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The Road Less Travelled By

Chapter Text

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

 I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.

-- Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

 


 

When Naruto awoke, there was no one beside him.

He blinked at the dull white ceiling and the slowly whirring fan in its middle for a while as memories paraded themselves before his eyes, and pain marched through what seemed to be every part of his body. Then, slowly and carefully, he sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. He had questions that could not wait.

It was night, and the hallways of the hospital were empty of visitors and staff. Halfway down the corridor he had emerged into, the name on a door caught his eye. He turned from his path and opened the door softly.

Chouji was an unnervingly still figure underneath the covers, in the bed, but he wasn’t alone. Naruto could make out a ponytail sticking out at right angles from a second slumped figure’s head, and a longer one trailing over a third figure’s back. With Shikamaru’s intelligence, and Ino’s stubbornness, they would’ve had no problems finding a way around the rules that forbid visitors after hospital hours. Team 10 might argue incessantly, but in the picture they formed in the shadowed room their bond was clear.

Naruto closed the door as silently as he’d opened it, but his resumed track down the hall was halted again two doors down by the names on the door – two names this time. He turned the knob and peered in.

Unlike Chouji’s, the second bed in this room was occupied. Neji’s fall of dark brown hair was black in the moonlight, as black as Lee’s, in the bed next to him; as black as Gai’s, sprawled ungracefully in a chair in the corner of the room, his mouth wide open in sleep. Tenten’s light brown hair was grey, and she herself barely visible curled up on a mattress tucked against the wall.

Five doors further down the hallway revealed Kiba, the sheets twisted around him, the white of his bandages sharper than the white of the cotton covers. Akamaru was curled up at the foot of the bed, Hinata curled up in the middle of the other bed. Clutched in her hand was a half-finished needlework symbol – Naruto squinted –that was supposed to bring good health. A closer examination of the room found Shino, hidden in his cloak and the shadows in the corner of the room.

So. Shikamaru and Chouji, Kiba, Neji. All were alive. Naruto felt a great weight lift from his shoulders. They were all alive, and apparently doing pretty okay, if they were in normal hospital rooms and not the ICU rooms.

Which left –

There was no one at the nurses’ station, so Naruto quickly located the patients’ records. To his surprise, Sasuke’s was at the top of the pile. Victory warred with an immense relief in his chest – he had succeeded, they had actually succeeded! Flipping through the papers, Naruto realized that his teammate had come very close to getting killed, but judging from the pain in his own body, still unhealed even with the Kyuubi’s abilities, Sasuke had returned the favour.

Sasuke’s room was at the end of the corridor, in the single-patient rooms. Standing before the door, Naruto took a deep breath, and another, before he finally reached out and turned the knob, pushing the door open.

Sakura was slumped asleep over the side of Sasuke’s bed, like Ino in Chouji’s room. Shikamaru’s presence was replaced by Kakashi’s. The Jounin snapped awake, looking up from his seat by the window, and surprise flashed across his one visible eye when he saw Naruto, but it was quickly hidden away. He stood up and stretched gracefully, nodding to the blond.

Naruto’s chest felt tight, and it wasn’t just that Sasuke looked half-dead, lying white and bruised in the bed. He refused to think about it, though; refused to give in to his emotions. He’d had lots of practice for that, at least, so when he nodded back to Kakashi, his smile was in place, though it was wan.

Kakashi gestured to the door, clearly wanting to speak with Naruto without disturbing the other two. They were interrupted by Sakura stirring, though, coming awake in a start when she saw Kakashi standing. “Kakashi-sensei…?” she murmured, confused.

Then she turned her head, and saw Naruto, and the world went white.

When the explosion of agony cleared, static fading from his vision, Naruto could only stare, utterly lost and hurting, at Sakura being restrained by Kakashi. Her eyes, her face – there were so many emotions that it made Naruto dizzy, weariness and fear and hopelessness and betrayal and pain. What cut the deepest, though, was the hate.

His hearing was coming back, and he realized that Sakura was half-screaming, half-hissing at him. “…bring him back, not try to kill him! If he hadn’t been Sasuke, he’d be dead! He’s lying there in a coma while you’re running around almost healed –

“Enough!” Kakashi said sharply, shaking the girl hard so that she was forced to stop talking or risk biting her own tongue. To the frightened nurse at the door, he said curtly, “I’ll make sure they keep quiet. Please leave.”

Too cowed to protest, the nurse quickly left. Even before the door fully closed, Kakashi was forcing Sakura down back into her chair, speaking to her quietly but furiously. “We both understand that you’re exhausted and overwhelmed, and seeing Sasuke in his condition isn’t helping, but that still gives you no right to talk like that to someone who risked his very life to bring Sasuke back to us. You know as well as I do that if Naruto had another choice he wouldn’t have hurt Sasuke this much, and besides he’s always healed more quickly than anyone. Use that brain of yours, Sakura!”

Sakura looked away. She didn’t apologise for hitting Naruto or for her words, but neither did she continue, and for that Naruto was grateful, though the feeling was distant. He felt like he’d just taken an impossibly huge blow; he couldn’t think, could feel himself going blank, detached. It was funny, really; she’d never managed to put him off when he’d really liked her, but now that his feelings for her in that way had faded to friendship, she managed to wound him the most.

Funny. Yeah.

And then Sasuke sat up, effectively freezing everyone in the room. None of them had noticed him wake. He stared at Sakura for a heartbeat, and she stared back; he stared at Kakashi for two, and he stared back. Then his gaze came to lock with Naruto’s for decidedly longer than a heartbeat or two or three, and Naruto stared back blankly.

When Sasuke finally spoke, it made everyone jump. “May I have a word alone with Naruto?”

It was all terribly polite, and as cold, colder, than the night air crisp through the window; his eyes were dark, black, unreadable. Sakura nodded jerkily, pushing Kakashi’s hands away and leaving the room without another word; Kakashi hesitated, but at Naruto’s almost imperceptible nod sighed heavily and left as well, but didn’t close the door entirely. They could sense that he was far away enough to not overhear, though, if they spoke quietly.

So when Sasuke spoke, it was very quietly indeed. Every word cut deep, and through the haze Naruto saw the refined hatred in those black eyes and knew that each word had been carefully created to hurt, to wound.

“I meant every word I said to you in that valley. It was my decision! You had no right to try to decide my life for me. Did you think I was going to be grateful for the so-called rescue? What can you do for me but hold me back? The greatest of your power isn’t even yours.”

He knows.

“Of course I know,” Sasuke said coldly. “I’ve fought you and with you enough times, and your choice of animal when you were fighting that sand freak was a huge clue. Then in the Valley of the End, the shape your chakra took was obvious, and that was the final clue. Do you realize how hypocritical that is? You’re drawing on something else for power, something evil. Who are you to try to stop me?”

He’s right, Naruto realized, stunned. He’d been relying on Kyuubi’s power, even though it wasn’t on purpose most of the time, and the Kyuubi was a demon, just as evil as Orochimaru, perhaps more…

“I’m an avenger. I’ve told you time and again. It’s the only purpose I have left. Are you going to take away my purpose? It’s the same thing as if I tried to stop you from becoming Hokage. If you stand in my way again, I will kill you. We both know I almost succeeded this time. You are no friend of mine, Uzumaki Naruto. Once, maybe… I admit that. Not anymore.”

And that was that.

Naruto dredged up a grin from the depths of his white and buzzing mind. “Sure,” was all he could manage to actually say, though.

The look Sasuke gave him was suspicious, a hint of his previous self showing through, and it made Naruto glad to see it, even after everything. “Sure?” he repeated. “You complete idiot, did you not hear a word I just said?”

“Yeah. You said you once considered me a friend.”

“Dobe –”

“So did I.”

It made Sasuke blink, at any rate. Naruto found his vision blurring, this time with tears, but he held them back with effort and a smile that somehow came easier than before. “I considered you almost a brother, I just never acknowledged it. We never acknowledged it.” He took a deep breath, and continued, “I’m acknowledging it now that there’s no need to pretend anymore, no need to pretend anything anymore. I don’t regret saving a brother, Sasuke, no matter how he might curse me for it. It was the right thing to do, and I hope you will realize that in the future.”

Sasuke just stared, as if he couldn’t decide what expression to have.

Naruto nodded once. “I guess this is it. I will abide by your wishes and never appear before you again.”

The formal wording threw Sasuke off. “What –”

But Naruto was gone, the room empty except for himself. Sasuke tensed, fists clenching. I didn’t even see him leave.

Moments later Kakashi stuck his head back around the door, and raised an eyebrow when he saw Sasuke staring at the empty space before his bed. “You guys done? I couldn’t hear voices anymore – not that I could hear what you were saying, just that you were speaking,” he assured Sasuke when the brunet whipped his head around to glare.  “Naruto left through the window, I see. Hope he didn’t break anything.”

I didn’t even sense him move.

“He deserves it if he did,” Sasuke snapped, and then cursed vehemently – though mentally – when Sakura ran to his side and started crying, babbling about how glad he was finally awake. He ignored the thoughtful, slightly wary gaze that Kakashi pinned on him and suffered silently through the hysterics. His mind was filled with Naruto and his words, and he was astounded to feel guilt. Why the hell was he feeling guilty? It wasn’t like the idiot didn’t deserve it.

Right?

He would track down Naruto tomorrow, he decided, injuries or no. He was going to clear things up with the moron once and for all, and make sure that the idiot didn’t stop him or blab on him to everyone.

It turned out, however, that he didn’t have to.

 


 

Chouji’s teammates had been there; for all that they fought as much as Team 7 did.

Neji and Lee’s remaining teammate had been there, and even their sensei, though probably Gai had been there for Lee as much as for anyone else.

Kiba’s teammates had been there, even the anti-social Shino, who they’d speculated once cared for nothing but his bugs.

He’d been the only one to wake up alone. He didn’t begrudge his friends – he was glad that their friendships were close – but…

He’d woken up alone.

It was funny, really. He’d spent his life being alone, but years of loneliness hadn’t hit so hard as waking up by himself in that room, and then seeing everyone else surrounded by their team, and then finding the rest of his own team –

Okay, Kakashi had defended him, but he’d still been with Sasuke. Sakura – Sakura – sure, he was healed more than Sasuke because of the Kyuubi, but he knew for a fact that he’d hurt Sasuke way less than Sasuke had hurt him back in the Valley of the End. Sasuke had started out trying to kill him, for god’s sake.

He hadn’t expected gratitude from Sasuke, either, all things considered, but this had been a bit much.

A bit too much.

The first thing he did was head to his apartment. And then, when he was done, he went to find Iruka-sensei, who yelled at him for a while and then heard him out and then understood. In that one moment, he loved Iruka-sensei more than he’d ever loved anyone, anything else in his young life.

“There’ll be hunters on your trail, so you’ll have to be more careful than ever before.”

“I know.”

“You’ll have to change your appearance, particularly those marks on your face.”

“I know.”

“You’ll have to stop eating so much ramen.”

“What!”

“You’ll never grow that way, and it’s as distinguishing a feature as the marks.”

“But – but –”

Naruto…”

“I know, I know.”

“You’ll have to contact me often to let me know you’re alive, but use fake names and such.”

“I know.”

“I love you like younger brother, so don’t you dare die.”

“…I know. I love you too, Iruka-sensei.”

“Then go. There’s not much night left.”

“We’ll see each other again, Iruka-sensei. I swear.”

“I know. Go.”

Naruto left.

He ran faster than he’d ever run in his life, and his lungs and muscles burned, but he knew that no one could catch up to him at this speed – he’d once timed himself to see. It took a lot out of him, but he knew that he had at least a day’s head start – likely more – before anyone started wondering where he was, and that thought spurred him on further, gave him reason to just blank his mind and run.

So it was that when sunrise came, he greeted it standing on the highest branch of the highest tree he could find – just past the borders of the Fire Country, normally a two-day journey. Freedom was a bitter, ash taste in his mouth; it carried none of the relief he’d imagined as a child longing to escape, none of the joy he had dreamed of.

It simply hurt.

Clenching his fists against the loneliness, Naruto started to run again.

He would be running for a long time.

Chapter Text

Birds return to old nests.

-- Japanese proverb

 


 

“This is the information on the target. We have half your required fee here, as you can verify for yourself, and the remainder will be deposited into your account upon confirmation of the target’s death. Will you accept?”

The cloaked man, face entirely shadowed by a heavy black hood, picked up the folder and opened it. Inside were photos and a few sheets of parchment. He glanced through them, and then closed the folder again. “This is but a child,” he said quietly, voice deep and resonating. “Isn’t sending me to deal with him overkill?”

The other man grimaced, his folds of wrinkles deepening. “Do not be fooled by his looks. He is dangerous. We have sent our own assassins, and they have failed. Three days ago, the two-month limit for reporting back passed and we have had to write off our latest dispatch as dead.”

“Therefore your missive to me dated three days ago.”

“Yes. Somehow the brat has acquired power and skill enough to defeat our most skilled shinobi. You, however, are likely to find this easy, and we are willing to pay you your normal fee, the same amount you would get if you were dealing with an S-Class nin. Surely you will not turn us down.”

The cloaked man considered this. “There are some issues I would like to clarify before I give you my answer.”

“As far as I can answer you, I will.”

“These assassins of yours – surely they are not the hunter-nins of Konoha? I have met some in my time, and their skill is… considerable.”

“No, no hunter-nins.”

“The ANBU, then?”

“Some of our assassins have abilities on par with the ANBU, yes.”

“Ah. But not the ANBU themselves…?”

A scowl twisted those folds into something menacing. “How is this relevant?”

“Oh, but it is. You see –” the assassin leaned forward, “– it seems to me that this project of yours is not sanctioned by the authorities of Konoha. In fact, judging by the amount of secrecy and complete lack of access to the official departments of Konoha, I would say that this project even goes against the wishes of the village.”

The other man stood in a flurry of robes – not flustered, never flustered, only a cold condescending anger. “You overstep your boundaries, little cat – you should know that I am a member of the village council and well-respected in my own right.”

The cloaked man also stood, leisurely. He was physically short, but as he drew himself up, the impression he gave was one of untold heights. “”Yes, I know who you are – and it only adds to my suspicions about the legitimacy of this offer. If you are a part of the council, why have you not utilized the resources available to you?”

“This conversation is closed,” was the icy reply. “Do you or do you not accept the offer?”

They stood there, facing each other down. Then the assassin said, conversationally, “You called me ‘little cat’.”

The other man said nothing.

“My namesake may look like a cat, but the difference is vast. People may make the mistake once, but they do not make it twice.”

“Are you threatening me?”

He continued as if he had not been interrupted. “Do you know what the main difference is? The main difference is that, much more so than cats, foxes are smart. They are not house pets, but wild creatures that have to fight for survival.

“And they have sharp, sharp teeth.”

The man snarled. “I have had enough. Guards!”

The door slammed open, but the guards who stepped in were not dressed in the familiar nondescript colours that the man had expected. No, far from it – they wore very specific colours.

Along with masks.

“And I,” said the assassin quietly as they came, “have the sharpest teeth of them all.”

The four ANBU moved silently, two to each of the men in the room. And on their heels came a larger-than-life presence, stalking into the room on loud heels and slamming the door behind her with a smug, furious finality.

“Danzo,” said the Godaime Hokage, pinning the old man with a glare, “you are hereby stripped of your position on the village council. You’ll be lucky if I don’t send you into exile.”

“You cannot do this!”

“Oh, I think I can.” Tsunade’s smile was not very nice at all. “Conspiring to assassinate a member of Konoha? That’s the final straw on a whole list of straws, including ROOT, and believe me, ROOT is a very big straw indeed.”

“That thing is not a member of Konoha,” Danzo hissed. “You are blind, Tsunade, blinded by your feminine soft-heartedness! If you had labelled that demon a missing-nin when he first vanished, we wouldn’t all be in danger now! He might be plotting to destroy us all at this very moment!”

Tsunade went wintry in a flash. “Naruto is no danger to us,” she snapped. “He is a shinobi out on a long-term assignment for this village. Watch your words, old man.”

Danzo snorted. “The whole village knows that for a lie.”

“I have the papers to prove it –”

Forged papers!”

But Tsunade had had enough. “Take him away, put him under house arrest for now until I decide what to do with him,” she ordered the ANBU on either side of Danzo.

The masked shinobi reached out to take Danzo’s arm, but the old man shook them off. “I am a loyal member of this village,” he said coldly, “and I would thank you to treat me as such. I can walk on my own.”

At Tsunade’s small nod, the two ANBU let Danzo walk unhindered, but they stuck closely to his side as he made his way out of the room, not sparing a glance for anyone as he left. The remaining four in the room watched them leave in silence.

Only when the door closed behind them did Tsunade speak. “Kitsune-san,” she said, giving the assassin an acknowledging nod. “If you would follow me to my office, we can talk there.”

The assassin bowed. “It would be my honour, Hokage-sama.”

The ANBU followed the assassin almost as closely as their colleagues had followed Danzo, but they needn’t have worried about any treachery on his part. As they made their way through the streets of Konoha towards the Hokage’s tower and office, that black hood shifted constantly, as Kitsune turned his head to look around him, as if he had never been there before and was fascinated by every little thing.

When they arrived at the Hokage’s office, Tsunade spoke a few low words to the ANBU, who took up guarding positions on either side of the door. She then waved Kitsune into the room, following behind him and closing the door, leaving them alone.

“First of all, I would like to extend my thanks to you for informing us of Danzo’s plans,” Tsunade began as she went to her desk and sat down. Kitsune, waiting politely beside the chair on the opposite side of her table, only sat after she did. “You had no obligation to do so, and I recognize that.”

“Think nothing of it –”

“So I want to know why.”

There was a pause. “Why what?”

“Why you did it.” Tsunade stared hard into the shadows beneath that hood. “Your fee is no small sum, and you must know that Naruto is not your match. It would have been easy money. So why didn’t you just take it? Why did you tip us off?”

Kitsune shrugged lightly. “Maybe I wanted to stay on the good side of one of the most powerful shinobi in the world – you, with so many skilled nins at your disposal.”

“With your skill, no one would know you were ever involved.”

“Maybe I wanted the Hokage indebted to me.”

Tsunade’s eyes narrowed. “I am grateful, but not so grateful as to consider myself in your debt. The village comes before any individual member, and my duty is to the village. You would have known that.”

“Maybe I –”

I want the truth.”

She was practically radiating doom. Kitsune leaned back in his chair. Then he laughed, a sheepish laugh, and his hand rose awkwardly to the back of his head. “Eh… you’re scarier than before –”

That familiar laugh, that familiar gesture… Tsunade’s anger disappeared in a flash.

“– but you look exactly the same, baa-chan.”

Naruto?”

“Don’t say it so loud!” Kitsune – Naruto – looked around nervously. “Your office is rather wide open, you know.”

“There are wards that prevent anyone not in the room overhearing,” Tsunade snapped. The urge to wrap her hands around his neck and squeeze warred with the urge to throw her arms around him and hug him close. She compromised by reaching out to smack him hard upside the head. “You little brat! Do you know how much trouble you caused me with your little stunt five years ago?”

She could hear the pout in his voice, even if his expression was still hidden. “That hurt, baa-chan. And anyway, it wasn’t an easy decision for me either!”

“Oh, you mean you actually thought about it?”

“Of course!”

A vein in Tsunade’s forehead bulged. “Then you didn’t think enough, you idiot! And take off that damn hood!”

Naruto hesitated. “I don’t think that’s a good idea – people pop in and out of your windows all the time, you know.”

“Only Jiraiya and Kakashi do that, and both of them are out of the village at the moment. Don’t question your elders, brat!”

“Okay, okay! Sheesh.”

The hood was pushed back.

Tsunade’s jaw hung open.

Bright blue eyes and long blond hair, and a mischievous, heart-stopping grin. Naruto’s chin was less sharp, and he had those whiskers of his, and there were odd red highlights in the blond of his hair, but other than that – Tsunade could almost believe that Minato sat there across from her, young and striking and alive. She found herself blinking back tears.

Naruto’s grin faded to a look of concern. “Baa-chan?”

She shook her head and found her voice again, scrambling uncharacteristically for something to say to change the topic. “What did you do to your voice? You sound like you’re thirty.”

“Oh! I forgot.” Naruto grimaced and formed a few hand seals. When he spoke again, his voice was a deeper, stronger timbre than the child’s voice she remembered from years ago, but nowhere as low and growling as it had been. “It’s a jutsu I came up with to disguise my voice. I figured Kitsune wouldn’t get any respect if he was revealed to be a teenager, you know?”

Tsunade frowned. “If you can come up with something like that, then you can come up with something to disguise your features as well – a modification of that disgusting henge you used on Jiraiya, maybe. Why the cloak? It has to be stifling.”

Naruto shrugged, and his smile this time was a little melancholy. “Didn’t want to expand the energy, I suppose. Besides, the cloak adds mystery and coolness.”

There was clearly some other reason, but Tsunade decided not to push, since Naruto obviously did not want to share. She stared at Naruto for a second or two more, and then gave in to her emotions. Standing, she went around her desk and without a word enfolded Naruto in a hug. She had missed the brat, and since she would never say it, this was the only way she could convey those feelings.

After a split second’s hesitation Naruto returned the hug, holding her just as tightly as she was holding him. He closed his eyes, and just held onto her. Tsunade had believed in him. She had covered for him, lied for him to the village. She still loved him like the little brother he knew she’d come to see him as. And that put her high on his list of precious people.

Finally, Tsunade released him, and he took his cue from her. Going back to her seat, she said gruffly, “You’ve grown taller, but you’re still short.”

He made a face. “Don’t rub it in.”

She sighed. “As much as I’d like to continue catching up with you, I think there’s a reason why you came back to Konoha. You could have refused Danzo without coming here. Have you finally decided to come out of hiding?”

Naruto grinned. “Well, for one, I wanted to make sure Danzo was caught. He’s been a pain in my side the past few years, sending all those creepy blank-faced assassins after me. Is that what ROOT is? You mentioned it earlier.”

“Yes, ROOT is Danzo’s pet project – the training of a group of emotionless, puppet-like assassins.” Tsunade scowled. “They might be good fighters, but everything about ROOT is inhuman – the training process, the philosophy behind it, the end products… I’ve put an end to it, but I couldn’t be sure that it won’t be revived again unless I get at Danzo himself. You did good, brat.”

“Thanks.” Naruto grimaced. “I knew Danzo was a fanatic, but that is downright weird.”

“Yes, it is. You still haven’t answered my question, you know.”

“Your question? Oh, yeah. Actually I really did come back just for Danzo,” Naruto said sheepishly. “I figured that if you confronted me I’d reveal myself to you, and maybe drop by Iruka-sensei’s house for a while, but I wasn’t planning to stay.”

Tsunade looked half-troubled, half-annoyed. “This can’t go on, Naruto. Five years is a damn long time even for a long-term undercover mission, and it’s a ridiculous cover for someone who technically is still a genin. So far all I’ve gotten is a whole shitload of angry and suspicious letters, but I’m not optimistic enough to think that things will be that easy forever.”

“Baa-chan, I…” Naruto looked away, eyes lost. “I love Konoha. I always have, and I still do. But I’m not happy here, baa-chan. I’ve never really been happy here, and now that I’ve found my place in the world outside… please don’t make me stay.”

“Being an assassin means being in constant danger, and having no allegiance, no village or country to call home. That isn’t having a place in the world, Naruto. It’s not having a place in the world.”

Naruto smiled. “But that’s not what I’m referring to, baa-chan. I do have somewhere that I feel like I belong… I’m planning to either give up or tone down on the assassin thing, sometime soon. Maybe take the occasional job to hunt down some S-class nin that no one can, sort of thing.”

Tsunade eyed him. “You’re found someone.” It was not a question.

Naruto just grinned at her, bright and happy.

Sighing, the Hokage leaned back in her chair, massaging her temples. “Fine, I won’t pry. But Naruto, I meant it when I said that this state of affairs can’t go on. I can’t just keep you on this so-called mission indefinitely. If I declare you a missing-nin, I’ll be obliged to send hunter-nins after you. If I label you as an exile from Konoha, but not a traitor, it still gives everyone who has a grudge free rein to hunt you down, and I can’t extend any protection to you.”

“I know, I know. And I love Konoha still – I don’t want to lose my status as a citizen of Konoha, I just don’t want to live here.” Naruto sat back as well, biting his lip in thought. “Is there any way that it’s possible to do that?”

Tsunade ran through a list in her mind. It was a very short list. “There are a few positions which may allow you to remain a Konoha citizen in name, but keep you outside the village almost permanently,” she said at last. “And to be honest, very few people want jobs like that – so if I were to give you one of those positions, I don’t think there would be a problem.”

Naruto sat up straight in his chair, blue eyes eager. “Really? Oh man, that’d be brilliant! If I’d known you wouldn’t try to keep me here, I wouldn’t have been afraid to come back! You’re a genius, Tsunda-baa-chan –”

She held up a hand to stop his babble, scowling fearsomely, but inwardly smiling at that too-young reaction. “That’s the reason you stayed away for five years?”

“Yeah, I know it’s stupid, I’m sorry.” Naruto’s grin faded into a wry smile. “But I really didn’t want to have to fight you and maybe other shinobi who I know, just to get out of Konoha again.”

Tsunade reached over and smacked him. “Idiot,” she said with affectionate exasperation.

“Yeah, yeah.” Naruto’s grin returned. “Guilty as charged. So what’s the plan, baa-chan? I can’t wait! What am I going to be?” He was practically bouncing in his seat.

“Not so fast, you brat. There’s a catch.”

“Aw, man.”

“Nothing that you can’t handle, don’t worry. Or rather, nothing that Kitsune can’t handle.” She grinned. “The thing is, all the positions require someone of at least jounin rank. You’d need a whole other impressive list of feats to recommend you, as well, but I think your past record as Kitsune is more than enough to prove your reputation.”

“But I’m way above jounin rank already,” Naruto said blankly.

Tsunade resisted the urge to roll her eyes. “Not officially. Officially you’re still a genin, remember?”

“Oh… yeah.” Naruto looked thoughtful, an odd expression that she wasn’t used to seeing on that face. “Damn.”

Tsunade rifled through her papers, searching. “The jounin exam’s in a week,” she said absently. “You’re lucky that it’s being held in Konoha this year, as the hosting Hokage I can speed you through paperwork. One week is short notice for most shinobi, but you’ll be fine. Once you gain jounin rank we can reveal who you are, and use your new rank and your old reputation as Kitsune to install you in one of those positions I mentioned. You can have your pick once you pass. Oh, and I think it’s best you hide who you are for now, it’ll make things go more smoothly. Aha!”

She held up a piece of paper triumphantly, and passed it over to Naruto. “There you go. Fill out the form, hand it to the Exam Registration Office that’s been set up for this exam, and you’re set.”

Naruto grabbed a pen from the table and started scribbling. “I assume I put ‘independent’ for ‘origins’, right?”

“Yes, you’re going as Kitsune, aren’t you? People will start wondering if you say that you’re from Konoha.” She grimaced when she saw his handwriting. “Is that supposed to be readable?”

He stuck his tongue out at her.

“The famous fox assassin with a chicken scrawl for handwriting. If only your enemies could see this now.”

Naruto signed off with a flourish, and made a face as he passed the form back to her. “My enemies can’t see anything now, thankfully. They’re all dead. Well, at least the ones that crossed my path, anyway.”

That sobered Tsunade. She looked at Naruto with a heavy weight in her heart – he was still Naruto, yes, but he was also the feared assassin Kitsune, rumoured to be undefeated as yet… and who had killed. Who had killed many, many people.

The Naruto in front of her may look and act like the Naruto she knew, but in every other way, he might as well be a complete stranger.

He noticed her sudden pensive mood, and seemed to guess the turn her thoughts had taken. His smile was sad. “I’m still me, baa-chan,” he said quietly. “I’m just… harder, and stronger, and I’ve fully come to terms with myself and the world. That’s not all bad.”

“No,” she said, equally subdued. “But it’s not all good, either.”

He shrugged. “Nothing in this world is ever clear-cut, or easy, and a lot of it has to do with blood.”

That sounded too much like her own thoughts on a dark day. She shook her head. “You’ll have to tell me what happened, in these five years. How you managed to grow so strong so fast, for one.”

Naruto nodded, after some hesitation. “As much as I can,” he said, and Tsunade knew that there would be large chunks left out – but then again, she might not want to know. “But after the exams.”

“After –?”

“I have things to do, things to tie up before the exam starts,” Naruto explained. “As it is, travelling is already going to take me two days per trip, at a decent pace. I’ll be back within the week, don’t worry.”

Tsunade nodded, unhappy, but it wasn’t as if she had a choice. Her curiosity would have to wait longer. “Very well, then. Oh, wait,” she added, remembering, as Naruto stood and prepared to pull his hood back on. “There’s something you should know.”

He waited.

“The jounin exam’s held every two years. In the time you’ve been missing, there have been two.”

Naruto waited, exaggeratedly patient.

Tsunade sighed. She’d hope that she wouldn’t need to say it out loud. “A large group of the Rookie Nine will be taking part in this year’s jounin exam, as well, having passed the chuunin exam just before the last jounin one.”

The patience changed to something inscrutable. “I guessed as much,” he said. “I know Shikamaru passed the last time, but Neji, Lee and – and Sasuke failed. So I figured they’d be taking it again, and some others would probably be joining them.”

“Do you want to know who?”

He shook his head vehemently. Then he paused. And then, finally, he nodded with something akin to resignation.

“Everyone in the nine,” Tsunade said simply, “and Tenten as well, joining her teammates. All except Ino, who is still recovering from her last mission.”

Naruto winced. Thoughts chased themselves over his face, before he settled on one: “Has anything happened with Sasuke?”

Tsunade’s eyes narrowed. “No, nothing. Why? Is there any reason to suspect something happening with Sasuke?”

“Um…”

“That’s why you left, isn’t it? It had something to do with Uchiha.” Tsunade pinned Naruto with a hard gaze. “If there’s something about Sasuke that concerns the village, I think you should tell me.”

“No, it’s just… it’s personal,” Naruto said at last, but it was unconvincing. “You’ve been keeping tabs on him, right? Ever since – ever since that time? I know you’ve got him under watch.”

Tsunade snorted. “You’ve been keeping tabs on Konoha yourself, haven’t you? You seem to know much about what’s going on.” Secretly she was pleased – it seemed that Konoha, and Naruto’s former friends, still featured largely in his thoughts. “But yes – I’ve been watching Uchiha. I’d be a fool not to, after what he tried, but he’s been on his best behaviour.”

Naruto’s grin was sudden and very, very wide. He raised an eyebrow.

She scowled. “Alright, fine, his best behaviour includes snapping at everyone and generally being his annoying bratty self, but he hasn’t tried to betray the village or kill anyone else.”

