Chapter 189

Departure: I'll See You Later

Deep beneath the earth, within the candlelit hideout where the sun never shone, sat Orochimaru upon a throne-like chair.

Candle flames flickered atop wall sconces, illuminating the stone walls in a near golden hue. They flickered from candle stands settled on a nearby table, thin orange tongues glinting off polished scalpels, forceps, retractors, scissors, and other surgical equipment he left upon its surface; glass jars filled with a green liquid glowed in the candlelight, revealing dead frogs, snakes, eyeballs, intestines, and all other manner of creatures and organs contained within; light and shadows bent around a decaying left hand, standing upright and severed above the wrist, its pinky adorned by a ring printed with the kanji for Sky.

Resting his chin upon his left fist, little could be seen of the Snake Sannin's face; his head was covered in bandages, all save his right golden eye. Yet beneath those bandages was a sinister smile, and as the flames danced energetically within his slit pupil, so, too, did his thoughts, captivated by the thrilling tempo of the crescendoing pipe organ that was Kabuto's report.

Indeed, his whole being was thrumming. How could it not? Sasuke and Amaririsu were finally beginning to blossom. In the Forest of Death they were but small embers lingering amid the warm ashes of their Clan, capable of reigniting into a vigorous wildfire, true, but they had not yet fully grasped the rich potential he'd witnessed from the Uchiha Clan through the years, but now… Now they were no longer mere embers. They'd become kindled flames, steadily on the path to transforming into a vigorous wildfire as they fed themselves on battle.

The Uchiha Clan, like the Senju Clan, were specimens unlike any other. He'd spent years researching both Clans, from their history, to the very makeup of men like Hashirama and Madara, and through intense research and experimentation he gleaned knowledge only a rare few possessed.

The Uchiha in particular, for their Sharingan was too tantalizing to ignore, were his preferred specimens of research.

Strong bodies, a seemingly limitless potential, and their Sharingan—yes, their Sharingan was unique even when compared to other kekkei genkais. It alone could provide answers to all the mysteries in the world, a truth which captivated Orochimaru greater than any other.

Kabuto's report on Sasuke's and Amaririsu's recent growth…

Orochimaru chuckled sinisterly, drumming his right fingers on the arm of his chair.

He could hardly wait for the day he finally possessed one of their bodies. By the time his jutsu was ready, their bodies would be even stronger. Stronger than perhaps even Itachi and Aimi, for those of the Uchiha were a specimen of warriors who, when thrust into combat and war, would never strike a glass ceiling in growth. They continued to gain strength as though their entire beings were bred to thrive in conflict.

With one of their bodies, no secret, no technique, no jutsu or knowledge would ever lay beyond his sight ever again.

Had I only realized the power of dearest Amaririsu's influence upon Sasuke, Orochimaru lamented, smiling beneath his bandages. Had I only known who she was in the Forest of Death, I would've placed my Curse Mark upon her, too, and then I would already be in possession of her body. After all, the Curse of Hatred churns within her blood, it's the gift of her lineage.

It was quite the unfortunate mistake, one he wouldn't make twice. To think the last descendent of Madara Uchiha had been right in his grasps. Such a pity he'd missed his first opportunity, but he was certain there would be others.

Orochimaru was certain, despite everything, they would fall to the Curse of Hatred like all their brethren before them, and once they were enslaved by their Clan's Curse, they would be ripe for the picking.

Indeed, it was only a matter of time before the darkness which nestled within the hearts of all Uchihas spread throughout their beings, now that the Akatsuki and Stone sought to eliminate and capture them, and their search for the power to destroy those responsible for their Clans extinction would bring them straight to him. Just as it had brought Kasai.

I wonder, Orochimaru stopped drumming his fingers, smile falling, could it be even I am being used as a pawn in another's plan? Was it chance that placed Kasai on my path, or perhaps…

His golden eye flicked over to the severed hand and the ring upon it.

The Akatsuki Leader's plans do not involve Kasai and Amaririsu; they were willing to allow the Stone to take her so she no longer posed a threat, and none of their agents have sought out Kasai.

Yet I no longer feel any of these events have been brought about by mere chance. No, an unseen hand has led Kasai and Amaririsu into conflict with one another, they even make the Great Nations and Akatsuki dance as they like.

He hummed. His excitement waned, if only slightly, as he began to pick at the knotted strings of a greater mystery, one which only he and a certain man knew.

Danzō, is it your hand that now pulls the strings of this world?

His mind drifted back to his battle with the Third Hokage, and the Reanimation of the Second Hokage. It was then pieces of the truth were unveiled…

Two cream-colored coffin lids fell forward and crashed upon the roof, shattering the orange tiles and dispersing plumes of granular powder that curled ominously around the lids like smoke.

A cold bead of sweat glided down Hiruzen's warm, weathered features. He stared at the two occupants within the standing coffins, silently lamenting his failure as a teacher. Failure. Yes, that's what this was, and yet he found the word lacking, unable to capture the tragedy and horrors now befalling his home because of his weakness.

No, failure could not fully describe how it felt to stand in a Village assaulted by the Sand and Sound Villages, both led by—manipulated by—his precious student, nor could it describe the dread, shame, sorrow, and anger he felt watching Orochimaru desecrate the honored dead, all in order to humiliate and destroy the man he once called Sensei.

The complexions of the men within the coffins were gray and decayed, their features cracked, and the sclera of their eyes black; these were the common traits of all souls tethered back to the world of the living by the Reanimation Jutsu. Yet even when rendered gray, decayed, and cracked, there was no denying who his student had summoned.

In the coffin to his left, a tall man with dark eyes and waist-length black hair stepped unsteadily onto the tile floor, as though his body was struggling to stimulate movement. He attired himself in plate armor dyed a dark red of an era long past.

Hiruzen flattened his lips together, throat tightening. Lord First, Hashirama Senju, looked nearly exactly as he remembered.

The man in the second coffin stepped into the light, his limbs struggling with movement as well; they both moved with the stiffness of men who'd slept for decades, and had finally awoken to weak and frail old bodies.

Bearing silver, shaggy hair and three red markings on his face—two beneath his eyes and one vertical stripe along his chin—the man attired himself in similar plate armor as Hashirama, although dyed a dark blue with a distinctive white fur collar, and wore a happuri on his face engraved with the Leaf Village symbol.

Tobirama Senju, the Second Hokage forced himself to stand upright. He laid his eyes upon the Third Hokage, and Hiruzen's old heart gave a sharp jolt.

"Those eyes…" Hiruzen gasped. "It cannot be!"

Their coffins fell over behind them, shattering the tiles and kicking up another cloud of powder around them.

Hashirama blinked, confused by Hiruzen's outburst. He turned to look at his brother. Then the First Hokage's eyes went wide. He recoiled in horror at the sight of two crimson orbs settled upon black sclera, glowing beneath the thin powdery veil.

"Brother, what have you done? Why do you possess the Sharingan!"

Behind them, Orochimaru hummed a sadistic chuckle, revealing two kunai with control tags attached to their ends.

Tobirama ignored his brother. He glanced at his hands, flattened his lips together, then peered over his shoulder. Upon seeing Orochimaru he frowned severely.

"You are not Danzō, nor have you perfected my jutsu."

"Hm?" Orochimaru hummed, his smile faltering for but a moment, before returning. "Now isn't that a curious statement. Why would you be expecting Danzō, I wonder…"

"Which means," Tobirama ignored the Sannin, turning to look at Hiruzen, "we've been summoned by this interloper to fight you, Hiruzen. How unfortunate."

"Lord Second, how…"

Hiruzen struggled for words. Quickly, spurred by instinct, he averted his eyes away from the Sharingan his teacher clearly possessed. It should've been impossible. How on earth had the Second Hokage acquired the Sharingan? He had died against Kinkaku and Ginkaku, and on that final day, when he entrusted the title of Third Hokage to him, he did not possess Sharingan, nor would Orochimaru have wasted two eyes on a Reanimation when he could wield them himself.

"Tobirama," growled Hashirama suddenly. "Who did you take those eyes from?"

