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Trial of Man

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Shikamaru was not blind or stupid, though he did have his moments at times. Shikamaru, by his own words, was also a yellow-bellied coward who knew when to quit. And if a problem should arise, he would usually ignore until it was on the verge of spiralling out of control.

So when he didn't see Ino leave the Underground with them, he ignored the swirling whirlpool of dread gathering in his belly.

Perhaps Choji felt the same way, or perhaps he was too preoccupied with newfound freedom.

Shikamaru couldn't bear to look at him for too long, lest his silence finally break. As such, it surprised him when Choji was the one who brought it up when everybody got out of the vehicle to take a small break, sitting or standing in the grass.

"Hey, Shika?"


"Ino… she's not here, is she?"

"… No."

Choji lowered his gaze. "Why didn't we wait for her?"

Shikamaru knew why. He knew that Sakura, Izumi, Hanabi, and Deidara had returned with only one female that certainly wasn't Ino. Hanabi and Deidara had been the last ones to come back, but they would have never deserted her, especially Hanabi, which meant…

"You're crying." Choji's voice wavered.

Was he? Shikamaru blinked, bewildered, lifting up the sleeve of his plain garb to wipe his face. "Huh. So I am."

"Is this what war is?" Choji had never sounded so timid before, not even when the other kids had picked on him for being overweight.

Somehow, Shikamaru felt like it was only the beginning. He closed his eyes, tears clinging to his dark eyelashes.

When Choji began to cry, his large frame shaking, Shikamaru decided, with no small amount of grief, that war was the most troublesome thing ever and he would have preferred his late mother's angry shouts in the morning.

At least that had been normal.

"Why did we bring that traitor along?"

"Calm down, Masami, it's not like we had a choice. He just tagged along and now we can't do anything about it. Especially since Uchiha Itachi is his brother."

"Itachi-sama is a hero. Don't even compare him and that thing."

"Maa, maa, I wasn't, Masami."

Daichi glowered at a nearby tree as disgruntled voices filled his ears. Names hadn't been dropped, but who else could it have been? Uchiha Sasuke was the only traitor among them. He would not blame their ire—Sasuke could not be trusted. He turned on his family far too easily, and was fickle about taking sides.

Seeing Sasuke sitting on a rock and leaning back, cleaning his bloody katana, was a blow to him.

A hand landed on his head, ruffling his hair, and Daichi startled. He tilted his head backward to stare into Deidara's visible eye.

"Hey," she said. "We haven't really talked much, have we?"

Daichi frowned. "What's there to talk about?" he muttered, bitterness seeping into his voice. "It's not like you were there to save otou-san—"

"Don't give me that crap, un."

Daichi recoiled, eyes wide before he glared at her. "You—"

"Stop stewing in your own misery," Deidara ordered sharply. "Have you even seen what people like you become?" She pointed at Sasuke, who was either ignoring them or hadn't noticed. "That guy."

Daichi glared at her for a little longer before his anger crumbled away, replaced by a hollow, searching grief. He slumped against the tree he was leaning on, sliding down. He was lucky the bark was smooth, or it would have torn his shirt.

Sighing, Deidara sat down next to him, tucking a loose strand of blonde hair behind her ear. "You're not the only one who's lost a parent, yeah. Look around you, Daichi…"

He did, scanning each and every one of their faces.

"They're all grieving for something lost, un," she stated sombrely. "Whether it be family members or their old lives."

Daichi pressed his forehead into his knees, his small body shaking as he tried to rein in a sob. He would not cry. He was supposed to be strong with his bitterness and hate, he wasn't supposed to—

Deidara pulled him into a side hug and his entire resolve crumbled. He cried and cried until it felt like he had exhausted all of his tears.

A little girl with wispy brown hair walked up to them, eyes sleepy. "Why is aniki crying?" She had clearly just woken up from a nap. In the distance, Rin was shooting them concerned looks. But she could trust Deidara—she knew that.

"It's nothing," Daichi mumbled, sniffling. "Sorry, imouto."

"Is it because of otou-chan?"

Deidara had to give the girl credit where it was due—children were a lot more perceptive than people thought.

Hikari hugged her brother. "It's okay. I miss him, too. Okaa-chan says he's here," she touched Daichi's chest, feeling his beating heart, "and that he's never going to leave us as long as we remember him."