“I see.” Naruto nodded. “I knew as much, but it’s good to have it confirmed by you personally.”

“Naruto…” Her tone was threatening.

“I have to go. I really do have lots to do, stuff to buy, people to contact…” Naruto gave her a cheeky grin. “See you in a bit, baa-chan!”

“Wait –”

But he was already gone, out of the window and across the rooftops in a flash. Tsunade sighed heavily, but couldn’t help her eyes widening a little with amazement. He was fast.

The door opened. “Hokage-sama? Is everything alright?”

She straightened, and nodded at the ANBU guard. “Yes, everything’s fine.”

The guard bowed, and closed the door again, leaving Tsunade alone with her work. She glared balefully at the pile, and then decided that after Naruto’s visit, she was in no mood to deal with it. A nap sounded good.

Smiling, she closed her eyes.

 


 

As Tsunade slept, halfway across the village, Iruka had with surprising reflexes whipped out a kunai, aiming it threateningly at the cloaked man who had suddenly appeared in his living room. “Who are you?” he demanded, brown eyes narrowing.

Naruto felt like grinning and throwing himself at Iruka-sensei in a hug, but at the same time he felt like cowering and apologizing profusely and spilling his secrets. It was… an interesting combination of emotions. He pushed back his hood, and the urge to grin won out full-force as Iruka’s jaw dropped, much like Tsunade’s had earlier.

Naruto?”

“Yep. It’s me, Iruka-sensei – ack!”

Iruka could be really fast, too. Naruto found himself crushed in a bear hug, and he returned it enthusiastically. God, it was great to see Iruka-sensei again. He heard Iruka sniffle, and had to fight back a few tears himself.

Finally Iruka calmed down enough to draw back. His smile was stretched wider than the scar across his nose, and he ruffled Naruto’s hair fondly. “You’ve really grown, Naruto,” he said warmly.

“Still not enough, but I’ll take what I can get,” Naruto replied, smiling back.

“Your unhealthy eating habits probably not helping you, I’ll bet.” Iruka beamed at him, words notwithstanding. “It’s wonderful to see you again, Naruto. Come, sit, I’ll get us some tea –”

“No, I can’t stay long.” Naruto reached out to give Iruka another impulsive hug, at the sight of his crestfallen expression. “I’m sorry, Iruka-sensei, but I’m on a tight schedule. I just wanted to see you in person again after so long, that’s all.”

“Can’t you stay even to talk a little while?” Iruka said, disappointment clear in his voice.

Naruto shook his head. “Not now. But tell you what – I’ll come back once the exam’s done, and we can talk through the night. Okay?”

He watched as Iruka worked it out, and shock came over his face. “The jounin exam? Naruto, are you out of your mind? You’ll get killed!”

Naruto had to laugh, but there was darkness it in. “I know what I’m doing, Iruka-sensei. I’ve spoken to Tsunade-baa-chan already, and she approves. It’s the best way forward. I’ll explain it to you in a few weeks, when the exam’s done, I swear.”

Iruka nodded reluctantly. “I’m not happy with this, but I’ve waited five years to talk to you, I guess I can wait a little longer.” He looked accusingly at Naruto. “Your letter-writing skills are atrocious – almost as bad as your actual writing. Have I taught you nothing?”

“Nothing that stuck, anyway,” Naruto said cheekily, and laughingly ducked Iruka’s swat. “Sorry, sorry. At least I wrote!”

“That’s true,” Iruka conceded. He smiled. “And I’m grateful for every letter, and that you look so well, now.”

Naruto grinned at him, full of love for this man who had taken him under his wing without reservation. “I’m glad to see you well, too.”

They shared a moment of understanding. Then Naruto looked out of the window, and seeing the sun’s position, said regretfully, “I really have to go.”

Iruka sighed. “Very well. If you must.”

“Iruka-sensei… I know you understand this, but – don’t tell anyone that I’m back, or taking part in the exams, okay? Only Tsunade-baa-chan knows.”

Iruka drew himself up and gave Naruto the formidable Teacher’s Glare that always made his students want to pee in their pants. “Who do you take me for, Naruto?” he demanded. “Have I not kept your secret for –”

“Okay, okay!” Naruto cringed and held up his hands in surrender. “I’m sorry!”

“You had better be.” Iruka huffed, and relaxed. He held out his arms, and Naruto gladly hugged him again. “I’ll see you in a few weeks, then?”

“I promise,” Naruto said firmly. He stepped back, and then went to the window, drawing his hood up again. He looked back at Iruka, standing forlornly in the middle of the room. “Thanks, Iruka-sensei. I’ve missed you, you know.”

Iruka smiled. “I know. I’ve missed you too, Naruto.”

He formed the hand seals that activated his voice-disguising jutsu. Then, with a final look at Iruka, Naruto leapt out of the window and was gone.

 


 

“You are going to what?

“Eh heh heh. Um. Well. There’s no other way, I swear!”

“Akatsuki is on the move. Orochimaru is up to something. And you want to waste your time in an exam you could probably pass with your eyes closed.”

“At least it won’t take me long, right?”

“…I will come with you.”

“What? No! Look, if it’s pointless for me, it’s completely, insanely pointless for you! You don’t have to come just because of me –”

“I have decided. After all, I have also, technically, not passed any exam higher than genin.”

“But you’re the –!”

Naruto.”

“…Oh, fine. Be that way. It’s not like I ever could change your mind, anyway.”

“I see you understand your limits.”

“Just don’t complain if you’re bored out of your mind.”

“I would thank you not to put me on your level.”

“Hey! What’s that supposed to mean?”

 


 

Three days after Naruto’s visit, Tsunade was rudely woken by Shizune, who had a scroll, sent by express courier pigeon. The Hokage unrolled it, yawning. She froze mid-yawn as she read.

Her yell resounded through the entire tower.

What do you mean the Kazekage is taking the jounin exam?”

Chapter Text

We hate most in others what we dislike to see in ourselves.

-- Anonymous

 


 

 “Have you heard? About Kitsune –”

“It’s official, we passed by the Suna contingent on our way –”

 “I don’t know about you, but I think I’m going to withdraw.”

“The Konoha group isn’t to be taken lightly either –”

“We have to fight both Kitsune and the Kazekage?”

“I can’t believe they’re not jounin already.”

 “Don’t forget the Konoha shinobi –”

“Man, what bad luck, of all the exams –”

 “I don’t believe this.”

“There’s no way we can compete with them!”

Hearing that last plaintive cry echoing into the crisp morning air, Neji sneered slightly. “Weaklings,” he said contemptuously. “They have lost even before we have even started.”

“Now, now, Neji!” Lee struck a pose, his grin blinding as always. “The fires of determination burn best when faced with adverse situations! Once the exam is underway, our good fellow competitors will definitely find their fighting spirit! We must not underestimate our opponents!”

More than one pair of eyes rolled heavenwards in the little group of chuunins, standing together but separate from the rest of the shinobi gathered in the field where all the participants in the jounin exam had been told to meet. Other shinobi cast them glances from time to time – the Konoha Rookie Nine had grown in strength and reputation, and even those from other villages had heard of them, and their achievements. Even if they were ‘rookie’ no longer, nor were they nine, the name had stuck.

Furthermore, with them was the one other team that they were often found together with – a team that included two of the most famous rising names in the shinobi world. All together, the seven of the Rookie Nine that were present and the addition of the team of three made for a formidable sight.

There were the Hyuuga cousins, with their unnerving eyes. There was the scowling Uchiha, who the shinobi world still did not know what to make of, especially with what he did five years back. There was the protégé of the current Hokage, her pink hair bright. There was the dog-man, and the fat man, and the bug man, and the weapons specialist. There was the green monstrosity, his looks hiding fighting skill beyond imagination. The heir to the mind-possession technique wasn’t there, but her teammate, the man who was rumoured to be the Hokage’s consultant for all key strategic plans, was with the group, yawning. He was a supervisor, and technically not supposed to be there, but it seemed as if he didn’t care, and no one was going to tell him to leave.

Their solidarity was surprising in a bunch of shinobi who had lived long enough to hone their skills to jounin level, and it made the other jounins-to-be worried. What if they banded together in the exam itself? It would be an unfair advantage. Others were unconcerned: in their view, this camaraderie would never survive the harsh exam conditions.

The nine chuunins – and one jounin – were aware of what the other shinobi thought, but ignored it. They were used to being judged by others. Instead, they focused on their main concern: the other two much-talked-about participants in the exam.

“The Kazekage’s presence is confirmed,” Shikamaru put in, half-awake. It was too damn early; he wished he was back in bed, but Tsunade had insisted on him being one of the supervisors. “I asked the Hokage.”

“That’s what she told me, too, when I asked,” Sakura said. She looked worried. “Tsunade-sensei’s worried, she didn’t tell me why, but I think it’s about the security arrangements.”

“It’d look bad if we managed to get the Kazekage killed,” Kiba agreed, grinning.

“Not that anyone will be able to,” Shino murmured. “Or try to.”

Those that had witnessed the Kazekage’s power were reminded of the times they had seen him exercise that power. They nodded fervently, with the exception of Lee.

“Gaara-san is our ally,” Lee protested. “He helped us when we were – he helped us years ago,” he amended, giving Sasuke a discreet glance, tactfully avoiding mention of the Sasuke-retrieval mission. “And Suna is Konoha’s ally, too. We should not speak badly of him!”

“What I don’t understand,” Hinata said meekly, breaking the awkward silence that followed Lee’s words, “is why the Kazekage would need to take the jounin exam.”

“Technically he hasn’t even passed the chuunin one,” Tenten pointed out. “It’s weird for a Kage to be a genin. Maybe he figured it was time he got an official qualification?”

Chouji swallowed a mouthful of meat bun – his mother had insisted that it was a more nutritious breakfast than crisps, and told him that he needed his energy for the exam. “Why did he have to choose this exam? I really don’t want to fight him.”

A snort made all eyes look towards Sasuke. He was standing a little apart from them, as per normal. They tried their best to include him, but even if he didn’t reject them outright, he was always cold.

Sakura would never give up trying, though. She had already lost one teammate, she wasn’t about to let the other go. She smiled at Sasuke. “Is there something you want to say, Sasuke-kun?”

He eyed them, and then shrugged. “Not really,” he said, a tiny sneer curling his lip. “Only that you’re wasting your time worrying about the Kazekage. He’s insane, who knows what goes through his head?”

“We’re going to go up against someone with such strength, Sasuke-kun,” Hinata said timidly. She was getting better at speaking up. “I think that’s enough of a cause to worry.”

“He’s the Kazekage. No matter how powerful he is, he has responsibilities, an image to uphold. He’s not going to be able to go berserk or anything.” Sasuke looked around the circle. “You’re probably right that he’s strong, but I don’t think you have to worry about getting really hurt by his hand.”

“Sasuke’s right,” Shikamaru said, looking thoughtfully at the scowling man. “As the Kazekage Gaara-san has to show restraint.”

“So… we only have to worry about each other, then?” was Kiba’s cheerful contribution. “Cool!”

Neji rolled his eyes. “Idiot,” he said shortly.

Kiba bared his teeth. “Watch it, Neji,” he snapped. Akamaru, huge now, barked.

Blank eyes glared back. “Have you not been paying attention? Besides the Kazekage, there is also Kitsune to worry about. He’s an assassin, one of the best, and he’s not from any village – which means he’d going to have no qualm about killing anything and anyone in his way.”

“Oh… yeah. Damn.”

Sakura laughed. “I can’t believe you forgot, Kiba-kun!”

Kiba opened his mouth to retort, when there was a sudden commotion. Heads turned to the direction of Konoha; the field they were in lay just outside the main village, and those who were participating would come from that direction, anyone not living in Konoha having taken temporary residence in one of the inns. The group of chuunins turned as one to look.

Gaara’s shaggy fall of hair was a rich red in the early morning sunlight. He had grown, and become less scrawny, in the past few years – but he was still of medium height, not too short, but not tall either. What he hadn’t gained physically, though, he more than made up for in his bearing – he held himself with a quiet, deadly confidence, his movements graceful and sure, eyes steady, chin up. He wasn’t wearing the Kazekage robes and hat, but rather a black-and-red ensemble that looked vaguely like what he’d worn years ago – complete with gourd, strapped to his back. He was nothing like the half-mad child that most of them remembered.

Next to him walked the other infamous personality that the examinees had been discussing. Kitsune was wearing a black cloak that rippled as he walked; he was just that little bit taller than the Kazekage at his side. He held himself equally confidently, but was a touch less reserved than the Kazekage was. The heavy hood had been pushed back, revealing longish spiky hair, blond with red highlights, but his face was obscured by a white mask – a completely blank white mask, with not a single mark in sight, not even holes for the eyes, let alone the nose and mouth. Everyone looking wondered for a moment how he could see, or breathe.

They were an intimidating pair, the two of them. Those watching could see at once that they knew each other – being chuunins, the examinees were observant enough to notice the ease with which they matched each other’s movements, like it was something natural they didn’t need to think about. It did not bode well; the idea of the combined strength of the Kazekage and Kitsune was too daunting to imagine.

Everyone present watched, interested, as Gaara’s gaze, sweeping over the crowd, stopped on the what was left of the Rookie Nine, Plus Three. He turned his face slightly towards Kitsune, green eyes never leaving the group of Konoha nins. The blank mask tilted slightly downwards, as if Kitsune was looking at Gaara. Then, seemingly without any further communication, their course altered towards the group of shinobi, who shifted into – not battle stances, but perhaps pre-battle-stances stances.

The pair came to a stop a few steps away from the circle, which had opened up so that they could all see one another. The Kazekage looked at them all evenly, and then to everyone’s complete amazement, gave them the tiniest of smiles. “Konoha shinobi,” he said. “It is good to see you well.”

Lee recovered first. “Gaara-san!” he exclaimed, giving the pair a blinding grin. “It’s good to see you again too! It’s wonderful how you still strive for excellence, one step at a time, even after you have reached the top! The fire of your determination is worth learning from!”

Even faced with that grin and the attack of exclamation marks, Gaara managed to remain unruffled. “Thank you, Lee-san. I congratulate you once again on your full recovery.” He indicated the man next to him with a tilt of his head. “May I introduce you – all of you – to Kitsune? Kitsune, this is the well known Rookie Nine, and the team formerly under Guy-san.”

Kitsune spoke; his voice was deep, old, and didn’t match his youthful hairstyle (punk-ish, if they were to be honest) at all. “It’s good to be able to put faces to the names. I only see ten of you here, however. I have heard that one member is ill, which accounts for the eleventh, but where is the twelfth? I have been given to… understand, that he has left you for good.”

At that, varying shades of animosity darkened some faces, while others went blank, Sasuke’s included. Sakura belonged to the first group; her eyes narrowed, but she spoke politely. “I’m afraid you misunderstand, then, Kitsune-san. Naruto is still a part of the Rookie Nine. He has simply been away on an extended mission for quite a while. Surely you understand the difficulties of a shinobi’s life?”

Kitsune tilted a head, and the angle was somehow mocking. “Ah, I’m sorry. I thought he was a genin. Perhaps Konoha runs differently from the other villages? I thought the practice was that genins did not take extended missions, especially not ones that last so long.”

A muscle worked in Sakura’s jaw, but she kept her smile. “Naruto is a genin,” she said, still pleasant. “But he has… abilities that I have no doubt caused Hokage-sama to decide to give him his mission.”

She stared at where the eyes should be on the white mask, not letting the lack of anything to stare at discourage her, refusing to back down. Behind her, she could feel Kiba’s glare joining hers. They had heard all there was to be said about Naruto and his absence, and they were used to defending him. Sakura and Kiba were the most vocal, but Hinata had gotten pretty upset before, and she knew that Neji had fought (and soundly thrashed) a couple of shinobi once because of what they had said about Naruto.

Gaara touched Kitsune’s hand lightly. It was a small gesture, the pressure almost nonexistent, but the tension in Kitsune’s body dissipated slightly. He gave Sakura a small, ironic bow. “I stand corrected,” he said. “I look forward to competing with you all.”

The Kazekage gave them an acknowledging nod, and then, again as one, the two of them turned and moved off. They found an empty patch of field, away from everyone else, and stood there, faces close, apparently talking softly.

Kiba spoke for all of them when he said, “What the hell was that?” It was crudely put, but apt, and the sentiment behind it was shared by all.

Why was Kitsune so interested in them and Naruto, and what was he up to?

 


 

“How dare she?” Naruto’s whisper hissed through his teeth. “How dare she act all noble and concerned, when she was the one –!”

Gaara’s hand was warm and comforting, fingers wrapped gently around Naruto’s wrist. “Do not let your conflicting emotions unbalance you,” he said softly. “You know better than that.”

“But she –”

“People change, Naruto. People speak words that they do not truly believe, in the heat of the moment. Is it so hard to believe that the words she spoke in the past were not her true thoughts, or that she has revised her opinions?”

“I don’t trust this, Gaara.”

“You are happy that she defended you, and you hate that you are happy.” The redhead’s gaze was unflinching; somehow, he always knew exactly where to look to lock gazes with Naruto, even through the mask. “But you have always loved Konoha, and longed for your old friendships. You must have known you would feel this way.”

That made Naruto laugh, but not happily. “I never really thought about it. I don’t want to be happy about this, Gaara. I don’t want to still be attached to her – to them.” They both knew he was talking about his old team, not his old friends from the other teams.

Gaara’s smile was wry. “Even you must know that that is a lie.”

Naruto sighed, and hung his head. “Can’t you just let me bask in denial for a little longer?”

“No. It is not good for you.”

He had to laugh. God, Gaara was so – perfect. He was always there, and always said what Naruto needed him to say. He knew it wasn’t healthy to rely so much on having Gaara always there to keep him on his path, to make him smile, but Naruto couldn’t help himself. He couldn’t imagine not having Gaara there, anymore.

Just as he couldn’t imagine ever telling Gaara that he loved him.

The redhead was still pretty introverted, still a baby in the area of emotion, especially emotions like love, and liking. If there was the slightest risk that telling Gaara meant scaring him off, ruining their friendship, then Naruto didn’t dare take that risk. He was Gaara’s most important friend, and he knew that Gaara held him in high regard, and would almost anything for him – and that was enough, for Naruto.

For now.

“Sasuke looks the same, just older,” he said, changing topics. “I don’t know what I expected – a sign saying ‘I am a traitor, please shoot me’? I don’t know. Something. Maybe he’s changed, maybe he’s seen the error of his ways. Do you think it’s possible?”

Gaara’s green eyes had gone dark. Naruto wanted to kick himself – he should have known better than to talk about Sasuke. Gaara had always harboured intense dislike for the Uchiha. “It might be possible,” he said stiffly.

“Gaara… I’m sorry.” Naruto hesitated, and then decided to damn the risk this once, and turned his wrist in Gaara’s grip. The grip loosened, and Naruto was able to catch that hand in his own, intertwining their fingers. “I won’t talk about Sasuke.”

To his relief, and happiness, Gaara didn’t pull away, but actually tightened his grip. “No,” Gaara said, letting out a tiny sigh. “I am being unreasonable. The Uchiha is one of the three problems that we have agreed to watch out for while in Konoha; we will have to speak of him sometime. I will try to reign in my dislike.”

“You shouldn’t have to hide your emotions,” Naruto protested, meaning it. It was rare that Gaara showed his emotions outwardly, and Naruto treasured each time it happened – he wanted to see more expressions on that normally solemn face. “I don’t care that you hate Sasuke, I don’t feel all that friendly towards him myself, you know. He’s an asshole with ugly hair.”

Gaara’s lips twitched in a smile. Relieved, delighted, Naruto grinned back, and he knew that even with the mask Gaara could sense the grin. His mask was made of a material that allowed him to see out from inside but was opaque on the outside, but somehow Gaara never had problems knowing what his expression was.

Shikamaru chose that moment to break away from his friends, and climb aboard a tree stump. He surveyed the waiting shinobi who turned to look at him, and sighed. It was a very expressive sigh, and managed to convey complete boredom and the idea that there were much better things to do with one’s morning, namely, sleeping late and not having to get up at the crack of dawn. Naruto snickered. Shikamaru was still the same.

“Hey all.” Shikamaru sounded bored and like he was reading off a script. “I’m Shikamaru, one of your supervisors, and I’m supposed to brief you on the first part of the exam, it’s supposed to be a written test, I don’t know how they expect people’s brains to work so early in the morning, so –”

Naruto and Gaara shifted stances, instinctively knowing what was coming.

“– we’re going to be kind and help you wake up properly.”

Gai and Kakashi appeared in puffs of smoke at the other end of the field. Gai was grinning brilliantly, his teeth blinding. Kakashi’s one visible eye was lazy. They both waved.

“See you guys later,” Shikamaru drawled.

Naruto and Gaara only caught the first half of his sentence. They were already on Kakashi’s tail, as Gai and Kakashi disappeared in a flash of speed, splitting up in two directions. A few of the other examinees were right behind them, but not many – some had chosen to follow Gai, and some had allowed that split second of confusion to hold them back. And in the shinobi world, a split second was sometimes all you had.

Sakura and Sasuke were part of the group following Kakashi – clearly choosing, like Naruto, to tail their old sensei, whose movements they were more familiar with. Naruto figured it was the same reason why Neji, Lee and Tenten were presumably in the other group following Gai.

It took only five minutes of keeping up with Kakashi before Naruto began to get bored. He could tell Kakashi was keeping back that last bit of skill that would make him almost untraceable, and figured that this part of the test was only meant to weed out the very weakest, which was why Kakashi didn’t go all out. Plus, Kakashi was going in random directions, in crazy circles around the village, in order to lose some and give the ones who were lost a chance to find him again.

Naruto could tell Gaara was beginning to grow bored, too, so he aligned his movements with the redhead’s, and then, when they were perfectly in sync, formed a few seals and reached out to take Gaara’s hand .The jutsu came to life the moment their skin touched.

Want to ditch this stupid chase?

Gaara didn’t bother looking at him. We need to know where he’s going. The final destination is likely to be our written test venue.

I know that! I meant, why don’t we let our clones take over and grab some breakfast? This little bit of running’s made me hungry.

You’re always hungry. Gaara’s mental voice was amused. But now that I am more awake, I admit that I might be able to eat something.

Good, you’re too thin. You need to eat more. Shall we?

Gaara’s answer was to drop back behind the other shinobi following them – since they were keeping up with Kakashi easily, unlike the others who had to make an effort, Naruto and Gaara were the first ones behind the Copy Nin. Naruto followed Gaara, grinning behind his mask as Sasuke gave them a suspicious glance as he and Sakura leapt past.

When they were at the end of the line of leaping shinobi (it was a really funny image, come to think of it, like little fleas jumping to catch up with their dog) the two of them formed the requisite hand seals. Their kagebunshins poofed into existence and immediately darted forward, aiming for the head of the line once again.

Naruto jumped lightly off the roof that they found themselves on, Gaara landing next to him. He grinned at his stoic partner. “I know this great ramen place –” he began.

“No.”

“Aww, Gaara…”

“Not for breakfast.”

Naruto pouted, and then remembered that Gaara couldn’t see it. He sighed. “Fine,” he said grumpily. “What then?”

Gaara considered this. “Somewhere you can remove your mask and eat normally,” he said finally. “It is not healthy to have to gulp down so much food in one go.”

“Oh.” Naruto blinked, and warm fuzzy feelings ran through him. Gaara was concerned about him! “Okay then,” he said, unable to keep the big grin from showing in his voice. He looked around, getting his bearings. “There’s this little teahouse that should be nearby, Chouji told me about it before.”

“The big one?” Gaara said after a moment’s recollection.

“Yeah!” Naruto loved how Gaara worked at remembering the names and stories of his Konoha friends. “That’s the one.”

They walked in companionable silence as the village awoke all around them, sleepy greetings coming from the houses on either side, windows opening, the sounds of cooking filtering out. Naruto suddenly missed the village with a ferocious ache.

Gaara knew him too well. He shifted so that he was pressed closer to Naruto, and Naruto could feel his warmth. He relaxed.

The teahouse, when they finally found it (“See, I told you I’m not lost!”) was just opening. The owner was surprised when this odd pair showed up at his door, but welcomed them in. The Kazekage was known only in name and reputation, in Konoha; few ordinary citizens knew what he looked like.

After choosing a seat in the corner, where no one would be able to see Naruto’s face unless they were standing right next to the booth, they ordered tea and some buns. Naruto didn’t take the mask off until the food arrived, after which he wolfed down the food with enthusiasm. He was on his third bun when he realized that Gaara was only halfway through his first, idly tearing tiny bits off and nibbling at them.

“You said you were hungry!” he accused, swallowing.

“I said that I might be able to eat something,” Gaara corrected mildly. “I am eating something.”

Naruto eyed the still pretty whole bun in Gaara’s hands. “That’s not something, that’s hardly anything.”

Gaara tore off another small piece and popped it into his mouth, a tiny smile quirking the right corner of his lips, which was what Naruto had come to know as his version of raising an eyebrow (since he didn’t have any eyebrows).

That was it. Naruto reached out to snatch the bun from Gaara’s hands; not expecting that, Gaara let him. Then Naruto tore off a reasonable chunk, and held it up to Gaara’s mouth. “Open wide,” he said firmly.

Green eyes widened.

Naruto suddenly realized what he was doing, and fought down a bright red blush – he didn’t have the mask to hide behind. “Come on, I’m not letting you starve,” he said, trying to sound like he wasn’t dying of nerves.

Gaara hesitated for another agonizing second. Then he leaned forward slightly, and delicately took the food into his own mouth. Naruto repressed a shiver as he felt the faintest brush of lips against his fingers.

Damn it, why does he affect me so much?

Distracted, Naruto didn’t realize what Gaara was doing until the bun had been snatched back. He blinked at Gaara, who looked away. “I’ll eat more,” was the quiet answer to the unspoken question.

“Oh… good.” Naruto wasted a moment wishing that he could have continued to feed Gaara, before logic reasserted itself. He didn’t want to scare Gaara off, remember? But it was getting harder and harder…

What a very accurate way to put it.

Kyuubi! Naruto grimaced when that familiar voice resounded in his head. Why are you up? You don’t normally stir until mid-morning.

Your perverted thoughts woke me, was Kyuubi’s amused answer. Honestly, you humans. Letting the most ridiculous things hold you back from your base natures. Just jump the boy already, brat.

Gaara’s not a boy, he’s a man – and he’s my good friend, Naruto told the demon fox firmly. I’ve told you time and again that you won’t understand.

There was the phantom swish of annoyed tails, in the recesses of his mind. You are all squealing children to me, Kyuubi pointed out. And I have had centuries of understanding.

That’s different, okay? We’ve argued about this for ages, just drop it.

Fine, fine. There was a yawn with lots of teeth in it. I’ll let you get on with your pathetic lives, you’re right that it’s too early to be awake. Are you going to let me out soon?

Not while we’re here. When you’re outside you’re too noticeable, and there are shinobi in Konoha who are smart enough to suspect something and probe deeper.

I will rend them from limb to limb! Kyuubi snarled. What they did to me –

You already paid the entire village back in blood. Naruto’s mental voice was fierce. Don’t talk to me about debts owed.

…very well. Kyuubi’s presence faded. Do not disturb my rest again, brat.

I’ll try my very best, your majesty.

Kyuubi ignored his sarcasm, and his presence vanished altogether – back in sleep, Naruto knew. He shook his head to clear the lingering echoes, and then, back in the real world, grabbed his tea and gulped down a few mouthfuls. The slight burning served to wake him up.

Gaara was chewing placidly, looking out of the window. Naruto was glad to see his bun almost finished.

“You should eat up,” Gaara said, still staring into the distance. “I think Kakashi will end the chase soon.” He didn’t mention Naruto’s bout of spacing-out, too used to those mental conversations between Kyuubi and its host.

Naruto sighed. “And then we have the written test. I hate written tests.” He delved into the food again.

He was almost done with the last meat bun when the clones sent a pulse of chakra down the link that bound them, letting them know that the chase was at an end. Gaara pulled out enough money to cover the bill and put it on the table as Naruto pulled his mask back on, still chewing. Then they used their modified kawarimi, where rather than swapping themselves with another object in the area, they used their links with their clones to swap themselves.

They arrived in front of a building with two puffs of smoke, startling those around them. Kakashi, who had been about to push open the door to the building, turned back to stare at them. Gaara stared placidly back. Naruto swallowed, and then tilted the mask slightly up, popped the last bit of bun into his mouth, and let the mask fall again.

Kakashi’s eye narrowed. “Those were clones,” he said. It wasn’t a question. Surprised murmuring rose from around them. Since cloning yourself split a shinobi’s power in half, it was unusual that a clone could keep up with Kakashi when the others with their full skill were struggling.

Naruto nodded, ignoring them. “It’s not against the rules, since there weren’t any. Plus, we were hungry.”

That single eye turned to Gaara, who shrugged slightly. Apparently deciding that it wasn’t worth confronting the Kazekage, Kakashi turned back to the door. Opening it with a flourish, he gestured for them to follow before disappearing inside.

They were led to an exam hall that looked like the one in the chuunin exam years ago, only that this one now was smaller. Less examinees, he supposed; the other half who had followed Gai weren’t there, probably in another exam venue.

Raido was telling them about the written test, about how many points for each right answer and how many points deducted for each wrong answer and about getting kicked out if caught cheating. Naruto tuned him out and waited impatiently for the test to begin.

When the test finally started, Naruto and Gaara finished writing in record time, setting up as many anti-cheating barriers they could think of – wards to confound, to block, to hide. When they were done, they turned their papers face-down and cancelled the jutsus. Gaara sat back in his seat, crossing his arms over his chest and closed his eyes in a meditative trance – he could sleep now that he had arrived at an agreement with Shukaku, but it would be foolish to sleep here.

Naruto sat back as well, but he didn’t idle. Instead, he subtly examined all those present. His former teammates were stronger than ever, but the darkness in Sasuke – the curse seal, amongst other things – had also grown. Sakura’s power had increased exponentially, but her control over it was solid, Naruto could tell from the way it flowed within her. Being Tsunade’s apprentice had done wonders for her.

He was glad that the Hyuuga cousins and their respective teams were with Gai. The ones who would pose the most threat to Naruto’s identity being revealed were in those teams – the Byakugan, if focused correctly, would be able to identify Naruto by his unique chakra patterns. Shino’s bugs had some bug sense that allowed them to do the same, only that it was by the taste of his chakra. Then there was the Inuzuka nose, both Kiba’s and Akamaru’s.

Of course, Naruto had designed jutsus to hide his smell and shield the sight of his chakra from sight-based bloodline limits, and he could sense Shino’s bugs well enough to keep out of their way, but he wasn’t completely sure that his precautions would stand up to close scrutiny or persistent stalking by bugs and dogs.

He was just glad that Ino wasn’t in the exam. That mind technique of hers, if it got past his mental barriers, would ruin his disguise in an instant.