"Does it matter? They are long dead, and judging by what I can sense, so are the Uchiha Clan." He nodded to himself, proud. "Danzō, Koharu, and Homura have done well in enacting my…"

He cut himself short, brow furrowing suddenly, and deeply. Had he sensed them, Hiruzen wondered. Or had he merely sensed the distress within the Village and the destruction unfolding?

"The Uchiha Clan… No, it cannot be…"

Hashirama's eyes glistened, for he, too, now sensed the absence of the Uchiha's distinguishable chakra within the Leaf Village. Then, suddenly, very suddenly, his sorrow twisted into fury, hardening his gaze which he fixed upon his brother.

"These subordinates of yours were enacting your plan?" Hashirama bellowed. "You… Yua's murder… Madara… It was you all along!"

It was clear, had he the strength, Hashirama would've have grabbed his brother by his collar. But the Reanimation Jutsu was incomplete, and so he could do nothing except stand there on unsteady legs.

Hiruzen grimaced. So, Danzō, Koharu, and Homura were working alongside the Second Hokage to eradicate the Uchiha Clan. And in my weakness, I helped them succeed… But why was Lord Second expecting Danzō? What possible plan could they be working towards?

Tobirama ignored his brother. His Sharingan eyes blazed.

"No," the single word was drawn out, and corrupted by a malignant hatred. Hiruzen knew then it was not the Village he was sensing. "No, that chakra should not exist. Of all the Uchiha to still live, how could they have missed that one?"

Hashirama hummed, confused again. Then his eyes, too, shot to the horizon.

"That chakra… Yes, I would recognize that chakra anywhere. An ancestor of Madara and Yua… Mio had a child, then. Perhaps, then—"

"Perhaps what, Brother?" Tobirama glared at Hashirama.

"Perhaps there is still hope for the Uchiha to survive!"

"You waste your hope on foolish things. You know just as I do that the Uchiha will never change."

"Not when you have poisoned the soil from which they are trying to grow!"

"Tch. You sound precisely like Mito," he looked away. "And I will tell you as I told her: The soil was already poisoned."

"By you," Hashirama accused. "You poisoned it, Tobirama! Madara was…" A sudden and terrible realization crossed Hashirama's face. "He was chosen to become Second Hokage by the Village. They'd come to cherish him as the man Mito, Yua, and I all knew. That's why you killed Yua. Why you set us against each other. Your hatred… I can sense it clear on you now, Tobirama. Just like Father's. I never sensed it on you before, but now… I wanted to believe you would never… But Madara, he suspected you were involved… He tried to get me to see, and I…"

"The Stone killed Yua," Tobirama said coldly. "As a result, Madara started a war and captured the Nine-Tails to destroy the Leaf. You did what needed done, Elder Brother."

Hashirama gripped the bridge of his nose. Tears streamed down his cheeks.

"You used me to kill him!" he wept. "Madara, my brother…"

"He was not your brother!" Tobirama spat.

"To use your own brother… How far you have fallen, Lord Second. And I suspect I was nothing but a tool as well?" Hiruzen questioned. "Serving as a useful pawn while Danzō, Koharu, and Homura worked in the shadows to complete your plan."

"You lacked the Will to do what is necessary, but your strength, compassion, and soft-heart made you useful in other ways for the Village," said the Second Hokage, like a teacher spelling out something painfully obvious to a dense student.

Hiruzen narrowed his eyes. "I see now."

Amaririsu and Sasuke, the Third Hokage thought, frowning. My weakness has cost you your family's and your Clan. Nothing I do will ever fix what my inaction has caused. However, he shifted his feet into a combat stance as Orochimaru approached the two fallen Hokage, I swear upon my life I will not allow Tobirama or those I once called comrade to succeed.

"That's enough weeping and reminiscing, I think," Orochimaru declared, raising the two kunai.

Whatever it is they are planning, he swore, I will stop them. Here and now.

Orochimaru drummed his right fingers along the arm of his chair.

It was all quite fascinating, really. The Second Hokage acquired the Sharingan, used the Third Hokage as a figurehead pawn, and entrusted his true plan—whatever that was—to Danzō, Koharu, and Homura. He even used his own brother to kill Madara Uchiha just as he was on the cusp of becoming Second Hokage, something which would've altered the very fabric of the world they'd all known, and in doing so threw the Uchiha Clan onto the path of near extinction.

Quite cold and calculating for a Senju. There was no need to wonder who had taken more to the Second Hokage's teachings between Danzō and Hiruzen.

Still, had he been too hasty to destroy the Leaf and kill his Sensei? Should he have let them reminisce and weep longer? What might he have learned of Tobirama's true plan had he let it go a little longer?

Why, wondered Orochimaru, did the Second Hokage seek to return in Reanimation form, why did he anticipate Danzō? Could he have learned more of Danzō's intentions if he had waited? Would he have seen how the Leaf Elder planned to use him to achieve those ends, for it was clear the man saw the rogue Sannin as but another useful pawn in his ultimate plan. In fact, he'd already made use of him, all under the guise of shared interests.

Orochimaru hummed, drumming his fingers more vigorously. His golden eye narrowed.

All of their previous experiments and schemes had a new light shed upon them. He could almost see the web connecting all the pieces together, leading towards a mysterious and, dare he say, unsettling conclusion, but even with his new insight so much remained hidden in shadows, out of sight and out of reach. For now. It only made him want to unveil the secrets more.

Had he underestimated Danzō?

Did their plans even matter now?

Yes, they still mattered, he decided. He would not underestimate Danzō any longer, especially after learning more about that infernal jutsu which had stolen his arms.

There is a way to free the souls caught within the Reaper Death Seal, ruminated Orochimaru. However, at the moment only I hold the knowledge of this secret and, soon enough, I will have everything I need to reverse the effects of this accursed jutsu upon my body.

His drumming fingers halted. The candlelight glowed upon the walls, glinted off the surgical equipment, and glowed within the glass jars containing all manner of creatures and organs.

I must keep this knowledge to myself, for even I sometimes cannot fathom what goes on within the minds of Kabuto and Kasai. For now, though, the Second Hokage's soul is locked inside the Reaper's stomach, far out of Danzō's reach.

You saw to that, Sarutobi-sensei.

The Shadow Clone of the Third Hokage gripped the Reanimated shoulders of the Second Hokage, pinning his eyes on the blue dyed chest plate. Hiruzen heaved heavy breaths, wounds thrumming warmly and old bones aching fiercely.

Fighting the First and Second Hokage together would've been difficult even in his prime. To fight them alongside Orochimaru, all while countering the Second Hokage's Sharingan, had required every scrap of experience he'd gained in his many long years.

Now, though… Now his battle against the First and Second was finally at its end, and soon his battle with Orochimaru, too, would end. But first…

"What are you doing, Hiruzen?!" Tobirama demanded, eyes wide in horror which matched his voice.

Hiruzen forced a wry smile. "Ah, so you can finally see it, eh, Lord Second."

"Stop, Hiruzen! You mustn't—"

"Hmhm," he chuckled weakly. "Now I see. So this is how it feels to humiliate and destroy the person I once called Sensei. What a bittersweet pill I've been forced to swallow, but alas, I will take what joy I can in knowing you will never walk among this world again in any form."

The ghastly arm of the Reaper, nearly transparent and piercing through the Third Hokage's stomach, began to pull a blue silhouette from the Second Hokage's body—it was his soul.

"No- No! Stop! Dammit, Hiruzen! You don't understand what you're doing!"

"On the contrary, I see clearer now than I ever have before. I see how the hate in your heart has poisoned the very Village I love, and how my weakness permitted its spread and brought forth the catastrophe which has befallen the Uchiha Clan. But the fate of the Uchiha Clan will not be decided by you or I any longer, Lord Second, nor will Danzō, Koharu, or Homura fulfill your wretched plans."

That future, he thought, grunting as the Reaper pulled the Second Hokage's soul further from his body, is for Amaririsu and Sasuke to decide now. It is to them the future was entrusted, by Kiyoshi, Miyako, Shisui, Mikoto, Itachi, and Aimi, and to them I, too, entrust that future.