Daichi's face was completely stricken now, and he began to cry again, embracing his sister tightly. When Hikari started to sniffle, Deidara glanced over at Rin, who had gotten up and was walking toward them.

"Thank you," Rin whispered to her before sitting beside her children, pulling them onto her lap.

Deidara gave her a crooked smile. "It's no problem, un. No kid… should have to go through this alone." She side-eyed Sasuke discretely, but Rin caught it anyway.

"Of course not," the brown-haired woman agreed. Her eyes hardened with determination. "I'll make sure that they'll always be surrounded by people who love them."

Deidara opened her mouth to reply but a shout rang through the air first.


Naruto refused to believe it, glaring harshly at Shikamaru, whose own temper was clearly also being tested. He took a deep breath, lowering this voice. "You..."

"It's true." Shikamaru's voice was tight. "Why else wouldn't she be here?"

Naruto couldn't think of a plausible reason why. So he settled for staring blankly at the grass. No…

"Dobe." Sasuke marched up to him.

"Sasuke-teme. What do you want?"

"He's not lying," Sasuke glanced at Shikamaru, "I saw the man that shot her… and her sister."

"Hitomi, too?" Naruto stared disbelievingly at him, baffled by the tragedy. He felt tears beginning to well up in his eyes, but he bravely held them back. He didn't want to show weakness in front of him.

"Did you kill him?" Shikamaru said suddenly, turning sharply to Sasuke.

A bitter smirk twisted his lips. "I did."

"Good." It didn't come from Shikamaru, but from Naruto. "At least you're good for something, Sasuke-teme."

Sasuke nearly did a double take at that. "Hn." He had a scathing remark at the tip of his tongue, but something about Naruto's words stopped it from escaping. 'At least you're good for something'.

"Hey, brat," Sasori suddenly called to Naruto from the side. "Help me gather firewood."

Naruto hesitated before bounding over to where he was standing with Lee, Tenten, and a beefy man, all of whom had also been recruited for firewood duty.

As the group set off, Sasuke broke away from Shikamaru, returning to the rock where he had been resting earlier. Is that really what all I'm good for? Killing? He scoffed. Naruto doesn't know what he's talking about…

He paused, watching Naruto's blonde head disappear into the trees.


What a mess. Sasori stepped over a large branch that had fallen, dead wood twisted. Everything would have been easier if we could just go around.

He remembered with a scowl the map that Shikaku had produced. The pathway to Konoha was a dangerous one, what, with the war going on and all. There was a mountain pass smackdab in the middle of the road, and it was one that had to cross. It was too dangerous to go around, through the woods, as there were undoubtedly enemy camps and posts littered in that path.

There wasn't enough fuel in the truck for it to travel all the way to Konoha. Not that it would have mattered, since the truck wasn't made for crossing a mountain, even if it was covered with forest and nice grass. It would become a death trap if they were to attempt it.

So here they were now, a group of sixty—mostly composed of civilians—preparing for their first night out in the woods. They were currently at the base of the mountain. Their rations were dwindling fast. Those civilians ate more than they were worth, Sasori thought with no small amount of disdain. Artless pigs.

"Tenten and Lee, go search west from here, but don't go too far," Sasori ordered them, getting affirmative nods. "Naruto, Hitoshi, you're coming with me. We'll be looking east. When you've gathered enough wood, go straight back to camp."

Hitoshi was a civilian man that just happened to have a larger frame than most martial artists did. Sasori normally wouldn't have minded the fact that Hitoshi was almost two heads taller than him (as well broader), but his personality was… abrasive.

"What are you looking at, tiny?" Hitoshi gruffly demanded when he caught Naruto staring his way.

"Nothing!" Naruto immediately defended himself, scowling. "I thought I saw a bird or something, but it was just a lame vine."

Hitoshi opened his mouth to retort but screamed when something wet and slimy stroked the back of his neck. Whipping around, he caught sight of a wet leaf waving in the breeze. "Did you do that?" he shouted at Naruto. "That was fucking disgusting. It felt like drool."

"Huh?! No way! I was standing right here." Naruto glared fiercely at him. "Look, you bastard, I'm really not in the mood—"

"Quiet," Sasori suddenly said, staring at the leaf. The two males muttered angrily at each other but Sasori ignored them, stepping up to the tree where the leaf was attached to. It was wet, yes, but already drying and crinkled. Unless Hitoshi was exaggerating—

A vine snapped around his wrist and Naruto and Hitoshi both yelled in surprise, nearly falling over themselves. Sasori recoiled, the vine tightening its hold. What the hell is this? Sasori narrowed his eyes and tried breaking its grip by yanking, but it only tightened.

