order to calm herself down.

"What about those ninjas?" Jiraiya asked, nodding at the Otogakure ninjas around them. "How are they following you if don't work for Orochimaru anymore?"

"They no longer work for him either. I convinced them to follow me instead," Hebiko said. "Orochimaru has his way with words and know how to pick people that would see him as their savior. But once you show them proof of how Orochimaru really is, their loyaltly isn't as unshakeable as the bastard expected.

"Now, a token of good faith. These are gifts with no strings attached."

Hebiko snapped her fingers, and more Otogakure ninjas hidden among the trees jumped into the open. One carried a giant scroll, while others were holding what appeared to be an uncosncious orange haired large man. Jiraiya paid no attention to the latter, but had an idea of what the large scroll was.

"Is that...?"

"The Forbidden Scroll that a Konoha deserter stole during the Uchiha Insurrection and gave it to Orochimaru?" Hebiko finished, as if reading the Sannin's mind. "The one and only. Well, that might not be accurate anymore, given that Orochimaru probably made copies of it. But I thought you'd appreciate having it back."

"That's... an attentive gesture. Thank you," Jiraiya said. His voice, however, made no effort to hide the fact that that wasn't going to be enough. Still, that wasn't the only thing the cloned woman brought. He finally looked at the unconscious man. "Who is that guy?"

"His name is Jugo. We believe him to be the last member of his clan. He possesses a Bloodline Limit that allows him to draw nature energy and use it to undergo a body transformation. Doing so, however, renders him insanely violent as long as the transformation lasts," Hebiko explained. "And before you ask what does he has to with anything, Jugo's DNA is the basis behind Orochimaru's cursed seal."

That, naturally, drew Jiraiya's attention. Even if they had means to destroy the Cursed Seal now thanks to Hinata and Hanabi, the chance of learning how it worked was too good to pass. Not to mention that it would deprive Orochimaru from branding more innocent people with that seal. Plus, having a way to remove it that didn't involve Hinata or Hanabi would be a nice plus.

"A very valuable asset indeed," Jiraiya said with a nod.

"And like I said, these two gifts come with no price tag attached. A symbol of my good faith," she insisted.

"I see. If these aren't your bargaining chips, then what you plan to give me in exchange of your brother has a much greater worth, am I right?" Jiraiya asked. "Okay, let's hear it."

Hebiko smirked, almost expecting that question. "I know where Orochimaru is hiding."

Silence.

Jiraiya fixed his eyes on hers, as if trying to peek into her very soul. Hebiko, meanwhile, continued smirking, as if knowing that she was the one holding all the cards. After a few moments thinking, the Sannin decided to make his counter move.

"If what you're saying is true," Jiraiya began. "Then I can simply have you captured and your mind scanned by a Yamanaka, right?"

"First, yes, what I said is true. Second, you're really bad a bluffing," Hebiko mockingly replied. "You have my brother under your custody. You should already know that Orochimaru carved into our skulls protective seals that prevents our minds from being scryed. Otherwise, Orochimaru wouldn't have abandoned my brother so easily."

"You bring a valid point," Jiraiya replied. "Then again, how do we know that the information you have is genuine?"

"You don't know. You'll have to trust me. Then again, it's not that I didn't try to prove I can be trusted, right?" Hebiko replied.

"Your gifts were very nice, but you introduced yourself by attacking my ninjas. That doesn't spell trust to me," Jiraiya rebutted.

"That might be true, but none of them are seriously injured, much less dead. I knew I wasn't going to make a good impression with bloodshed." Hebiko answered back. "However, you shouldn't think about it that much. You win nothing by keeping my brother prisoner, Orochimaru has no use of him. And you could end this war much sooner if you take Orochimaru out of the picture. I'd do it myself, but I'm not strong enough, not by a long shot, to pose a credible threat. So far, only a Kage level ninja can be a match for him. Hell, not even one, you might need a few. Anyway, what's going to be?"

Jiraiya looked at the young woman, trying to discern if she was being truthful or not. He could tell, though, that he desperatedly wanted her brother back. And her anger at Orochimaru seemed genuine. The Snake Sannin wasn't somebody that thought people working under him were human beings worthy of consideration. This was a man who indirectly killed almost fifty babies in his attempt to reproduce Wood Release.

Wordlessly, Jiraiya pulled out a small, empty scroll, and started writing something. After a couple minutes, he summoned another toad. This one, however, was a palm sized red toad wearing googles.

"Kosuke, go to Konoha and give this to Ibiki Morino, from Torture & Interrogation," Jiraiya said, as he handed the scroll to the toad. "Tell him it's an urgent matter."

"You got it!" the toad said, before disappearing in a poof of smoke.

Jiraiya then turned at the silver haired woman. "It's done. I sent orders for your brother to be released and be returned here."

Hebiko narrowed her eyes. "I won't reveal Orochimaru's location until I see him."

"I wasn't expecting you to," Jiraiya said, as he turned around, and walked towards the HQ building. "Now excuse me while I do some preparations."

"What are you going to do now?"

"Ask Tsunade-hime to come back," Jiraiya said. "I'm going to need her in order to make sure that snake doesn't escape."


Author's Note: And thus Hebiko makes her move, thankfully moving the plot a little forward! And yeah, it was her who killed Kabuto. Those of you who said Zetsu guessed wrong, sorry.

A lot of writers have expressed having difficulties writing for Juugo in fanfics where Hebi/Taka doesn't exist, and I'm no exception. Karin is an Uzumaki, and to a lesser extent can be used to flesh out Kusa, while Suigetsu has a strong ties to Kiri and the Seven Swordsmen through his brother. But Juugo has almost nothing to work with, given we hardly know anything about his past or background. And while I did try to include him in the story and give it a role, nothing worked. So yeah, that was me trying to write Juugo out of the story in a not too inconspicious way.

Despite being his Jonin-sensei, I don't think I've written that many moments between Shizune and Sasuke, so let's try to fix that, shall we? Plus, hey, I'll take any excuse to write more Shizune, because she's a joy to write, and is able to play an excellent foil to a lot of characters. It makes me sad to see how very few writers bother with her at all.

Hope you also enjoyed another moment of Choji and Karui bonding a little more. I'm going to take any chance I can get to flesh out these two and their relationship.

Thanks to Ookami88 for betareading this chapter.

Well, as you can see, we're heading into the meat of the war. Next chapter, we'll see Rasa's Fourth Division fight (and about time, because they haven't had their chance to shine yet, while the Second Division had two so far). In the meantime, leave your thoughts on this chapter on a review. No matter how long or how short, reviews make me really, really, really happy!