"It is true I was soft-hearted and naïve for far too long. However, you are not the only one who made plans," Hiruzen declared.


"Hm," his wry smile gained strength from his teacher's bafflement and fear. "Our plans are already in motion, you see. And though I will not live to see them to their end, I will fulfill my part in it with these final few moments I'm alive. And though I cannot correct my mistakes, I still have enough fight within me to safeguard a new path for the Leaf and for the Uchiha Clan, even if I must use these old bones of mine to construct the bridge they cross!"

"You naïve fool!"

"Have no fear, Lord Second. Where you and I are going, we will have all eternity to quarrel with one another."

The Reaper's arm yanked the soul out of the Reanimated Body, and the Second Hokage's complexion, armor, and clothes turned ashen white before collapsing into a large mound of ash.

From within the pile, the head and face of a young boy emerged. Hiruzen's stomach churned in horror—it was Zaku, the young Sound shinobi Shino Aburame fought in the preliminary rounds of the Exams.

Across the battlefield a second Shadow Clone of Hiruzen was gripping the First Hokage by the shoulders as he, too, pulled his soul free.

Hashirama smiled in regret and sorrow. "I'm sorry, Saru, for all the trouble my brother and I have caused you and the Leaf."

"It is I who must apologize, Lord First," he replied. "However, we will have plenty of time to lament our greatest regrets together."

"Mm, true. I will see you soon, Saru."

The First Hokage's soul was pulled from his body, and when it collapsed into a pile of whitish-grey ash the corpse of Kin Tsuchi, the Sound kunoichi who battled Shikamaru Nara in the preliminary rounds of the Exams, emerged.

He used his own people as tools.

Hiruzen clutched his hands into tight fists.

The people I've killed by letting you and Danzō live…

Please, let these be the last.

Within the hideout deep beneath the earth, within the candlelit hideout where sunlight never shone, Orochimaru tapped his pointer finger slowly atop the arm of his throne-like chair.

Danzō will certainly be seeking ways to release the Second Hokage. Hm, although we've worked together before, I have no interest playing the pawn in someone else's game.

There was much he had to plan for. To disturb the Akatsuki's and Danzō's plans, certainly, and to finally acquire the two Uchiha.

These next few years, Orochimaru smiled beneath his bandages, would certainly be full of excitement.

Far across the sea, beneath a dark curtain speckled with thousands upon thousands of lively stars, a cluster of campfires burned, warming the blanketed people gathered within their orange halos. The wood crackled, at times popping and loosing embers to rise amid ribbons of smoke. A soft lullaby, played upon a wooden flute, drifted through the camp.

Settled in for the night, Temujin observed his friends and his people as they entered tents in search of warmth and sleep, bundled beneath woolen blankets by the fire, or already slumbered inside bed rolls beneath the starry sky; although some faces were new, and others were old friends, he couldn't help but see the resemblance they now shared with Kahiko's nomadic tribe upon the Shinobi Continent, and feel a hint of nostalgia for it.

He was grateful, truthfully, to have experienced the hospitality of the nomads. To even learn from them. Kahiko, that cunning and kind old man, had provided a blueprint from which to begin, whether he realize it or not—a foundation to build from, perhaps was more appropriate to say. It did not necessarily make things easier, but it helped him to understand what was necessary to lead his people, to care for them, and protect them. He wished he could thank the old man.

His homeland hadn't changed in his time away. War, strife, poverty, and famine still afflicted its inhabitants, but he'd expected as much.

"You didn't…expect a utopia to be easy, did you?"

A faint smile crossed Temujin's lips at the memory.

No, I didn't expect building towards a utopia would be easy. Not this time, at least.

Two of his closest friends, Taban and Erhi, were carrying two young ones each while ushering some of the older children to their tents. He felt the slight lash of a tail pass his back, then Nerugui was upon his shoulder. Temujin hummed lightly and reached his finger up, rubbing the ferret on its forehead.

Unfortunately, they could not rely on a sudden paradigm shift to alter the world, nor could they expect or wait for a God above to magically cleanse the sins of humanity and bring forth a utopia. There was no savior coming to them, like who he imagined Haido to be. He could see that clearly now.

The world they inherited was created by the hands of humans, and thus it was in their hands to change it. Amaririsu and Haya Uchiha had taught him that. Their lessons remained with him, they guided his actions, inspired his dreams, and grounded him in reality.

Temujin wasn't so brash or bold to believe he could change his entire homeland in one short lifetime. There were still archaic systems in place, superstitious people who feared the unknown, and were quick to label that which they didn't understand as black arts.

The people of his homeland, their cities of stones once crown jewels, were left barren of hope for far too long, and many resorted to base instinct and barbarity to survive or to claim their power.

War, poverty, and fear. These were the poisons which afflicted his homeland. Extremists who offered easy answers, like Haido, went out of their way to divide and dehumanize their chosen targets beneath veils of righteous fervor. Eventually, inevitably perhaps, it led to deadly exorcisms performed upon those who's only true sins were daring to live outside the framework of a strict religion, seeking scientific endeavors for the benefit of all people instead of merely the aristocrats, and daring to ask questions of and stand against those who clutched their power beneath fat and greedy fists.

Thus they were named gypsy's, witches, sorcerers, pagans, and heretics, and baptized in fire in this land rendered barren of hope and tainted by war.

We can't allow them to burn this land or this world to ashes, he thought resolutely, watching the children. Too many would suffer, and should they continue to turn us against our neighbors, the least fortunate will only lose what little they have as those who maintain this status quo gain everything.

It was a despairing thought. Yet it also invigorated him and his friends. They could not bury their heads in the dirt and feign ignorance, not after all they had seen, all they had done, and all they had returned to. There would be people just like them long after they were gone, so for those children who would one day inherit their work, they would carry the torch and banners as far as they could, fighting against those who maintained such a cruel status quo.

Already Temujin had seen glimmers of hope even in the short time they'd been home. He had seen some of the first fruits of their labor, and though those fruits were not capable of the healing The Power could have brought to their world, it was still enough to change lives.

And every life we save is a world saved, isn't that right, Amaririsu?

There was still a great undertaking before them. One Temujin knew deep in his heart of hearts he would likely not see the end of. One which guaranteed strife and conflict, for those in power would fight them for every inch of change they sought to bring, if only to maintain their individual utopias as the world burned around them.

However, even if they only moved forward by inches in their short time alive, they could entrust the rest to those who followed them, to the children and people they rescued now, and taught not selfishness or that ends justified the means, but to act with patience, empathy, and love for this world and each other.

Building a world of compassion and hope, of empathy and understanding, and patience and love—that world would be absent of children like him and Amaririsu, it would be absent of children traumatized by war and set upon the path of warriors.

Someday far in the future, Temujin knew, those future children would live long, happy lives, free from war and all its suffering.

Until then it was in their hands to keep pushing forward. To keep standing up, as Amaririsu said, until their seemingly impossible dream became possible.

"This is the soul of humanity's dream. Your ancestors dreamed of it. Mine did. As did their ancestors. As do we and as will those who follow us.

"This is their hope for the world. Their dream for us to inherit, and never give up on."

"So, as I said before, if you don't like your path or the world in its current state, change it."

He would do his best to change his homeland, not alone, but alongside his friends.

Temujin lifted his emerald eyes to the sky above. The stars were beautiful. More beautiful than he could remember them being. For so long his eyes were locked on the path ahead, clouded by the fog of war, and the lofty promises of a man who claimed righteousness.

He'd never looked anywhere else, not at the stars, not at the flowers, or the rivers, or the mountains. At least, not until she stepped in his path.

As he gazed upon the twinkling stars, he recalled the dazzling aurora which crossed the sky, shimmering and dancing across the dark canvas as it painted dusty greens, bright yellows, vibrant oranges, and sparkling blues of various shades. And he felt her presence again.


He wondered what she was doing now, as well as Naruto, Sakura, and Sasuke.

Had the Nation threatening to unleash a war upon their continent followed through with their plans?