"D-dude!" Naruto stuttered out, face pale. "Y-you think it's some kind of tree ghost?"

"Don't be stupid, brat!" Hitoshi berated, just as pale as Naruto was. "H-hey, Sasori, why won't you say something? Aren't you scared?"

"Shut up," Sasori hissed. "And don't move." He had seen what they hadn't from the corner of his eye. Whatever this was, it had its slimy appendages everywhere. Sure enough, vines began to wrap around the trees surrounding them.

Naruto let out a small whimper before schooling himself.

Discretely, Sasori formed chakra neko-tes around the fingers of his free hand. This might get messy. His body was tense as he prepared for battle against these mysterious vines.

"Walk back to camp," Sasori commanded. "Slowly." Hitoshi stepped on a crunchy leaf and the vines twitched. "I said slowly." Meathead. He forced his voice to remain calm. He suspected that these things reacted to noise and movement, and he wasn't going to become plant food if he could help it.

"Are... you th... ere?"

Sasori turned his head around slowly to face Hitoshi and Naruto. Then he brought his claw-tipped fingers close to his lips in a shushing motion. He would have mock-sliced his own neck to emphasize his point, but whatever these things were attached to, it was coming.

He knew... because the dim cloud of chakra heading toward them from just a few feet away was absolutely foul and suffocating.

"I... feel... you. Feels... good."

Hitoshi and Naruto were still slowly backing away from the vicinity, keeping their footfalls as silent as possible.

A creature emerged from the trees. It was humanoid in shape, with a hunched back a disproportionately large head. The thing was wearing what seemed to be remnants of a pair of army pants. Strangely enough, it lacked genitals. It's arms were more translucent—they were thick, purple, ropy vines for biceps, and those vines writhed on the ground. They were the same vines that were wrapped around the trees.

Naruto had to clap a hand over his mouth to keep himself from squealing in terror. It was the stuff of nightmares to him, who had always irrationally feared ghosts and monsters. Hitoshi wasn't faring much better, but to his credit, he put one meaty hand on Naruto's shoulder and proceeded to guide them both away, occasionally looking backward for anything that would produce noise if stepped on.

The monster—gods, it had only half of its head; it had a nose, a mouth, half an ear, but the top half of the head was gone—neared Sasori, its tongue hanging out slightly. Its breath was even fouler than its chakra, smelling like rot and death. Inwardly, Sasori gagged, but for the most part, he stayed still. A bead of sweat was dripping down his temple.

"I... can... smell you..." It turned its head, the bones in its neck cracking.

Sasori's eyes widened marginally. Shit. "RUN! IT KNOWS YOU'RE HERE!" They stared at him in bewilderment and fear. "DON'T JUST STAND THERE! RUN!" Faster than they could follow, Sasori cut himself free and proceeded to cut down the sharp vines that lunged at them.

"B-b-bwaagghh!" Screaming, Naruto ran for his life, and equally terrified Hitoshi at his heels.

"Hey, you artless fuck," Sasori swiped the vines going after them in half, "your opponent is me."

The monster's tongue lengthened until it was lying in a disgusting pile on the floor. "I hear... you..." It screeched, vines coming from all directions flying at Sasori. He swore, deflecting or cutting the sharp ends with his neko-tes. Two ripped through his shirt and nicked his side, causing blood to splatter and drip down his pants.

"Tch." Sasori dissipated his chakra neko-tes, forming chakra around wrists and hands so that it shaped a blade. "What the fuck are you even supposed to be?" He cut more vines before lunging at the creature, slashing down at its half of a head. "Some kind of," the scalpel sliced down its groin, effectively splitting it in half, "freak experiment?"

Both halves of its lower face were moving in an attempt to speak, but no words ever came out.

It's still not dead? Then again, considering the top half of its head was missing, ordinary things weren't going to put it down for good. He dissipated the chakra blade on one arm, then lifted the other over his head. Then, methodically, he began slicing and stabbing in places that would kill a normal human. The monster screeched and writhed in pain when the blade pierced its heart.