Something caught his attention. A few shinobi in the front rows reeked of snake. Naruto’s eyes narrowed. So he and Gaara had been right to worry. Orochimaru was going to try something during the exam again. Geez, how unoriginal.

So, Sasuke as a problem was almost guaranteed, with Orochimaru’s presence confirmed. That just left the Akatsuki, and if he believed his spy’s information, there was going to be trouble there, too. And the thing was the he did believe the information, because of what he’d promised in exchange. He really didn’t want to help Sasuke – well, help or hinder, it depended on your point of view – but he’d promised. Naruto sighed.

Everything came back to Sasuke, really. It was annoying.

“Time’s up,” Raido announced. The other examiners began collecting papers. “The results will be announced in half an hour, you have a break until then.”

He saw Sakura look half-disappointed, half-relieved. There was no ‘tenth question’ this time, and Naruto thought her a fool for expecting it. This was the jounin exam, and childish tricks like the tenth question did not have a place here. Such lessons that could be taught from tricks like those would have been learned long ago; here, it was your skill to survive that was tested.

He was about to sit and meditate like Gaara, when he realized that the few people he knew were coming towards him. Oh, joy.

Sakura looked a little scared, but determined. Sasuke just looked like he had a stick up his ass, as always. Chouji had opened another bag of chips, Shikamaru was just… Shikamaru, hanging back behind his friends.

“Kisune-san,” Sakura said politely – she seemed to be their official spokesperson. Naruto figured it was because it was impolite to talk with your mouth full (which ruled out Chouji), or looking completely uninterested in conversation (which ruled out Shikamaru), or insulting the other person constantly (which ruled out Sasuke). “May we ask you and Gaara-san a question?”

Gaara wasn’t going to move, Naruto could tell. It was up to him, then. Damn Gaara. He tried to match Sakura for politeness – when had she gotten so diplomatic? “You just did, but I guess you can ask another,” he said, keeping his voice neutral.

Sasuke rolled his eyes at that, and stepped forward. “It’s no use being polite, Sakura,” he snapped. He fixed that black gaze on Naruto. “We want to know what you and Gaara –” there was veiled contempt when he spoke Gaara’s name, and Naruto’s fists curled, “– are doing here.”

“Sasuke…” Shikamaru sighed while Sakura turned pale. “Gaara-san is the Kazekage, you should show some respect.”

“He tried to raze the village and kill us all,” Sasuke said bluntly, unusually suicidal, even for him. His eyes burned. “He should be kept behind bars, or under watch, but he ends up being made the Kazekage? Fools.”

Naruto knew that this resentment stemmed from Sasuke’s own life – like Gaara, he’d almost committed an unforgivable wrong, but he was kept under constant surveillance while Gaara had been, in his eyes, rewarded. Naruto understood all that. But anger still flared in him, and he still felt the urge to beat Sasuke up. It was like when they were kids all over again.

“You bastard,” he hissed, standing in one smooth movement. He wished he was taller; right now, he was Sasuke’s height. “You know nothing about Gaara and what he’s been through. You’re just a whiny little shit, bitter as always!”

They were all staring at him wide-eyed, with varying levels of fear – in Sasuke’s case, no fear at all. His eyes were narrowed, but oddly, they were narrowed in thought. “There’s something… familiar about you,” he said slowly.

Oh, shit.

Then Gaara stood as well, effectively freezing everyone. Cold green eyes fixed on Sasuke, who stared back almost as if he couldn’t help himself. “If this is Konoha hospitality, I am afraid I find it lacking,” Gaara said in that quiet way of his that made blood run cold. He picked up his huge gourd and easily shouldered it, and then began walking off without another word.

Naruto wavered for a second, but Gaara won out over Sasuke. With one final glare that Sasuke couldn’t see, he hurried after the redhead.

He had the feeling that Gaara was unhappy with him for some reason, and when they emerged from the building, his suspicion was confirmed when Gaara ignored him, finding a tree and sitting under it, resuming the meditative stance again. Naruto grimaced, and sat next to him, peering at him worriedly through the mask. “Gaara…?”

No answer.

“I’m sorry that I lost my temper.”

No answer.

“It’s just that Sasuke was saying all those stupid things about you…”

No answer.

“Damn it, Gaara!”

To his surprise, Gaara finally opened his eyes, but Naruto sighed to see that the Kazekage was glaring. “Shut up, Naruto,” he said curtly.

Naruto snorted. “Look, I know you’re mad at me, just tell me why.”

Gaara gave him a Look. “No.”

He was unmoved even after twenty-five minutes of Naruto’s whining and pleading, which was a feat – ten minutes was enough to wear down Kankurou and Temari, if he put his mind to it. Despite himself, Naruto was impressed, but also very frustrated.

He had to finally stop, though, when it was time to return. He sulked all the way back to the exam room, and he continued sulking in his seat. Anyone else would have thought him aloof, but he knew Gaara could tell, but continued ignoring him anyway.

Raido had a scroll in his hand. He read out the names of a good third of the people in there. When he finished, and Naruto didn’t hear his or Gaara’s name, he knew that those people who had been named had failed.

He was proved right. “All of the people I called please leave the room now. You’ve failed; better luck next time. Now –” Raido had to raise his voice, when people started getting up with black looks, making a lot of angry noise, “– congratulations to the rest of you. You have passed the first test, but there are two more to come, and they won’t be anywhere near as easy as this one, as you’ve probably expected.”

One of the examiners detached himself from the crowd of examiners in the corner and came to the front of the room, standing beside Raido. Genma hadn’t changed, either; that senbon was still in his mouth. Naruto wondered if he’d been sucking the same senbon for five years, and then kicked himself mentally for being frivolous.

“I hate to say it, but Raido’s known for his understatements,” Genma said cheerfully, smirking. He nudged Raido with his shoulder. “You shouldn’t have gotten their hopes up, you know.”

Raido rolled his eyes heavenwards. “Just get on with it, Genma.”

They’re together, Naruto realized with an amused smile as Genma stomped on Raido’s foot, getting a glare in response. Genma grinned and patted Raido’s shoulder, and then stepped forward to face the staring examinees. “Let me tell it to you straight – the second exam’s going to be killer. And I don’t mean it in a metaphorical way.” There was an unholy light of amusement in his eyes. “It’s a bit like the chuunin exam, really, only this time you won’t have a team to help you. And your mission is not going to be easy. Each of you will be given one scroll, with your name on it.”

Here Genma paused, and one impatient Grass nin in the front row spoke up. “I heard about the chuunin exam, we have to steal other people’s scrolls, right? You Konoha nins don’t have any imagination.”

Genma’s eyes narrowed. “Oh? Well, how’s this for imagination?” He smirked, and it was not a nice smirk. “Each of you will have to collect at least five handprints on your scrolls.”

There were looks of bewilderment.

The smirk widened. “One handprint, in your opponent’s blood, for every opponent you defeat. Is that imaginative enough for you, Yuki-san?”

The Grass nin scowled. “Too easy,” he snapped. “We’ll just –”

“I know what ‘you just’. You’re thinking that you can grab some friends, swap some handprints, right?” Genma stepped forward again, and leaned into the Grass nin. “Wrong. Because, you see, if your handprint shows up more than once on someone else’s scroll… you’re out. Even if you have a hundred handprints on your scroll.”

Disbelieving looks all around. A few people tried to work out the math. “But that means there will be barely ten people remaining. Including those from the other half!”

“And this is just the second exam, there’s still the third!”

“Well, yes.” Genma shrugged, and his grin showed teeth. “You didn’t think it’d be easy, did you?”

Well, well. Naruto barely managed not to jump when Kyuubi’s voice echoed in his head. This ought to be fun.

And really – Naruto could not agree more.

Chapter Text

To him that waits all things reveal themselves, provided that he has the courage not to deny, in the darkness, what he has seen in the light.

-- Coventry Patmore

 


 

“Up at the crack of dawn again. Damn it. Suna’s lifestyle is much more reasonable, even though you get sand in the most disgusting places…”

Hinata and Lee, who were the two other shinobi unfortunate enough to have drawn the same gate number as Kitsune, looked at each other. “Hinata-san,” Lee said with a bright morning grin, “let us go and spread the cheer to our unhappy friend! We should all be in the best and brightest of moods as we face the challenge of the Forest of Death!”

Hinata’s white eyes widened. “Ah… Lee-san… I don’t think… that’s a good idea…”

Too late. Lee had bounded over to where Kitsune was, radiating goodwill, and Hinata was never one to let her friends go off and court death by themselves. She hurried after him.

“…face this wonderful day, and defeat your opponents with youthful vigour!” Lee was saying as Hinata drew close.

Kitsune’s head had swivelled to face Lee, and Hinata could feel the stare boring into the grinning shinobi. She couldn’t tell if it was merely incredulous, or near homicidal. She intervened anyway. “Kitsune-san… um… a good morning to you!”

That mask turned to face her, and now she really could feel the full force of that stare even through the mask. But then, to her surprise, as Lee babbled on, Hinata felt the stare soften. “Lee-san,” Kitsune greeted. “Hyuuga-san. Nervous about the exam?”

Hinata relaxed a little, and smiled timidly. Kitsune was being surprisingly nice. “Yes, I’m nervous… but I’m also excited. I’ve never really faced this… this sort of challenge, by myself, before.”

“One week of lone survival!” Lee exclaimed happily, giving them a thumbs-up. “A fitting test of our worth! If I do not pass this exam I will run a thousand laps around Konoha!”

“Lee-san!” Hinata yelped. “I don’t… I don’t think that’s…!”

Kitsune, however, was nodding. “An admirable forfeit,” he said cheerfully. His bad mood seemed to be gone. “I know you’re good at taijutsu, Lee-san. It’s probably not that hard for you.”

His compliment was rewarded with a blinding grin, and Hinata could have sworn that for a moment he was standing posed on a rock, with waves crashing behind him. “Yes! I am very proud of my taijutsu skills!” Then the smile faded, and he said a little sheepishly, “Of course, my other skills need… work.”

Hinata felt a pang of sadness for Lee. She knew that many people had scoffed at Lee’s attempt at the jounin exams, saying that mere taijutsu skills might have gotten him through the chuunin exams, but it took more than that to make a jounin. Lee didn’t seem to mind, but she knew that no one could hear all those comments again and again and not be affected.

Kitsune seemed to be looking at her, as if reading her thoughts. Then he turned to face Lee again. “Lee-san,” he said seriously. “If this is the path you’ve chosen, then don’t let anything anyone says discourage you from it. Sure, if you’ve developed only one side of your skill, you may be at a disadvantage – but then, Lee-san, what you do is you damn well develop that skill until you’ve reached a place where no one can laugh, because they know they won’t ever be able to reach it too. Create a fighting style that’s entirely yours, a style that no one else can copy because no one else can. I know you can do it, Lee-san. You’re already doing it.”

There was silence.

Hinata had to remember how to breathe. Lee was stunned, jaw hanging.

Kitsune laughed a little sheepishly, hand raising to the back of his head. “Ahaha. Sorry, I just got a little carried away there…”

Upon seeing that gesture, remembering that passion and belief in that voice – Hinata and Lee were beyond stunned, and approaching shell-shocked. They stared at Kitsune, who seemed to realize what he had done, and froze.

There was another silence.

Then, Hinata whispered, “Naruto-kun…?”

Kitsune didn’t move. Then he laughed, a little too loudly. “Who? Naruto? I’ve never heard that name before, what an odd name, it sounds like something you eat argh argh argh.

The reason for his groaning was Lee, who had thrown himself bodily on Kitsune – no, Naruto – and was bawling his head off, clinging onto Naruto for all he was worth. “Naruto-kun! You have returned, and the power of your youth shines brighter than ever! I knew that you would not let us down – mmph!

“Okay, okay! Enough, do you want the whole forest to hear you?” Naruto hissed, one hand over Lee’s mouth, the other prying the sobbing man off of him. “Lee, get a hold of yourself!”

Hinata had to laugh at the sight, Lee fighting to continue clinging onto Naruto and Naruto flailing around, trying to get him off – but since she was crying, her hands over her mouth to muffle the sound, the laugh came out a little hysterical. She saw Naruto glance over at her, and hurriedly wiped her tears away. It would not do to let Naruto-kun see her so wretched.

Sniffling, she went forward to helped Naruto pull at Lee. “Lee-kun, come on, the exam’s going to start soon…”

Lee finally let go, and beamed wetly at Naruto. “It is great to see you again, Naruto-kun,” he said earnestly. “We have all missed you dearly, even Neji, as much as he tries to hide it. My teammate has a gruff exterior, but do not let that fool you! His heart –”

“I get it, Lee,” Naruto interrupted, laughing. “I know what Neji’s like, I haven’t forgotten.” He formed a few hand seals, and when he next spoke, it wasn’t in that strange voice he had been using, but an older version of the voice they remembered. “And this is really embarrassing, but, well… I’ve missed you guys too.”

Hinata wanted to go hug him, but held herself back. “So have we, Naruto-kun… so have we.”

“Naruto-kun,” Lee said, “Are you really Kitsune?”

At that, Naruto sobered. “Yes,” he said, “I am. And no one else must know about it, okay? The two of you can’t tell anyone.”

“But the others…” Lee began in protest.

“I’m planning to reveal myself at the end of the exams, when I’ve become jounin.” Naruto said it as fact – when he became jounin, not if. “And I’ll answer everyone’s questions then – as much as I can, anyway. But not yet.”

Lee and Hinata exchanged looks. Then Lee nodded. “I will keep your secret until you choose to reveal yourself, Naruto-kun!” he declared. “Nothing shall tear the truth from me! I will be like stone!”

“I promise… I won’t tell, Naruto-kun,” Hinata agreed. Then, in a rush, before she lost her nerve, she said quickly, “But can we please see you without a mask it’s been five years it’d be really nice to see your face again?”

“Sure. Just for a moment, okay?” Naruto reached up, and took off his mask.

Hinata turned bright red.

Lee gaped, and then gave Naruto two thumbs up. “You have become a paragon of masculine youth, Naruto-kun!”

Naruto put his mask back on. “Really? Cool. You guys have grown too. Lee, you look more like Gai-sensei than ever, and Hinata-chan, you’ve grown prettier.”

Lee’s teary-eyed “Really? Like Gai-sensei, you said?” was loud, but it sounded far away in Hinata’s ears. Naruto-kun… Naruto-kun had called her pretty.

“And, you know, Hinata-chan… I can see that you’re grown confident. That’s good, you know? I always knew you could find your own place.”

Hinata’s cheeks felt so warm that she wondered if she was going to burst into flame.

Thankfully, at that moment, the shrill bugle of the horn sounded in the air, signalling the start of the exams. The gate swung open. Naruto waved at the two of them. “Good luck!” he said. “I won’t attack you guys, and neither will Gaara, but be careful of everyone else! And remember – don’t let anyone know who I am.

With another wave, he was gone, leaping through the trees.

Hinata took a deep breath and slapped her cheeks lightly. When she looked up again, her determined gaze met Lee’s equally determined one. He grinned at her, and she managed a smile in return. “Shall we, Lee-kun?” she said quietly.

He nodded. “Naruto-kun right now is far ahead of us,” he said, and both knew that he was not talking about physical distance. “We must not disappoint him, and catch up quickly.” He looked unusually solemn. “All of us, Hinata-san, all three of us, once lagged behind the rest. We swore to show them what we can do, but only Naruto-kun has really achieved it.” When he looked at Hinata again, his gaze was direct. “He will be our goal, Hinata-san. Let us catch up to him soon.”

She nodded, but a nagging worry made her say, “The stories about Kitsune… some of them… I can’t believe it’s Naruto-kun’s doing.” She bit her lip. “I… I don’t want to think of Naruto-kun… doing things like that.”

Lee nodded. “I understand, Hinata-san. But… I believe in Naruto-kun. What he has done, I believe he did for a reason. We must not judge him yet, but wait for him to tell us himself.” He flashed her a smile. “Do you not believe in him too, Hinata-san?”

“I do!” Hinata said without hesitation.

“Then let’s continue believing in him,” Lee said firmly. He gave her a ridiculous sweeping bow. “After you, Hinata-san. Good luck!”

She gave him a more solid smile. “Thank you, Lee-kun… The best of luck to you, too.” And she leapt into the trees, hearing Lee following her for a while, and then taking another path, the sounds of his footsteps fading.

Somewhere in this forest, Naruto-kun was alive, and stronger than ever.

She, too, would have to grow stronger, and show Naruto-kun one day that his belief in her – like her belief in him – was justified.

 


 

After an hour of running, Naruto found a clearing that would do. He looked around for a nice flat rock, and then sat down in a meditative pose.

Birds sang. Wind blew. Grass whistled.

And then, tired of the eyes watching him, Naruto said without opening his eyes, “Either fight me or go away. I don’t appreciate being watched like some zoo exhibit.”

There was a pause. Then, with a faint rustling of leaves, someone leapt down from a branch onto the grass. Naruto sighed, and opened his eyes to peer at the Sand nin trying to look confident, when Naruto could clearly hear his rapid heartbeat and smell the fear. Well, to his credit, the fear was tempered with the excitement of impending battle, but it was still fear.

“Kitsune,” the Sand nin said with bravado. “Fight me like a man!”

Naruto snorted. “Are you mad?”

The Sand nin stared.

“First, I don’t know you, so you have no right to call me by my name alone. Secondly, if you want a battle, ask nicely. Let me tell you, it’s never a good idea to anger someone who can easily grind you into the dust. Or someone on friendly terms with your Kage, you’ve no doubt seen me walking around your village with Gaara.”

The Sand nin continued to stare.

“Well?”

“Uh… Kitsune… san?”

Naruto nodded at him to continue.

“Kitsune-san. Uh… will you battle with me?”

Grinning smugly to himself – he just loved scaring his opponents, it was great feeling like the king of the world – Naruto jumped down from the rock in one fluid movement. “Sure!” he said brightly. “Ninjutsu only? A taijutsu showdown? No-holds barred bloody war?”

“Uh…”

“Can’t decide, huh. Why don’t we ask your Kazekage to make the choice for you, then?”

The Sand nin’s eyes widened impossibly. His face drained of blood.

“Oh, Gaara…!” Naruto sing-songed.

There was the soft whisper of sand. Then Gaara emerged from the shadow of a tree, eliciting a squeak from the Sand nin. He glared at Naruto. “Do not toy with my shinobi,” he ordered.

Naruto gave him an exaggerated bow. “Yes, O Kazekage-sama.”

Gaara scowled. Then he turned to the almost-but-not-yet shaking shinobi. “You are Nagasaki? Nagasaki Shin?”

The Sand nin straightened upon hearing his name. Pride flashed across his eyes – his Kazekage knew him! Naruto felt a little better towards the guy, he clearly was part of the group in Suna who supported Gaara –a group that was quickly growing in number, to Naruto’s pleasure.“Yes, Kazekage-sama!”

Gaara nodded curtly. “Did you think it wise to challenge one of the strongest shinobi around to a battle, not an hour into the exam?”

Nagasaki sagged a little, but he answered honestly. “Kazekage-sama, I know that in terms of passing the exam, it is a foolish move – but I wanted to test myself against someone whose strength has been proven. I wanted to go against the best, in order to see how much farther I need to go.”

Gaara’s features gentled. So far, Naruto knew that only he, Temari and Kankurou could see the tiny variations in Gaara’s expressions; for others, it was easier to tell by the aura that surrounded Gaara. Right now, the forbidding presence became less so, and Naruto watched as the Sand nin sensed it, and relaxed a little.

“That is an admirable sentiment, Nagasaki – but foolish. Suna needs jounin. Would you place your personal satisfaction over your village’s needs?”

Nagasaki looked horrified. “No, Kazekage-sama! I never – I wasn’t – That wasn’t my intention!”

Gaara’s upheld hand stopped him. “I understand,” he said. “I will not hold it against you. For now, as a shinobi of Suna, I order you to do your very best to pass this segment of the exam. And if you manage it – I will see to it that when we return to Suna, you will have a supervised battle against Kitsune.”

Nagasaki was fairly glowing with happiness. “Thank you, Kazekage-sama!”

Gaara nodded. “Go now.”

The Sand nin gave them both a deep bow, then turned and leapt soundlessly off into the forest. He was lost to sight in a second.

“I could have said no to the battle, you know,” Naruto said conversationally.

“Yes. You could have.”

“I still can, you know.”

“Yes. You can.”

Naruto gave up. He hoisted himself back onto his rock and idly swung his legs. “Got a plan?” he asked.

“Do not be stupid.”

Naruto had to grin. He knew Gaara would have noticed as well. “Do you know which gate?”

“Two from Gate Seven, one from Ten. The single one is likely to meet up with the two.”

“That’s what I figured too. That’ll take us maybe an hour or two. Three at the most. What then?”

“We stalk people.” Gaara’s voice was matter-of-fact.

“Must it be him?” Naruto whined. “There are others who probably need the help more.”

Gaara glared at him. “You were the one who made the promise. I was merely dragged into it. In any case, we can send bunshins to stalk him so we do not have to do it ourselves.”

“Okay, okay.” Naruto hopped down from his perch, grinning. It was nice to be on the same wavelength as Gaara almost all the time. “Let’s go, then. Lots of killing to do and all.”

It took them a while to track down the shinobi who had smelled of Orochimaru. They were wearing Cloud hitai-ate, and Naruto spared a moment to feel regret for the original owners, who were probably dead. Cloud was unlucky this year, losing their entire team of jounin examinees. Sound nin had been trained by Orochimaru to be cruel and merciless.

They found their targets a moment too late, however, even for all their speed. The Sound nin must have gone straight after Sasuke, and had found him quicker, since their gates had been closer – Naruto’s had been Twelve, Gaara’s Fourteen. Naruto suppressed a curse as he stopped beside Gaara, standing on a large branch overlooking a large clearing.

Beneath them were the three Sound nin, facing Sasuke and Sakura. The girl must have headed straight for Sasuke as well; she had been at the gate just one up from his, so it would have been pretty easy.

He was surprised to feel a little wistful ache in his chest. In the past he would have been down there with them, glaring down the Sound nin with a confidence that would embarrass his teammates. His surprise turned to anger at himself – he had sworn to himself that he wouldn’t ever want Sasuke’s or Sakura’s friendships again, hadn’t he? Yet it still seemed that some part of him couldn’t let go of the two Konoha shinobi below.

One of the Sound nins was speaking. “…contact you, since all your mail is monitored and you are constantly watched. Orochimaru-sama apologizes for the delay.”

“Delay? It’s been five fucking years!” Sasuke snarled.

The Sound nin looked like he wanted to snarl something back, but held his tongue with difficulty. He bowed again. “Yes, Sasuke-sama. However, aside from the difficulty in communicating with you. Orochimaru-sama also felt that the wait would do you good.”

“What the hell good would that be?”

“Konoha suffocates you, does it not?” The Sound nin smiled thinly. “You are watched, treated like a traitor, despised. Orochimaru-sama wished for you to understand fully that Konoha is not the place for you. He wanted to you accept your rightful place by his side without any lingering attachments to this place.”

“We don’t treat him like a traitor!” Sakura finally couldn’t take it anymore. “He has friends here! We don’t care what he did before, we just accept him for who he is now – don’t you dare belittle that!”

The look the Sound nin gave her was one of disdain. “You do not understand Sasuke-sama,” he said dismissively. “You are not worthy of him. He deserves more than your little friendships. He deserves more than being caged, as Konoha does to him.”

“He’s not caged, you bastard, he’s just monitored – and that’s expected, because of what he did. But it won’t last forever, and he’s not restricted in any way!”

“Are you blind, little girl?” The Sound nin sneered at Sakura. “He is restricted in the most important area – his power. And if he cannot grow, how can he get his revenge?”

“Sasuke isn’t –”

Enough.” Sasuke sounded extremely impatient. “This is a waste of time. So you’ve come to bring me to Orochimaru, then?”

Both he and the Sound nins ignored Sakura’s horrified whisper of “Sasuke-kun…!” The Sound nin bowed. “Yes, Sasuke-sama. Many of the Konoha jounin who might be a problem are examiners; they will be occupied in watching the third part of the exam. We will make our escape then, in order to meet less resistance. We will each put our handprints on your scroll to ensure that you will pass, and with the girl’s handprint, you only need one more.”

“And you?”

“We will use the girl’s, and find others. Do not worry about us, Sasuke-sama, we are more than a match for most jounin hopefuls.”

Nothing showed on Sasuke’s face as he said, “And Sakura?”

“She will be disposed of,” was the prompt reply. “She has heard too much. If you wish, we will take care of her for you so you do not need to dirty your hands.”

Sakura was pale from all that she had heard, but even so she was well trained – she immediately went into battle stance. Not that it would help her much, Naruto noted – he could smell the level of power of each of the Sound nin, and Sakura’s power, and he knew that if all three of them attacked her she would put up a good fight, but stand no chance of winning.

Sasuke watched her for a moment, and then turned to stare thoughtfully at the Sound nin. He didn’t say anything.

“Sasuke-kun…” Sakura’s voice was soft, but steady. “I believe in you.”

And then she attacked.

Naruto and Gaara had to leap backwards as she slammed her fist into the ground, and while Gaara just looked on stoically from their new perch, Naruto felt his jaw drop to his feet at the huge furrows of broken ground that shot out from where Sakura’s fist was. My god, she’s become a younger baa-chan! he thought in amazement. There goes any chance of her becoming more feminine.

The Sound nin and Sasuke had leapt backwards, as well. Sasuke was now standing on a branch, visible from the clearing – not bothering to conceal himself, but simply watching. The Sound nin were nowhere to be seen, however.

Sakura straightened, closing her eyes. Then she shot forward just as a volley of shuriken shot out towards where she had been; she threw herself at one of the trees and punched it – or something that was in front of it. There was a scream, and a Sound nin appeared to the right of the tree, staggering, clutching his arm – it dangled, probably broken.

Naruto made to move forward – best to intervene before the Sound nin really started attacking, and they would do their best to cause maximum damage now that Sakura had actually wounded one of them. But Gaara’s hand grabbing his stopped him. He turned to stare incredulously at Gaara.

Gaara looked steadily back, but there was a little anger in there, too – anger at who? At what? Naruto wasn’t sure, but right now he didn’t really care. He blinked when he heard Gaara’s voice in his head – when had Gaara activated the mind-speaking jutsu? We cannot intervene yet.

Sakura’s going to get hurt!

We need to see where Uchiha’s loyalty lies. If a fatal injury is about to be dealt and he does not move, then we will step in and take it that he is Orochimaru’s now. But until then, we must only watch. Gaara’s grip tightened. You know it is the only way.

You’re just going to stand here and –

Do you think it makes me happy to watch a girl get hurt? Gaara was definitely angry now. And you – you profess anger towards Haruno, but here you are losing all rational thought at the first sign of her in danger!

That made Naruto blink. He could only gape at Gaara.

Green eyes were glittering, and hard. You know what you have to do. And then Gaara let go, cutting their connection off abruptly. He turned away from Naruto to watch over the scene below, face an expressionless mask, arms crossed.

Naruto slowly turned to watch, as well, but while his eyes tracked the movements of the battle beneath him, his mind was busy trying to make sense of his own emotions. He did feel betrayed by Sakura, by Sasuke, by Kakashi – they had really hurt him, in their judgement of him, their dismissal of him. And he did hate them for that, just a little. But he still longed for their acceptance, that much he had admitted to himself long ago. He still longed for the ideal relationship he’d envisioned, when he’d first gotten a team – friends, teammates he could count on, a sensei he could admire, who would be like a father, a mentor.

What he wasn’t prepared for, Naruto realized, was how strong that longing still was.

He couldn’t forgive them, not really – but he wished he could. He wished he didn’t have to make the choice.

Damn.

Next to him, Gaara stiffened. Naruto tuned back into reality, and his mind finally registered what his eyes were seeing – Sakura, pinned to the ground by a heavy branch.

And a shower of shuriken, heading right towards her face.

Naruto was already starting forward, Gaara’s hands raising to direct his sand – when they both froze, mid-movement. A huge rush of relief swamped Naruto, and – he had to admit – a good part of it was also joy. Naruto almost overbalanced, overwhelmed, but sand caught him around the waist and pulled him back safely on the branch.

Sasuke was standing in front of Sakura, metal blades spinning. It looked like the four-bladed thing that he and Naruto had used during the fight with Zabuza; Sasuke had used it as a whirring shield, deflecting all the shuriken.

With the swish of displaced wind, the three Sound shinobi appeared in the clearing before Sasuke. Their spokesperson had his eyes narrowed. “Sasuke-sama,” he said. “What do you mean by this? If we are to successfully convey you to Orochimaru-sama, the girl must die.”

Sasuke let the blades whirl to a stop, but held them in his hand, almost casually. “You know,” he said conversationally, “the Hokage let me see some interesting scrolls. About the techniques Orochimaru worked on, and their effects. And I really don’t think I want to let him have my body as some sort of useful shell.”

The Sound nin stiffened. “Orochimaru-sama intends to use your body, yes,” he said after a pause. “But with his power and yours, your brother will not stand as chance. You want to defeat your brother at all costs, right? It will be your body, and your mind will still be there – you will be able to savour every bit of your revenge. It is the only way you can get enough power to defeat Uchiha Itachi.”

“That’s what I used to believe,” Sasuke said, and the lightness was gone. “I used to be scared that I couldn’t be strong enough. That’s why I turned to Orochimaru when he gave me his offer. It was an easy way out – the power was guaranteed to me. But you know… I’ve had time to think. And I want to defeat my brother by myself. With my own power, because otherwise I won’t have surpassed him on my own merit.” His smile was humourless, and a little self-mocking, a little bitter, as he added, “Oddly enough it’s the people I used to despise who taught me that.”

“You would listen to the preaching of weaklings?”

“They taught me through their actions,” Sasuke replied. “And if I turn to Orochimaru for power, I will be less than they are. And I refuse to be less than the likes of that muscle-bound idiot Lee, or the Hyuuga, or…” he paused, and then smirked. “Forget it. It doesn’t matter.”

The Sound nin smiled coldly. “You are right, it doesn’t matter. But what doesn’t matter is whether you agree to come or not. Our orders are clear – we will take you with us whether you are willing or otherwise, and to eliminate any obstacles. The girl will die, and you will next awake in Orochimaru-sama’s stronghold!”

They leapt forward. Sasuke stood his ground, ignoring Sakura’s screams of ‘Let me out of here, damn it!’ and readied himself for an attack –

– which never came.

The battle cries of the Sound nin petered out as they looked down at themselves. Sakura’s screaming stopped. Sasuke stared. Naruto whipped around to stare at Gaara, who had his arms held out before him.

Sabaku Kyuu.” His voice echoed clearly through the silent clearing. The eyes of everyone in the clearing widened – they knew what was coming. The Sound nins’ mouths opened, presumably to scream, but too late. Naruto whipped out a scroll and hastily looked for the object he wanted to summon.

