There are bandits in Sound Country. There had been for some time. They swept in and out almost at random, stealing supplies, destroying homes, and the like. The fallout of the war had made them bold.
The elemental nations were struggling to pull themselves back to their feet. Sound had already been incessantly battered by its own leader for years before the warring began. It was vulnerable, and had been since Orochimaru’s death, and Kabuto’s departure.
Karin had done her damndest to get the little nation back on its feet, and had done an admirable job. But she didn’t have very many shinobi. She had mouths to feed, and the sick to care for. She couldn’t beat back the bandits on her own, even with Jūgo and Suigetsu’s help.
She petitioned other nations for aid, and in a world after Naruto saved it, plenty were willing to help. Karin had offers coming out of the ears for money, temporary border guards, and the like. But it was only the aid offered from Ame that she accepted.
Konan, weak though she was still after her near death at Obito’s hand, was still the strongest remaining shinobi in Amegakure. And she had the authority to open her nation’s borders to the several hundred remaining Oto citizens.
Refugee status, for as long as necessary. While what remained of Oto took shelter in Ame, a strike force of several veteran shinobi would root out the bandits. Until they were gone or relocated, Karin and her people would be welcome in Ame.
Naruto and his team were in charge of the transportation. He, Tenten, and Sai were to carve out large scale transportation seals on Oto, Konoha, and Ame soil. A three point journey. They started with their own in their native land, then traveled to Ame to craft the second.
Konan, with a puppy at her heels and an orphan boy at her hip, watched over their progress, the people of Ame referring to her instead as the Goddess of Mercy, rather than God’s Angel. She had survived, stubborn as anything, and she had ensured that they had survived as well.
She brought an origami rose for Tenten’s hair, and a notebook with fine paper for Sai. She had given Naruto a kind smile, and took him to the shrine where she buried Yahiko, Jiraiya, and Nagato, so that they could all have a nice meal with their sensei.
Once the massive seal was completed in Ame, Naruto and his team bounced back to Fire Country where secondary and tertiary teams was waiting on standby to head onward with them to Oto.
As the light fades from the seal, he drops his hands off Tenten and Sai’s shoulders. Tenten tugs a notebook from the pocket of her bright red cargos, and Sai follows as they run maintenance on the seal beneath their feet, to make sure it can accommodate all those traveling with them.
Naruto cracks his neck and looks out at the remaining shinobi assembled. Several medics, and that’s not a surprise. Karin was an adept medical shinobi in her own right, but she couldn’t cure the entirety of her population without running herself ragged.
He gives a little wave to Chouji’s mother, whose dietary expertise made her the perfect person to oversee the rations that her squad would be taking ahead to Ame. Konan was offering a lot to Oto by giving them refugee status; the least Konoha could do was to ease the burden by giving them enough to eat.
He steps off of the seal, allowing the older woman to pinch his cheek and shove an extra bento into his hands (because there were always extra bento to be had among the Akimichi) when he catches sight of Shikamaru.
He opens his mouth to say hello, but stops when he sees a familiar head of pink hair wave the other jounin over. Shikamaru walks languidly over to Sakura, who with a clipboard in hand, begins a conversation full of sweeping arm gestures and waggled fingers. Shikamaru nods solemnly through most of it, occasionally offering a suggestion or a shrugged shoulder.
He says something that makes Sakura shift her weight, and look down at her clipboard. He shuffles in a little closer to her, running his finger down the paper. Their heads are bent awfully close together.
When they find whatever information they're looking for, Shikamaru taps the clipboard twice and Sakura laughs, rapping her knuckles against the side of her head in embarrassment. Shikamaru gives her one of his lazy grins, and Sakura thanks him before bounding off to see to her teams.
"Naruto," Tenten says, startling him.
He jumps a little bit, abruptly on his guard and trying to minutely figure out how he can use his bento as a weapon. He takes a couple of breaths to remind himself that he's not actually at war anymore, and he loosens his shoulders, unclenches his jaw, and relaxes his hold on the lunch Chouji's mother made for him.
Tenten gives him a sympathetic smile, and waves him forward.
"We need a little help altering the accommodation arrays," she explains. "We're gonna have a lot more chakra going in than last time, and we don't want to blow the thing."
"Yeah," Naruto says, "of course. Show me where the problem is?"
She leads him to where Sai is crouching, sketching out rough adaptations in a journal.
"Go ahead and eat," Tenten says, sitting down beside Sai so she can look over his shoulder.
"Just don't get any food on these pages," Sai grumbles. "I'd rather not get transported inside of your stomach."
Naruto rolls his eyes, and unwraps his lunch. He does end up spitting a little bit in Sai's journal, but it's nothing a tongue lashing and a kiss won't soothe. He completely forgets about Shikamaru and Sakura, too focused on making sure Chouji's mother and her team arrive in Ame safely with their wagon loads of food.