Sasori raised an eyebrow when some kind of juice began to gush out from every pore in its body, emitting a repugnant stench. The vines wrapped around the trees drooped and began to shrivel up, liquid leaking all over the forest floor.

Eventually, the chakra of the beast disappeared completely, and Sasori knew it was dead. He kicked one half of the body. "Hmph."

"What the heck happened here?!" Tenten and Lee burst from the trees, both carrying firewood. "We saw Naruto and Hitoshi-san run back to camp, and they were terrified!" She recoiled at the sight of the wrinkled, prune-like corpse.

"Sasori-sama, are you okay?" Lee asked, eyes a little rounder than usual. "Tenten said she could feel your chakra fluctuating."

"Aa." Sasori wiped plant juice—the monster had certainly been plant-like—off the sleeve of his shirt before rolling them up, exposing his forearms. "I'm fine, but we have to warn the others immediately." He shot the disgusting thing a wary glance. "We don't know how many more of these things are wandering around."

"Monster!" Uzumaki Naruto cried as he burst into the clearing, his face seemingly drained of blood. Everybody was on instant alert.

"Monster?" someone echoed.

Hitoshi nodded. "It was some weird... plant thing. Sasori bought us time to escape, but..."

"You just left him there?!" a woman gasped, outraged.

"Hey, lady!" Hitoshi snapped. "It was either him or me, and I chose the obvious route! So did the kid—why don't you go harp on his ass instead of mine?"

Naruto looked down, ashamed. Dammit! This asshole's right. I just ran like a coward! I should have stayed and fought. He cast a regretful look at the woods behind him.

The crowd murmured worriedly for their safety before Itachi finally took charge.

"Everyone, stay calm." The Itachi's voice was unwavering. "Kisame, Gai, and Kakashi, I want you all to gather everyone back into the truck for the time being. Deidara, Shisui, you and I will head out to search for them." He'd been leader last time, and while he was not the most charismatic person around, everyone deferred to him, even Kakashi and Gai, who acted as pseudo-leaders. Gai was too... youthful to lead efficiently, and Kakashi... well, people hadn't been around him enough to fully trust him.

But, of course, there were always those who defied authority, even an unofficial one.

"You expect to sit here on our asses and wait to be eaten?" Mitarashi Anko stared at him. "Because if I'm going down, I'm going down fighting."

"Maa, Anko," Kakashi piped up. "Itachi doesn't expect us to do that. That would be silly, hm?" He eye-smiled at Anko, who twitched in irritation. "Obviously, we have our own brains, which means we can make our own decisions when given broad, omitting orders like Itachi's. Isn't that right?"

Itachi gave him a short nod. "Anko-san, if you and anyone else who is able can protect those incapable of self-defense, that would be best."

"Hmph." Anko crossed her arms. "Fine, then."

"Can we go now?" Deidara demanded impatiently, stepping forward and giving Shisui an expectant stare. "Danna's strong, un, but if this 'monster' is as terrifying as Uzumaki made it sound..."

As if she had summoned him, Sasori emerged from the trees with Tenten and Lee in tow, the latter two holding firewood in their arms. They all looked a little disturbed, even Sasori.

"No need," the red-haired man said, and almost everybody sighed in relief. Him in one piece meant that whatever monster Hitoshi and Naruto had been describing was now dead or severely incapacitated. Most likely the former, considering his pragmatic personality.

"Well?" Chiyo strode up to her grandson, gazing at him. "What happened out there, brat?"

Sasori clicked his tongue. "This is something that everyone should hear, so pay attention." Tenten and Lee moved around him and set down their firewood near Sasuke's rock. He recounted to them his encounter with the beast, and his subsequent fight and elimination of the creature.

"They were right!" a brown-haired woman wailed, shivering by the end of the tale. "There really was a monster...!"

"Sasori-sama must be really strong to defeat it," said one man, nodding in appreciation of the red-haired man's supposed strength. A few people voiced their agreement.

Sasori completely ignored their praise, brows furrowed. "There is... one detail that I failed to mention."

He looks like he just had a nightmare, Deidara thought with a frown that matched her Danna's. What kind of detail does he mean...? Sasori was normally so unflappable that it irritated her. To see him so unsettled, like he had been the night before Itachi's battle with Madara, unsettled her in turn.

"Which is?" Itachi prompted.

"... It was wearing pants. Or, at least, what used to be pants," Sasori amended. "Which makes me suspect..." He trailed off, waiting for all of them to make the connection.