Sabaku Sousou.

It rained blood.

Naruto triumphantly materialized the umbrella with a white puff of smoke. He opened it just in time to shield himself and Gaara from the splatters – they hadn’t brought much clothing, and he did not want to waste time scrubbing out bloodstains during the exam.

When the shower of blood stopped, Naruto sealed the umbrella back into the scroll – it was the one he used whenever Gaara did his Desert Coffin-Funeral combo, so he didn’t bother to clean it as it was completely covered with old bloodstains already – and said, “That was anticlimactic.”

Gaara shot him an annoyed look.

“Well, it was!”

“My techniques,” Gaara said coldly, “are never anticlimactic.”

Naruto grinned; Gaara was so cute! He was like a cat, all affronted pride and injured dignity. “I’m not saying your technique is anticlimactic, I’m just saying that it was an anticlimactic end to the battle.”

“That is the same thing.”

“No it isn’t!”

“Uh…” Sakura’s voice, filtering up through the branches, was a little shell-shocked (probably due to being bathed in blood) but slowly gaining back equilibrium. “Gaara-san and Kitsune-san?”

“Yes?”

“Thanks for the help.”

“No problem.”

“Now, not to be rude or anything, but will someone get me out from under this damn tree!

Gaara gestured. Some sand from the ground obediently rose, and lifted the branch. Sakura scrambled out. The sand dropped the branch again, and returned to its inert state.

“Thanks.” Sakura squinted into the trees. “Um, is there any reason why you don’t want to come down?”

Naruto peered through the leaves. “Well, the look on Uchiha’s face is one reason.”

It was true: Sasuke looked murderous. “I could have handled it,” he said through gritted teeth. “You didn’t have to interfere!”

Geez. He really, really hadn’t changed personality-wise. But he’d finally done the right thing after so many years, so that cut him a lot of slack. Still, Naruto wasn’t going to take it lying down. “You’re welcome,” he called sarcastically. “It was such a pleasure helping you, really it was.”

“Helping us? You just crushed them into sand! I thought you used to at least leave bodies?”

“Sasuke-kun, you really shouldn’t talk to the Kazekage like that,” Sakura began.

“We could have gotten three handprints,” Sasuke snapped, cutting them off. “Now we –”

There were three thuds.

Sakura turned green, and Sasuke had to shut himself up at the sight of three severed hands on the ground. Naruto broke into a grin, and turned to Gaara. “Man, you think of everything,” he said admiringly. “I didn’t know your control over the Sousou was so good!”

Gaara’s look clearly said, Of course.

They finally left their perch and landed lightly in the clearing as Sasuke and Sakura got out their scrolls. Sakura winced a little as she picked up one hand, while Sasuke had no expression as he grabbed the other. They found a little convenient pool of blood, put the hands in, and then stamped the handprints on their scrolls.

Naruto had to fight back a hysterical laugh; it was like some X-rated grown-up version of potato-stamping in kindergarten. Are those flower-shapes that you’re cutting, Sakura-chan? No, sensei, these are severed hands.

It wasn’t so funny when it came to his turn, though. Naruto grimaced as he took the severed stump of wrist from Sakura. This was a whole new twist on asking for someone’s hand.

Soon enough they were done. In order to prevent anyone else using the hands for their own scrolls, Gaara did a mini-Sousou, and crushed them as well. Then, task completed and scrolls tucked away, the four of them stood in the blood-splattered clearing, staring at one another.

“Well… thank you, Gaara-san. Again,” said Sakura awkwardly. “And Kitsune-san, too.”

“What for? He didn’t do anything,” Sasuke said darkly.

It seemed that no matter how, where, or who Naruto was (or was pretending to be), Sasuke would always see him as an enemy. It was almost as if he had some Naruto Radar that let him know when to be a bastard. “You know, most people would refrain from repeatedly insulting one of the most well-known assassins in the world,” Naruto pointed out, irritated.

Fire sparked in Sasuke’s eyes. “If you want a fight, I’ll gladly play along,” he said challengingly.

“We just saved your asses, I’m not about to waste Gaara’s efforts by killing you,” Naruto snapped.

Sasuke bristled. “I think you’ll find that killing me isn’t as easy as you thought!”

Sakura was looking back and forth between them, an odd expression on her face. “You know,” she interjected, “I almost feel like I’m back in the past again, watching Sasuke-kun and Naruto fight.”

Naruto’s jaw shut with a clack, and he was once again grateful for the mask that hid his ‘Oh Shit’ expression. He didn’t dare look at Gaara, but he could feel unhappiness radiating from his friend – Gaara had warned him time and again to be careful about hiding who he was around his friends. He’d said that they were more perceptive than Naruto gave them credit for.

“Don’t mention that name in front of me,” Sasuke snarled, not noticing anything amiss.

Luckily, that distracted Sakura. “Will you just get over it already?” she snapped back. “It’s mostly our faults that Naruto left! Don’t act like you were the only injured party!”

What? Naruto could only watch, stunned, as for the first time before his eyes Sakura faced Sasuke down. Over him, Naruto.

“As if you have the right to –” Sasuke broke off, startling Naruto out of his thoughts as he followed narrowed black eyes to see Gaara walking off. “Where are you going?”

Gaara ignored him.

“Sasuke-kun,” Sakura said, fighting to keep her voice level and succeeding, “Gaara-san doesn’t answer to us. He has his own exam to complete.”

And so did he, Naruto remembered. He grimaced – why was it that when it came to his former teammates, he kept getting thrown off his game? He gave Sakura a quick bow, drawing their attention to him. “I need to be going too,” he said hastily. “See you guys around.”

He had to run to catch up with Gaara, who was by then leaping through the trees. He managed to draw level with them, and realized that – once again – Gaara was ignoring him, upset about something. He hated this feeling of distance, and felt real worry creep over him. Was Gaara finally getting tired of him or something? Did Gaara want him to remain in Konoha, and not go back to Suna with him?

“Gaara,” he said quietly. “Please tell me what’s wrong.”

His anxiety and sincerity must have gotten through, because Gaara slowed, and then stopped. Naruto followed suit, clinging to a branch facing Gaara’s. Those beautiful green eyes looked at him for a long moment, inscrutable.

Then Gaara gave a tiny sigh. “I cannot say,” he said, tiny changes in his expression telling Naruto he was troubled. “I do not fully understand it myself – but what I do know is that I must not say anything. This is something that you have to figure out yourself, Naruto.”

Damn. He really wasn’t good at this stuff. He gave Gaara a pleading look.

The corners of Gaara’s mouth turned up in that small smile that Naruto loved, because it only came out when they were alone – but this time, there was sadness around the edges. Naruto didn’t like that at all. “Figure it out yourself,” Gaara said again.

Naruto sighed.

Gaara looked towards the tower at the centre of the forest. When he spoke again, it was all business, the Kazekage at his most powerful. “We should set our plans in motion. First, the bunshins; then we need to seek out those we want handprints from. Remember, I do not wish to skew the results of this exam any more than necessary.”

“I know, I know. No helping people I like, only intervene when lives are in danger, blah blah.” Naruto made a face. “Your Kazekage’s position takes away all the fun, you know.”

A hand of sand smacked him on the ankle, causing him to yelp. “Bunshins,” Gaara reminded him.

“Yeah, yeah.” Naruto raised his hands and performed the seals as Gaara did. Five bunshins of each man appeared.

“Oh, um…” Naruto remembered that he needed to let Gaara know Lee and Hinata knew about him, and winced. Gaara was not going to be happy. “Hinata-chan and Lee kind of… know.”

To his surprise, Gaara merely nodded. “I expected as much.”

Naruto sputtered. “What? Why?”

“The two of them hold you in high esteem, and are loyal to you. You would have let your guard down around them.” There was a hint of amusement in his eyes. “For all your training as Kitsune, you are remarkably weak at hiding yourself around people you know.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Naruto grumbled. “So I’m not used to lying and hiding around my friends.”

Gaara’s gaze softened. “That is a part of you,” he said simply. “It is a good thing.” Then, when Naruto was scrambling for something to say that wasn’t I love you, Gaara turned businesslike. “Naruto, your clones will tail the Uchiha, Haruno, Akimichi Chouji, Lee and the female Hyuuga. Mine will follow the other Hyuuga, his female teammate, the Aburame, the Inuzuka, and my own shinobi – we met him earlier.”

“Sure.” Naruto watched as the bunshins sped off, and came to a belated realization. “Oh, hey – you want more bunshins to follow the other two Suna nins? It’s not very fair that we’re only going to watch over the Konoha ones.”

“No, my other two nins are more than capable of looking after themselves, and they will have found each other by now. Nagasaki is the one I am worried about, for he will seek out dangerous opponents instead of his fellow shinobi for help.” A brief smile. “He is much like you and the Uchiha.”

“I am not…!” Naruto trailed off, and then grouchily said, “Okay, so maybe we’re a little alike.”

Gaara chose not to comment, but there was a smugness to his tone as he said, “We should not seek out the last two handprints until the last moment, when teams are already heading to the tower. Accordingly, we should find somewhere to settle around the perimeter of the tower and prepare ourselves.”

Naruto understood the reasoning behind Gaara’s plan – whoever they went after was bound to lose, and since Gaara refused to kill anyone else (the Sound nins were an exception, since they weren’t real jounin candidates), that meant that their victims would have used up their one allocated handprint and would be desperate not to lose again. Which meant that they would fight with everything they had, the next time they met someone, which increased the chances of someone dying. To avoid that, Naruto and Gaara would hold back until those who were going to be out were out, and then head after them.

And other than that, there was still… “Gaara. We haven’t heard the last from Orochimaru, have we?”

“No, Orochimaru will not be set back so easily. He likely cannot do anything further during this part of the exam, but during the third test, when so many foreign shinobi will come to Konoha to watch the battles… that is when he has the best chance to strike.”

“And there’s still Akatsuki to deal with. We had a general idea about what Orochimaru’s going to try, but we still haven’t the faintest idea about the Akatsuki side. We don’t know what they want, except the bijuu – and that’s only a means to an end. And that end may have something to do with Konoha, from what we’ve heard.”

“Yes.” Gaara stared moodily into the distance. “Furthermore, we have that promise of yours to carry out.”

Naruto grimaced. “I had no choice –”

“I know. I simply meant that it is yet another item on our agenda.”

“Hmph.” Naruto didn’t say anything for a while. Then: “I have this really bad feeling, Gaara. Something very big is going to happen, and soon.”

“I have had the same feeling for a while, too. There is nothing we can do now, however, but watch. And wait.”

“Which is all we seem to be doing, nowadays.”

“One of the disadvantages of being powerful and responsible.”

“Yeah. Damn.”

Chapter Text

You cannot play at chess if you are kind-hearted.

-- French proverb

 


 

“Okay, so… Lee’s in, and Sasuke’s in. Sakura’s out, though.”

“I would have thought Haruno would stick to Uchiha? The opponents he defeated would be hers as well. Furthermore, she already had three prints.”

“No, she and Sasuke split not long after we let them. Apparently they both needed time alone.”

Gaara blinked. “How… very like a feuding couple.”

“Yeah, isn’t it?” Naruto’s grin was brief, and faded quickly. He still hadn’t resolved his feelings towards his teammates, and if he could help it he wasn’t going to until he really had to. “Anyway, Lee’s in, too. And Chouji and Sakura fought your Suna nins, so that’s how I know that one of your pair is out, but the other’s probably in. They were honourable, they only fought one on one, and they didn’t make their opponents fight them one after the other, even if they could have won that way.”

“Of course. I interviewed them personally before allowing them to take the exam. The position of jounin is too important for me to permit any irresponsible shinobi to hold it.”

“Interviews? Really?” Naruto frowned. “I don’t remember you having interviews.”

“You were hunting down that Waterfall S-Class nin, if I recall.”

“Oh, the one right before I went to meet Danzo.” Naruto made a face at the memory. “Right, so where were we?”

“Uchiha, Lee, one of my Suna pair.”

“Yeah, them, and also that Grass nin who talked too much, what was his name, Yuki? I think that’s it.” He scowled. “Hinata-chan’s second handprint was his fifth. I just hope the idiot got himself defeated twice or more. Oh, and this one Mist guy with the crazy tattoos, and the Rock guy who smells like smoke. That’s it for me, I think.”

“For my part, as we have expected, the male Hyuuga is in, as is the Aburame.”

“Shino? Whoa. Didn’t know he was that strong.”

“His bloodline limit is unique, and many do not expect it.”

“Yeah, that’s for sure. Okay, continue.”

“Nagasaki is also in. There is one other Mist nin who defeated both the Inuzuka and the weapons girl. She is strong and vicious, and I believe she will have gathered enough prints.”

“A girl?” Naruto whistled. “And from Mist, too… Mist nin are scary. Who else?”

“Going by a battle my bunshin witnessed, very likely there will also be another Grass nin, the one with no hair. There may be others who did not cross paths with any of those our bunshins were watching, but these few are likely all in.”

“So… Sasuke, Lee, Neji, Shino, two Suna nins, two Mist nins, one Grass, one Rock.” Naruto counted them off his fingers. “Okay, we avoid these people and head for the others, then. I happen to know of a couple of Rock who’ve been going around in a pair, we can take them on together to save them and get that last two prints.”

Gaara frowned. “If they were fighting in a pair, I would have expected them to win more often than not, since most of the other competitors are alone.”

“Well, yeah… but they were the first pair that Sasuke met after he and Sakura split, and he was in a foul mood. He trashed them without mercy.” Naruto grinned. “Then, of all the luck, they ran into your two shinobi, so they didn’t have their pair advantage and your nins won pretty easily. You know, if they were less honourable and fought everyone else together, those two would have sailed through this exam. It’s like they’re one mind in two bodies.”

“Fujiwara and Hidaka are childhood friends.” A small, pleased smile passed Gaara’s lips briefly. “They bring out the best in each other. However, they need to work on their individual skills – when I approved their application, I reminded them that there will come a day when they will face opponents on their own.”

“So that’s why they decided to try working individually this time,” Naruto said in realization.

“Yes, that is part of the reason.”

“Right.” Naruto got to his feet and stretched. “Let’s go find that Rock pair, they’ll be an easy win, and then head to the tower.”

The Rock pair was hiding, not surprisingly. Most of those who had lost were hiding, recovering from their wounds. Naruto and Gaara followed the scent of their power to a rocky stream, dotted with large boulders. They looked around.

“There,” Naruto said at last.

“There as well.” Gaara nodded to yet another large boulder.

“Right in the middle of the water.”

They both sighed.

Hey, brat. Let me have this one, I need the exercise.

What exercise? I just sparred with you yesterday! And a day before that!

You call that exercise? You set so many limits that I might as well have been sleeping!

Well excuse me for not wanting to let the whole village know that you’re here!

There was an annoyed growl. I know the need for secrecy, brat. Your puny intelligence can’t compare to mine.

Then why are you even asking?

Those two are Rock nins, and there are no human presences anywhere near. No one will recognize me. Come on, brat, even you have to see how perfect this set-up is. I can pop out, fight them, and pop back in with no one the wiser.

Naruto sighed, and turned to Gaara. “Hey… Gaara?” The Kazekage’s eyes were unfocused – talking to Shukaku, most like. “Gaara!”

Gaara blinked, returning to reality. When he saw Naruto’s expression, he said, “The fox, too?”

“He makes a pretty good argument,” Naruto admitted.

“Shukaku is also being rather insistent.” Gaara bit his lip in thought, and Naruto bit back a whimper at the sight. “I think we can allow them this fight.”

“Uh… yeah. Sure.” Naruto forced himself to turn away from Gaara’s sexy little look of concentration as he began the seals to create the special bunshins that they needed: completely empty bunshins, without minds so that the demons could occupy them, and without form so that they would take on the characteristics of the demons’ own human forms – apparently each of the bijuu had one, aside from their animal forms.

His fingers completed the last familiar seal. Two mini-explosions of smoke later, Kyuubi and Shukaku were standing next to their hosts, happily stretching. “Remember, nothing too huge, and definitely no turning into your demon forms,” Naruto warned. “And no killing, okay?”

Kyuubi gave him a disdainful look – and he could do disdainful really well, with his upturned eyes and fox-sharp face. He was the tallest among the four of them, with a lean, flexible body and long red hair to match his eyes. Naruto had always thought that, if given girly clothes (and a fake chest), Kyuubi would make a damn hot geisha, if a delinquent-looking one.

Of course, that time that he had accidentally let the thought slip, Kyuubi had howled in his head for the next few nights, keeping him from sleeping. His eye-bags during that time could have rivalled Gaara’s.

“Don’t treat us like idiots, brat,” Kyuubi snapped. “We’ve lived centuries longer than you, we know what we should do.” In one quick, fluid movement, he was wrapped around Shukaku, nuzzling the other demon’s head. “Don’t mind my brat, Shukaku. He’s stupid, you know how humans are.”

Naruto eyed Shukaku warily. The racoon demon’s golden eyes were glaring murderously at him – his default look. When Naruto had first seen Shukaku’s human form, he’d known immediately where most of Gaara’s past bloodlust had originated. With his spiky black-and-yellow hair and shorter height, Shukaku would look just like any other guy on the streets (and he would be the bad boy type that girls liked, too) if not for the deadly hunger in his eyes.

“He’s looking down on me,” Shukaku growled, still glaring at Naruto even as Kyuubi slipped a hand into the fold of his robe – the demons always appeared in simple, old-fashioned robes. Naruto was used to the clothing by now, but what he would never get used to was the idea of two of the bijuu, great big murderous demons that they are, doing… things… together. It boggled the mind.

“Shukaku,” Gaara said quietly, stepping forward, drawing the demon’s attention. Golden eyes looked towards him. “Naruto did not mean it that way. He was merely worried that you would get caught.”

The demon regarded Gaara for a moment. No one really understood why, but Shukaku seemed to have a soft spot for Gaara, all his attempts at eating the boy’s sanity notwithstanding – just like Kyuubi was unusually tolerant of Naruto’s impertinence. Then he turned in Kyuubi’s embrace and nipped the other demon’s neck with too-sharp teeth, before sliding easily out of his arms. “Let’s go,” he said without looking at any of them, heading towards one of the boulders where the Rock nins were hiding. “Blood now, sex later.”

Naruto shuddered, and Gaara winced. Kyuubi, however, grinned, showing pointed teeth. “Sounds good,” he fairly purred, and in a blur of superhuman speed leapt at the other boulder. He landed on all fours on top of the rock, and with a careless swipe of his hand – claws stronger than any stone and any metal extended – scored four deep scratches in the rock. “Come out, little shinobi! Come and play!”

The rock exploded, but Kyuubi had already leapt safely out of the way. The fox grinned at the Rock nin standing there, ready to do battle. If he was in his demon form, Naruto was pretty sure all nine tails would be waving happily.

Just upstream, Shukaku was prowling around the other large rock, eyes intent. Then he snarled. The rock dissolved into sand that streamed towards Shukaku, hovering around him in the air, while the exposed Rock nin hurriedly jumped backwards, startled, but he quickly found his balance. He glanced at Naruto and Gaara, standing on the banks, watching.

“They will not interfere.” Shukaku’s lips pulled back in a snarl. “Your battle is with me!”

Kyuubi had once told Naruto that just as the demons affected their hosts, so did their hosts affect the demons – with their humanity. The bijuu, Kyuubi had said, were pure in intent – they did not kill for the joy of killing, but out of necessity, as a means to an end, like eating. They enjoyed a good battle, but not killing. So when a demon was sealed in a Jinchuuriki, that purity would be corrupted by human emotion, by human greed; the demons would be driven half-mad. It was why Kyuubi had been so insane with the urge to kill, inside Naruto; it was why Shukaku had been crazy with glee in killing. It was not a demon’s true nature, to revel in senseless slaughter for its sake.

It made an odd kind of sense, and Naruto had thought about it for a long while. Then he had discussed it with Gaara. It was what had led to the two of them working on the jutsus that had resulted in the empty bunshins for the demons’ use. Now, so long as they periodically let the bijuu out, keeping their minds separate, neither side would be driven mad by the other anymore. Their chakra was still linked, of course, and the demons were still trapped, since the bunshins could not last long with the demons inside them, but it was enough.

Gaara could think straight now, for one. He could sleep again. Naruto found himself smiling as he remembered watching over the Gaara that had slowly emerged from the wreckage that had been Gaara-and-Shukaku. Helping Gaara adjust to being himself again, being with him as he learned the new reaches of his power now that it wasn’t all tangled and confused – it had been a healing time, both for Gaara and himself. He’d been wanted and needed so completely, for the first time in his life.

Once, Gaara had said to him, You keep saving me, time and again, and I will never be able to repay such a debt. But really, Naruto felt that the one who had been saved was himself. When he had left Konoha, he had been hurting emotionally and mentally; when Gaara had brought him bodily back to Suna, he had been dying, physically.

It was Gaara who had healed him inside and out.

“I did not realize that watching people getting beaten up by bloodthirsty demons made you so happy, Naruto.”

Naruto blinked. Then he realized that he was smiling dreamily at the sight of the Rock nins, tattered and bleeding, being toyed with by evilly grinning demons. He coughed. “Just… lost in memories,” he said lamely, not looking at Gaara. He knew that the moment he did, he would start blushing.

“Oops.”

Oops? Naruto looked up and stared at the screaming shinobi flying towards him. Before he could react, a wall of sand sprang up before him, reared back, and batted the shinobi back towards Kyuubi like it was playing ping-pong, with a human ball.

“Thanks!” Kyuubi called, catching the shinobi effortlessly. Then he frowned. “Damn, he’s unconscious.” He dumped them man unceremoniously on the rock he was on. “Shukaku! Are you done yet?”

The other demon looked up from where he was bouncing his victim up and down on a trampoline of sand. “Oh,” he said, and the sand formed a cocoon around the shinobi mid-air. It carried him over to a patch of empty ground and dropped him, knocking him out. “Yes, I am.”

Kyuubi leered. “Good.” He looked over at Naruto. “We’ll pop back into you guys when our bunshins start disintegrating, so head over to the tower first.”

“Will do.” Naruto was talking to empty air, however; Kyuubi had already vanished into the forest on the other side of the river, along with Shukaku. He sighed. Who would have thought that demons would be so horny?

He went to retrieve the unconscious man on the rock, while Gaara crouched down next to the one on the ground. When Naruto returned, the man slung over his shoulder, Gaara had already sliced a shallow cut on his guy’s palm, smearing the blood over the rest of his hand. In short order they were done, and five bloody handprints were on their scrolls.

“That was easy,” Naruto remarked. “Really, this whole week’s been a waste of time.”

“You knew that this exam would be extremely easy for you,” Gaara pointed out.

“Yeah, but not this boring!”

Gaara gave him a Look. “Do not complain.” He raised his eyes to the sky, and a small frown appeared. “We should start making our way to the tower, if we do not want to arrive there out of breath.”

Naruto looked at the sun’s position, and nodded. “Let’s go.” He grinned suddenly. “I can’t wait to find out who I’ll be fighting.”

 


 

Tick.

One minute left to six o’clock.

Tick.

Fifty-nine seconds.

Tick.

As the second hand began its final circle around the clock face, Shikamaru looked around the large hall again, with the statue of the poised hands at one end. Genma stood before it, looking impatient. Above them, in the galleries, were a scattering of shinobi who had failed but had been in good enough shape to make it to the tower, in order to see who had passed.

Standing or sitting on the main floor were those lucky few in question. Neji and Sasuke were there, both standing – Neji with his arms crossed, Sasuke slouching with his hands in his pockets. Shikamaru snorted to himself: they were obviously tired, but to keep up appearances they would rather stand even if it killed them. Shikamaru had never seen the point in creating trouble for yourself, but that was Neji and Sasuke in a nutshell.

There was only one other Mist nin (with a riot of tattoos) standing; almost everyone else was sitting on the ground. There were two Suna nins, talking quietly together. Lee was sitting with Shino, but they weren’t talking – at least, Lee was talking happily at Shino, who was ignoring him. Another female Mist nin was sprawled on her back, apparently napping; a bald Grass nin was meditating. One final Rock nin was being tended to by medics. He was by far the worst off, but the others weren’t unscathed, either – even the best of them looked tired, and had superficial wounds.

Shikamaru’s gaze rose to the galleries. All the Konoha nin who had failed were there. His gaze rested on Hinata – she had been weirdly intent on the open entrance to the hall ever since she had arrived, taken a good look around, and apparently not finding who she was looking for.

Actually, almost everyone there was gazing at the entrance as well. There were a lot of doors that opened into the Tower, but they all led to the central hall, and there was only one entrance to the hall, at the end opposite the hand statutes. And the thought that Shikamaru knew was running through everyone’s minds was – they can’t possibly have failed… can they?

Shikamaru looked at the clock. Twenty seconds.

Tick.

Akamaru’s whine echoed through the hall; Kiba suddenly sat up straight as his dog strained its ears towards the entrance. A murmur ran through the crowd; bodies shifted. The bald Grass nin stirred from his meditation, opening his eyes. The lone kunoichi on the ground sat up.

Tick.

Then they all heard it. Footsteps, growing louder. But – only one pair of footsteps? Looks were exchanged all around. Even Shikamaru frowned, puzzled.

Tick.

Agonizingly slow, long seconds passed. Shikamaru counted down silently under his breath.

Five.

Four.

Three.

Two –

Kitsune and the Kazekage swept into the hall, and the reason for the sound of only one pair of footsteps became abruptly clear: they were walking so in sync that the sound of their steps had coalesced into one heavy tread.

One.

The clock boomed the hour. The pair halted, waiting, completely unharmed and with no trace of weariness in sight. Gaara crossed his arms in his usual manner, cool and unruffled; Kitsune stood beside him, hands loose by his side, confident.

Genma waited for the rumble of the clock to fade. Then he took the senbon out of his mouth. “Well,” he said irritably, “it’s about fucking time.”

A laugh ran through the hall as those sitting on the ground got to their feet. The medics packed their kits and quietly left.

“The second exam has officially ended. You will have submitted your scrolls when you first entered the tower; your scrolls are undergoing a final check right now, but we’ll proceed on the assumption that there are no problems. Congratulations to the… twelve of you who passed.” Genma sounded anything but congratulatory. “It was a difficult week, but you’re now one step closer to being a jounin.

“See the screen up on the wall? When your scrolls have passed inspection, your names will be entered into a database. We will randomly pair you up for the third part of the tournament, which as you’ve probably guessed is a battle tournament. However, we won’t be following the typical elimination style. Rather, after the first round, we will have a second randomly paired round so that each of you will have a fair chance to show off your skills. Unlike the first round, you’ll only know who you’re fighting right before the battle starts, to see how you do without time to thoroughly research your opponent.

“Now. As you know, the judges comprise of the Hokage and any other Kages who are available at the time of the exam. Usually, when the exams are held in Konoha, there’s only the Kazekage, since Wind country’s the closest and it’s more difficult for the other Kages to travel here. However, since this time the Kazekage is actually in the exam, as well as… other renowned personalities, it seems that anyone who’s anyone in the shinobi world is turning up.”

Genma paused here to look down at the twelve faces turned to him. Then he split into a grin of sadistic glee. “Gentlemen – and lady – I am pleased to say that you have the dubious honour of being the first group of jounin hopefuls in history to be judged by no less than four Kages – the Tsuchikage of Hidden Rock, the Mizukage of Hidden Mist, the Raikage of Hidden Cloud, and of course, the Hokage of Hidden Leaf. All three visiting Kages have travelled far to be here, so you’d better put up a good performance or risk embarrassing yourselves, got that?”

Shikamaru was watching the pair at the back of the small gathering. He noticed the way they stiffened almost imperceptibly; the way their reaction said Not Good before they controlled themselves again. He wasn’t sure anyone else noticed – he had been watching them closely, and he knew that his skill in reading people and interpreting their actions correctly was unusually high.

Raido appeared in a whirl of smoke next to Genma. He tapped the other jounin on the shoulder and nodded once when Genma turned to look at him.

“Okay, boys and girls,” Genma said cheerfully, looking back at the waiting crowd. “Time to face your fate!” He nodded to the screen. “The first pair will be…”

The screens came to life. Digitally rendered names flashed past in green – and then, first one name appeared, and then the other. One after another the pairs were matched, and announced by Genma.

Shikamaru considered each pair thoughtfully. From what he’d heard, Saki of the Mist was more vicious than her other Mist colleagues, which was saying something – Shino would have a hard time against her, but his calculating nature would give him more of an advantage than if, say, someone straightforward like Lee had been her opponent. Neji, on the other hand, was more than a match for Akira of the Grass. Satori of the Rock against Nagasaki of the Sand – Shikamaru didn’t have much of an opinion on that one, since he didn’t know either shinobi that well.

Kitsune against Ume of the Mist was going to be interesting; while Ume didn’t have the reputation for viciousness that Saki did, he was definitely more powerful than she was, and any fighter trained with the brutal methods of the Mist was bound to be more merciless and cruel than an ordinary shinobi. Tsuki of the Sand against his own Kazekage was also bound to be interesting, but in a different way – Shikamaru was interested in the psychological aspects; how would Tsuki deal with having to fight his own leader?

And Lee against Sasuke – in a way, it was like Naruto against Neji all over again. The ones who were looked down on, against the elite. Lee had come a long way, though, and Shikamaru thought that he even had a decent chance of winning – as long as he didn’t let himself get trapped in one of the Sharingan’s genjutsus.

Movement caught his eye. Lee had turned at the news to give Kitsune and Gaara a particularly bright grin. What was even more interesting was that it appeared to be directed at Kitsune, since the assassin nodded once at Lee, while Gaara did not move. Yet another piece to the odd puzzle that was Kitsune.

Shikamaru remembered all too well when the Hokage had summoned him to her office to tell him that the Kazekage was going to be taking the exam, so they would have to deploy more jounins than usual to watch over the exam just in case. And then, when he was about to leave, she had casually said: “Oh, and Kitsune will be taking it too, but you don’t have to worry about him.”

Shikamaru had stared at her. “We don’t have to worry about one of the most famous assassins in the world suddenly deciding to take the jounin exam that the Kazekage just happens to be taking as well?”

Tsunade had waved her hand dismissively. “Relax, he’s not planning to kill anyone.” When he had opened his mouth to ask more, she’d glared at him. “Enough questions already! Go!”

Shikamaru had left without another word – but with a silent determination to solve the mystery that revolved around Kitsune. He hated not knowing things.

Genma was finishing his ramble on the details of the third exam. People began to move as he dismissed them. Shikamaru strolled over to the pair at the back of the group; they turned to look at him. “Gaara-san,” he said quietly.