Part of Temujin wished she had joined him. Part of him wished he had stayed.

All of him wished he could see Amaririsu again, hear her voice. He wished he could help her, or that she could be here helping him.

"Our bond will always connect us. The connections we form with friends, family, comrades, they can transcend distance, they even transcend the physical world.

"So, whenever you need me, I'll be there in spirit. As long as you keep moving forward, I'll be moving right beside you. That's a promise."

Temujin inhaled a long breath, then exhaled, smiling to himself.

We'll meet again someday, he promised. So, until then, keep moving forward, Amaririsu. And I'll be moving right beside you.

Until the day we meet again.

The Third Great Ninja War was steadily shaping into a long and bloody war.

Across every battlefield shinobi of the Leaf, Sand, and Stone fought to bitter ends over inches, feet, and yards of earth. Farm lands were razed, people displaced as they fled the horrors of war. Small Clans and Villages caught between the warring Nations fractured as arguments intensified over who they should side with, all as innocents were sacrificed to the cold, unfeeling mechanisms of war, National interests, and empire building.

Beloved family members were conscripted or volunteered to fight for or against whichever Nation their Clan and Village believed were right, were strongest, or offered the most lucrative deal, whenever such deals were made. Loved ones were slain in pointless slaughters, in heated arguments turned violent against once cherished neighbors whose opinion on the war differed, in tragic misunderstandings, by looting shinobi, and indiscriminate bombings.

More meaningless death in an elective and meaningless war. Entire generations were dying, cultures, Clans, and Villages being pushed to the brink of extinction, or tragically fading from the world just like the Heat Devil and Hidden Eddy Villages had. And the youth of the present? They would forever bear the scars and trauma of a war they never asked for, over old hatreds and grudges they didn't bear, or didn't know existed before the war found them.

All of this suffering created by an arrogant old man who sought to build an Empire, as he sat safely within the walls of his Village.

So much suffering.

So much death.

The screams of young men and women cried out every morning and every night that followed. They screamed for their mothers, their fathers, their siblings, or partners before the cold hand of death plucked them from the world. They lost friends, lovers, comrades, rivals, all as new lifelong grudges were stoked and sealed in bloodshed.

Many prayers were whispered and wept on those cold winter nights within aid stations and upon snow-covered battlefields. Few were answered. For war was a cold, unfeeling mechanism, a continuation of political ambitions through violent means.

Limbs were lost. Careers ended. Orphans created. For some soldiers the trauma rendered them incapable of fighting, some even took their own lives.

The war had only just begun. Savagery and fire was spreading inch by inch, foot by foot, corpse by corpse across Lands, the price for every mile paid with the lives of young men and women, in the tears of comrades and family members who lived on, and in rivers of blood which stained the earth anew.

Confronted by such hopeless waste of life and the Stone's impressive military strength, Tsunade Senju, Mei Terumī, and Pakura of the Scorch Style found common ground, ideals, and dreams for the futures of their Nations and the world, hoping beyond hope they could ensure this Great War would eventually be known in history as the Last Great Ninja War. Perhaps, with luck, it could even be the War to End All Wars.

Together they would establish an Alliance between Leaf, Sand, and Mist, one which would stand the trials and tribulations of the war against their common foe, united by their shared dreams, and their disdain for such pointless bloodshed and death.

The Three Nations Alliance would be forged in fire, strengthened by shared bloodshed, and it would change the course of the war, and the world.

They would not be alone, however. Leaf, Mist, and Sand would find allies in the Land of Tea and Land of Rivers as a result of Team Seven aiding the Wasabi Family and Team Guy freeing Katabami Gold Mine.

An unlikely ally would also take shape upon the seas: The remnants of the Kurosuki Family. Led by Mikki, they would begin their journey freeing captive souls, and over the following years build a fleet worthy of their Captain's namesake as the Pirate Queen.

The Cloud, Mikki knew, were lying in wait, and so while the Great Nations fought their war, she would prepare for the day the Cloud made their move. She would not let the Era of Light be stolen by the Raikage.

Elsewhere, in shadows and behind enemy lines, Takako, Riku, Yōrō, and Kegon gathered those still loyal to Shibuki of the Waterfall to attack Suien's Waterfall shinobi and their Stone puppet masters, disrupting their convoys and ambushing camps beneath the cover of darkness. All with the aid of the Crows of the Leaf's spy network, of course.

They fought in battles which were small enough for them to win, and yet still impactful to their overall mission. For Takako, in this unreasonable war, such tactics were the only reasonable option left to them.

Likewise, Oda Makimura, Commander of what remained of the Hidden Grass Village's forces, worked alongside the Crows to locate and gather the fractured remnants of the Grass shinobi to aid in similar tactics. So far Oda had yet to find one of his superiors, nor had his suspicion and distrust for his own forces lessened.

He and Ryūzetsu continued to investigate those who served under Zōsui and those he was closely connected with. What he learned he wrote in a journal and passed onto the Crows.

When this war finally ended, regardless if he survived, Oda swore those who had tortured that innocent child and murdered her mother—for what else could it be called—would face justice.

In the Land of Rice Paddies, Hanzaki of the Fūma Clan kept a close eye on the movements of the war, and on the foreigners who now entered, just as Master Jiraiya had warned him. Now and then a Crow would visit the leader of the Fūma Clan, and they would share whatever news they possessed. Rarely was it good.

With the Waterfall now under the control of the Stone, it was only a matter of time before they pushed east through the mountainous region separating their Lands, and only a matter of time before the Feudal Lord either bowed to their power or ordered yet another hopeless war.

Hanzaki was already preparing for the worst.

Meanwhile Sasame continued to train hard. She was anxious more often than not, afraid of the ill news she heard of the war, as the indiscriminate killings of civilian and shinobi alike by the Stone reached even her ears. She worried for Naruto, Sakura, Mimi and Aoko, who she knew would all find themselves caught amidst the war in one way or another, and prayed every night for their health and safety.

Even so, Sasame kept searching for ways to help her Clan prepare for the coming days of strife. She trained daily and worked alongside Hanzaki whenever she could so she could learn how to one day lead the Clan. Together they looked after Kotohime, Manzo, Biscuit, Scotch and the rest of the kids, and Daisuke who, like Kotohime, was still living with the scars of what they'd lost to the Sound Village.

Daisuke, sensing the inevitability war reaching them, had begun to teach Sasame how to use his gauntlet and chained kunai, in addition to passing on what experience he could from his time on the battlefield. It was all he could do, besides pray that somehow, someway, Sasame, the kids, and the children of the Fūma Clan were spared from the hell of war.

To the north, Queen Koyuki was quite busy as well, working tirelessly to uplift her people even when she was on set for a new movie. Research into the generators her father built was ongoing, but sooner rather than later the Land of Snow would be known as the Land of Spring.

Additionally, the Queen continued to seek ways to bring an end to the war and its bloodshed. She was not alone in that quest, either.

King Michiru of the Land of the Moon had reached out to the Queen in the days that had followed the liberation of his homeland. The bond between the two Kingdoms was shaping to be the strongest in their Kingdoms history, their determination to raise their voices together alongside the young shinobi who changed their lives—saved them—remained unwavering.

In the years to come, through great effort, he would even be reunited with Amayo, his beloved wife.

Prince Hikaru, often joined by Chamū and Kiki, shadowed his father as he worked, spent days in the palace library studying the world's history, and walked among his people under the guard of loyal men like Commander Korega and Captain Hoshino, all in an effort to learn more about his Kingdom, what it meant to be a King or Prince, their people, their struggles, and the struggles of the world.

And so, as soldiers fought and died upon the battlefields, the stage of the Third Great Ninja War was finally set.

A new chapter of war had begun.

Gaara walked with purpose along the Sand Village's main street, flanked by Hikari, who sat upon a disk of Iron Sand as she glided beside him.

They'd been aiding Temari and Kankurō in training the current generation of Academy students before the Fifth Kazekage summoned them; it was strange to take on the role of a teacher, he could admit, but it was an opportunity to learn how to communicate with others, and redefine and forge new bonds with the next generation of shinobi, showing he and Hikari were not the monsters they had been taught to fear.