Horror passed through Kakashi's single visible eye as realization struck him. "You don't mean..."

"Could it possible?" Gai wondered, looking equally disturbed.

"It was human," Itachi stated.

"H-hey," a teenage girl said, fingering her greasy black hair nervously. "Are you sure? I mean, it could have just been a trick of the light. O-or, maybe it was a shape-shifting monster?!" She sounded hopeful.

Sasori had no qualms in crushing that hope right away. If she deluded herself like that, she would be killed. "Unlikely," he said in a tone that left no room for argument. "During my fight, it demonstrated zero shape-shifting ability other than the ability to turn its arms into vines."

"You mentioned that it only died when you stabbed it through the heart, yeah?" Deidara said. "Hypothetically, if there are more of these..." She was met with horrified gasps and pale faces. "Would they all be that easy to beat? After all, the one you fought did only have half of its head... It could have more abilities that you didn't see."

"Well," Shisui drawled. "While I'd want to disbelieve that, there's a high possibility of that being true. Things like that are unnatural. Which means..."

Rin, who was standing at the front of the crowd, holding both of her children's hands with either hand, spoke up gravely, "They were created by human beings."

"Meaning that we really can't discount the idea that there are more out there," Sasuke added, every head turning to him when he spoke. Most of them glared at him. He met their accusing stares evenly.

"Of course, otouto," Itachi agreed. "We should all be on guard from now on."

Sasuke looked away. "Hn..."

"We're losing daylight," Kakashi said, looking up at the sky and its waning light. "If we want to have our bellies fed, we should have a small group go hunting right now with at least one high-caliber fighter with them."

"Shogo, have you seen that little orphan girl?" A slightly tubby boy with a dirty face and equally dirty blond hair nudged Asagi's son. "The one over there."

"Eh?" Shogo turned his head to the left to see a brown-haired girl seemingly drift through the grass, holding three kunai. "What about her, huh, Itsuki?"

"She's uber weird. Okaa-chan says not to talk to her, because she carries those sharp-thingies around." Itsuki nodded at his own words, as if affirming them. "Does she even know how to use 'em? I don't think so."

"I guess..." Shogo stared after the girl, watching her disappear into the woods. "Um, should she be going there?" She looks pretty cool with those knives, though...

"Who cares?" said Itsuki. He shifted uncomfortably. "Okaa-chan said that the monsters aren't real, anyway, and the strong adults are just making it up to scare the weaker ones. She won't be fooled, though. Okaa-chan's real smart."

The boys' conversation drifted into the night.

Chihiro hadn't gone very far into the forest. Camp could still be seen from where she was standing, and she had chosen to stay in a small clearing with shorter grass that gave her a wide berth for movement. Taking in a deep breath, she threw her kunai at a nearby tree trunk, listening to them land with a satisfying thud. Quietly, she went over to retrieve them before repeating the whole process all over again.

"Don't hold them like that. You'll cut a finger off."

Chihiro jumped. "W-wha... Who's there?" She turned on her feet, but she couldn't find anyone.

"Up here, kid."

She glanced skyward to see a blue man lounging on a low branch like some kind of jungle cat. Oh. I've seen him before. He was kind of hard to miss. She remembered Itsuki's—was that his name?—mother steering her chubby son away from him when they first caught sight of him. They called him a monster, too. She'd been right next to them when the woman had told her son that. He certainly looked like a monster, after all, and not many people had the insight to see underneath the underneath. Even Chihiro. Kakashi had said it was mostly a samurai motto. He looks like a monster but... Curiously, she stepped closer to the tree, her neck still craned to stare him in the eye. He doesn't seem like one... He reminds me of Iruka-san. He used to give me extra congee, before I was kidnapped by that drunk man.

"I know that," Chihiro eventually said, and amusement lit up the shark-like man's gaze. "Kakashi-sensei taught me how. I'm just..." Her cheeks flushed. "Lazy?"

"Lazy?" Kisame scoffed, sitting up. "A Nara is lazy, kid. You're just unmotivated."

"Eh? What's the difference?" She looked up at him with wide eyes.

"Yours can be easily fixed, a Nara's is a life condition." Kisame grinned at her, baring all of his teeth. "You said the scarecrow taught you, right? But now that he's busy with making sure we all don't die, I bet you've probably been feeling pretty ignored..."