Karin is probably the most annoying cousin on the planet. Naruto is happy to have her, and so is Tsunade. They're connected by thin blood, but they're all each other has by way of family relations.
And yeah, she's calmed down since the war. She's the unofficial Shodaime Ongakukage, her nation is just too small and too poor for her to actually have the title. She's a shrewd tactician, good with money, and better with her people. She's had lean years her entire life. She knows how to scrape by. The only reason she hasn't gone out to slaughter the bandits her damned self was because Naruto had insisted on it.
More death wasn't the way to solve anything. Not anymore. Not after all they had been through.
Karin had ceded that point, well aware that she couldn't ask another country to kill for her, especially considering she didn't have the funds to even think about making a formal request for it. She was happy enough for Konan's help.
She's also happy to chew Naruto's ear off about Sasuke's condition in prison. She's not in love with him anymore (not if little Sarada, and the black haired woman she calls 'mama' are any indication) but she's got a soft spot for him the size of Fire Country. Naruto knows the feeling.
"And another thing," Karin says, bouncing Sarada on her thigh. "Sweetie, don't touch that, it's hot - anyway, it's been years, and the civil rights mandates you've added to your founding document are reasonable, but there's nothing in there that ensures people like Shimura won't take power again."
Naruto sighs, and picks at his okonomiyaki. It's Karin's favorite, and he likes it well enough. Any food that you can throw the kitchen sink into is fine by him. Sarada seems to think so too, making grabby hands at her mother's plate while Naruto makes silly faces at her.
"There's no way to ensure someone like Shimura won't take power ever again," he says. He had been hoping not to talk politics today, just to spend a little time with Karin and the newest Uzumaki in the world. But Karin is nothing if she is not blunt. "People will always want to do their upmost to protect what they love. That's what he thought he was doing."
Karin narrows her eyes, and retrieves Sarada's sippy cup from where she's knocked it over. The toddler coos in delight and promptly shoves it into her mouth.
"Yeah, yeah, intentions good, actions bad," Karin says flippantly. "I want to know what you're going to do if someone like him ever happens again. And I'm sure Sasuke wants to know as well."
Naruto starts eating to avoid the question. Kakashi was still the Rokudaime, though it was obvious that Naruto was going to be his successor. It'd take maybe a handful more years, once the world was just a little more steady. Mei and Onoki, too hadn't taken off the hat, wanting to safely see their nations into what they all hoped would be an everlasting peace.
"I've seen you eat ramen and flirt with your pale boytoy with your mouth full, cousin," Karin says, sneering. "I know you can answer me."
He (rather valiantly) does not groan, but he does pick up his glass of water to give himself another few moments before responding. While he's drinking, he clocks another two patrons entering the little stand, and the flash of red is all he needs to recognize Sakura.
She's with Shikamaru again, and the two of them clearly don't notice Naruto with his cousin the Ongakukage, and her daughter. Sakura's hair is pulled back, which means she's been doing healing sessions, and Shikamaru stubs out his cigarette in an ashtray, which means he's been stressed. Naruto wonders what about.
They had arrived in Oto by foot only a handful of days ago. Naruto, Sai, and Tenten had tirelessly begun working on the transport seal while Shikamaru held audiences with Karin and her council (made of Jūgo and Suigetsu) about how best to arrange the movements of the citizenry. The seal worked off of chakra not body count, so along with the physicals she had to do, Sakura was also tasked with assessing the chakra reserves of every last Oto citizen so that they could be sent in separate groups to Ame.
Naruto winces in sympathy; of course she's tired then, and glad to have greasy food. She had her own team of medics to rely on, but she was still only one person.
"Naruto!" Karin snaps.
He does not choke on his water. Sarada burps, and laughs at him.
It takes them three trips to empty Oto. Tenten travels with the first group, Sai with the second, and Naruto brings up the rear. They take a quick break in Fire Country once they've all arrived, and give the Oto citizens time to regroup with their friends and families, while others talk to medics about fuinjutsu sickness.
Naruto leans his back against a tree, his head on Sai's shoulder. He dozes in the summer shade, soothed by the sound of Sai's pencil scratching against his notebook. They'll only be resting a couple of hours, enough time for everyone to settle. They're planning on reaching Ame while there's still daylight, so that there's plenty of time for everyone to get settled into their new homes.
Naruto rises in and out of consciousness, easy and slow. He wakes completely when Sai's shoulder moves minutely, which means he's reaching for his eraser. He opens his eyes, blinking downwards at Sai's notebook. In it is a tidy sketch (a study, is what Sai calls them) of an upturned palm, resting in the grass. Naruto looks at the hand, wondering if it's one that Sai thought up, or if it's a portrait.
"Morning," Sai mumbles. "Sleep well?"
"Mm," Naruto replies, turning his head so he can buss his lips against Sai's cheek.
As he does, he catches sight of the model for Sai's palm study.