So far, progress was slow. Children like Matsuri and Yukata were the first to ask him and Hikari to train them. Others, in those first days, looked at them as the children they had grown up with had, nearly shivering in fear just by standing within meters of them, expecting the pair, it seemed, to lash out and murder them or their friends without mercy.

And like those days, when he hoped to play with other children his age, it did leave a sting in his heart to be utterly avoided. To be feared so fiercely.

However, Gaara was not deterred from his path. Yaoki and Korobi had once feared him and Hikari as well, they, too, once quaked, voices trembling, when they merely glanced in their direction. Now they were steadfast comrades—friends who supported them.

In time, with hard work, he was certain the children of the next generation could one day see him and Hikari as comrades and friends as well, for in his patience and dedication new children had approached them both to learn. He knew them all by name—Mikoshi, Sen, Yome, and Shira.

Each showed potential, each were earnest in their dedication to gaining strength. Shira in particular, who possessed no talent in genjutsu or ninjutsu, reminded Gaara of Rock Lee's formidable strength and Will, for even though the Sand's outdated policies had refused the young boy entry into the Academy all these years, Shira continued to train his taijutsu on his own in order to become a shinobi.

Lady Pakura's recent Academy reforms had finally granted Shira entry. He would be as formidable as Rock Lee, Gaara was certain of it.

Now he had six new precious bonds tying him to the next generation. He had his bonds with his precious siblings, his bonds of friendship with Yaoki and Korobi, bonds of camaraderie with the shinobi squadron he led among the regular forces, bonds with Lady Pakura and Maki, and those which connected him to the shinobi in the Leaf Village, which were all precious to him. And, of course, his bond with Hikari, more precious to him than any gem or mineral.

Little by little his connections to this world and its people were growing—changing.

No matter how long it takes, Gaara thought, determined, I will work hard to redefine these bonds of fear, hatred, and bloodshed I forged with my Village. And someday, with these precious people at my side, Naruto Uzumaki and I will stand together as not only friends and comrades, but as Hokage and Kazekage as well.

At the entrance to the Sand Village they found Yaoki and Korobi already waiting for them.

"Ah, Lord Gaara!" greeted Yaoki with a smile.

"We're ready to deploy whenever you are, Lord Gaara," said Korobi.

"I'm sorry to have kept you waiting," he replied, nodding once. Then turned his gaze to Hikari, floating beside him. "Hikari, are you prepared?"

"Always," she said, smiling at him.

That smile was his salvation. Their bond was the light which would keep the darkness at bay through the worst of the war in the coming years, it would give him all the strength he needed to protect all of his precious bonds.

Together they set off to combat the Stone's incursion, and there, amid seething golden dunes and lashing Iron Sand and searing Lava, Gaara of the Desert and Hikari of the Iron Sand would defend their comrades, friends, and Village from the invaders.

There, upon the desert battlefields as the days stretched into years, the once feared weapons of the Sand Village would forge new bonds, and those people would no longer see them as tools, monsters, or weapons of war, but as something more.

Stalwart comrades.

Precious friends.

Heroes of the Sand.

To the East, within Hidden Mist Village, Haku was gently fastening the small messenger pack's final strap, securing it and the three letters contained within to Kaito's body. When he finished he silently stepped back and gave a small respectful dip of his head.

"Thank you for your patience. Now then, are you ready to go, Kaito?"

The hawk, perched on the edge of his desk, let out a sharp cry and fluttered his wings, confirming his readiness.

"Okay," he nodded once and lifted his arm out. "Do be careful on your journey. Storms can roll in off the mountains suddenly this time of year."

Kaito hopped onto his forearm. He moved to the window, slid it open, and the icy breath of winter quickly swept into his warm quarters like a specter finally welcomed into a home; Haku didn't wince or shiver, he was quite used to the cold, but Kaito did rustle his feathers at first contact, clearly displeased by the winter chill.

After a beat, and something akin to a long suffering sigh, his feathered companion beat his wings and took flight for the Leaf Village.

With their letters en route, Haku shut and locked the window then departed his quarters. There was still much work to be done around the Mist; it would likely always be true in some sense, he knew, even when they finally turned the tide against the rampant poverty and despair afflicting his Nation. Even peace required work to be maintained.

However, their Nation and the world were far from an era of peace at the moment, and although the Third Great Ninja War had not yet reached them, it was only a matter of time. Soon—sooner than they knew—they would enter the war beside their allies in the Leaf and Sand in order to stand against the Stone, and so the shinobi of the Mist continued to prepare for that day. They would not be caught off guard again, as they were by Haido's invasion.

In the following years, through great research guided by Keiko's sketches, the Mist would eventually develop similar cannons to those utilized by the foreign invaders, strengthening their military power at home, on the sea, and on the battlefields. Upon their completion, Haku knew, should the Stone find their Village amidst the misty mountains, and then attempt a direct invasion, their enemy's forces would suffer the same tragic and gruesome fate as the villages the invaders had wiped out on the shores of the Land of Wind.

As for Keiko herself, she would continue her work within the Anbu during the war as a Captain. Her primary mission, assigned by the Mizukage and Zabuza personally, would be to hunt any and all leads on the Six-Tails jinchūriki and former Mist shinobi known as Utakata. And so she would, tirelessly, as was her duty.

They were all hopeful they might find him before the Akatsuki did.

Fuugetsu would continue to unleash his surprises; he was of the firm belief someone had to keep his best friend on his toes, and since so many shinobi were boring and serious, it fell upon him, the most magnanimous, charming, and not to mention devilishly handsome shinobi in the Mist. It was quite the burden, you see, but one he took gladly.

Sensing the seriousness of the war, however, the Hōzuki would utilize his surprises to keep his own skills sharp as well. He would even train to join the Swordsmen, eventually being chosen to wield the Mystical Sword known as Shibuki.

None would know the shudder of abject fear Chōjūrō felt when he heard the self-proclaimed Malignant Monsoon of the Mist's mad giggle upon learning of the swords special explosive tags—none save the Stone shinobi he met on the battlefield, at least.

Nen Murasame, as well, would train harder and harder as his comrades entered the war, hoping to eventually wield the necessary strength to be of use in what even he could see was a war to define the future of the Mist and the world itself. He'd even hit the books, although he never much enjoyed studying. For most of the war he would be assigned missions within the Land of Water, all of which provided experience he was grateful to gain.

Later, however, two years into the war, Nen would begin the rigorous training necessary to wield Nuibari, the Sewing Needle, of the Seven Mystical Swords. He was determined to earn his place as one of the Swordsmen, to stand as a Pillar, like his comrades, and help bring about the future the Fifth Mizukage believed in.

Meanwhile, Chōjūrō and Haruhi would continue working towards rebuilding the Mist and fulfilling Lady Mei's dream. They would be sent to reinforce important fronts of the war, fighting alongside Sand and Leaf shinobi alike against the Stone. Their exploits as Seven Swordsmen would earn them a flee on sight order from the Stone, and though many would heed it, the Mother of Lightning's reach was difficult to escape.

Haku and Natsumi, too, would earn reputations on the battlefields, although their exploits often lay hidden within the shadows, leaving few with the ability to retell them. But what few shinobi survived vividly recalled the Yuki Clan's Ice Style and the Uzumaki Clan Techniques which felled their comrades.

Chinami and Mika would remain within the Mist as a result of the war. Although they would still yearn to leave the Land and their memories behind, neither wished to be caught upon the terrifying battlefields plaguing the mainland, and what connections they had with the shinobi and fellow survivors like Meer and Yumi made the Village almost feel like home. In the meantime they would continue to help the least fortunate in the Land of Water, and that purpose would sustain them through the coming years.

For now, though, Haku did not yet know what the war would bring or how he and his comrades would cross paths with the members of Team's Seven, Eight, Ten and Team Guy, or that they would eventually meet and fight beside Gaara, Hikari, Yaoki, Korobi, Maki, Kankurō, and Temari, among many other Leaf and Sand shinobi.