She wilted. "N-no, that's not it..."

"Isn't it?"

She didn't answer, staring at the grass at her feet.

Seeing her sorry appearance, Kisame softened. He slid off the branch, landing with a soft thump. "Tell you what, kid, why don't you show me what you can do? Then we can make some improvements to your skill set."

Gosh, her eyes were so wide. Maybe he should have never revealed himself. But when she had stopped underneath his tree and started throwing her kunai, his interest had been piqued. He should have been over his martial arts club and his old students by now, but...

"Um, what should I do first?" Chihiro asked hesitantly.

He shrugged. "Hey, if I knew what you could do, I wouldn't have asked for a demonstration."

"I know!" Chihiro blurted, her cheeks going pink. Promptly, she flung her kunai at the tree trunk, each landing beneath the other. "I can do this, I guess." She hurriedly grabbed her kunai again and, this time, she threw all three at once. This time, it landed all over the place. "Ah, oops... I can't really do much else. But I know a bit of hand to hand?"

Kisame rested his Samehada by the base of the tree. "Scarecrow style, sure... but have you ever heard of Hoshigaki style?"


He barked a laugh. "Makes sense—we're all dead, except me, of course."

Chihiro recoiled, mortified. "I-I'm so sorry—"

"Don't sweat it. Now come at me—show me what you can do."

"Right... sensei!"

"Isn't that a bit soon?"

"Sorry, sensei!"

"Now you're just being a brat..."

Chihiro smiled up at him, feeling a little surer of herself. No, she thought, he might look funny, but he's not a monster. Itsuki's okaa-chan is wrong.

He swore that he was in awe every time he laid eyes upon him. Carefully, as if fearing that he would break if handled too roughly, Itachi touched his son's tiny fingers. Izuna. Izumi's large brown eyes opened to stare at him. She was holding Izuna to her chest, a small blanket wrapped around him. It was cold even at the base of the mountain, and it was still very much winter.

"Do you want to hold him?" Izumi asked, looking faintly amused. "Or are you comfortable wallowing in your own indecision and reluctance?"

"I..." Itachi's cheeks colored, and he swore it was from the cold and not his delighted wife. "Yes." He held out his arms, and Izumi gently passed the bundle to him.

Obito... Itachi poked Izuna's forehead softly, the baby continuing to snooze. Strangely enough, you always told me that you wanted a boy named Izuna for a third son. But Rin told you that two was enough, and to wait until Hikari-chan was a bit older. Even stranger, Izuna happened to be...

Madara's resigned expression was seared into his brain, courtesy of the Mangekyou Sharingan.

"I'm worried," Izumi confided after a few minutes of silence between them. Chatter still buzzed around them—all of them were seated on rocks and the occasional boulder around a large campfire and eating venison. Shikaku had taught them how to cook the game meat to perfection, claiming with a bit of sadness that Yoshino—his late wife—had cooked a venison meal for them every third day, and that she had passed on the recipes to him and cooking techniques to him. "He's so small, and out here..." She bowed her head.

He was worried, too, he admitted to her. But Izuna was his son, and if anyone or anything (like that monster Sasori so vividly described to them all) dared to harm the babe...

Itachi would hate to imagine what kind of fate they'd be suffering at his hands.

"Yo." Kakashi appeared behind them, squatting. "So... this is Izuna, huh?" He leaned in, blinking slowly at the sleeping child. "Cute," he said woodenly.

Izumi snorted. "Don't try to force yourself—we all know that young children aren't really your style."

"Kakashi-san, please refrain from imprinting on my child," Itachi requested, voice bland.

"Ouch, Itachi..." Kakashi propped his head on his hand. "No lie, though, he's cute. All babies are, I suppose." He lifted his eyes from Izuna, gazing at the half-moon hidden by the tonight's clouds. "I'm sure you already know this, but Obito wanted a son called Izuna. I was going to be the weird uncle and everything. Teach him my ways, and how to appreciate fine literature... I tried with Daichi-kun, but Rin scared me off as soon as she heard."

"No surprise there," Izumi said dryly. "And don't get any ideas in your head. If I see one of those orange books within a five feet radius of Izuna, I'm burning it."