“Shikamaru-san.” Gaara nodded at him. “Temari sends her regards. She says she will probably be able to come to watch the tournament, but if she does not, the next time it will be your turn to make the trek to our village, and she will wake you up at ungodly hours in the morning to repay the favour incurred while she was here.”

That was unexpected. Shikamaru had to fight back an urge to smile. “It was to help her maximise her days spent here,” he said mildly. “I was simply doing my duty to aid the ambassador from Suna in any way I could.”

Gaara’s eyes narrowed as he looked Shikamaru over; Shikamaru had to actually force himself to stand his ground under that piercing gaze. Then Gaara said, serious and deadly, “I will only say this once. If you hurt Temari, you will have to face me. I hope you understand what that means, Nara Shikamaru.”

Shikamaru choked. “I don’t – I don’t have any intention – I don’t see Temari in that way!”

“Temari… is it? No honorific.” Gaara began to actually radiate doom. “You are on such familiar terms with her, and yet you deny any close relationship? I hope you are not leading my sister on, Nara.”

He was calculating the best way to extricate himself from the situation with the least amount of damage when Kitsune started laughing. Both Gaara and Shikamaru stared at him. “I can’t hold it in anymore!” Kitsune gasped. “The look on your face, Shikamaru…! And Gaara! Doing the big brother threat thing! Oh, god, my stomach hurts from laughing so much.”

Shikamaru wondered a little detachedly if Gaara was going to kill the both of them now.

But to his surprise, Gaara’s killing aura vanished, to be replaced with – a smile? It was a very tiny smile, but there it was. Shikamaru’s eyes almost bulged out of his head as Gaara reached up to the slightly taller Kitsune and smacked up on the back of his head. “Idiot,” he said, almost… affectionately.

Kitsune rubbed his head. Even with the disquietingly blank mask, his pout was plain to hear as he said, “But it was funny!”

“Your sense of humour is warped.”

“No it isn’t!”

“Your entire mind is warped.”

“Hey! That’s not true!”

“One only has to look at your fashion sense –”

Now, as everyone knew, Shikamaru was very, very smart. His mind was always busily working. The thing that not many people realized, however, was that he was so smart that his mind worked by itself even when he wasn’t actively thinking. Unlike normal people, his mind didn’t have an ‘off’ switch. And now his thoughts processed the scene in front of him, noted a few relevant points, and then prodded at his memories. His memories reshuffled themselves, threw up a few cards, matched the cards to his current hand and notified his brain, which caused his brain to jump in surprise and send a few sparks to his mouth, which, stunned by the conclusion his mind had come up with, involuntarily said: “Naruto?”

Kitsune froze. Gaara blinked.

“Gaara-san is only this comfortable around very few people,” Shikamaru said, watching the two of them like a hawk. “Namely, his siblings. But Temari told me before that Gaara-san considered Naruto one of his precious people as well, as close to his heart as his siblings are. Then there is the fact that Tsunade-sama isn’t worried about Kitsune at all, meaning that she has to know him and trust him and his word that he’s not out to harm anyone. And just now, the manner in which Kitsune reacted and spoke was exactly like Naruto, even if the voice is different and I can’t see his face. And –”

“Okay, okay, enough already,” Kitsune groaned, and that was very like Naruto, as well. “Man, I thought my acting skills were good!”

“It’s a wonder you lasted this long,” Gaara muttered.

“Hey!”

“At this rate you might as well announce it to the world.”

“Gaara…” Naruto whined. At the same time, Shikamaru said, “You mean other people have already found out? Aside from the Hokage?”

“I accidentally slipped up to Lee and Hinata-chan,” Naruto admitted.

“Every time you meet a friend in close quarters you slip up,” Gaara said to Naruto, scowling. “You are obviously not trying hard enough.”

Shikamaru watched the two of them bicker, conflicting feelings rising in him. On the one hand, he was glad Naruto was back and almost unchanged in personality. On the other hand, since Kitsune would never let anyone impersonate him, it meant that Naruto really was the infamous assassin. Which meant that he was strong almost beyond belief, a far cry from the dead-last of before…

And he had killed. He had killed countless numbers of strong, skilled shinobi.

Shikamaru didn’t want to think like this, but his mind was already busy working how to turn this to Konoha’s advantage – how to use one of his good friends to kill more people, to work behind the scenes for Konoha’s gain – even as he began thinking of how Naruto, as Kitsune, could be controlled, his power leashed. Chess pieces on the chessboard of the world, as if they weren’t real people, in a game where capture meant death. Shikamaru closed his eyes briefly, hating this part of himself.

“Hey…”

He looked up. That blank mask was facing him directly, and even if he couldn’t see it, he could feel Naruto’s gaze on him.

“I understand, Shikamaru. I kind of know what’s going on in your head right now.” Naruto sounded a little awkward, but he bulled forward anyway with the recklessness he was known for. “And it’s okay, that’s just how you are, right? Of course, I’m not going to obediently bend to your wishes, but I’m not going to hold it against you for trying. You’re Tsunade-baa-chan’s most valued advisor, after all. It’s like your job.”

“I consider you a friend, Na… Kitsune.” He didn’t know who might be listening in, so it was best not to use Naruto’s name if he could avoid it. “Can’t I agonize about having to think of my friends as weapons?” But he smiled, wryly, to let Naruto know that he appreciated the attempted comfort.

“Ano… Kitsune-san… Gaara-san… Shikamaru-kun.” Hinata had come up to them. She looked nervous, but determined nonetheless. “Is there a problem?”

It was obvious that she was worried about Naruto breaking his cover, and was going to try to help him hide it from Shikamaru. He had to roll his eyes; it seemed that everyone else was more concerned for Naruto than Naruto was. “It’s okay, Hinata. I already guessed, and they already confirmed it.”

“Oh.” Hinata gave him a shy smile. “As expected of you, Shikamaru-kun.”

“No, it’s just that he –” throwing Naruto an exasperated look, “– is as bad at hiding his secrets as ever.”

Hinata laughed, and then covered her mouth guiltily. She looked apologetically at Naruto. “Sorry, Na… Kitsune-san.”

“There is no need to be sorry, Hyuuga-san,” Gaara spoke up while Naruto crossed his arms and sulked. “One need never be sorry for the truth.”

Naruto kicked him. Of course, his foot only got as far as the small wall of sand that sprang up between his foot and Gaara, which made him grumble uncomplimentary words under his breath.

Hinata hesitated, and then gave Gaara a tremulous smile. “You are our ally, Gaara-san, and you have allowed us to call you by your name. You don’t have to stand on formality with me, Gaara-san, especially since you’ve been looking after Naruto-kun all these years, it seems. Please call me Hinata.”

Gaara held her gaze for a moment, and then inclined his head in acknowledgement. “Hinata-san, then,” he said.

She beamed. Shikamaru felt a surge of pride for her, and had to smile – watching over his friends, as he had been doing the past few years, had taught him respect for people like Hinata and Lee, who worked many times as hard as others in order to overcome their deficiencies. And Hinata was smart as well as compassionate – he sometimes had lunches with her to seek her opinion on matters that were troubling him, because his nature prevented him from seeing the human side of things that Hinata always looked at first.

Hinata saw his smile, and smiled back at him. He knew that she understood his pride in her.

“You guys have grown close,” Naruto commented, sounding slightly wistful.

Shikamaru shrugged. Hinata blushed and said, “Shikamaru-kun is weighed by a large burden. I only wish I could help him more.”

See? That was Hinata all over.

Naruto’s wistfulness, however, had given Shikamaru an idea. “How about lunch at my place in, say, two days? That should give Hinata and Lee enough time to recover from their wounds.” He saw that they were all looking at him in confusion at the sudden suggestion. “Nothing serious, definitely no talk about the exam and work and all that. Just some catching-up with friends. My old man’s on a mission, and my mum won’t interrupt us, so we can all do away with disguises and just… be ourselves.”

Hinata lit up. “I think that’s a great idea, Shikamaru-kun! I know Lee-kun will love it, too.”

“Sounds good,” Naruto agreed, and they could all hear the happiness and excitement in his voice. “Gaara?”

The Kazekage nodded. “I do not see a problem with you taking one day off. I will take the time to familiarize myself with –”

“But Gaara-san…” Hinata began in protest, as Naruto turned on Gaara, hands on hips. “What the hell are you talking about?” he demanded. “You’re coming too.” Beside him, Hinata nodded firmly in agreement.

“You should spend more time with your precious people. I will only be in the way. The people you will no doubt discuss are Konoha nins, who I am not well acquainted with.” Gaara’s tone left no room for argument. “Rest assured that I will spend the day productively. In fact, without your presence, the productivity of my day is almost guaranteed.”

Shikamaru snorted, while Hinata giggled. Naruto could see when he was defeated, and so he threw up his hands. “Fine, go be your anti-social self, see if I care,” he said grumpily.

Hinata, however, had not given up. “Perhaps…” she said hesitantly, causing the men to look at her. “Perhaps we could have lunch with Gaara-san… the next day? I could host it. I have my own pavilion in the Hyuuga compound.”

Naruto cheered up. “Yeah, that’s a great idea! I want you to get to know my friends, Gaara,” he told the Kazekage before the other man had a chance to argue. “Just like you wanted me to get to know Kankurou and Temari.”

Gaara, too, knew when he had been defeated. He nodded resignedly. “Thank you for the invitation, Hinata-san.”

She beamed. “It would by my pleasure, Gaara-san.”

The clock chimed the half-hour. Shikamaru grimaced as he remembered his duties. “Okay, I hate to break this up, but I have to report to the Hokage about the results of the exam.” He waved at them lazily. “See you in two days.”

He sauntered away to the chorus of goodbyes, hearing Hinata’s voice fade as she volunteered to tell Lee about the lunches. His mind was already busily working again. This was an interesting development indeed, and now that he knew about Naruto being Kitsune, he could count on another powerful ally on Konoha’s side when something happened.

Because he knew that something was going to happen. He figured that Naruto and Gaara knew it as well, and he would try to find out if they knew more about it. Even if they only knew a little, every little bit helped. Shikamaru was desperate enough that he would accept every titbit with relief.

Konoha was in trouble. Everything he had been hearing lately pointed to that fact. And right now, he had no idea what was going to happen, and so no idea how to stop it – but everyone had faith in him, had faith that he would help them figure out a way through his. Everyone looked to him to save them.

Sometimes, Shikamaru really, really hated being himself.

Chapter Text

Hearts will never be practical until they are made unbreakable.

-- from The Wizard of Oz

 


 

The second exam had left him with a sour taste in his mouth and an increasing incredulity at himself. What on earth had possessed him to say what he’d said? To make the choice that he had made? His reasons had all seemed valid when he’d said them out loud – but now, away from the immediacy and heat of the moment, they didn’t seem all that convincing as they bounced around in his mind.

But he couldn’t take it back. Now that he had said it, in front of witnesses, no less, his pride wouldn’t let him retract his words. He was stuck with his decision, for better or for worse.

To say the least, the day after the second exam had ended found Sasuke in a very bad mood.

He stalked down the streets of Konoha, hands shoved in pockets, with his trademark scowl on his face. People got out of his way without being prompted; in recent years they had become all too used to the Uchiha’s temper. The official story was that Sasuke had been kidnapped by Orochimaru, so the village still treasured the one they saw as the last surviving member of one of their proudest bloodlines, but their adoration of him had been worn down by his constant black moods.

As Sasuke drew near training ground seven, he heard the sounds of another shinobi practicing, and his dark mood darkened even further. He didn’t know why he had chosen the training grounds where he, Sakura and Naruto had first fought against Kakashi, and he didn’t care to think about it. He just went there, and by now the other Konoha nin knew well enough to use other grounds.

The final straw to Sasuke’s mood was when he saw who, exactly, was practicing on his grounds.

The Kazekage’s skin was as pale as ever, but it wasn’t the sickly pallor from years ago, rather a healthy, almost glowing fairness. His days of relying only on his sand were gone – his taijutsu was lightning fast and practically flawless, hardly any wasted movements. And his stamina looked improved, too; his clothes, already fitting, were stuck to his body with sweat, and his bare skin glistened with it, but he didn’t look tired at all. Not that there was much bare skin – he wore loose pants and a tank top – but it was more than he normally revealed.

Sasuke didn’t recognize the golden-eyed man that Gaara was fighting with, but he could sense the deadly killing intent. Whoever he was, his aura was choked with blood and death.

He watched them spar, his grudging admiration of their movements warring with his dislike of the Kazekage. Gaara was one of the things Sasuke didn’t like to think much about, but when he did, he could easily list down the reasons why he hated the redheaded man so much.

Gaara had easy access to immense power, something that Sasuke was insanely jealous of. Gaara had almost destroyed Konoha, but it had been shrugged off so easily by everyone – whereas Sasuke’s almost-betrayal left him mistrusted by those in the know, even until now, even though his so-called friends tried their hardest to pretend it never happened. Gaara was unstable, and had slaughtered so many, so often, and yet he had been made Kazekage – while Sasuke’s one time of weakness had made him outcast.

And Gaara reminded him of Naruto.

He forced his thoughts off that beaten track.

It came to Sasuke then that the sounds of fighting had stopped. He looked up. The gold-eyed man was nowhere to be found, and the Kazekage was right before him, staring at him, green eyes unreadable. “Uchiha,” he said, sounding perfectly composed and not in the least out of breath. “You are up early.”

“So are you.” Sasuke winced internally at how childish that retort had sounded, and scrambled for a better reply – and after Shikamaru had pulled him aside and warned him to have a care of Gaara’s position, however much he disliked the other man, Sasuke figured that his reply now had better be diplomatic, if not friendly. “You’ve been here long?”

“Only since dawn, an hour ago.” Gaara’s voice was as neutral as his.

“Your friend seems to have disappeared.”

“Yes. He… does not like strangers.” There was a hint of an ironic smile in Gaara’s eyes that Sasuke didn’t quite understand. “You are here to practice as well?”

“Yeah, I am.” He shrugged, letting some of his annoyance creep into his voice as he said, “I usually have this place to myself. No one else comes here.”

“I see.” Try as Sasuke might, he could hear absolutely no inflection to that voice. “Do you wish to practice alone, then, or do you want a sparring partner?”

That made him stare. “You’re offering to practice with me?”

“Until my own sparring partner comes, yes.” Gaara seemed to notice the question that was on the tip of Sasuke’s tongue, and added, “My… friend, just now, was merely passing by and I asked him to spar for a while with me, until my actual partner comes.”

“That would be Kitsune, right?”

“Yes.” Gaara looked at him coolly. “A purely taijutsu spar. Your answer?”

Sasuke hesitated, and then smiled humourlessly. What the hell, why not? “Fine.”

Gaara nodded, and turned. Sasuke shrugged off his outer clothing, leaving only his own black tank top and shorts, and then followed him to the centre of the field. They settled into battle stances, sizing each other up.

“Ready?” Gaara said.

“Yeah.” Sasuke felt himself smirk. “I’m not going to go easy on you, Kazekage or not.”

Gaara’s gaze sharpened. “We’ll see,” he said.

The implied dismissal in those two words made Sasuke’s anger spike. Without another word, he flash-stepped to where the Kazekage was, bringing his hand down on his neck –

Or where his neck used to be. Gaara had dropped to a crouch, one leg sweeping out to hit the back of Sasuke’s knees –

Only Sasuke wasn’t there anymore, either. He’d leapt into the air, twisting his body in a whirlwind motion, aiming for Gaara’s head –

Which was now a fair distance away, safely out of range. Sasuke landed. Gaara straightened. They stared at each other.

And then they both blurred, as they resumed their attacks.

The sound of flesh hitting flesh echoed in the early morning air, but other than the occasional grunt that signified a blow well-aimed knocking the breath out of someone, their battle was eerily silent. There were no taunts, no curses – just a single-minded focus on defeating each other. Five minutes passed – then ten. Twenty. As the hour slipped past, neither party showed signs of giving in.

And the more they fought, the more angry Sasuke found himself becoming. Normally, a taijutsu workout or spar would be cathartic, leaving his mind pleasantly blank, almost like a form of moving meditation. But this time, he found the tension building up, becoming ugly. His blows grew harder, and harder, until they were more vicious than any practice match warranted.

Soon, he saw Gaara’s eyes tighten every time he landed a blow. The perverse pleasure from the sight made Sasuke aim for more tender places – the Kazekage’s torso. He began aiming all his blows around that area, repeatedly, so that each successive blow would hurt more.

Gaara was more delicate in build, and so he was faster – but Sasuke was stronger, physically more powerful, and Gaara’s speed wasn’t enough. Furthermore, he had only begun working on taijutsu in the past few years, whereas Sasuke had the advantage of having taijutsu forms drilled into him from childhood.

It meant that Gaara was slowly but surely losing. Sasuke couldn’t land blows on him often, but it was often enough. The Kazekage’s flinching became more obvious, but he silently continued fighting, his face expressionless.

And suddenly Sasuke couldn’t take it anymore. When Gaara blocked a roundhouse kick, he saw his chance. Twisting his torso, he flipped so that the momentum of his first kick put an enormous force into his second, spinning kick, coming in from under Gaara’s guard and landing solidly.

There was the crack of a broken rib. Gaara flew back a few paces, and landed on his back.

That muted gasp of pain was immensely satisfying.

Sasuke landed lightly on his feet, and stared at that still figure, far enough that he couldn’t see his face. They stood there in a silent tableau for a long moment. Still Gaara did not move.

Sasuke pushed back the tiny stab of self-hatred at how vindictive he’d become. Instead, he began walking over to Gaara. “Are you getting up anytime soon? Don’t think we’re done yet. A shinobi has to fight through the pain –”

His breath was knocked out of him as a tidal wave of sand swept him up in the air, tightening around him, trapping him. Gaara sat up, holding his ribs, and his green eyes were shadowed. For the first time since they started, Sasuke felt a tiny spike of fear – he knew this move.

He knew what move came after it.

Gaara!

Then Kitsune was there, running towards them, stopping in between. He took in the situation at a glance, and then turned to the redhead on the ground. “Gaara,” he said, and there was anger in his voice. “I don’t know what happened, but just because he landed a hit on you during a friendly spar isn’t any reason to kill him. I thought your control’s better than that.”

Gaara’s gaze switched to Kitsune. Sasuke had thought his expression blank before, but it was nothing compared to the utter emptiness in his face now. Then he slowly got up, and even though it must have hurt like hell, with his broken rib and what Sasuke knew was an unbelievably bruised torso, still nothing showed on his face, in his eyes. Even his movements looked natural, as if he was unhurt.

He made a small movement with his hand. The sand dissolved, and Sasuke just barely managed to catch himself as he dropped, avoiding an ungraceful fall onto his butt. Gaara regarded both he and Kitsune for another heartbeat, silently.

Then he was gone in a swirl of sand.

Kitsune started, like he wanted to go after the other man, but then he stopped. With a heavy sigh he turned that blank white mask to Sasuke, who glared back. He hated Kitsune on principle, because he was always together with Gaara, but there was also something about his very presence that rubbed Sasuke the wrong way.

“He didn’t hurt you, did he?”

Sasuke could tell that Kitsune was trying very hard to sound neutral. He shrugged. “Not that it’s any of your business, but no.”

“What did you do?”

At that, Sasuke felt his lips drawing back in a sneer. “We were just sparring,” he said. “Can I help it if he’s a sore loser?”

He could feel Kitsune’s anger rising to match his own. “Gaara isn’t so easily riled. He’s been perfecting his control over his power and his anger over the years. You must have done something to provoke him so much that he reacted like that!”

“What, giving him a few bruises? Excuse me for actually giving my best in a fight! If he wanted to remain unhurt, then he shouldn’t be a shinobi!”

“He’s a better shinobi than you’ll ever be!”

That hit closer to home than Sasuke was comfortable with. It made him lash out. “He’s a murderous psychopath! If he can’t even control his temper in a practice spar, I pity the villagers who have to suffer him as their leader!”

Kitsune snarled. “My god, you’re the most –” He cut himself off mid-sentence with an impressive force of will. “You know what? Forget it. You’re not worth my time.”

Sasuke sneered again. “And you’re not worth mine. The great assassin Kitsune, not even a jounin? What a joke. When you’re done stealing the place of others who really need the jounin rank, don’t show your face in Konoha again.”

He could sense the killing intent radiating off Kitsune, and a part of him ached for it, wanted the fight that would surely ensue – but Kitsune took a step back. Then another. Then, with an angry, wordless snarl, he turned and vanished into the distance, leaping across the rooftops of Konoha in a blink.

Sasuke stood there, trembling with the adrenaline coursing through his veins.

It had been a long time since he’d felt so alive.

And then he realized what he’d just done, and the self-loathing came crashing back.

 


 

On hindsight, Naruto really should have gone for a couple of runs – or a hundred – to cool down before returning to the suite of rooms that he shared with Gaara. But he had been angry, and frustrated, and full of conflicting feelings about Sasuke, and the whole mix meant that he wasn’t thinking straight.

So when Naruto stormed into the suite, slamming the door behind him, and barged into Gaara’s room, he wasn’t in the best frames of mind. Gaara was lying still on the bed, ignoring Naruto, and that only made him angrier.

“Look,” he snapped at the silent figure. “You don’t like Sasuke, he doesn’t like you, fair enough. So that’s all the more reason you should have stayed away from him, not entered into a sparring match! That’s just asking for trouble! And since even I can see that, it’s got to be pretty damn obvious!”

There was no reply, no movement.

Naruto wasn’t deterred. “And Sasuke’s no match for you. No matter what he did, you should never have used Sabaku Kyuu, are you insane? You lost control, fine, but even then you shouldn’t have used a move that practically begs you to complete it with complete annihilation of your opponent! You could have just swatted him away with sand or something!”

Still nothing.

“Are you even listening?”

“Go away, Naruto.” Gaara’s voice was tired.

Naruto felt worry at that trace of weariness – if it showed in Gaara’s voice, then he was either making a conscious effort, or it was so overwhelming that he couldn’t help it. This was probably a case of the latter, but this time, Naruto felt justified in pushing his worry away. He was angry, damn it, and he had a right to be angry.

“I’m not done. Look, Gaara, Sasuke’s a bastard. But no matter how much I don’t like him, I’m not about to kill him! He’s on his second chance and he’s doing pretty damn well. He rejected Orochimaru, remember? And if he’s not being all friendly with the others, Sakura and all, he’s not actively pushing them away. He’s trying in that weird way of his, and I kind of get that, and it can’t be easy for him either. You should know how it feels, to struggle like that. So just leave him alone from now on, and stop provoking him, so we can all get some peace!”

“Alright.”

“And even if he – uh.” Naruto blinked. “What?”

“I said, alright. I will avoid the Uchiha from now on.” The weariness was gone; now Gaara’s voice was just empty. “Is that enough for you, Uzumaki? Are you done?”

That stung. Naruto opened his mouth to snap back, and then closed it again, lost for words. “Uh… yeah.” He paused. “Are you okay?”

“I am fine.” Those three words were clipped. “I wish to rest. Leave.”

Some of the lingering anger flared up again at that curt dismissal. “Fine,” Naruto snapped. “Some of us have got things to do and lives to lead.” He spun on his heel and marched out the room, slamming the door behind him again. It was sadly unsatisfying.

Some ramen would be good, Naruto decided. There were no food stands in Suna – too much sand flying around – so the only ramen he could get there was in restaurants, and those weren’t good enough to be worth their price. Ichiraku was still the best, in all the places Naruto had travelled. He would get some ramen to cool himself off.

And then, maybe, he could do something about the guilt that refused to leave him be.

 


 

The blinds were drawn tight, and only the faintest line of sunlight illuminated a strip of the wooden floor. The room was dark, quiet, and cool. Naruto’s voice, and footsteps, had long faded away.

Naruto…

Just thinking that name cause Gaara’s heart to ache, all over again.

It was a feeling that he was fast becoming used to.

The ache was different from anything he had felt before. It wasn’t sharp, like the pain of his broken rib, mending second by second with the regenerative power that all Jinchuuriki had. It wasn’t dull and throbbing, like the huge bruise that his entire torso had become – he could feel the extent of the tender flesh, and no area from above his hips to somewhere in the middle of his ribs was spared. No, this ache was like a void, sucking at his emotions and his breath.

It was the ache of loss, and it grew stronger each time Gaara felt it.

Naruto was slipping away from him, slowly but surely. Ever since they had come to Konoha, Gaara had seen it. As Kitsune, Naruto could be the consummate actor, fooling the world, but suddenly his old friends were discovering his identity left and right – it could only be Naruto’s unconscious desire to have them close again asserting itself. Then there was that incident with his former teammates, in the Forest, where he had been beside himself with worry for the girl that he said he could not stand, where he had been full of joy for the boy that he said he hated.

Then there was the very exam itself – why else would Naruto want to become a jounin, when he was already Kitsune? Oh, he’d told Gaara what he and the Hokage had talked about, true enough… but Gaara knew what that light in his eyes signified, whenever he talked about his home village.

And then there was this morning. Naruto had taken one look and assumed that Gaara had lost control, that Uchiha was innocent of any blame. Gaara would be the first to admit that yes, he had lost control a little because Shukaku had been screaming for blood in his head… but he had not used his sand until then. He had stuck with purely taijutsu moves, even as he was losing. Towards the end, there had been the madness of bloodlust in Uchiha’s eyes – a look that Gaara recognized all too well – but he had borne the pain mutely, and honoured the rules of their match. Pain was not a valid reason to call off a match, after all.

And he would not have used the Sabaku Sousou. He would not have crushed Uchiha. He’d only wanted to immobilize the other man, while he recovered, because he was afraid that the Uchiha would not stop.

Before this morning, Gaara would have said, if asked, that Naruto would understand. That Naruto believed in his reformation, in his hard-won control. That Naruto had faith in him. Before this morning, Gaara had harboured hope that Naruto felt for him with the same depth of feeling that he felt for Naruto. He had harboured hope that they would return to Suna together. Naruto had come to call Suna home, after all, had assured him that he felt more comfortable in Suna than in Konoha.

But everything was changing. Everything had changed.

And Gaara knew better than to hope.

Because hope blinded you until you were forced to see the truth, and that moment was more painful than any wound in the world. Hope made you a fool. He had been that fool, before – once, with Yashamaru, once more with Naruto, and betrayal had come in the form of a failed assassination attempt, and words that cut deep. He would not be so foolish again as to trust, and to hope.

You should know how it feels, to struggle like that.

He knew. He knew exactly how it felt.

And that was why he knew that it was better to come to terms with the loss, bit by bit, than to have it hit you full in the face.

If he could only have Naruto as a friend, then so be it.

Alone in his bed, Gaara closed his eyes, shutting out the shadows on the ceiling. There was the sharp pain of his ribs, and the dull pain of his torso, but overwhelming either one of them was the empty ache in his chest, growing, growing. He drew in a shuddering breath.

He did not cry, but only because he did not think he would be able to stop.

 


 

Sasuke found the door easily; he was surprised that there were no guards. But then, Gaara hadn’t come in his official capacity. Even so, he was still the Kazekage… but that wasn’t his problem. He should be thankful that there were no guards.

What would he say to them? I’m just dropping by to check on your Kage who I just beat up mercilessly, so can you let me pass? Thanks.

Yeah, right.

He scowled at the wooden door. The innkeeper had hesitated at giving him the room number of the Kazekage and Kitsune, but Sasuke had played the Uchiha card, and the innkeeper figured no one was insane enough to try to do anything to the Kazekage and Kitsune, anyway.

If only he’d known.

Sasuke sighed to himself. He was stalling. God, he was pathetic.

He raised his hand to knock on the door, but was surprised when it gave easily as his knuckles brushed it. Huh. He looked down at the lock – it was busted, like someone had slammed it with such force that it had ruptured. Damn, not good.

Cautiously he pushed the door open. No Kitsune, no Gaara. He stepped in, and looked around – everything seemed fine, nothing broken or turned into sand or anything. Okay, this was slightly more promising.

There was one open doorway that led to a mini kitchen, and two doorframes with doors. One was open, showing a messy and empty room; the other was closed. That was probably Gaara’s room, then.

Sasuke took a deep breath, and then stalked over to the door. He hated doing this, hated the blow to his pride, but – not doing it would be wrong, and that was a blow to his pride, too. He was damned if he did it and damned if he didn’t, so he had chosen the path that seemed more… right. He smiled bitterly; Sakura would be proud. Kakashi would be proud. He… that idiot… would be proud.

He knocked.

There was no answer. He frowned.

“Gaara-san?”

Nothing.

Sasuke’s scowl deepened. What the hell? He reached out for the knob and turned it, and pushed the door open – or tried to. There was something solid blocking the door from moving. He looked down, and saw sand. Okay… so clearly Gaara didn’t want to be disturbed.

But he was already here, and he was going to do this whether Gaara wanted to or not, damn it!

Glaring at the door, he reinforced his shoulder with chakra, and then bodily slammed the door. It gave a little more – enough for what he wanted to do.

Sasuke dug in his pocket for the medicinal balm he’d bought, and shoved it through the crack between the door and doorframe. “Gaara-san…” It sounded weird as hell when he said it, but he didn’t know how else to call the Kazekage, and he was not on pain of death going to honour him by using ‘Kazekage’, or worse, ‘Kazekage-sama’.

“Gaara-san. I’m only going to say this once. I lost control of myself, earlier, and I’m… I apologize.” There, he’d said it. “I went too far for a mere sparring match. Anyway, I know that you must be in a hell lot of pain right now from the bruising and the rib. There’s a balm on the floor, it’s a pain reliever. You should get the rib checked, in any case, but they won’t be able to heal it or the bruises completely in such a short time. Hence the medicine.”

Silence.

“I’ll be going now.”

He had already turned, and taken a step forward, when a quiet voice said, “Thank you.” It was so soft that he wasn’t sure if he really heard it, but Sasuke felt less ridiculous anyway. At least he hadn’t been talking to an empty room.

As he left the inn, Sasuke decided that his rash decision had been a good one. He felt less like a loser, for one thing. And it hadn’t been as demeaning as he’d thought it would be, to admit that he had been wrong. In fact, being able to make some sort of amends felt pretty damn good.

It made Sasuke think. The right path, huh… just now, in that inn, he’d felt something like what he’d felt back in the Forest, when he’d made his decision. A feeling like he was doing the right thing, even if it cost him what he’d always thought was important – power, his pride as an Uchiha.

The same feeling when he’d first protected Naruto, all those long years ago, when they had been fighting Haku in his cage of mirrors.

Ah, hell.

Sasuke decided to go back to the training grounds and work himself into oblivion. Perhaps then, these stupid thoughts would stop running through his head.

 


 

“He must have sent this immediately after the second part of the exam.”

“That means he thinks the threat is very serious.”

“And very urgent.” Temari frowned. “I’m inclined to agree.”

Kankurou nodded. “I’m not as good at the political stuff as you are, but even I know that four Kages – five, if you count Gaara – in one place is just asking for trouble.”