He walked along the peaceful and cold street, observing the populace and absorbing the calm before the storm. Eventually, he knew, they would join the war.

Together, with their Leaf and Sand allies, they would defend their people and the precious bonds they formed. And together they would not merely hope, but strive to reach the sunlight beyond the dark clouds of war, where they could finally lay their weapons down and begin a new era of prosperity, friendship, and understanding. An era far brighter than the Dark Times, where warriors weren't needed, and war's ceased to be waged.

Haku hoped to see it.

Thick black ribbons billowed from the town, darkening the sky for miles as frenetic blue flames danced upon rooftops and encircled its boundaries, as they burned upon enormous roots which had burst from the earth, or perhaps hell, trapping all those still alive within. Some burned alive, some choked on the fumes. Panicked screams, horrified wails, and shrill pleas for parents, siblings, a divine—someone, something—to save them could be heard even from a distant hill.

At its center, however, a leafless tree, warped and twisting around itself, now stood, its many branches adorned with the grisly ornaments of shinobi and civilian corpses; bodies were pierced through by the leafless branches, hung by their necks, or crushed to death, smearing and staining the bark in blood and gore.

It was magnificent.

Kasai grinned at his creation, whole body trembling in thrill. He'd finally perfected his new technique, the flammable resin he'd created with his Wood Style couldn't be more exquisite, and the chaos was just as decadent.

"What… What have you done?" a feeble voice, belonging to that of a child, asked.

Blue flames dancing in his crazed eyes, Kasai didn't bother to look at the child who had the good fortune of running off to play in the woods before he arrived. He took in the entire scene, the screams, and had a sudden wonderful thought.

Amari, my old friend, what will you do when your annoying birds or Hokage tell you what I've done. Will you weep? Will you seek me out? Or will you finally admit that you and I are reflections of this twisted world. After all, you wiped an entire town off the face of the map before I did, he thought, thrumming from head to toe.

Through his Byakugan he watched the inside of the town and all its panicked people die, succumbing to fiery deaths as buildings collapsed on top of them, as resin stuck to their skin and burned them alive, or simply, and more dully, suffocated on the smoke.

You inspired me to do this, you know. You destroyed all those peoples homes, all their possessions—they can never return home because of you. His shoulders shook with a suppressed laugh. You destroyed everything they had.

And the best part about it? You didn't even give those Stone shinobi a chance to flee or surrender. You didn't even try to spare their lives, and they, being so pitifully weak, lacked the ability to survive that technique of yours.

You called me twisted, but when will you see that we all are. This whole world is twisted. And this war… Yes, he clenched his hands into fists, this war is our inheritance.

This is our war.

Turning away from the town, he sauntered ahead. When the child saw his scarred face and grin, they froze in fear and ceased to breathe, gripped by a cold killing intent, an abyss devoid of warmth, goodness, and light. Tears welled in their eyes.

So, come, old friend. Let's set this twisted world ablaze together.

And from its ashes I'll build a new world.

"What have I done?" he repeated as he stopped in front of the child.

The child trembled from head to toe. They whimpered pathetically and tears streamed down their cheeks. The Senju grinned wildly, reached his hand towards the child.

Then gently pat them on the head, like they were a family pet.

"I've set you free," he said, sauntering off.

As the sun rose over the horizon, casting its light upon the Leaf Village, Fū awoke but did not open her eyes. Did not move, save for the natural rise and fall of her calm breaths. She lay beneath the warm covers, unmoving. Rather, the sudden crushing weight of melancholy pinned her against the bed.

Today's the day, she thought. Today we have to leave with Pervy Gramps to train.

She knew it was important. Really important. Those two Akatsuki guys had brought her and Naruto to the brink of death, and from what Pervy Gramps and Lady Fifth said they didn't even have access to all of their chakra; that strange Shapeshifting Jutsu had limitations, thankfully.

Yet even then those two rogues went toe to toe with Lady Fifth and Pervy Gramps, they didn't even quiver in fear like a normal person would!

We were really lucky, Fū thought. Like catching a fly with chopsticks while riding a galloping horse lucky. If Naruto hadn't figured out those super useful chakra chains, who knows what would've happened to us.

She curled up on her side. The bedroom fell away and her eyes opened to her mindscape, where she now lay on top of Chōmei's head.

"All this time I've only ever heard secondhand about the Akatsuki and what they could be capable of," she murmured. "I mean, I knew Amari and the others weren't lying about how strong they were—they wouldn't lie about something like that. So I kinda knew when we eventually fought them it'd be tough. But still… I didn't really understand what they meant until those two brothers attacked us. Now that we've actually met two in person…"

They hadn't even had a chance to fight back. It was just—bam! Then they were caught in that horrible Lightning Prison. Without Naruto's new technique…

Fū frowned. "I'm not strong enough yet. Not to fight guys like them. So I get why we have to leave, I know its super important for us to train with Pervy Gramps, and he was super serious about it. Like, I don't think I've ever seen Pervy Gramps so serious before. But…"

She squeezed her eyes shut.

"I want to stay here. With my friends."

"I know," Chōmei's easygoing and powerful voice rumbled through the mindscape. "Still, if we do stay, the Akatsuki will target the Leaf again and again; the recent incident was their second attempt, according to Amaririsu, and then there's the Foundation to consider as well, since its clear they have their eyes on you and Naruto as well."

"Yeah, I know," she sighed, opening her eyes and glancing down at the top of his head. "Feels like we're being run out of our home again. Big jerks…"

"We aren't being run out," Chōmei soothed. "Everyone will be waiting for us to get back, so as long as we train hard we won't keep them waiting long."

"I just… I wish we could train in the Leaf, you know?"

"Mm," his hum vibrated in her ears. "I understand. Think of it as a mission instead, or an adventure. We'll train and travel with Naruto and Master Jiraiya, come back stronger, and then we'll be one step closer to retaking the Waterfall."

Fū swallowed roughly, then nodded once. "And then Shibuki can rest easy in the Land he loved," she agreed softly.


"Then there's no use lying around and moping." She sat up in her mindscape. "You said it yourself, Chōmei. As long as I train super hard we'll be back in a snap. Actually, we'll be even faster than that. And totally strong enough to handle the Akatsuki, Foundation, and that jerk Suien in the Waterfall."

"That's the spirit. Besides, Amaririsu did promise we'd celebrate with waffles when we returned. Something to look forward to, right?"

A small smile took form on Fū's lips. The awful weight of melancholy pinning her down lessened.

"…You're the best, Chōmei."

"What can I say? I've got a lucky streak and the ultimate tag team partner on my side."

"Hmhm," she giggled, weakly but sincerely. "Me too."

"Come on, time to get up," he said, shaking his head and jostling her a little. "I've got a good feeling about today."

"All right."

Fū closed her eyes then opened them to Amari's bedroom. Immediately she noticed Karin's absence, and sprang upright like the dead come to life, eyes drawn to the empty spaces in the bed.

Amari's absence was normal, of course. She always awoke at ungodly hours, like even early birds would be cranky if they woke with her. Then, on any normal day, Fū would be the next one to wake and slip out of bed, that way Karin could sleep undisturbed as long as she needed.

Karin never made it out of bed before her, which made it super strange and almost terrifying for her to be gone.

Staring at the empty space, heart beating a little quicker, Fū was ready to sound the alarm, lift up the blankets, check beneath the pillows, and search every nook and cranny in the bedroom for the Uzumaki. Because she obviously still had to be here. No one could've slipped into Miss Kurenai's house without Amari, Karin, Miss Kurenai, or Chōmei sensing them, they definitely couldn't have kidnapped Karin without anyone noticing.

So, where the heck was she?

Quickly, the Waterfall kunoichi extended her senses out, and sighed in relief. Karin's chakra, along with Amari's, Miss Kurenai's, and Yakumo's were all downstairs already. She wondered what brought Yakumo over so early. Training, maybe? Or maybe she just wanted to have breakfast with her Sensei and sibling student?

Fū stretched her arms to the ceiling while she sat in bed, arced her back, and twisted a little side to side, letting out a pleasant groan as she did. She stretched one more time after she made the bed, rising onto the very tips of her toes as she raised her arms above her head, and then the Waterfall kunoichi departed for the bathroom to prepare for the day.