Underneath his shirt-mask, Kakashi pouted. "Hmph. Obito was a lot more open-minded than you ladies..." He let out a small breath. "I bet he's up there in the moon, laughing at me." Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted Rin popping a piece of venison in Hikari's gaping mouth. The little girl chewed happily. Beside her, Daichi ate slowly, savoring the taste. The boy even cracked a smile once in a while.

"You should go to her," Itachi said abruptly. "And no, this is not me trying to get rid of you, Kakashi-san. You're friends with her, aren't you? Stop ignoring her."

Kakashi lowered his eye. "Maa... when you actually talk, you talk too much, Itachi..." Regardless, he stood. "But thanks."

"He's feeling guilty, isn't he?" Izumi said when he was out of earshot, striking up a conversation with Rin. "Typical Kakashi... I wish he would stop thinking that everything bad that happens to people he loves is his fault. It's not."

Itachi nodded, silently chewing on his venison. Kakashi had many faults, but at the end of the day, he was a good man who didn't deserve to suffer as much as he had. They'd found out that Kakashi and Gai, with the help of inside agents Shisui and Kagami, had been sneaking people who wanted out outside the walls of Akatsuki. They'd been silent rebels, helping wherever and whenever they could. In fact, it was actually Shisui who had found Chihiro being assaulted by a drunken man, and the Uchiha had taken her to stay with Kakashi and Gai. Hyuuga Hinata, Itachi remembered, had been in a similar situation to Chihiro. She'd been taken in by Kakashi's (silent) rebel group early on in the occupation, which explained why Hanabi could never find her.

Speaking of Hanabi, the young Hyuuga was talking to her sister, looking much happier than she had been before. There was still this... looming emptiness in her eyes—from losing Ino, he guessed—but she was recovering. Hinata was doing wonders to her mental health, and vice versa.

Naruto plopped down next to Hinata, and the oldest Hyuuga immediately blushed, pointedly turning away from him. The Uzumaki was confused, and a little hurt, but merely shrugged and started to eat his share of food.

Izuna stirred in Itachi's arms, and he looked down at the baby, alarmed. What did he need? Was he hungry? Did he need to do a number two? A number one? When the baby simply fell back into sleep's embrace, Itachi breathed a sigh of relief, though he was slightly discouraged from his... uselessness at parenting.

"Hey, don't look like that," Izumi chided, pressing up next to him. "Anata, we're both new parents. I'm just as confused as you are, trust me. It's only thanks to Sakura, Shizune, and Rin that I've managed this far..." She smiled wearily. "And it's only been three days. We'll get through this without any explosions," nearby, Deidara perked up slightly, "so... don't worry too much. Because we're lucky enough to have people supporting us."

Well. She wasn't wrong. So Itachi relaxed, bringing the baby up closer to his chest. A smile graced his features.

"Sakura, are you coming?" Shizune called. Today, the group would officially be hiking through the mountain pass and walking the rest of the way to Konoha. Everything was packed, the fire was extinguished, and pretty much everyone was ready to go. It was only a few of the children that were still a bit groggy.

"Oh, um," Sakura flailed, "just a minute. I have... something to do."

She hurried into the forest, not realizing that Shikamaru and Choji were staring after her.

Not wanting to keep them waiting for too long, Sakura plucked a few white-lavender winter zinnias and placed them at the foot of a boulder. "Sorry... Ino." A few people glanced at her curiously, but they didn't say a word. They recognized that look on her face. It was one they all saw when peering into the river for a drink.

Sakura felt a presence behind her and turned, not surprised to see Shikamaru and Choji.

"Hey." Shikamaru wasn't talking to her, but to Ino. "You just had to get yourself killed, didn't you, you troublesome woman?" His voice was thick with grief, and he crouched down, patting the smooth surface of the stone. A few tears escaped his eyes, but he didn't bother wiping them away. "When I see you again, I just know you're going to nag me to make up for lost years. Which means I'm planning to live a long life to prolong my fate in the afterlife."

"Same here," murmured Choji. "You always tried to put me on a diet. I told you I really hated that, but you kept doing it, swapping my chips with healthy foods." His eyes drooped. "But if I really hated it, then why do I miss it? When we see each other again, I'll let you this time. Sakura got you flowers, and I'm sure there's a meaning behind them besides looking good, but I'm not smart enough to figure that out." Choji picked up a smooth stone. "No offence to Sakura, but I've always liked stones a lot better. They last. Endure. They're like... a constant presence, even when nature is constantly changing around it." He placed the stone beside the flowers.