“There have been inter-village Kage conferences before,” Temari said absently, “but I know what you mean.”

“In the exams, there’s nothing that can be considered real security.” Kankurou made a face. “Ensuring that Suna’s well-guarded is already damn hard, I’m up to my eyeballs dealing with problems as head of our forces, so I know that there’s no way Konoha’s going to be able to come up with any near adequate security arrangements when foreign shinobi start pouring in.”

 “Plus, four Kages,” Temari said with a wince.

“Five,” Kankurou reminded her gloomily. “And the Great Five at that. Akatsuki’s going to have a field day.”

“Plus, Orochimaru. He’s going to be pissed that Gaara squashed his three spies.”

They both sighed.

“Okay, how much of our forces can be spared?” Temari said briskly.

“Maybe a fifth. Another fifth on standby at the most. Konoha may be our ally, but Suna’s safety is still our priority, and I don’t want any surprise attacks here.”

“A fifth should be enough. That’s about… what, ten jounins?”

“Eight. I’m going to leave the ANBU out of this. Eight jounins, and about thirty chuunins.”

“Alright. We’ll have to choose the teams that will go, and notify those on standby.”

“If we have to deploy the standby teams, it’ll mean that Konoha’s falling.” Kankurou looked grim. “I don’t want to sacrifice our shinobi, so I propose that we make the standby team’s priority to aid where you can, but mostly retrieve.”

Temari sighed again, and rubbed her face with a tired hand. “Let our allies fall or sacrifice our people. Damn it. How does Gaara do this? I can’t wait for him to get back and take over again.”

Kankurou grinned. “Well, for one, he’s a guy. We guys are more cold-hearted and logical.”

“Excuse me?” Temari glared at him. “Did you just accuse me of being some soft-hearted girl?”

“You are a girl.”

“Who’s the one Gaara chose to handle all the real work, I’d like to know?”

“Hey! My work’s real, okay?”

“But mostly brainless.” Temari stabbed at the papers in front of her. “This is the work that needs a clear, logical mind and ruthless decision-making.”

Kankurou snorted. “Yeah, wrapping pretty words in diplomatic talk that essentially means nothing.”

They glared at each other. And then they cracked up laughing.

It was a while before they sobered again, and when they did, Kankurou stood. “I’ll leave you to write to Konoha, then. I’m off to see who we’re going to send.”

“Kankurou.” Temari’s quiet voice stopped him as he reached out for the doorknob. He looked back to his sister to see her torn expression. “If anything happens, I don’t feel good leaving Gaara there to fight with only eight of our jounins and some chuunins at his back. Should one of us…”

“Gaara would kill us. He’d say that we have a duty first and foremost to Suna.” Kankurou gave her a tired smile. “Remember how he was when he forbid us to accompany him to the exams? I’m not going to argue against that. Besides… he has that idiot Naruto with him. And Naruto’s worth a good number of jounins.”

“I know that. But it’s also Naruto that I’m worried about.” Temari lowered her eyes to the table, staring unseeingly at the wood. “He still loves Konoha. I’m afraid he’ll do all sorts of reckless things, because it’s Konoha in trouble… and Gaara will have to be the one to cover him. Gaara will do anything for Naruto, you know that. And if Naruto is going to sacrifice himself for Konoha…”

Then Gaara will sacrifice himself for Naruto.

The silence stretched.

“It won’t come to that,” Kankurou said at last. He dredged up a reassuring smile. “They’re both amazing fighters. And if worst comes to worst, the other Kages will fight, too, and any one of them is powerful as hell. Five Kages, and Kitsune, and lots of jounins, and certainly a number of ANBU level Kage bodyguards – the fight might not be easy, but it damn well won’t be a disaster.”

Temari sighed. “I know all that. I just worry, that’s all.”

“You think I don’t? But we have our own jobs to do. Suna needs us here, in Gaara’s absence. Gaara needs us here, so he won’t have to worry about Suna, and can concentrate on fighting.” Kankurou’s smile this time was more firm. “For Gaara, Temari. For Suna. We just have to do what we can from here.”

She nodded. “You’re right.” Then she gave him a weaker version of her old smirk, but still her old smirk nevertheless. “You have a brain in there somewhere, brother mine. How odd.”

“Oh, shut up.” Grinning to himself at his sister’s laughter, he left her office.

But once out of Temari’s sight, Kankurou felt his smile fade. Because he shared Temari’s worries, but he also knew the truth of his own words. He knew that he and Temari had to stay in Suna – but it rankled. He wanted nothing more than to run off to Konoha, so that if anything happened, he could knock his stupid little brother out and drag him back to Suna. Maybe even that idiot Naruto, too.

After years of having no conscience at all, trust Gaara to develop one of the strongest senses of honour and loyalty that Kankurou had ever seen.

Gaara… you’d better not be an idiot and do something self-sacrificing, Kankurou thought. Suna’s well on its way to accepting you as their Kazekage, and your people are even starting to love you. Don’t do anything stupid for a village that’s not your own, however selfish this may sound.

And don’t do anything stupid for a man who might never be able to hold you, and only you, in his heart – the way he’s already in yours.

Chapter Text

Some choices we live not only once but a thousand times over, remembering them for the rest of our lives.

-- Richard Bach


The second day dawned bright. Naruto spent the morning having breakfast with Iruka, who did not push him for the sordid details of his life as Kitsune, but simply let Naruto talk about whatever came to mind. First, Naruto told him about the exam, about how Lee and Hinata and Shikamaru had found out, and about why he was taking the exam.

Then, at Iruka’s prompting, Naruto told him about the past few years. About how he’d wandered around for a while, barely escaping from fights with random shinobi. About how he’d collapsed one day in the desert – and woken up a few days later in Suna.

“And I almost died of a heart-attack when I saw Gaara sitting beside my bed, staring at me!” Naruto remembered, laughing. “You have to meet him soon, Iruka-sensei, and if he tells you that I screamed like a girl at the sight of him, he lies!”

Iruka laughed. “Of course. A Kage’s word is not to be trusted, really.”

Naruto made a face. “Iruka-sensei, sarcasm? Coming from you? I’m shocked! What will the little kiddies say?”

“They won’t dare say anything,” Iruka said smugly. “I haven’t lost my touch as a teacher, Naruto.”

“What, the pee-in-your-pants ‘Listen Up Or Else!’ look?” Naruto shuddered theatrically.

“And much more,” Iruka said mock-ominously, fighting back a smile.

“The terror of all Konoha students everywhere!” Naruto fell over with laughter.

Iruka watched him, smiling affectionately. “Terror I may be,” he said lightly, “but I’ll have you know I received yet another love confession.”

Naruto choked. “From another five-year-old girl?”

“She was very earnest about it.”

Naruto howled with laughter. “Oh my god, the Iruka-sensei Kindergarten Love Conquest Tally! I’d almost forgotten!”

Iruka flushed. “I would thank you to stop using that ridiculous name for it.”

“Ooh, how many, how many is it now?” Naruto sat back up, almost bouncing in his seat. “Tell!”

“I haven’t been keeping count, but… coming to a hundred,” Iruka said, smiling sheepishly.

Naruto whooped. “Iruka-sensei the Stud! You know,” he said suddenly, as if he just remembered something, “that’s a lot like Gaara, too. The villagers are pretty terrified of him and his powers, but recently they’ve started to love him in spite of it. I remember this one time, we were walking through Suna, when this little kid ran up to him and gave him a flower – and you know how rare flowers are in Suna, so it must have been really precious to her. You should have seen the look on Gaara’s face! It was the first expression of acceptance, given willingly in public, that he’d ever received, you should have seen the light in his eyes…”

Iruka was watching the light in Naruto’s eyes, however, as his former student went on to regale him with stories about Gaara. How the other man was able to always sense where he was, which was how he’d found Naruto that first time in the desert, because of Kyuubi’s presence in him, and the reason why he’d given up playing Hide and Seek with Gaara pretty quickly. How they had trained together, helping each other to rise – Gaara to the Kazekage’s position, Naruto to assume Kitsune’s identity. How they had worked together to find a way to control the demons in them – “though I can’t tell you exactly how, yet, Iruka-sensei, I’m sorry” – and how they had held each other together when trying to come to terms with who they were, without the demons.

So it was that when Naruto finally paused to gulp down some tea and grab some cookies, Iruka felt confident enough in his observations to say, “Is there something else about Gaara you want to tell me, Naruto?”

The blond blinked at him. “Wow, my story telling skills must be good.”

Iruka rolled his eyes. Naruto was as dense as ever. “No, you little brat, that’s not what I meant.”

“Then what did you mean?” Naruto demanded, taking another cookie and popping the thing whole into his mouth.

Sighing, Iruka decided to forego the tactful approach and head straight for the throat – which was, admittedly, the best way to get things through to Naruto. “Do you love him?”

Naruto choked on his cookie, spraying crumbs all over his plate. Iruka reached over the low table and helpfully gave him a hard thump on the back.

Coughing, swallowing the cookie, and then washing it down with tea, Naruto sent Iruka a baleful glare, eyes watering. “What the hell, Iruka-sensei?”

Iruka gave him his teacher’s ‘Don’t Mess About With Me’ glare. Naruto cowered. “It’s a simple question, Naruto – though my timing could have been better, I admit. Do you love Gaara-kun?”

Naruto squirmed under his glare. “Eh… that is… he’s my best friend…”

Iruka turned the glare up.

“It’s just… I…”

Iruka turned the glare to its deadliest.

“Oh, hell.” Naruto threw up his hands. “Yes,” he sighed in defeat. “I think I do.”

“You think?”

“Okay, okay! I’m pretty sure I do, okay?” Naruto looked woefully at Iruka. “But I can’t tell him, because it would scare him off, so he doesn’t know. Can you stop looking like that now?”

Iruka grinned at him, satisfied. “Don’t try to hide things from me, Naruto. I know you too well.”

Naruto made a face. “And it’s scary, it really is.” He hesitated. “You… don’t have any problems with it? I mean… Gaara’s a guy.”

Oh, damn. Iruka cursed his honest personality as he felt a traitorous blush steal across his nose. “I don’t have any problems with homosexuality at all,” he said.

And there it was… Naruto’s suspicious narrow-eyed stare. Just as Iruka knew Naruto, Naruto also knew his old sensei. His blue eyes went wide, and he jumped up from his seat, pointing an accusing finger at Iruka. “You like a guy!” he exclaimed. “You do you do you do!”

“Naruto!” Iruka hissed, looking wildly around his apartment. He half-expected gossipers to pop out of the corners. “Quiet down!”

Laughing hysterically, Naruto dropped back into his seat, clutching his stomach. “Oh man… Iruka-sensei’s in lo-ve!” He sang the last word gleefully.

“So are you,” Iruka pointed out, trying to maintain his dignity.

Naruto waved a dismissive hand. “At my age it’s almost expected of me. But you, Iruka-sensei! You always said you couldn’t see yourself being together with anyone! You said that teaching’s your whole life!” He leaned forward eagerly. “Who is it?”

Iruka sighed, feeling a headache coming on. He didn’t really want to say it out loud – he hadn’t really come to terms with it himself, but… he owed Naruto this much. “You can’t say anything to anyone, alright?”

“Of course I won’t tell anyone!” Naruto looked offended.

“Alright. It’s… damn… it’s…” Iruka grimaced, “Kakashi.”

Naruto gaped. “What…?”

Iruka covered his face, feeling himself turn completely red. “After you left,” he said into his hands, “Kakashi came to ask me if I knew anything about it. And knowing what his role in everything was… I kind of lost it. I yelled at him for a good half an hour about his uselessness as a teacher and… and lots of other things. I didn’t let anything about you slip, of course, I just vented all my anger on him. And he just stood there and took it silently.”

“And then?” Naruto sounded fascinated.

He took it as a good sign, and continued. “I felt quite bad the next day – about taking it out on him. So I found him and apologised about yelling at him, and said that I had been in a bad mood because of your disappearance. He said that it was alright… and then he said that he noticed I was only apologising for yelling, not for what I said. I told him it was because I didn’t regret my words, only the way I said them, because everything I said was what I felt to be true.

“For the next couple of days I didn’t see him, and then on the third day he showed up at my window. Literally. He came in by the window while I was eating, and I was going to start yelling at him about his rudeness when he said that he’d been thinking about my words. I didn’t expect that, or how serious he was being – Kakashi, being serious without being in a fight? It’s like the world ending. But we got to talking, discussing you and how things might have gotten so bad.”

Iruka looked up from his hands, then, to see Naruto watching him, and it was like that time when Kakashi had appeared in his home – a seriousness that wasn’t suited to the face it was on. Naruto gave him a small smile. “Go on,” he said encouragingly.

Taking a sip of tea, Iruka shrugged. “There’s not much left. We couldn’t finish our discussion that night, since it was getting late, so Kakashi asked if he could come back the next day. I agreed, he came back, and soon he was coming to see me every night. We talked about you at first, but then we started talking about lots of other things. And then for two weeks he had a mission and wasn’t in the village, and I found myself missing our chats… that’s when I began to think about it, and realized that I liked him.”

“Wow.” Naruto reached absently for a cookie, and took a bite. “Man… I would have loved to see you yelling at Kakashi-sensei.”

Iruka laughed. “Is that all?”

“Well…” Naruto eyed him, as if he wasn’t sure that Iruka would like what he was going to say next. “There is something else.”

“Just say it, Naruto. You can always tell me anything.”

Naruto sighed. “I think you can do much better than that perverted disrespectful never-on-time idiot of a jounin.”

Iruka blinked. “Well, that was… descriptive.”

Naruto sat up straight, looking determined. “It’s true!” he insisted. “Iruka-sensei, you’re worth so much more than Kakashi-sensei! You’re much more pure than he is, there’s so much darkness in his past… I don’t know if he can return your feelings,” Naruto finished, deflating. “I’m just worried about you, Iruka-sensei, I’m worried that you’ll get hurt.”

Iruka smiled warmly at Naruto, feeling a rush of love for his little brother – not so little, though, anymore. “Naruto, I understand how you feel,” he said. “But think about it this way – Kakashi and I are like Gaara-kun and you. There’s a lot of darkness in his past, too, I believe. He has been hurt deeply. But that doesn’t stop you from loving him, does it?”

Naruto shook his head vehemently.

“You see? Even if there is darkness, all it does is make you want to heal it.” Iruka reached over to pat Naruto’s head. “So don’t worry about Kakashi and I. Things will work out somehow. I just want you to worry about yourself, and your relationship with Gaara. At least Kakashi is an adult, and has… some… experience with relationship matters. I believe Gaara-kun does not have that advantage. He must be confused, or insecure, or maybe both. You need to handle him gently and carefully – what is it?”

Naruto’s eyes were wide and stricken. “I… I yelled at him yesterday,” he said, panic in his voice. “He had this move – he wraps his opponents in sand and then crushes them, and yesterday he was sparring with Sasuke and when I found them he had Sasuke in his sand, and I panicked and got mad and yelled at him. He ran, and I found him in his room and I yelled at him some more!” He grabbed Iruka’s hand; Iruka let him. “What if he hates me now?”

“Alright, calm down.” Iruka patted Naruto’s hand. “First – have you talked to him since then?”

“No, not since yesterday morning when it happened. I left him alone yesterday, and when I knocked on his door today and tried to open it, I couldn’t because he had sand barricading his room in. I was a little annoyed, so I just left to come here.”

“You can’t get in at all?”

“Not unless I want to destroy the whole place,” Naruto said gloomily. He perked up. “Hey –”

“No destroying property,” Iruka said sternly. He snorted when Naruto gave him his puppy-dog look. “That doesn’t work on me, Naruto. Honestly, I would have thought you more responsible now.”

Naruto sighed. “Then what am I supposed to do?”

“Well…” Iruka thought about it, and then something occurred to him. “Wait – did you say he was sparring with Sasuke?”

“Um, yes?”

“And you yelled at him in front of Sasuke.”

“Um, yes. Is that bad?”

“Perhaps.” Iruka’s eyebrows furrowed in thought. “Was Gaara perfectly unharmed? Did he look intent on killing? Think hard, Naruto.”

He let Naruto withdraw his hand as the blond buried both hands in his hair, thinking hard. “I think… I don’t remember any killing aura, you’re right. And… and Gaara was sitting on the ground! And when he got up – when he got up…” Naruto jumped up from his seat in realisation, eyes wild. “He was holding his side! God, he has to be hurt! And I just yelled at him like that – I should have known that he wouldn’t have used his sand if he had no other choice – I know how honourable he is –”

“Naruto!” Iruka got up as well and took a hold of Naruto’s shoulders, shaking him lightly. “Calm down!”

But Naruto was off in his own world of anger. “And Sasuke – that bastard, he acted like he was in the right, like he didn’t do anything! He must have really hurt Gaara, he had to have known he was hurting Gaara but he pretended –”

Naruto, you will shut up and sit down this instant.”

Some primal reflex, drilled into all of Iruka’s students at a very young age, made Naruto’s mouth automatically snap shut and his body drop obediently into his seat. He blinked.

Iruka nodded, satisfied. “Good.” He knelt next to Naruto, turning the blond’s head to look hard at him. “Now, you do know what caused this mess?”

Naruto nodded mutely.

“Well?”

“I jumped to conclusions again,” Naruto mumbled. “And I let my temper get the better of me.”

“Good. I’m happy to see that you remember your lessons, even if you don’t seem to bother paying heed to them.” Iruka sighed, and ruffled Naruto’s hair. “Right now, Gaara is hurting. He might be the Kazekage, but he’s still a young adult, and emotions around that age are always volatile. And you, as the cause of his hurt, won’t do any good. If you try to force your way in there, he’ll probably brush you aside, try to reject you in self-defence.”

“Then what can I do?”

“Right now? You can try to calm down yourself, to prepare for when you talk to him again. He’s going to be cold towards you, you can be sure of that, and I have the feeling that if you don’t get complete control over yourself, you’re going to play right into his trap and flare up in retaliation.”

Naruto had to grin sheepishly. “You’re probably right,” he admitted.

“And also… there is one other thing that you need to think about.” Iruka sat back on his heels, feeling a wave of sadness come over him. This was a life-altering decision, and Naruto would have to decide it himself – Iruka must not interfere, even if he badly wanted to.

“What is it?” Naruto seemed to have sense how serious he was, and had sobered as well.

“You need to think about whether you want to give him hope,” Iruka said. He held up a hand when Naruto opened his mouth, looking indignant. “Naruto – from what I heard, the two of you have grown very close. He relies on you a great deal. There’s a good chance that he might return your feelings, I think. But can you give him what he wants? What he needs?”

“I love him,” Naruto blurted out. “Anything that he wants, if it’s within my power, I’ll get it for him.”

“I don’t doubt your feelings,” Iruka assured him. “What I doubt is whether there is any sense in letting your feelings grow… in encouraging Gaara’s feelings to grow. You told me that you still love this village, that you’re taking this exam because you want to be officially recognized as a member of Konoha, as a jounin that protects this place. You might have planned to leave here, yes, but… will you really be able to bear to leave?”

Naruto looked confused. “Well… yeah. I mean, people in Suna have accepted me, unlike people here. And while I have friends here, it’s true, but Gaara’s in Suna.”

“Yes, perhaps that’s true, and you won’t have to make that choice. But Naruto – I know the people of this village. And they can be quite practical.” He took a deep breath. “When you reveal yourself to be Kitsune, Naruto, an almost legendarily strong shinobi who has no problems controlling the power within himself, the villagers will fall over themselves to welcome you back, as will the Council – it’s more accurate to say that they’re greedy instead of practical, and your strength is something that they will want for themselves, for Konoha. Everyone was afraid of you and hated you because they saw in you the Kyuubi, but when they see that you now have control over the Kyuubi, and that you’ve proven yourself a worthy jounin – they will welcome you back. Which is more than I can say for Suna – they only know you as Kitsune. It’ll be hard for them to welcome you as the infamous troublemaker of Konoha, you’re quite well known for all your pranks as a child, you know.

“And like you said, all your friends still love you. Hinata, Lee, Shikamaru, even people like Neji, Sakura – who really regrets how she treated you before, I happen to know. There’s Tsunade-sama and Jiraiya-sama and me, and you’re like a little brother to us. I know Kakashi misses you, and he feels he lets you down, and I know for a fact that he’d really like to make it up to you and show that he has always respected your drive and ability to never give up.”

Naruto was silent.

“I know you like it in Suna. There are no bad memories there, while there are too many here. But there are also good memories, like those of the Sandaime – he always loved you, too. And in your heart, I believe that you will always see Konoha as your home village, not Suna.”

There was a tiny nod from that blond head.

Iruka sighed. “So you see, what I’m saying is… when the times comes, you will find that there are a whole lot more reasons for you to stay then you thought. And it’s such a big decision that it’s likely you won’t be able to make a choice until you’re actually faced with it, until you actually have to make, until you’re confronted by it and have nowhere to run. And if you end up choosing Konoha… then it will be exceedingly cruel if you give Gaara-kun hope now. He deserves better than that.”

Naruto didn’t say anything for a long time; his head was in his hands. Iruka let him think, as he quietly tidied up the table.

“I don’t know what to do,” Naruto finally said, voice muffled in his palms. “Iruka-sensei… I don’t know what to do.”

Iruka’s heart went out to the boy – no, a man, now. He rested a hand on Naruto’s bowed head. “I’m sorry,” he said regretfully, “but I can’t tell you what to do. It has to be your choice. I just wanted you to be prepared. And I would like you to stay, but I don’t want to hold you back, so I can’t help you. I fear I’ve already influenced you too much.”

“This is so screwed,” Naruto muttered.

“It is,” Iruka agreed. “But that’s just how it is. Naruto, I’m going to go check on Gaara – see if he needs medical attention. You have that lunch with your friends, right? Go, talk to them, put this matter out of your mind for now – you need to get some distance from the shock, so you can think clearly.”

Naruto raised his head at that. “Gaara and I heal really fast, a few broken bones aren’t usually any trouble. But we still feel pain, I don’t know if he’s feeling any –”

“Naruto!” Iruka interrupted, laughing a little. “Relax. I’ll check up on him, and if there’s any need I’ll buy some medication.”

The blond nodded. “Okay. Thanks, Iruka-sensei.”

“You can stay here as long as you like, just lock up after yourself.”

“Will do.”

With a last look at Naruto’s forlorn figure, Iruka left, heart heavy. He really wanted Naruto to stay, but… Naruto truly was happy, with Gaara, and all he wanted was for Naruto to be happy.

It was a relatively short walk to the inn that Naruto and the Kazekage were staying, and he found the room number that Naruto had told him easily. He was going to knock, when he realised that the lock was broken – he would have to remember to tell the innkeeper. Going in, he saw the only closed door leading from the small living room, and knocked.

“Kazekage-sama? I’m Umino Iruka, Naruto’s former teacher. He said that he told you lots of stories about me, I’m not sure if you remember. I’m not half as scary as he makes me out to be, though.” He laughed softly. “Naruto has a tendency to exaggerate things.”

Iruka had used his gentlest teacher’s voice, calm but firm, and not threatening at all. He’d figured that this was the best approach.

To his relief, he heard the shifting of sand from inside the room, and almost inaudible footsteps. Then the door opened, and Iruka found himself face to face with the young Kazekage for the first time. And in that instant, taking in the haunted eyes, the too-pale face, the messy hair, all thoughts of this young man being the Kazekage flew out of Iruka’s head, as his mother-hen nature took over.

“Umino-san.” Gaara’s voice was quiet. “A pleasure to meet you. Is there a problem?” The tiny, tiny hint of worry in that voice told Iruka that Gaara was worried that the problem had to do with Naruto.

He smiled gently. “If you’re asking about Naruto, he’s fine – but he’s worried about you. He’s a bit dense, as I guess you know, and he only just realized that you were hurt, but he had a lunch appointment with his friends to keep so I volunteered to come check up on you.”

“I am fine. Thank you for your concern.”

Iruka’s smile gained an edge of steel. “Then there will be no problems with me making sure of that, then. You know, I really have to thank you – Naruto’s like a little brother to me, and I know first-hand all the trouble that he manages to get himself in. I heard you literally saved him? I really can’t express my gratitude enough…”

Talking lightly and cheerfully, leaving no room for argument, Iruka used gentle but firm pressure to guide the Kazekage into the dark room, leaving the door open for light – better not to touch the blinds; the open window was a sign of vulnerability, he knew. He made use of Gaara’s bemusement to take control of the situation; he could see that Gaara was wavering between two instincts, one to demand Iruka leave with the authority of his Kazekage position, the other to acquiesce to Iruka’s mothering because he was one of Naruto’s most precious people.

Iruka felt a rush of affection for this young man – even when he was upset at Naruto, even when he felt that Naruto had rejected him, he still cared enough to not want to offend those people Naruto held dear.

Then Gaara silently pulled off his shirt at Iruka’s request, and Iruka had to suppress a hiss of anger. Sasuke had done this? Sometimes he really couldn’t even begin to wonder where he had gone wrong with the dark, arrogant boy. Iruka might only be a chuunin who hadn’t been on the battlefield for a long time, but even he could tell deliberately aggravated damage when he saw it.

“It is not as bad as it looks, Umino-san.” Gaara’s voice was quiet as always. “I heal fast. This will be gone in a couple of days.”

“But you still feel pain, don’t you? Naruto told me about both of your healing abilities, but he also said that you can still feel your injuries.” Iruka sat on the bed, patting the covers next to him. “Here, lie face-down – I want to check your ribs.”

“There is no need –” Gaara began.

“Gaara-kun. Lie down on the bed.”

It seemed that his teacher’s voice was of universal application. Gaara wavered, and then seemed to come to a compromise between outright refusal and obedience. “I have one broken rib, but it is healing. It will be fully healed by the end of the week.”

Iruka frowned. “I have a good mind to search out Sasuke and give that boy a scolding,” he grumbled.

Gaara tilted his head, looking consideringly at Iruka. Then he said, “Why are you so concerned for me?”

“Why?” Iruka blinked, genuinely surprised. “Because you are important to Naruto, of course. You’ve done so much for him, you’ve made him into the strong person he is today. For that, you’re important to me as well.” He smiled at Gaara. “You’re almost like another little brother to me.”

There was a surprised, but shyly pleased light in those green eyes. Iruka could see why Naruto was attracted to this man; it was similar to the way he was attracted to Kakashi – both the Kazekage and the Copy Nin were so unused, and so wary of kindness and affection, that Iruka wanted to shower them with all the affection he could give.

The sand moved, drawing Iruka’s attention. A small fist of sand rose up next to Iruka, holding – a bottle? He took it and read the label – it was a balm to relieve pain. Iruka was pleased, he wouldn’t have to go and buy some after all. He looked at Gaara. “Would you mind if I helped put this on you? I’m really good at applying medication of all sorts, you wouldn’t believe what injuries my students manage to inflict on themselves.”

Gaara moved without another word to lie face-down on the bed, a silent answer to Iruka’s question. As Iruka gently began smoothing the balm over Gaara’s completely bruised torso, the younger man said quietly, “Uchiha brought that to me yesterday.”

Iruka couldn’t stop the startled little yelp. “Sasuke did?” he said in amazement? “Uchiha Sasuke? Are you sure?”

There was a quiet huff of laughter. “Yes,” Gaara said simply.

“Miracles do happen,” Iruka said, still amazed. He resumed applying the balm, thoughtful. “Perhaps he really does intend to change, then. I’m glad if that does happen – I’ve always wondered what I could have done, to help him more.”

They were quiet for a while. Then Gaara said, “You are still a teacher?”

“Yes, I can’t imagine doing anything else,” Iruka told him cheerfully. “I’ve been teaching for ages.”

“Naruto told me that you do not teach chakra control in your schools, but leave it to the jounin instructor when the students form teams after graduation.”

Iruka scowled. “Yes, that’s right. I keep telling the Education Board that it’s plain foolish, but they won’t listen! I know chakra control is a very difficult subject to teach, and it needs to be tailored to the individual student, but if we could just lay the foundation for it when they’re young it’ll come so much more easily to them later on and – oh, damn, I’ve gone off into a rant. I’m sorry, Gaara-kun.”

“No, I would like to hear more.” There was genuine interest in Gaara’s voice. “I have been reviewing the education system in Suna lately, and seeking opinions from those who teach, in order to see what needs improvement. Your opinion would be valued.”

His words made Iruka pause. He was reminded, once again, that this quiet young man before him was the feared and respected Kazekage, and even as he felt admiration for the dedication that Gaara put into the job and his village, Iruka also felt sadness at the burdens that he had been carrying since young.

“Umino-san?”

Iruka jumped. “Oh – sorry, I was lost in thought for a moment.” His hands started moving again. “Please, Gaara-kun, call me Iruka, like Naruto does.” Then something occurred to him, and he grimaced. “Sorry, I’ve been neglecting to call you by title, haven’t I?”

“The way you address me now is fine… Iruka-san.”

Iruka beamed. “I’m glad. Okay, education improvements, you said? Why don’t you tell me about your current system, and I’ll give you my opinion.”

They discussed Suna’s education system as Iruka finished working on Gaara’s back, and helped him sit up so that he could apply the medicine to his front himself. Iruka sat beside him, ready to lend a hand, talking all the while. Gaara clearly wasn’t used to talking much, and Iruka carried on most of the conversation, but each quiet comment Gaara made showed an intelligent mind that was paying close attention to Iruka’s words and considering them carefully.

When the balm was applied to all the bruised skin, Iruka helped Gaara bandage his torso, talking about the advantages and disadvantages of setting up schools for further studies after students graduated and became genins. Gaara made very relevant points against such a system, but Iruka spoke passionately for it, because “teenagers are reckless and malleable kids still and need more than a jounin to teach them what they need to know, especially since jounins are so eccentric that the level of education varies with each person”.

They were interrupted by a growl from Gaara’s stomach. There was a hint of an embarrassed blush on Gaara’s pale skin, and Iruka knew better than to tease him like he would have teased Naruto. He simply smiled and said, “It’s past lunchtime, already – I feel a little hungry myself. Shall we? It’ll be my treat.”

“I could not –”

“No, no, don’t stand on ceremony, please.” Iruka grinned. “I always used to treat Naruto to ramen, and believe me, you can’t strain my wallet half as much as his ramen-eating did.”

Gaara smiled slightly. “His capacity for ramen is a scientific anomaly,” he agreed.

“That’s decided, then. Come on, I know a good restaurant nearby so you won’t have to strain yourself walking so much.” Something occurred to Iruka, and he eyed Gaara suspiciously. “Please don’t tell me that Naruto managed to infect you with his love for ramen.”

Gaara winced. “Quite the opposite.”

“Oh, good.” Iruka sighed with relief. “I don’t really see what’s so amazing about it, anyway. It’s just noodles and soup.”

“And the occasional ingredient that does not make much difference.”