As she descended the stairs to join the others, the unmistakable aroma of freshly cooked waffles blessed her nostrils. Giddy, she flitted to the kitchen within a blink, grinned and declared,

"Wa-hoo! Waffles!"

Your good feeling totally came true, Chōmei! It's not even Waffle Day. I thought for sure I'd miss the next one.

"Hmhm," her partner chuckled. "Well, what are you waiting for? Time to savor this surprise."

Surprise? Fū blinked, paused. Karin's early absence crept to the front of her excited mind, drawing her eyes to the table, where she and Yakumo already sat.

They were both startled by her boisterous entry, the former placing a hand over her heart, but both smiled at her. Kurenai's shoulders shook with a chuckle as she prepared the final plate. Amari was in the midst of delivering godly dishes to Karin and Yakumo. There were also a few presents wrapped in red with silver and gold bows settled in the corner. Two were rectangular and shaped like Yakumo's portraits.

Was this…all for her?

"Good morning, Fū. You're right on time," Amari greeted, setting the plates down.

"I am? For what?" she asked dumbly.

"I pulled some political strings with our miracle-making chef and used my power as Clan Head to decree today as Waffle Day. I also called in a favor, so," she gestured to the gifts, "Christmas came early this year, that way we can spend it all together. Like I'd initially planned."

Fū puffed out an abrupt laugh, the heartwarming gesture nearly enough to bring her to tears.

"Who do you even call to change holidays? Wait—can you decree Waffle Day as a holiday?"

"Maybe?" Amari shrugged, smiling. "With the Uchiha Clan Treasury at my disposal, there are some palms I can grease to achieve my ends. I'm sure Lady Tsunade has a few debts Atsuko can clue me in on. I could have her dancing in the palm of my hand before years end."

Fū recoiled a step back, horror and joy striking her at once. "Yo- You can't blackmail Lady Fifth! She'll kill you!"

"Not if my blackmail is strong enough."

"You're crazy," Karin shook her head, smiling.

"Amaririsu," Yakumo scolded through a giggle.

"Careful, little one," Miss Kurenai warned, smiling as she approached the table with the final plate. "Your friends may think you're going mad with power at this rate."

"Aw," Amari crossed her arms, pouting. "But I haven't even hit my stride yet."

Fū giggled, and a little more of the melancholy lifted off her. It wouldn't go away entirely, not when she would miss Amari's unique sense of humor, and Karin, and Yakumo, and Miss Kurenai, and Waffle Days, and the rest of her friends, but…having this today, even if it would be the last time for a while…

"This world is full of kind people," Shibuki's voice came back to her. "People who will see the true nature of your heart, and they will cherish you, as I did. Hold those people close, Fū."

Lowering her chin slightly, Fū's eyes watered and stung as she smiled.

I will, Shibuki. I promise. Because I finally found those kind people you told me about. And I think…

"Come sit, Fū," Kurenai beckoned with a smile, gesturing lightly with the plate. "Breakfast is ready."

"Oh, uh, right," she nodded. Wiped her eyes. Then beamed. "No way am I missing out on Surprise Waffle Day!"

I think I'm finally home.

The time to leave the Leaf had finally come.

As Naruto made his way to the front gate, he gripped the straps of his traveling pack and took his time soaking in every little detail about his home that he could.

Familiar sights and smells, people moving in and out of shops, kids playing at parks he, Shikamaru, Chōji, and Kiba all once played at after and during school, noises of construction, which left a mild pang in his chest as it reminded him of Old Man Gennō; he absorbed it all. It'd be some time before he ever saw it again, and he had no idea how different it might be when he returned.

He had no idea how different he would be when they returned from their training trip. So, while he had the chance, he wanted to savor this last walk through the Village. He wanted to take everything in, crystalize the Leaf and his good feelings so, when he inevitably became homesick, he'd have this memory to hold onto. This one, and the good feelings he and his comrades had shared last night.

They'd all met again for dinner. It was a sort of going away party, he supposed, for him and Fū. It was their last chance to just have fun, talk, and spend time together before their paths split apart for an unforeseeable time.

A good memory. So good they'd all nearly forgotten it would be the last time in the moment. Afterwards, they all mades promises to get together again when he and Fū finally returned. They promised to be stronger next time they met, then bid fond and friendly farewells.

Naruto paused in the street. He turned and looked up at Hokage Mountain, where the four faces of the previous Hokage watched over the Leaf. Lord Third's nose still had a crack along the bridge; in his absence it would eventually be fixed, and Tsunade's face added beside the Fourth's.

"Be careful out there, Naruto," he recalled Sakura's parting words last night, and the feeling of his teammate hugging him. He recalled her smile afterward, and felt a hint of smile form on his lips. "And make sure you train hard, otherwise you'll have to work even harder to catch up to me when you get back."

I will, he promised. I'll be careful, and I'll train even harder than before.

He wouldn't take it easy on this training trip with Pervy Sage. No way. Not after what he and Fū experienced on the top of Hokage Mountain against those Niō guys.

"Hey, Naruto." His mind drifted to his final words to Sasuke this morning, who met him at the door. "Watch yourself out there. Make sure you tell Fū the same thing. Twice, just to be sure."

Naruto exhaled a soft chuckle. We'll be careful. Don't worry.

And, when I get back…

"Assuming Master Jiraiya trains you seriously, let's spar when you get back. We'll see who's the strongest."

He nodded to himself, determined. Yeah. You and I are gonna spar when we get back, Sasuke. That's a promise. So you better not slack off, you know, 'cause I won't go easy on you.

His eyes drifted to the Fourth Hokage's face—the Hokage he idolized above all others. Reaching his hand out, Naruto smiled with all of his fierce determination.

Just you wait. When I get back, I'm gonna be a stronger ninja than Mom, and an even cooler ninja than the Fourth.

He clutched his hand into a fist, squeezed it tight. He nodded to himself, swearing to make those words true, then continued on his journey to the front gate.

All the goodbyes he needed to say were said, even to Iruka, who he had shared a bowl of ramen with this morning at Ichiraku. He was ready for the path ahead of him, no matter how challenging it might be.

At the front gate he found Fū already waiting for him with Pervy Sage, Amari, Karin, and Yakumo. Fū beamed at the sight of him, waving both hands over her head as she gave an exuberant greeting even at distance. He saw a handcrafted bracelet on her wrist, the braided rope colored mint and orange.

"It's about time you showed up," Pervy Sage greeted, feigning frustration as he placed his hands on his hips. "It's unbecoming of a gentleman to keep such kind young ladies waiting, you know."

"Hehe, sorry about that," Naruto scratched at his cheek. "Guess you could say I got lost on the path of life."

"Hmph," Amari's shoulders shook with an abrupt chuckle. "Troublesome boy."

"Naruto." Karin stepped closer and held out her cupped hands. "Here. Yakumo helped me make this for you."


In her hands was another handcrafted bracelet, the braided rope colored crimson and black like the Uzumaki crest.

"It's not much, but… I wanted to give you and Fū something to…remember us all as you're training."

Smiling warmly, Naruto took the bracelet and slipped it onto his wrist. "Thanks, Karin. This means a whole lot, you kno—"

He wasn't ready for her to suddenly wrap him in a hug.

"Thank you," she said into his chest. "If it weren't for you and Shino, I… Thank you."

Naruto relaxed, smiled, and wrapped his arms around his clan-sister.

"Well, Shino was the brains behind it, so I can't take too much credit," he admitted. "But still, even though the circumstances weren't great, I'm happy our paths crossed. I'm happy we were able to meet, you know. And I know for a fact that everyone is happy you're here, Karin. You can always count on us. I mean, that's what friends and clan-siblings are for, right?"

Karin stepped back. Awkward, flushed, her fingers pinched at the hem of her sweater.

"I'm… I'm going to be stronger when you get back. I… I sensed everything you and Fū went through, and I… I was completely powerless all over again. So…" She met his gaze, nervous, sure, but as determined as anyone bearing the Uzumaki name. "When you get back, I'll be stronger. Strong enough to stand with all of you. I promise."