The hand is Shikamaru's, upturned in the shadows of a large oak tree, one whose shadows he's obviously manipulated to obscure him somewhat. The palm is poking out into the sunlight while Shikamaru naps.
Naruto snorts, because what a surprise that is.
Then Sakura walks slowly over, and crouches down, carefully picking up Shikamaru's hand. He twitches into wakefulness immediately, and his shadows grow sharper, more distinct, ready to attack or defend. When he sees who is holding him, he relaxes. He tugs Sakura down until she is sitting beside him, and his pale hand and her gloved one come together.
Naruto's jaw drops, because what a surprise that is. Sai closes his mouth with his hand, and turns to a new page to start sketching two hands, clasped in sleep.
"They'll see you if you stare," Sai muses.
With gentle teeth, Naruto nips at Sai's cheek to shut him up.
The rain is gentle, which is a good thing for the Oto citizens who are not used to such weather. While Karin gets sucked into meetings with Konan, the shinobi of Konoha and Ame join together in guiding the Oto citizens into their temporary homes.
It takes the rest of the day and well into the evening, but once everyone is settled, it shows. The children are rosy cheeked, shy but curious and willing to play with the children that splash in the puddles of Ame. The adults are grateful for the thousand meals the Akimichi had left in advance for them; it will ensure they have enough to eat until they can start working, and buying food of their own.
Tenten, Naruto, and Sai are destroying what remains of the transportation seal in Ame. It isn't necessary anymore, or at least it won't be until the bandit problem in Sound is solved for good. Naruto is half sure that it never will be, and that the territory will be annexed by Yuga within the year. He isn't sure how Karin is going to stop that from happening, but he knows that she isn't too proud to stay where her people feel safe.
Being of Oto was never really an identity that one could be proud of. Ame was much the same, but at least it wasn't built by a maniac. It had only been ruled by one.
They're preparing to head out, the last of the Konoha shinobi, ready to return to their home country by foot. Naruto tugs his cloak up over his head, the gentle rain gaining strength as the evening wears on. If they head out now, they'll make it back to Konoha by morning, and then he can stay lazy in bed all day with Sai, coming in and out of sleep easy as breathing.
Konan and Karin see them off, and Naruto blows raspberries onto Sarada's stomach, and she smashes kisses onto his face with a vigor that knocks off her little glasses.
With that, they're off. Within a couple of hours of running, they're already dry. When they make it to the border, the constant heat that comes off of Fire Country makes their cloaks redundant. They stop to remove them, pack them, and then they're running again.
Shikamaru takes point, Sakura at his side. Tenten is at the left, Sai at the right, and Naruto at the rear. It's an easy formation, one they would probably fall into in their sleep. As it is, the run home is bump free. There's no one this side of Ame or Konoha that would want to pick a fight with a bunch of people that survived (and in Naruto and Sakura's case, ended) the war. There aren't many people that want to pick fights this side of Ame or Konoha generally speaking.
Izumo and Kotetsu welcome them home at the gate, and they all sign back in with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The sun hasn't risen yet, which means they've made good time, which means they won't have to report to Kakashi until later in the day once they've all properly woken up. Kakashi (mostly on Yamato's orders) kept a surprisingly regular sleep schedule.
Temari is waiting for Tenten at the gate, and the two of them wander off, Temari taking Tenten's pack and guiding her off. Sai takes Naruto's hand and squeezes it, leading him home as well.
As they head down the street, Naruto chances a look over his shoulder. Sakura and Shikamaru are still standing at the gate, likely bickering about who ought to write and turn in the mission report before they head in. They're the two highest ranking shinobi on the squad, both jounin, so the responsibility goes to either of them.
Sakura has an empty scroll in her hand, and she's rummaging in her pack for a pen when Shikamaru plucks the scroll from between her fingers and stuffs it in his pocket. She lifts an eyebrow at him, and Naruto is similarly surprised; Shikamaru, offering to do work? In this lifetime?
She pops her hands on her hips, clearly ready to read him the riot act if he shirks his responsibility or turns in the report late. She stops when he reaches forward and presses his lips to the purple diamond on her forehead.
Her cheeks flush pink, despite the fact that she's in her twenties, despite the fact that she's a war hero, the Godaime's apprentice and more. Shikamaru pulls back and smiles down at her, saying something that Naruto can't hear.
Sai tugs at his hand.
"If you stare too hard, they'll catch you," he warns.
And as he does, Sakura's bright green eyes flicker up and catch Naruto's. She cocks a brow at him, then looks up at Shikamaru and says something to him. She says it so quickly, Naruto can't even read her lips. Shikamaru scratches the back of his head, then looks over his shoulder at Naruto. He gives him a wave, then tosses his arm around Sakura's shoulders and shushins them away.
They disappear in a flutter of leaves in the early morning light, and Naruto smiles, dropping Sai's hand to throw his arm around his waist.
"About time," Sai says breezily as they head home.
"Yeah," Naruto replies. "I've been waiting on that for ages."