“Yes, and he doesn’t even taste it!”

“He simply gulps the whole thing down.”

“I don’t think he actually knows how it tastes like, the way he eats it.”

Their conversation and moods light, Iruka and Gaara headed off to lunch.

Chapter Text

A hundred wagon loads of thoughts will not pay a single ounce of debt.

-- Italian proverb


Hyuuga Neji was no fool.

He had been, once – an arrogant fool who listened to no one, who was hell bent on his goal, on what he deemed revenge against the Main Branch of the Hyuuga family. But during a chuunin exam long ago, he’d finally had some sense knocked into him – and as a result of that match, he’d finally been given the truth about his father, and the world had changed.

Neji owed a debt that he would never be able to repay, but it was one that he owed gladly. And he would never admit it to anyone but the one person who he owed it to. Of course, he hadn’t actually seen the need to admit it to that person before. But things had changed, five years ago, because that person had left, and with him had gone Neji’s chance to express his respect and gratitude. And he wondered often whether, if he had spoken up, things might have been different.

So, five years ago, Neji had promised himself that the next time he saw Uzumaki Naruto, he would say the words he had not the chance to say.

He had been a fool, but he was not one now, and many things had changed.

One of the things that had changed was his attitude towards Hinata – another person who had been saved, in a way, by Naruto. Hinata had grown more into herself. She was still shy, and too kind for her own good, but she had proven her intelligence and hard-learned skill. Neji had come to respect how hard she worked to overcome her slower learning rate. Lately, he’d found himself thinking that Hinata would make a good Clan Head, if she could just learn to be a little more calculative and ruthless.

Oh, and a little less frightened of him.

Neji sighed inwardly as he stood from where he had fallen to the ground, after Hinata had run into him. He offered her his hand. She took it hesitantly, and squeaked when he pulled her to her feet. “Uh… thank you… Neji-kun,” she stammered out.

He smiled at her. He wasn’t used to smiling, so it was a little stiff, and she didn’t look reassured by it at all. “No problem. Are you hurt, Hinata-sama?”

“I’m, I’m fine.” She brushed off her kimono nervously.

It was then that Neji noticed that she was wearing a kimono. Normally, in the Hyuuga compound, people went around wearing their simple robes – it was almost a clan uniform, in the privacy of the compound. “Are you going out, Hinata-sama?” he asked.

“What? Oh! No, no, I’m just… I invited some friends over… for lunch.”

Now, having been observing Hinata – amongst other Main Branch members – for almost all his life, Neji could read the subtle tells in her expression. Looking at her shifty eyes and nervous gestures, he was very sure that she was hiding something. “Friends,” he said, drawing the word out, watching as she became more nervous. “Anyone I know?”

She mumbled something. Neji vaguely made out ‘Lee’ somewhere in there.

“Lee?”

She nodded, and then said more clearly, “And Shikamaru-kun.”

Neji frowned. He didn’t really have a problem with those two – on the contrary, they had earned from him a grudging respect. Hinata knew that, so why was she… ah. “Who else?”

Hinata’s expression fell. It looked like she had really, really not been wanting him to ask that question. “Um… Gaara-san.”

Neji stared. “The Kazekage?”

“Please don’t tell anyone!” Hinata said quickly, looking around. “I don’t… I don’t want to make a, a big deal… out of this. It’s supposed to be… informal. If anyone finds out, they’ll insist on dropping by… or making sure we have over-the-top food… especially if it’s Father…”

“That’s true, but it’s only polite,” Neji pointed out. “It’s courtesy for the head of the household to greet such an important guest.”

“But… Father will want to talk to Gaara-san… and he’ll make things formal… and things are already awkward enough as it is…” Hinata stopped mid-sentence, her eyes widening in the universal ‘Oh Crap I’ve Said Too Much’ fashion.

Neji’s mind was racing. He stared hard at Hinata. It was a plausible reason, but he sensed there was something more behind it. Something about her expression before, when she had answered with Gaara’s name – aha. Neji narrowed his eyes. “Who else, Hinata-sama?”

“Eh?” Hinata squeaked.

“Who else is coming?” Neji made his stare as intense as it could go. “I can tell when you’re lying, Hinata-sama. Just say it.”

The girl deflated; his head lowered. “Kitsune-san,” she whispered.

Neji could not have been more shocked if she’d told him that the Hokage herself was coming. He rocked back on his heels, before quickly forcing himself to regain his composure. “I see.” He was proud of how level his voice was. “And how did you come to be so familiar with the Kazekage and Kitsune?”

Hinata wilted, but at the same time, her chin lifted – it was amazing how she could be so terrified and defiant at one go. “I can’t say,” she said, looking away. “I’m sorry… Neji-kun. I really can’t.”

He could sense that this was the one thing on which she would not give way. He nodded slowly, thinking hard. “Hiashi-sama will be furious, if he finds out,” he said finally. “You know that, right? It’s not just etiquette anymore – it’s the potential information we can get out of observing and talking to two such powerful players in the shinobi world. If he finds out I knew about it and kept quiet –”

“No, please!” Hinata was really panicked. “Neji-kun – please don’t involve Father!” She took a step forward, eyes pleading. “This was… this was just supposed to be a gathering of friends.”

Friends, she said. Neji’s mind was spinning with furious thought. Hinata was too trusting, and too friendly, but she was also not stupid at all. She wouldn’t trust someone like Kitsune so easily in the short time she’d known him – and Neji knew for a fact that she couldn’t have met Kitsune any earlier than the jounin exam, probably during the second part of it, when she’d been at the same gate as he had been, since they’d been together during the first exam, following Gai. As for the Kazekage, it was highly unlikely that Hinata could have become close to him either – there had been no opportunities for her to do so.

But Hinata did not use the term ‘friends’ lightly.

So the only possible theory was that she had known them, either one of them or maybe both, a long time ago and had hidden it up until now. Which didn’t make sense – she hadn’t expressed any out-of-place emotion when Kitsune and Gaara had first come up to their group before the first exam started, and she wasn’t good at hiding emotions. But she had approached them after Genma had finished talking, he remembered.

He hadn’t paid close attention to their interaction, at the time. But he remembered that Hinata had seemed more nervous and unfamiliar with Gaara than with Kitsune, and there had been something about Kitsune that had nagged at him, but he’d put it out of his mind as unimportant…

“Neji-kun?”

So… if Hinata had known either one of them before the exam, it would have to be Kitsune. And that was impossible. Unless…

He tried to recall how Kitsune had acted, after the second exam when he had been talking to Hinata and Shikamaru and Gaara. What was it about Kitsune that had bugged him?

“Neji-kun?” Hinata’s voice was worried, now. “Are you alright?”

He gave up that train of thought with a sigh. There was too little to go on. “Yes, Hinata-sama,” he said. “I’m fine. And I will keep your secret for you.”

She brightened. “Really? Thank you, Neji-kun!”

He had to smile. “After all the effort you took to look so pretty, I wouldn’t want to ruin the afternoon for you.”

Hinata blushed. Neji wasn’t surprised when she did, but what surprised him was the extent of it. She looked like she’d been caught sneaking out to meet a boyfriend. “Um… thank you, Neji-kun. For the compliment.”

Neji wasn’t paying attention, however. A realization had hit him – the only times he’d ever seen Hinata blush like that was when…

When whatever it was that she was doing involved Naruto.

The puzzle pieces rearranged themselves and clicked neatly into place.

But… no. It was impossible. There was simply no way anyone could gain so much power and skill in such a short time – but then again… hadn’t everyone always, always, underestimated Uzumaki Naruto?

Neji had been one of those fools, before. Was he going to be a fool again?

He had to confirm it, though.

“Neji-kun… I really think you should rest.”

He came back to reality – again – to see Hinata’s worried face before him. He managed a smile that didn’t contain a trace of the shock he felt. “It’s alright, Hinata-sama. I just have a lot of things on my mind.”

She nodded understandingly. “You’ll do fine… in the third exam, Neji-kun. I know you will.”

“Thank you, Hinata-sama. I am glad to know that you have faith in my abilities.” His words were automatic, as his mind tried to find ways to confirm his suspicions. Yes… that might work. He looked again at Hinata. “Do you need help hiding your friends from the rest of the household?”

She looked startled, and then delighted. “That would be… oh, but… I couldn’t. You’ll get into trouble… if we’re found out.”

“With my help, we won’t be found out.” Neji said it confidently, but internally he wasn’t so sure. He was willing to risk Hiashi-sama’s anger, though, for this. “Where are you meeting them?”

“I reserved the Lotus Pavilion.”

It was a good choice – close enough to the gates so that they would not have far to walk, reducing the chance of meeting others, but also isolated from the main pathways, so they would not be disturbed. He nodded his approval. “I will walk with you to the Pavilion, and act as lookout and distraction if need be.”

She beamed. “Thank you, Neji-kun!”

Neji felt a little bad – he was only helping her with ulterior motives. But he needed to know.

The doors to the gate stood open – a symbol with more than one meaning, the first representing Hyuuga hospitality, the second telling the world that the Hyuuga had nothing to hide, the third very subtly saying – we are strong, and we have no need of gates to bar intruders. That was the reason why there were no guards, as well. Besides, the wall running around the compound was mainly there to delineate Hyuuga property from the rest of Konoha, and any intruder would find it easy to vault the wall – so there was no need for guards at the gates, because it was as easy to climb the wall as it was to walk through the entrance.

He waited in increasingly nervous silence – the nervousness was Hinata’s, not his – for the guests to arrive. Lee came first, bright and early as usual, and Neji repressed as sigh as he was greeted with exuberance. His teammate usually gave him a headache. He responded to Lee’s conversation with one-word answers, as usual, which – also as usual – didn’t discourage the other man, while Hinata giggled in the background. Tenten always found Lee’s and Neji’s ‘conversations’ amusing, too. It must be a girl thing.

Shikamaru was next to arrive, strolling up to them with a lazy ‘Yo’ and a curious look at Neji. When Hinata explained his presence to Shikamaru, he ignored the other man’s narrow, thoughtful gaze with the ease of practice in letting unwanted attention slide off him. Shikamaru could guess at his less-than-pure intentions, but couldn’t say anything for certain, so Neji was safe.

And then their last two guests showed up. Neji watched them walk towards the group already by the gates, and frowned to himself. There was an odd tension between them, and none of the one-mind-in-two-bodies thing that they had showed before. Was this what Hinata had meant when she’d said that things were already awkward enough without Hiashi’s presence?

“Hinata-san,” Kitsune greeted formally. He bowed to her, and when he straightened, he nodded at the other three men. “Lee-san, Nara-san. And you must be Hyuuga Neji,” he continued, turning that mask to face Neji. “Pleased to meet you.”

Those impeccable manners threw Neji off. if it was an act, it was a very good act. He didn’t let his lack of balance show outwardly, however, and nodded back. “The pleasure is mine, Kitsune-san,” he said politely. He looked at the Kazekage. “Kazekage-sama as well.”

Gaara inclined his head slightly, but didn’t say anything – his reticence was well known, however, and so Neji accepted it without blinking.

“Neji-kun has offered to help… remember I wanted to evade notice?” Hinata smiled nervously at the rest of the group. “If anyone sees us, Father will be notified, and then Gaara-san… and Kitsune-san will have to play politics.”

“We understand, Hinata-san!” Lee said with a brilliant, determined grin. “It will be a test of our stealth! We will arrive at our destination without detection! If I fail –”

“Shut it, Lee,” Shikamaru said good-naturedly. “Don’t create trouble. Let’s just have an easy lunch, alright?”

Looking chagrined, Lee nodded.

Their walk to the Lotus Pavilion went without a hitch. Neji led the way, keeping an eye out, but at lunch time everyone was usually settled down somewhere eating, and so there was no one walking about. When they arrived, he slid open the door for them and stood back, gesturing for them to enter.

When Kitsune, the last of the group, approached the door, Neji said a quick prayer to any gods that might be listening. It was now or never.

And if he was wrong, he was likely going to get killed on the spot.

Oh well.

He activated the Byakugan.

In a split instant he was slammed against the wall of the pavilion, pinned to it by a hand around his neck. Kitsune’s deadly aura was focused on him, and solely on him, making it hard to breathe. But Neji was already having problems breathing with the surprise, anyway.

He’d only had time to see the general outline of Kitsune’s chakra, but it was enough. While there were some interesting changes in it, the general shape was still unique enough to recognize at one glance, and he’d recognized it immediately. He’d faced it in battle, after all.

Kitsune… was Naruto.

That white mask was right in his face, and Neji could sense the glare – and he could also sense the instant when Naruto saw the recognition in his face, and knew that he knew. With a frustrated sigh, Kitsune let Neji drop back to his feet, and the killing aura disappeared.

“Damn it,” he snarled quietly. “Do I have my name fucking tattooed on my mask or what?”

Neji massaged his neck and said nothing. He was still coming to terms with the truth.

Naruto sighed. “I’m sorry, Neji,” he muttered. “I’m just… a bit short-tempered today.”

“It’s alright.” Neji shrugged. “If you weren’t… well, you, I was preparing to get killed, anyway.”

There was a note of curiosity in Naruto’s not-Naruto voice. “If you knew the risks, why do it?”

Neji looked at him appraisingly, and then nodded at the inside of the pavilion, where the others were frozen in various states of movement, watching the two remaining outside. “Let’s go in first.”

Naruto sighed heavily, and then stomped his way in. Neji had to repress a shiver of déjà-vu – it was a very Naruto thing to do. It was a bit hard to reconcile the aloof, formal Kitsune with this Naruto.

He said as much, sliding the door shut behind him as he went in. “You act very well, Uzumaki – I wouldn’t have expected it of you. You’re very convincing as a cold, confident Kitsune.”

Naruto had removed his mask, and Neji had to bite back another surge of shock at how stunningly good-looking he’d become – and how similar he looked to… Neji filed that bit of information in his head for later pursuing. Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw Hinata turn that shade of Naruto-related red, and snickered mentally. Yes, Hinata was still very much affected by Naruto.

“If I’m that convincing,” the man in question complained, “why does everyone keep guessing it’s me? I mean, come on – no one in their right mind would really associate Naruto the troublemaker with Kitsune!”

“You just… give off a vibe,” Neji said dryly.

Naruto gave him a Look. “Yeah, yeah, laugh it up.”

The promise Neji had made himself came back to him, and he straightened. Being the shinobi – and kunoichi – that they were, everyone noticed even that tiny change in posture, and looked at him. He cleared his throat – and bowed to Naruto.

They stared.

“Uzumaki,” he started, not really knowing what to say but knowing he had to say it. “When you left, five years ago, I made a promise to myself and I intend to keep it. We were not close, and you might not hold me in much regard – but ever since the chuunin exam when I fought you, you left a deep impression on me. I respected you as a shinobi even then, and more so now, knowing how much you’ve accomplished with the determination that I admired in you. You helped me see past my own blind wilfulness. And for that I owe you a debt I will never be able to repay, but I will try to do it gladly whenever possible.”

He took a deep breath, not looking at any of them, uncomfortably aware of the absolute silence. “I originally never thought to tell you about my respect and gratitude, but then you left, and I promised myself that the first time I saw you again I would say it, so that you’d know how much of a mark you left in Konoha. So now you know.”

Nodding at no one in particular, Neji turned smartly on his heel. “I will leave you to your lunch,” he said, reaching out to the sliding door. “The servants will bring the food along shortly, so remember to put on the mask when you sense people approaching –”

“Neji, wait.” He sensed Naruto standing up. “I… thanks. That means – that means a lot to me.”

He shrugged. “It was just something I had to say.” He reached out for the door again –

“Aren’t you joining us for lunch?”

He blinked at the paper of the sliding door. Then he turned around to look blankly at Naruto. The other man was grinning, a little nervously, a little sheepishly, as he added, “The more the merrier, after all.”

Neji shook his head. “It’s fine. I’ll leave you to catch up with your friends –”

“All the more reason why you should stay, then.” There was pure determination and no trace of mocking in Naruto’s voice, but the steel in it softened when he said, “I really would like to talk with as many old friends as I can.”

“We weren’t friends –” Neji began.

“We respected each other, and would have done anything to help each other,” Naruto interrupted. “That’s enough for me.”

They stared each other down. Neither blinked. Then Gaara’s voice broke the tension. “Hyuuga-san,” he said quietly. “Naruto means it when he calls you a friend. If you value him as a friend or even as a person, please do us the honour of staying.”

That made Neji look away: at Gaara, who was watching him with the hint of approval in his eyes; at Hinata, who was smiling almost with tears in her eyes; at Lee, who was beaming and who really did have tears in his eyes; and at Shikamaru, who was looking bored. When he saw Neji’s eyes on him, he offered him a quick grin. “Just sit down, the food’s going to be here soon.”

Neji snorted. “You sound like Chouji,” he muttered. But he walked the few steps back into the room, and sat down.

Naruto was grinning madly as he sat, too. “Now, I want to know how you figured it out! I don’t really give off vibes, do I?”

“Don’t be stupid, Uzumaki.”

“Hey! It’s a valid worry, okay. And stop calling me Uzumaki, no one calls me Uzumaki anymore, Hyuuga!”

Neji rolled his eyes. “Fine, Naruto.” But the tiny twitch of his lips gave away his amusement.

After Naruto’s pestering, Neji gave in and told them how he had come up with the suspicion about Naruto and decided to confirm it with the Byakugan. Then it was Shikamaru’s turn to tell, and then Hinata and Lee traded sentences as they laughed about how obvious Naruto had been. Then it was Naruto’s turn to tell them how he had been doing, the past years.

Neji noticed, as he would bet the others did, how Naruto avoided any details about his work as an assassin, and instead concentrated on the anecdotes of how he had struggled to survive and to learn all that he’d learned. And, even though he was burning with curiosity, he didn’t ask. It wasn’t his place to ask, and his pride wouldn’t let him anyway.

The other thing that Neji noticed was the way that, while Gaara and Naruto interacted normally, that there was a distance between them, intangible but there. They talked to each other like they talked to the rest – at least, Naruto talked, while Gaara just nodded his attention – but there was none of the closeness that had been there before. They were just – like normal friends, where they had been partners before.

And he could see that the others were aware of it, but didn’t draw attention to it. Hinata in particular was trying hard to be cheerful, but he could see that she was extremely worried about the two of them.

The lunch was fun, and relaxing, and Neji found himself in a good mood for the first time in a while. He’d never really gotten to know these people before, even though he went for the occasional Rookie Nine Plus Three gatherings – maybe it was because they were smaller in number this time, making it easier to include everyone, or maybe it was because the people here were all people that he respected and didn’t mind spending time with. Neji rather thought that he wouldn’t mind having lunches like this again.

Beneath the laughter and smiles, however, there was always the undercurrent of disquiet relating to Naruto and Gaara.

What the world had happened in a mere two days’ time?


“Yo.”

Tsunade reflexively threw a kunai.

Kakashi leaned to one side. The kunai barely missed his ear, and then he twisted in his perch on the windowsill to watch it sail into the distance and arch downwards. He fancied that he heard a scream.

“Kakashi…” Tsunade’s warning tone was laced with resigned amusement. “How many times do I have to tell you to learn how to use a door?”

“What is a door?” Kakashi asked in the most philosophically expansive way he could muster. “A door is but a window with locks.”

“Windows have locks.”

“See?”

Kakashi watched Tsunade throw her hands in the air, dramatically giving up trying to deal with him, and he grinned, letting his one visible eye curve up. He knew that the Hokage enjoyed his non-sequiturs, but it was part of their routine that she pretended she didn’t.

He hopped into her office, and helped himself to the chair on the opposite side of the table from Tsunade. She eyed him as he sprawled in it. “Well?”

Taking out a scroll, Kakashi silently passed it over. He didn’t bother looking at her as she read it; he knew its contents, and he knew that the look on her face would not be pretty. Instead, Kakashi let his head fall back to rest on the back of the chair, and stared at the ceiling as he thought of how best to surprise Iruka that evening. This mission had left him deprived of the young teacher for two whole months. The absence had made him determined to step his efforts up a notch, and start taking things a bit further than friendship…

He heard Tsunade sigh heavily. “There’s no doubt, then?”

Kakashi shook his head, still not looking at her. Flowers? Iruka loved flowers. But no, that was too… romantic. Too forward. No scaring away the nice teacher.

“Oh,” he said, remembering. “Did you catch them?”

“Catch who?”

“The Sound nins,” Kakashi said in a very ‘of course’ manner. He sat up straight and raised his one visible eyebrow. “You know, the ones who snuck into the jounin exam.”

Tsunade’s expression was priceless.

“I’ll take that as a no?”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Tsunade snapped, rummaging through the piles of folders on her desk, tossing some and knocking others to the floor.

“I was otherwise occupied spying on the rest of the Sound nins,” Kakashi pointed out. He eyed a file stamped with TOP PRIORITY in red ink that flew and hit the wall. “You know, the few hundreds of them? I didn’t think three lousy nins were that important.”

“Aha!” Tsunade triumphantly held up a thick file. “The list of the candidates. Now – what did they look like?”

“There’s such a thing as disguises,” Kakashi pointed out dryly, but coughed when Tsunade glared. “There were three of them,” he said helpfully.

“They could be running around Konoha right this minute,” Tsunade grumbled, flipping through the papers. “I can’t believe you couldn’t even risk a messenger pigeon –”

“And where would I find one?” Kakashi inquired. “Hidden in my vest pocket?”

The glare she shot him made him wisely decide to shut up. She shoved the file at him. “You look through these,” she ordered. “See if there’s anything suspicious.” She raised her voice. “Someone call Shikamaru up here!”

The door opened, but it was a hawk-masked ANBU who stepped in and saluted smartly. “Shikamaru-san is not in the building, Hokage-sama. He said something about lunch.”

“What, for…” Tsunade squinted at the clock. “Three hours?”

“Shall I go look for him, Hokage-sama?”

“No, no… it’s fine.” She looked thoughtfully at him. “Were any of you supervisors during the jounin exam? Anyone noticed anything amiss?”

“None of the ANBU were officially assigned to the second part of the exam, but I believe Panther and Eagle went in an unofficial capacity.” He thought for a moment. “I believe Panther is on duty somewhere in the building. Shall I get him for you?”

“Yes, do that, thanks.” Tsunade waited until the door closed behind the ANBU again, and then pinned Kakashi with her stare. “Well? Anything?”

Kakashi looked up at her, and then fished out three sheets of paper. He slid them over the desk to her. “The Sound nins would have had to kill whoever they were impersonating,” he said. “But if there were other shinobi from the same village, they might have noticed something off with their colleagues. So strategically speaking, it would make sense to find a village who only sent three shinobi, so that if you kill and replace all of them, no one would find anything odd.”

“And this year Cloud only sent three.” Tsunade smiled, and it was not a nice smile.

There was a knock on the door, and at Tsunade’s ‘Come in already!’ a panther-masked ANBU came in and saluted. “You asked for me?”

“Yes, stand easy. You were at the Forest during the exam? Did you notice anything amiss with the Cloud shinobi?”

Panther shifted uneasily. “Uh… Hokage-sama… no unauthorized personnel is allowed to be in the Forest during the exam. We’re only allowed to be at the Tower at the end, to see who passed –”

Kakashi snickered. Panther shot him a glare. He grinned merrily back, and said, “Since when have the ANBU stuck to the rules… Tatsuya-kun?”

“Kakashi-sempai, please use code names while I am on duty.” His voice was annoyed.

Tsunade sighed. “I won’t penalize you for it, alright? Just tell me.”

Panther nodded. “I circled the Forest, to try to see as much as possible. I saw most of the examinees, but I found it odd that I did not see any Cloud shinobi at all. I attributed it to how few they were in number this year, though.”

Kakashi sat up. “What, not once?”

“No. It was as if they disappeared.” He hesitated. “I did see a clearing completely covered in blood, however, and yet no bodies were present. It was… a gruesome sight.”

“Where was the clearing?” Kakashi demanded. “Near which gate?”

The ANBU had to think. “Gate Nine was the closest, I think.”

Kakashi smiled, grimly satisfied. “Sasuke’s gate.”

Panther blinked. “You think Uchiha killed the Cloud shinobi?”

This time Kakashi laughed out loud. “Not even Sasuke has that kind of skill. Think about it – which shinobi in the entire history of –”

“Kakashi!” Tsunade snapped.

He held up his hands. “My bad,” he said, not sounding apologetic at all.

But Panther had already put it together. The ANBU were chosen for their intelligence, after all, amongst other qualities. “The Kazekage killed the Cloud nin? But why?”

“Panther –” Tsunade began, warning clear in her voice.

“Because they were not Cloud nin.”

That calm, quiet voice made Panther jump and leap to one side as the door opened wide – revealing the Kazekage in question, standing in the doorway. Kakashi stiffened – he hadn’t even sensed the Kazekage approaching, and with the amount of chakra Gaara had, it should have been easy to sense. Looks like he’s gotten much better control, Kakashi observed to himself as Gaara came into the room.

Tsunade sat up straighter, folding her hands on the tabletop before her. “Panther, thank you. You’re dismissed. Kazekage-sama, please sit. Kakashi, get off that chair.”

Kakashi hopped off, and stood aside from the chair, as Panther left with another salute. As the Kazekage approached, Kakashi gave him a curve-eyed smile. “You’re looking well, Kazekage-sama,” he said cheerfully.

Gaara nodded briefly to him as he sat. “Hatake Kakashi. I remember you.”

Kakashi decided that he would take it as a compliment, and bowed. “I’m honoured.”

Gaara gave him a level look, and turned to Tsunade. “I came to tell you about Suna’s offer of aid, but I suppose the matter of the Sound nin should first be cleared,” he said. “We noticed the Sound nin during the first part of the exam. We had a suspicion about their intentions, and so we let them make their move to confirm it. They approached Uchiha –”

“Wait, sorry, I said sorry,” Kakashi added when he was hit with two very scary glares. “But who’s this ‘we’? I thought your siblings were in Suna, Kazekage-sama –”

“He means me.”

Kakashi reflexively threw a kunai.

Then, “Damn,” he said, making a face at Tsunade. “Your habits are rubbing off on me!”

Kitsune twisted in his perch on the windowsill to look at the kunai sailing through the air. All four pairs of eyes tracked it as it arched downwards. They fancied that they could hear a faint scream.

“Nice reflexes, Ka… Hatake-san.” Kitsune lightly stepped off the windowsill, landing on both feet. “Although your paranoia seems to have lowered. You didn’t sense me approaching the window.”

Kakashi didn’t take the bait, but inside he was berating himself for the slip – although, he supposed, Kitsune was an assassin, and assassins usually had their concealment and stealth technique down perfectly. “The infamous Kitsune,” he drawled, all senses on alert. His eye slid to the Kazekage, who was calm, as if assassins appearing in windows was a common phenomenon – or as if he had already sensed Kitsune approaching. “I didn’t realize you and the Kazekage were going around all chummy.”

“We’re working together during this exam,” Kitsune said, unruffled. “Just as we’re working together with you, Hatake-san, and the rest of Konoha.” He gave Tsunade a little bow with a flourish; she snorted and looked like she was refraining from smacking his head. Kakashi noted that as Very Interesting Indeed, as Kitsune continued, “Our interests coincide with the Hokage’s, this time.”

“Oh? And what interests would that be?”

He could hear the razor-sharp smile in Kitsune’s voice, even if he couldn’t see it – really, what a creepy mask. “Our interests? Why, namely to keep Konoha from becoming a smoking hole in the ground.”

“Oh, that interest. I guess we could accept your help, then, if you’re so desperate to offer it.”

“Kakashi…”

He sighed. Trust Tsunade to spoil his fun in her Hokage-ness. “Yes, Hokage-sama. No baiting the assassin.”

“Oh, no worries. Everyone with any skill at all does it. It’s like they want to get killed or something.” Kitsune’s voice was mock-mournful. “It does wonders for my social life, it really does.”

Kakashi had to snicker, even if he didn’t want to.

“Shall we get back to business?” The Kazekage’s curt voice made them turn back to him. He continued before anyone could say anything. “The Sound nin approached Uchiha. They offered to bring him to Orochimaru. The catch was that Haruno Sakura, who was with Uchiha, would need to die.”

Sasuke. One of Kakashi’s failures, one in a long line. He felt his face freeze, felt Kitsune turn to watch him, but he ignored the gaze. He tried to prepare himself –

“He deliberated while the Sound nin tried to kill Haruno, but in the end he chose to reject Orochimaru. He protected the girl from a fatal blow. I finished them off.”

…what?

Kakashi took an involuntary step forward, heart leaping in his chest. “Sasuke… Sasuke rejected them? He chose Sakura over Orochimaru?”

Gaara turned that green stare on him. “He chose Konoha over Orochimaru,” he said, “but I believe the girl’s death as a requirement played a large part in forcing his hand, yes.”

He felt an overwhelming rush of relief, and something that felt like absolution. In the past few years he’d tried so hard with Sasuke, trying to reach the boy underneath the bitterness and the blood-thirst for vengeance… he knew better than to think that he’d made much of a difference, but all that mattered was that Sasuke had chosen to stay.

I didn’t fail them.

Obito, Rin, Minato-sensei… he hadn’t failed them this time.

But there was still –

“Naruto,” he said abruptly, turning to Tsunade, who jumped. Kitsune choked a little, and Gaara’s green eyes widened slightly. Kakashi gave them funny looks, but ignored them in favour of marching up to the Hokage’s desk and staring down at her. “Hokage-sama, I stayed in Konoha to work on Sasuke all these years, and now that his matter is settled – you promised me that I could go look for Naruto.”

“Ah…”

“You promised, Hokage-sama.” Kakashi was as serious as he’d ever been.

Tsunade’s eyes alighted on Kakashi’s scroll on her desk. “Aha! I mean,” she said, clearing her throat, “Kakashi, you just gave me information on Orochimaru’s forces amassing. It can only be for the purpose of attacking Konoha. And at this time, you want to –”

“Orochimaru’s not the only problem. There’s Akatsuki, too. And there have been reports that they’re after the Jinchuuriki.” Kakashi leaned in, eye intent. “One jounin in a battle of hundreds is not going to make much difference. Konoha’s fate will be decided whether I’m there or not. But Naruto’s out there, alone, with possibly a whole group of S-Class missing nins after him. I thought you cared for him, Hokage-sama!”

Tsunade’s lips pressed into a thin line; her eyes flared. “Don’t you dare question how much I care for Naruto,” she snapped. “You’re going too far, Kakashi!”

He pulled back a little, and ran a hand through his hair. “Fine, I’m sorry for that. But Hokage-sama… Naruto’s my student. I failed him before, and I’m not going to fail him again.”

“The story is that he’s on an extended undercover, if I send you to find him –”

“That’s not an excuse,” Kakashi interrupted, eye narrowing. “You can just say I’m on an extended mission. It doesn’t have to have anything to do with Naruto.”