"So will I," Yakumo agreed.

"I'm sure you will," Pervy Sage said. Then his hands clapped down on Naruto's and Fū's head, rustling their hair as he grinned. "Which just means I'll have to train you two even harder. I can't have you sullying my good name by being mediocre students, now can I?"

"Gah, Pervy Sage!"

"Heyyyy! Sneak attacks like that aren't fair!" Fū giggled.

"Hmhm," Jiraiya chuckled. "All right, if you have anything left to say, get it off your chests now. It's time for us to go."

"Um, uh, I'm not sure what to say! Uh—wait, good idea Chōmei!"

Fū pulled Karin, Yakumo, and Amari into a big hug.

"Group hug! I'll miss you all, but I'll just be a thought away whenever you need me. Be safe. Stay alive. Oh, hug Miss Kurenai for me again. Tell her all this, too."

"Take care, Fū," Yakumo said, rubbing her back. "Thank you for helping me defeat…that creature. Thank you for welcoming me despite everything I tried to do."

"We'll be waiting for you. Try to make sure you don't do anything too crazy while you're away," said Karin.

"We'll all miss you, too, Fū. And we'll all be a thought away when you need us," Amari said. "Train hard. Look after each other. Chōmei, Master Jiraiya, I leave them and the angry fur-ball in your care."

"Chōmei says you can count on him."

"I'll take care of them, don't worry," Pervy Sage promised seriously.

"I know." Amari, still hugging Fū and the others, looked at Jiraiya. "You know these Lands and the reality of war more intimately than I do, but still, please take care of yourself, Master Jiraiya. "

He grinned. "Worried about me, Amaririsu? I'm charmed."

She smirked, rolled her eye. "Careful, Master Jiraiya. You know the Crows are everywhere, and whose humor I've inherited."

"Look after your comrades, Amaririsu."

"I will," she promised. "But I won't do it alone."

"Good," he nodded.

When they finally detangled, Amari approached Naruto, wrapped her arms behind his neck and hugged him tightly. Naruto hugged her in return.

"Don't be too troublesome, Naruto."

"Heh. Can't promise that, Sis."

"Hmhm," she chuckled. "I can't either. We'll miss you. Still, don't falter from your path. Train hard, and walk tall knowing we're there right beside you."

"I will. Same goes for you."

"I won't say goodbye," she said. "So, I'll see you later."

"Yeah. See you later, Amari."

Their farewells given, Naruto, Fū, and Jiraiya departed from the Leaf on a journey that would take them far from the Leaf Village. The years of training ahead of the pair would be the toughest they'd ever faced, but they would endure, keeping in mind the dreams they held and the friends waiting for them back home.

For they knew their friends were fighting in the war, a war which they would see the cruelty of as they traveled, and their determination to see the end of such cruelty and suffering would push them to train even harder.

Yet, for now, they were only taking their first steps away from home. In their hearts they knew it would be a long time before they ever saw it again.

This isn't goodbye, he thought, determined. He gripped the straps of his pack but didn't look back, eyes settled on the road ahead.

So, I'll see you guys later.

Stay safe.

They met beneath a sky of stars, attired in the grey and black uniform of the Anbu Black Ops. Their Captains, Yūgao and Tenzō, donned their cat-motif masks. Sasuke had his eagle-motif mask in place, eyes glowing crimson behind it. Mimi's wolf-motif sat at an askew angle on top of her head before she pulled it over her face, Aoko perched on her shoulders.

Amari held her mask at the chin by her side.

"Is everyone prepared?" Yūgao asked.

"Ready," they confirmed.

"All right," Tenzō nodded. "Then let's not waste time."

Slipping her mask into place, Amari exhaled a calm breath.

A cloud of war has darkened our world, so until the sun rises again…

A red eye hidden by shadow blazed to life behind the dragon-motif.

These eyes and my heart will guide me through the darkness, all the way to the end of this era of madness and war.

To Be Continued in Shippuden

Important A/N:First and foremost, I want to wish everyone a happy New Year and a belated Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays since I totally forgot to on my last post. I lost track of what day it was, so I'm sorry about that. I hope everyone's holidays were merry and I hope this year brings far more good than bad into each of your lives.

Now then, we've finally reached the end of Part 1 of Naruto. Been a long time coming. Hard to believe the first chapter was posted all the way back in the time of yore, also known as 2018, and now we're here over two million words later. I definitely did not anticipate the length of this at all, and I definitely had no idea where we'd end up—in some ways I've been on this journey right alongside all of you—but I've had a blast writing this first part of the story from start to finish. I want to thank all of you whether you were reading from the very beginning, or picked it up midway through, or stumbled upon this long after Part 1 was completed. I really appreciate you taking the time out of your lives to read this fanfic, for all the reviews you've left, whether they were warm and fuzzy, questions, or constructive in their critiques, and for making it all the way to the end of this giant story. So thank you for reading. I really hope you enjoyed it as much as I've enjoyed writing it.

There were some filler arcs from Part 1 that didn't make it simply because they evolved into bigger ideas better fit for Shippuden, so if one of your favorites didn't make it, that may be where we see them. But, for now, we've reached the end of Part 1 and the next time we'll see Amari and the gang will be post-time skip, after years of training, missions, and confronting the Third Great Ninja War and all its horrors. Things will not go entirely the same way as they did in canon, as you might've guessed by the appearance of Tobirama's Sharingan, so I hope you look forward to that.

As for the Shippuden portion of this story, I haven't yet gotten any chapters finished for it, unfortunately, so it may be a while before we get to start seeing the next part of the story unfold. I'd like to get a bigger backlog than I've had for the last few years, where I was constantly within a hair thin margin of not having a chapter ready to post on our current schedule, that way I can post more frequently without stressing myself out.

I am not abandoning this story whatsoever. I want that point to be understood and clear as a bell. I've also read fanfics that were abandoned, so I want to be perfectly clear that this is not an abandonment. This is not me saying goodbye. I already have a general table of contents written out and I know what the first arc will be, so there's no lack of inspiration here. I'm committed to finishing this story, simply because I always have fun when I write it. I love writing as a whole, I really love the journey these characters have gone on, so, again, this isn't goodbye. This isn't being abandoned. I just don't have any chapters yet to post right now and I likely won't have a backlog built in time to pick up when I would normally post next. I am incredibly long-winded, after all, as this essay proves.

I'm not sure how long it'll be before I'm back, but rest assured I will be. If you're ever worried or wondering about the status of the story, feel free to private message me or leave a review if you have a profile, because I won't be able to reply if its a guest review, unfortunately, and I'll get back to you as quick as I can. I'll probably post a temporary author note/chapter on this story when I do post the first chapter of Shippuden to let you all know the name of the story and that its been posted when I do.

Oh, and there will likely be one-shots and short stories that get posted in-between now and then from many different series, including My Hero and Yukiko's version of the world, so keep an eye on my profile if you're interested in that; those won't take away from typing Shippuden, since I type those into my phone in any spare moment I have away from the computer, so have no fear of it being delayed by that.

All right, I think that covers about everything. Thank you all again for reading this story, thank you for joining me every Friday and then every other Friday as I've posted this story, and, of course, for reading this super long-winded author note. I'm looking forward to seeing you all again in Shippuden and potentially in anything else I write. I hope you all have a wonderful 2024. Thank you for joining me on this journey, I know my writing wasn't the greatest at the start, but I'll keep doing my best to improve and to write an awesome Shippuden for all you rockstars.

I won't say goodbye. So, I'll see you all later.

Take care and stay safe.

Review Response to Isobel Bauch: Thank you for reading this story! I hope you had a Merry Christmas and I hope 2024 will be a wonderful year for you. I'm going to do my best to build a backlog so I can post more frequently during Shippuden. I'm sorry that I'll be absent in the meantime, but I promise I'll be back as soon as I can be. Thank you for all the reviews you've left on this story through all these arcs. I appreciated all of them.

Until next time, take care!