After a few moments, Shikamaru put a stone next to Choji's, pinning the flower stems to the boulder, so that it wouldn't be blown away by the wind.

"Alright," Sakura said eventually. "We can go now. Sorry for the delay."

She was met with silence.

Then, Deidara walked over, picking up a stone. She set it next to Shikamaru's. "I'm sorry. I'm really sorry, un. I've done your family the worst kind of disservice. I got both of you killed." She took a deep breath in. "Hitomi, Ino... I've made the worst kinds of decisions with you two."

Silently, Sasori moved to the boulder, placing his own stone next to Deidara's. The cut on his side was fully healed, though there was a bandage wrapped around it to prevent the skin from tearing. Then he stepped back.

It sparked a flurry of movement. Soon, the remaining sixty-odd people were scurrying about in the grassy clearing, looking for rocks. Even Sasuke was taking part in the impromptu search.

"Kisame-sensei, look!" Chihiro held up an oval pebble to the shark-like man. "Is this good?"

Kisame groaned, though there was no real ire in it. "Didn't I tell you that it was too soon? And yeah, sure, kid, it's good." He stared at the lump in his hands, which was just a little bit bulkier and misshapen than Chihiro's. "Better than mine, at any rate."

Sakura, Shikamaru, and Choji stepped back, shocked by their actions. Once they'd found adequate stones, they all lined up to place it at the boulder.

"Good luck, nee-san that I never knew," Shogo said innocently, clapping his hands together in a prayer after placing his stone down. "If you see my oji-san up there, please tell him that soba and okaa-chan are doing okay!"

"Um, here," Itsuki muttered when he put his stone down. "I didn't really know you, nee-san, but here..."

"Your life was too short," Rin said solemnly, when it was her turn. "And for that, I'm sorry."

"Thank you for being Naruto's friend." Kakashi.

"Rest in peace, young one. May youth be bestowed upon you in your next life, lotus." Gai.

"H-hey, Ino. Why did you have to go, huh?" Naruto cried when it was his turn. "Who's gonna eat ramen with me, now, huh?! Or scold me for not eating enough vegetables?"

"Ino-nee-san, I really liked your visits to the factory," Moegi confessed. "And I really wanted to be like you. You were strong and confident. Thank you for being an inspiration to me."

"I'm sorry I couldn't save you. You'd been through so much. You... you should be here, with us. We could have trained more, and—and..." Hanabi sniffled, unable to finish.

"Thank you being my sister's friend," Hinata said softly, placing a stone at the makeshift shrine. "Rest in peace... Ino-san."

"I-I... I didn't know you. I had a crush on Hitomi, but I didn't really know you... or her, really." Daichi. "But you didn't deserve to die. Neither did she. I... it's not fair."

Hikari bowed at her grave. "Rest in peace, onee-san."

When a woman called Masami put her stone down and backed away, there was only one person left.

Uchiha Sasuke ignored all the pointed stares he was getting, crouch down and placing a particularly smooth stone in the front-center. It was one he had grind with his katana in a fit of boredom last night. You were a fangirl of mine and my brother's, weren't you? Normally, that would mean that I don't like you, but... how could I, when I never knew you in the first place? Maybe if I hadn't been such a coward, you'd still be alive.

"That's a pretty one, mister," Shogo piped, staring at the stone he had put down. "It's the prettiest one, I think."

Sasuke shot him a side glance. "Hn..."

The sun was just rising over the horizon when the group headed off.

In the breeze, the Ino's winter zinnias fluttered lazily, and contentedly.

There was a little makeshift shrine in front of the empty Yamanaka compound. It was small enough to go unnoticed by the soldiers, and a fragile little thing that had been knocked over by the wind many times over.

Uchiha Fugaku crouched in front of it. "Inoichi. My sons made a grand escape from his hellhole a few nights ago." He closed his eyes. "Your daughters... I know they're with you now. You're finally together again. I wonder..." He opened his eyes. "How long do I have to wait until I see my sons again?"

"Sasuke." Itachi placed a hand on Sasuke's shoulder, startling him.


"Thank you."

"For what?"

Itachi walked ahead before turning slightly. "For saving my life, even if no one acknowledges it."

Sasuke stared after him before his lips twisted into a sad smirk. After all that I've done... you would still forgive me, wouldn't you, even when everyone else condemns me? You... really are too kind.