Tsunade sighed, and rubbed her temples. “Kakashi…”

“Okay, fine, I get it; stop glaring at me like that, Gaara!”

Kakashi blinked. He stepped back to stare at the two people he’d forgotten were even in the room. He inched away, out of the line of Gaara’s insistent green gaze, and looked at the recipient of that gaze – Kitsune, who was… taking off his mask?

“Geez, just because you’re impatient with the whole thing…” A face emerged from under the mask. “Honestly, at this rate I really might as well write it on my mask!”

Kakashi felt his heart stop. That face, that hair, those eyes… Minato-sensei.

The Yondaime Hokage, come back to life.

“Kakashi-sensei…?”

Reality reasserted itself. Those whisker-marks had never been on his sensei’s face. He stared at a grown-up, pretty damn hot Naruto, and then turned his head to stare at Tsunade.

She gave him a tiny nod, while Naruto rolled his eyes in the background and exclaimed, “It’s really me, Kakashi-sensei!” But what Kakashi had been seeking confirmation for, and what Tsunade had nodded to, wasn’t Naruto’s identity. It was Naruto’s heritage.

He was Minato-sensei’s son.

Why the hell had Kakashi never seen it before?

Oh, he’d suspected, because of the eyes, the hair. But Naruto had been so different from Minato-sensei, so… hopeless, at the start, that Kakashi had dismissed his suspicions as a yearning for the good old days. It had been so much easier to see the shadow of Obito in the blond, since the others fit the shadow of his old team so perfectly – Sakura and Rin, Sasuke and Kakashi himself.

“Oh my god, I killed Kakashi-sensei with shock!”

Naruto was Minato-sensei’s son.

And in failing Naruto… he had failed his beloved, honoured sensei.

He would never be able to make this up to them – both father and son.

Kakashi blinked, and found Naruto peering up into his face, just that bit shorter. “Hellooo… anyone there?” Naruto was saying, blue eyes wide and laughing.

“Naruto…?”

“Yep,” the blond shinobi nodded.

“Naruto…” Minato-sensei. “Forgive me.”

He watched the laughter leave, as Naruto stepped back. His face was serious. “Kakashi-sensei…” Naruto sighed. “I must admit that I really resented you when I first left. I kind of hated you, to be honest. But then… as I found out more about your past, I realized that there was a reason behind your actions.”

“You know about…”

“Yeah, I know. Your old team, your eye… I know.” Naruto peered at him a little worriedly. “Sorry, but as Kitsune, I have to be prepared, and you’re one of the forces to be reckoned with in the shinobi world.”

Kakashi thought about it, and then shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. Go on.”

“Okay… so as time passed, I could let go of the anger. I came to terms with my past. And I’ve talked to people, and what with everything just now… what I’m trying to say is… argh.” Naruto huffed. “There’s nothing to forgive, but even if there was, then it’s been forgiven long ago. Okay? Is the sappy moment over now?”

“Idiot,” Gaara muttered from his seat.

Naruto’s eye twitched. “Hey!”

Kakashi watched as Naruto stomped over to Gaara and began accusing him of making him reveal himself in the first place. On the surface, it looked like a mock-argument, friendly banter, but underneath there was real tension. Kakashi didn’t really care right now, though.

Naruto had a heart as big as before, even if he had grown and hardened in his life as Kitsune. It was as if Kakashi had just been handed his second chance on a big silver platter. He felt himself smiling, a soft smile that he’d thought could never appear on his face again. He was aware of Tsunade trying to hide a smile of her own as she watched him out of the corner of her eye, but couldn’t bring himself to care about his uncharacteristic lapse.

Minato-sensei… your son has grown to be a man you can be proud of. And I’ll watch after him for you from now on. I swear it.

“Naruto,” he said, interrupting the little tirade. “Right now you and the Kazekage need to hear the information I gathered on Orochimaru, and we should formulate a plan, but afterwards… want to go for ramen for dinner? My treat. As a welcome back present.”

“Cool!” Naruto grinned widely. “Free ramen! Oh – wait. There’s something I need to say.”

Kakashi watched with growing apprehension as Naruto marched over to him, eyes narrowed. He prodded Kakashi’s chest with a finger. “You,” he said, threateningly.

“Me,” Kakashi agreed cautiously.

“If you ever hurt Iruka-sensei, you’ll wake up one night to find Kitsune standing over your bed with a very sharp kunai in his hand pointed right at your balls. Understand?”

Kakashi’s eye widened. “You’ve talked to Iruka?”

“Yeah, I have.” The finger prodded him again. “Kakashi-sensei, do you understand? I won’t let you hurt Iruka-sensei.”

“Yes, yes, I understand.” He looked solemnly at Naruto. “Do you know it’s not a good sign when you start speaking about yourself in third person? It’s the prelude to insanity.”

Naruto snorted. “Like you’re one to talk! You’ve gone past insane a long time ago!”

Kakashi beamed, and opened his mouth to retort – and then something occurred to him. “Wait,” he said, one eye widening. “Iruka and I are currently just friends… so if you just warned me like you’d warn off a potential boyfriend… that means Iruka said something to you about –”

“Don’t say it!” Naruto yelped, hands over his ears. “Bad images!”

Kakashi found himself grinning happily. “Iruka likes me!”

“Lalala! I can’t hear you!”

“Iruka really likes me!”

“I am definitely not listening to any of this –”

“I can buy him flowers!”

From his seat, Gaara closed his eyes in a bid for patience. “Konoha shinobi are all mad,” he muttered.

Tsunade sighed, too. “Right now I can’t argue,” she said dryly.

For once Kakashi didn’t mind being made fun of. Seeing Naruto well and happy before him, knowing that Sasuke had finally begun walking the right path, having confirmation that Iruka did like him… even the thought of Orochimaru’s impending attack didn’t faze him. Nothing could make faze him now.

He hadn’t failed them in the end, after all.

And if that was true, then things were going to be okay.

Chapter Text

We make war that we may live in peace.

-- Aristotle


Not being able to reach out and touch Gaara whenever he felt like it – he could cope with that, for now, with his Konoha vs Suna decision looming over his head.

Not being able to see Gaara smile, and laugh, in that way he only did when they were alone – he could cope with that, too, for the same reason.

Having to distance himself from Gaara, and seeing Gaara distance himself from him – it was harder to cope with that, because no matter what, Gaara would always be his best friend, but he could handle it temporarily.

Being stuck in perpetual misery that was only partially alleviated by reunions with old friends – well, misery was an old friend, anyway.

But Kyuubi snarling and insulting him in his mind constantly for three days straight, not letting him get a wink of sleep, was the last straw on top of everything else. The exam – and the anticipated attack – was going to be in two days. He needed to be at full strength, and for that he needed sleep.

Utsuro kagebunshin no jutsu!

Kyuubi’s scream of rage in his head turned into a snarl of rage as he popped into existence. Naruto had chosen an empty training ground for this, so luckily there was no one to witness Kyuubi’s elongated incisors as his lips drew back over his teeth.

“You stupid little brat!” Kyuubi lunged forward. “I’m going to beat you to a pulp –”

Naruto nimbly darted out of his grasp. “Look, I know you’re mad, but I can’t do anything about it! If I just go about this carelessly Gaara will get even more hurt!”

“He’s already hurting like hell, you imbecile!” Kyuubi gave up trying to catch Naruto, and just stood there giving off deadly vibes. “Do you know how angry Shukaku is? I can sense his killing intent all the time now, and it’s all directed at you! If Gaara lets him out now the first thing he’ll do is to tear you to pieces.”

“I know! But I can’t decide anything yet, and I don’t want to hurt him if I decide to stay in Konoha in the end!” Naruto yelled. He tugged on his hair in frustration. “You should know how miserable I am too.”

Kyuubi growled and swiped the air with one clawed hand. A tree burst into flame, a flame so hot that it ate itself up in an instant, leaving only ash floating down where the tree used to be. “Humans,” he snarled contemptuously. “Always having to complicate things.”

Naruto scowled. “It’s not like we do it on purpose. Anyway –” he had to raise his voice when Kyuubi growled deep in his throat, “– anyway, I didn’t materialize you just so that you could yell at me some more. You know it’s a delicate time, right? The exam, Akatsuki, that stupid promise that I have to carry out, Orochimaru, blah blah. I can’t afford to have you screaming in my head!”

“You deserve it,” Kyuubi said, smirking.

Naruto had to sigh. “Okay, maybe I do,” he admitted. “And you can go back to screaming at me, but after everything’s gone down.”

Kyuubi crossed his arms. “That’s not all you wanted to say, is it?”

“No, it isn’t.” Naruto rubbed his eyes tiredly. “I need you to go talk to Shukaku. You demons can communicate mind to mind if your hosts are touching, right? So if you go like you are now, it should work too.”

“It will work,” Kyuubi agreed, “but I don’t see why I should do it. Shukaku has the right to be mad at you, though. And if I try to talk him out of it, he’ll be mad at me too, and I’ll be deprived of sex for decades!”

“Sex isn’t important right now!” Naruto snapped. “I need you and Shukaku in your human forms to help prepare the ritual and to act as two of the four corners, along with me and Gaara, when we activate the rites. We need to draw the symbols and lines before the exam starts, and it needs to be untraceable – which means you and Shukaku have to do it, because you know best about hiding your chakra, and when the arena is checked for sabotage they won’t check for anything so odd as demon chakra.”

“So?”

“So you need to convince Shukaku not to come tearing after me the moment he’s in his own body!”

Kyuubi eyed him, but didn’t say anything.

Naruto glared. “Look, remember the whole ‘if I die, you die’ thing? You want to keep me living to a ripe old age so that you have a better chance of surviving my death, right? If Shukaku kills me you’re screwed.”

Kyuubi tapped his fingers on his arm thoughtfully.

“And you can always convince Shukaku that there are better things to do with his time in his body than to kill me, like say… sex.”

That made Kyuubi grinned, showing sharp teeth. “Ooh, angry, snarling sex,” he said, eyes glittering. “You make a good argument, brat. Shukaku’s hot when he’s in the mood for bloody, biting fun.”

Naruto grimaced. “I didn’t need to know that.”

“I can’t believe I’m going to convince Shukaku to do things that will save Konoha,” Kyuubi muttered. “I should be destroying the place, damn it.”

“You’re going to be destroying Orochimaru, remember?” Naruto pointed out. “I thought you liked snake-hunting.”

“True, that.” Kyuubi grinned evilly. “Destroying that disgusting snake will be fun. Manda’s been in my way for far too long.”

Naruto winced at the mention of Orochimaru’s summons. That snake was big. “So you’ll talk to Shukaku?”

Kyuubi eyed him, and then shrugged gracefully, a gesture he’d recently learnt. “Fine,” he said dismissively. “I’ll do it.”

“Make sure you prepare the arena before the bunshins start to disintegrate,” Naruto warned.

“Yeah, yeah. Sex first, though.” Kyuubi smirked at him. “Don’t worry, the arena thing won’t take long. We’re bijuu, after all. Not like you slow mortals.” He waved lazily at Naruto, and was gone in a flash, leaping over the rooftops.

“Well,” Naruto said out loud into the silence, having peace for the first time in days. “Time to sleep, then.”

He was almost to the edge of the training grounds when a flare of familiar chakra exploded a distance outside the village walls, following immediately by another flare of extremely powerful chakra that was also, unfortunately, very familiar.

Damn it! He was never going to get any rest at this rate.

Naruto started to run.


For the past four days, Sakura had made two lunch bentos. Her obsessive crush on Sasuke had grown into love over the years – but she had long given up hope on having it returned. She didn’t mind, though. She knew that Sasuke was too consumed with so many other emotions to bother about love.

He had come to see her as a friend of sorts, and that was enough.

She hadn’t been a good friend to either of her former teammates, and she regretted it more than she regretted anything else in her life. It was why Sakura was determined to be a friend to Sasuke now, and not burden him with her love, because that was what a friend did – put her friends over herself.

When Naruto came back, she would be the best friend she could to him as well.

Sakura knew that this determination of hers might be foiled by the fact that Naruto might not want her back as a friend, or even an acquaintance. She had acted terribly and said truly awful things to him in the past. But, like she had done with Sasuke, Sakura would not let that deter her. If she could help either of the two men in any way, then even if they did not want her help and hated her for it, she would take the hate and continue to love them.

Because that’s my ninja way.

She laughed quietly to herself, remembering Naruto’s ridiculous grin, but her laugh was sad.

Training ground seven was right before her – she had walked far, lost in her thoughts, letting her feet automatically take her to where she wanted to go. She had been optimistic about the fact that Sasuke had chosen these grounds of all places, when he’d started coming here five years ago, and now that Sasuke had chosen Konoha over Orochimaru she felt justified in her optimism.

The sound of someone practicing came to her ears before she saw Sasuke, shadow-fighting. He sensed her presence and stopped, turning to her; she smiled at him and held up the lunchboxes.

“There’s eel today,” she said cheerfully. “I know you hated the egg rolls yesterday, so since I know you like eel I decided that you could do with a treat.”

“I’m not a child to be pacified,” Sasuke muttered as he came over, taking one of the boxes from her hands. “But… thanks.”

Sakura couldn’t stop her wide-eyed grin, so she not-so-discreetly turned her back, knowing that Sasuke hated such girly reactions, as he called them. But he’d thanked her! That was new.

It seemed that Sasuke really was trying.

Schooling her expression into something less obviously bright, she turned back and opened her own lunchbox, sitting on the flat rock she’d been using the past few days she had come. Sasuke had simply dropped to the ground cross-legged, and was already eating. “I put some broccoli in –” she began.

Chakra flared in the distance.

Sasuke was up on his feet in a flash, lunchbox placed absently on the rock. Sakura did the same, frowning slightly. There was something familiar about that chakra… her eyes widened. “Sasuke-kun…”

He turned to stare at her. “You know who it is? It seems familiar.”

She could feel the blood draining from her cheeks. “I… I think I know, but… it can’t be!”

“Just say it,” Sasuke said impatiently.

Sakura swallowed. “That Mist missing-nin, with the huge sword. That C-ranked mission that turned out to be an A-ranked or higher. What was his name –”

Zabuza? But he’s dead!”

They stared at each other. And then, lunch abandoned, they ran, leaping from tree to tree across the training grounds, heading to where the chakra had come from.

A blur in black shot past them, going at unimaginable speed. They stared after it.

Another blur shot past, slower, but then it dropped back. Sasuke and Sakura found themselves being paced by their former instructor. “Yo,” Kakashi said cheerfully. “So you recognized it too, hmm?”

“Sensei, how is it possible?” Sakura asked as they ran. “We saw him die!”

Kakashi shrugged, and made the movement look easy even when they were running at top speed. “Your guess is as good as mine.”

Yet another blur appeared, and resolved itself into an ANBU mask. “Kakashi-sempai, Hokage-sama has already ordered all shinobi to stay in the village in case this is a prelude to a larger attack. She’s sent out ANBU to tell all those running to the scene. Jiraiya-sama can handle it.”

“Knew I recognized the other chakra signature,” Kakashi said sagely as Sakura yelped, “Jiraiya-sama? Naruto’s old sensei?”

“Yes. Please return, Kakashi-sempai.”

“Tell the old lady that we’ve met this threat before,” Kakashi said easily. “And he’s supposed to be dead.”

The ANBU seemed to pause. “Dead?”

“Yeah. Stop following us, Shinji-kun, and go tell the Hokage that it’s Zabuza, who we quite definitely killed a good number of years ago.”

“Yes, Kakashi-sempai.” The ANBU left them, bounding back to the Hokage Tower.

Sasuke snorted. “Quite obedient, isn’t he?”

“My kouhai tremble in their socks when they hear my name,” Kakashi said solemnly.

“We don’t wear socks.”

“Imaginary socks. Use your creativity, Sasuke-kun.”

They hit the forest that was outside of Konoha, and dropped down into the branches, heading toward the sources of chakra. There was another explosion – and then they burst into a large clearing, which had by the looks of just only just been cleared – there were felled trees all underfoot, newly toppled.

The fight going on made them stare. Kitsune was fending off attacks from both Jiraiya and Zabuza, who did not look dead at all. Kitsune kept putting himself between them, and Sakura suddenly realized that it wasn’t that they were attacking him, it was that they were attacking each other and he was trying to stop them both.

Jiraiya’s hair was alive, very big, and looked as hard as steel, as large spikes of it attacked like snakes, trying to impale both Kitsune and Zabuza, who were both nimbly avoiding each and every attack. Zabuza was trying to get past Kitsune and at Jiraiya, slicing with his huge sword, but weirdly, unlike Jiraiya, he seemed to be actively trying to avoid hurting Kitsune.

Kitsune had drawn a long, sleek katana, made of some odd black metal, and was wielding it with obvious skill – he was able, while darting around himself, to block every spike of hair and every stroke of broadsword that looked like it would hit its target. Every time Zabuza’s sword whistled towards Jiraiya, Kitsune’s blade deflected it. Every time Jiraiya’s hair shot towards Zabuza, Kitsune’s blade knocked it off course.

“Wow,” Sakura whispered, feeling awed. She’d seen shinobi using blades before, but this was just… wow.

Neither Jiraiya nor Zabuza were giving up, though, and Kitsune finally ran out of patience. He snarled, and swept his free arm outwards in a broad circle.

Fire erupted.

With yells, Jiraiya and Zabuza leapt back, away from Kitsune and each other, all three of them balancing on the fallen trees. The assassin stood wreathed in fire, scarves of brilliant flame that didn’t seem to need fuel to burn. He glared first at Jiraiya, then at Zabuza. “Look, this is all a great big misunderstanding, okay? Old man, Zabuza isn’t here to do any harm –”

Watching, Sakura knew that words would not penetrate the battle lust that had seized the two men. It must be a male thing, she thought grimly – all that testosterone. Grinning madly, Zabuza made a rapid series of hand seals. A huge tidal wave of water rose behind him out of nowhere. Jiraiya smirked, and in his hand formed a swirling blue ball of chakra.

Sakura recognized it immediately – the rasengan. Naruto had used it on the rooftop of the hospital, a long time ago. It had only created a small hole in the water tank, as compared to the huge gash that Sasuke’s chidori had wrecked, but Sakura had found out weeks later that the tank Naruto had hit had all but exploded, the force of the rasengan practically ripping the entire back of the tank out.

Zabuza brought his arms down, and the water surged forward.

Jiraiya grinned ferally and leapt, the ball of chakra in his hand aimed right at Zabuza.

Kitsune screamed in fury.

An intense heat slammed into Sakura, and the two men next to her. All of them had to leap back a few branches, but they couldn’t tear their watering eyes away from the searing wall of flame that met the water head-on. Great sizzling mists of hot steam exploded into being, rising high, and Sakura could hardly hear herself think for the sound of hissing steam.

But that wasn’t all – even if it wasn’t as spectacular, that ball of chakra in Jiraiya’s hand was just as deadly. Sakura frantically blinked away the light-spots in her eyes as she squinted.

Kitsune was suddenly right in Jiraiya’s path, blocking his access to Zabuza. Jiraiya’s momentum meant that he could not stop – he would drive the ball of chakra right into Kitsune instead. He didn’t falter, though, a look of steely determination in his eyes, apparently deeming Kitsune an enemy as well – but then his eyes widened, and a look of complete shock came over his face. Sakura was confused, until she saw it, too.

There was an identical ball of swirling chakra in Kitsune’s hand.

He brought his hand forward to meet Jiraiya’s.

A loud thunderclap boomed through the entire forest, deafening Sakura as she clapped her hands over her abused ears – she was sure she was screaming, but she couldn’t hear herself. She saw Jiraiya get blown back a great distance, his back hitting a still-standing tree, causing it to sway – but Kitsune had only been knocked back a few paces, and was still on his feet. The most frightening, burning aura of murderous anger radiated from him, as he slowly straightened.

In that moment, Sakura was more terrified of this man than she had ever been of anything, anyone in her entire life.

Sound slowly filtered back in – the abating hiss of the steam, the creaking of wood. Kitsune had turned to stare at Zabuza, after a look at Jiraiya was enough to tell anyone that the older man would not be attacking anyone any time soon. The assassin strode over to the Mist nin, who was looking angry, but… guilty as well?

“I told you to keep a low profile!” Kitsune’s voice was low and snarling, but it carried. “I said that if you met anyone strong, avoid confrontation. And what part of ‘don’t come near Konoha’ did you not understand!”

A shadow moved. Sakura’s jaw dropped as Haku, also very much not dead, detached himself from the shadow of a tree and quickly joined Zabuza. “Kitsune-san,” he said in that sweet voice of his. “It was my fault; I was supposed to be on lookout, but I was taken off-guard by the opponent. Zabuza-sama saved me, and he just got caught up in the battle – we haven’t fought any strong opponents lately, as per your orders, and I suppose he was just restless.”

It seemed that Kitsune was weak to this sort of defence. He sighed, deflating. “Damn it, Haku… how the hell am I supposed to explain this now? Why are you even here, anyway? I did say not to come near Konoha.”

“We have information that we felt was too important to entrust to carrier pigeons,” Haku said. “We were planning on hiding, and asking you to meet us outside the village, when… this happened.”

Kitsune sighed again. Then he looked at Zabuza. “I thought you had better control than that,” he said, reproach in his voice.

Zabuza snorted. “Haku’s been a good little boy, keeping me from fighting anyone worthwhile… you can’t blame me for getting excited when I finally have a worthy fight on my hands.”

“Still, fighting right outside Konoha? That’s beyond stupid, Zabuza.”

He growled. “I know I screwed up, brat. Stop talking to me.”

Kitsune threw up his hands. “I don’t know why I bother,” he muttered. Then, to Sakura’s shock, he looked right at her through the trees, across the distance. “Haruno-san, would you please check on the old man? You’re a medic, right?”

“Uh…”

Kakashi patted her on the shoulder. “Let’s go, Sakura.”

They made their way to where Jiraiya was crumpled against a tree. She sent her chakra into him, and found a few fractured bones in his ribs and hand, lots of bruises, and a concussion. She healed the concussion first, and then set about working on sealing the fractures. The rasengan was a really formidable technique… she’d had the vague idea that it was a special move limited only to Konoha, but if Kitsune knew it too, then perhaps it was a general jutsu, like the widely-used clone techniques, or the body swap jutsus.

Jiraiya came to with a groan as she was finishing. “Wha…” he muttered.

Kakashi crouched down next to him, leaning over to put his head right in Jiraiya’s vision. “Jiraiya-sensei,” he said cheerfully. “It’s me, Kakashi.”

“You were his student too?” Sakura said, interested.

“No, but my teacher was. It’s mentorship by association.” Kakashi shook Jiraiya gently. “Jiraiya-sensei, do you know who I am?”

The old man blinked his eyes open and stared blankly at Kakashi for a moment. “Kakashi… what happened?”

Kakashi beamed. “Ah, my ex-student’s in the process of healing you –”

With impressive speed, Jiraiya had leapt to his feet. Sakura jumped up, too, holding his arm. “Jiraiya-sama, wait! You’re not fully healed yet –”

He stared at her. “You’re… Tsunade’s student, right?”

Sakura nodded. “Yes, that’s right. Jiraiya-sama, you were pretty hurt, please sit back down.” She tried to tug him back down, but it was futile.

“I’m fine,” Jiraiya said, absently patting her head, attention back on Kitsune’s figure in the distance. “I need to –”

“Jiraiya-sensei.” Sakura was grateful as Kakashi stepped in front of Jiraiya. “Kitsune – the white-masked man – is on our side. And Zabuza seems to be under his control, so he’s not a threat. I would appreciate it if you don’t kill our allies.”

Jiraiya stared at him, and then at Kitsune and Zabuza and Haku, talking in low voices amongst themselves. “That’s Kitsune? The assassin? Kakashi, he –”

“Yes, I know.” Somehow those two words meant more than that they seemingly did. “The two with him used to be missing-nins. I say used to be, because they’re supposed to be dead.” Kakashi sounded mournful as he added, “It’s really sad when the people you’ve killed just bounce up again.”

But Sakura could see Jiraiya wasn’t interested in Zabuza or Haku anymore. He ducked around Kakashi, who let him pass, and headed towards Kitsune. Sakura looked at Kakashi, wondering what to do.

He looked at her and smiled in that irritating curved-eye way. “Let’s follow him, shall we? If he falls over, Sasuke – you catch him.”

“Why me?” Sakura heard her ex-teammate snap as she ran after Kakashi, who was already heading after Jiraiya. Sasuke followed reluctantly behind her.

They caught up to Jiraiya, and approached the three men, who stopped talking and turned to face them. Haku was smiling as if all was peaceful, Zabuza was scowling in his scary way, and Kitsune’s mask was blank as ever.

They came to a stop. Zabuza’s gaze swept over them, and he suddenly smiled a nasty smile. “The old team all back together again, eh?”

“Shut up, Zabuza,” Kitsune said without looking at him.

Sakura watched, confused, as Zabuza looked more closely at them. Then he shook his head in what seemed to be amazement. “They don’t know?” he said to Kitsune.

“If you don’t stop talking I’ll hurt you. I mean it.”

Zabuza didn’t say anything, but an oddly amused smile played on his lips.

Jiraiya spoke up. “Kakashi tells me you’re Kitsune,” he said, watching Kitsune closely.

Kitsune tilted his head. “Yes. I am.” He paused, and then added, “I hope the old frog won’t kick me off the register now. Foxes eat frogs, right?”

Sakura had no idea what they were talking about. Frogs? Registers? But it seemed to make sense to Jiraiya, because his expression had changed to one that was a mix of regret, awe, guilt, joy… “I can’t believe this,” he said, and his voice sounded choked. “You’re really –”

“I’m really Kitsune,” the assassin said quickly. “In the flesh.” There was some kind of warning in his voice.

“You –”

They were suddenly interrupted by Tsunade herself, accompanied by two ANBU. “I thought I’d better come by and handle this myself,” she told them as they stared at her. “Jiraiya, you old pervert – you took your time coming back!”

He snorted, regaining his composure. “And you took your time coming here, you old hag.”

A vein in her forehead twitched. “I’m going to hurt you for that,” she told him ominously, “but later.” She turned to Kitsune and the two men behind him, eyeing them critically before glaring at Kitsune. “Alright, I want explanations and fast.”

Kitsune sighed. “I’ll give you the full explanation in the privacy of your office. All I’ll say now is that they’re no threat – they fight for me now. Actually, they weren’t even supposed to be here, but I sent them on an information gathering mission and apparently they have something so important they had to tell me face to face.”

The black look on Tsunade’s face grew with each word. “So basically, you want me to invite S-Class missing nins into Konoha.”

“Technically only Zabuza is,” Kitsune said helpfully. “Haku’s just along for the ride.”

Sakura had to bite back a laugh at the look on her sensei’s face.

“Relax, they’re only missing-nin if the village deems them to be, right?” Kitsune waved a hand. “If the Mizukage kicks up a fuss, I’ll talk to him. It’ll be fine.”

“You know the Mizukage.” Tsunade’s voice was flat and disbelieving.

“Yeah… and he’ll take my word for it if I say Zabuza and Haku aren’t threats. I’ll take responsibility if anything happens, okay?”

“Something already has happened,” Kakashi piped up.

“Shut up, Kakashi,” Tsunade said without looking away from Kitsune. “Look, I’d like to take your word for it too, but this is a political matter – if the Mizukage doesn’t listen, and Konoha is said to harbour missing-nins –”

“The Mizukage will listen.” Gaara appeared in a swirl of sand next to Kitsune. “If Kitsune’s word is not enough, will mine do?”

Tsunade sighed. “Kazekage-sama. You don’t look surprised that two missing-nins who are supposed to be dead are suddenly under the control of your friend.”

“I do not normally look much of anything, including surprised,” Gaara said calmly. “But in this case I did know about them. And because I know about them and how they came to be here, I will say that you can take Kitsune’s word and trust that they are no threat to any but Kitsune’s enemies.”

“Well, since even the Kazekage says so…” Tsunade pursed her lips. “Kazekage-sama, Jiraiya, and Kitsune – and those two that follow you – we’ll continue this in my office.”

Kakashi silently raised a hand.

“Fine, Kakashi too, if you must. Sakura, Sasuke… you can go back to whatever you were doing.”

Sakura glanced at her ex-teammate apprehensively. He was indeed looking mutinous, no doubt resenting being sent away like some child. It couldn’t be helped, though. Turning to Tsunade, she said, “Tsunade-sensei, Jiraiya-sama was hurt. I couldn’t finish healing all the fractures.”

Tsunade gave her a brief smile. “I’ll see to it. Thank you, Sakura.” Then she looked at the men. “Well, gentlemen…?”

Kitsune gave her an ironic little bow, and then disappeared in a flash of speed, Zabuza and Haku following him as if they had read his mind. Gaara nodded to Tsunade, and disappeared in a swirl of sand again. Tsunade looked at Jiraiya – he nodded, and they both vanished into the trees, the ANBU following them.

Sakura and Sasuke were left in the wreckage, two lost, lone figures.

There was silence.

Then Sasuke said, “What the hell just happened?”

Sakura was feeling about the same way, only her question was slightly different: who in the world was Kitsune?

And why did she have the odd sense that she knew him?


“I don’t believe this.”

“Jiraiya… can you stop saying that?”

“I don’t believe this.”

“Oi, ero-sennin, is it really so hard to believe in how brilliant I am?”

“I don’t believe this.” Jiraiya stared some more at the blond in front of him making some horrible faces. “There’s just no way.”

“Argh! Ero-sennin, it really is me! See, I even sound like me! No more mask, no more voice-changing jutsus – ack!”

Laughing, Jiraiya grabbed Naruto in a headlock and ruffled his hair hard. He felt full to bursting with joy and relief. “You had me worried, brat – what the hell were you thinking?”

He let Naruto wriggle out from his hold, and watched grinning as his former student tried to neaten his hair again, grumbling. “You and baa-chan ask the same questions. I’m not going to answer you! So there!”

Jiraiya snorted. “Don’t be cocky, brat, I can still take you on!”

“You know, I just realized, but why does everyone call me that?” Naruto complained. “I’ve grown up already, you know!”

“Because you are one,” Kakashi said immediately.

“You’ll always be a brat,” Jiraiya informed him.

“What do you mean, grown up?” Tsunade said, eyebrow raised.

Even Gaara contributed. “It’s what you are.”

Zabuza cackled. Haku hid a smile.

Naruto sighed.

“But… a brat who’s come a long way, I must say,” Jiraiya admitted, looking at the young man. “To accomplish so much in five years… even if running away is wrong, at least you made full use of the time.”

He walked over to Naruto, who watched him apprehensively. “I had to leave, ero-sennin,” the blond said, a plea for understanding in his voice. “I know you took me under your wing and all, but… I had to.”

Jiraiya had to smile. He gripped Naruto’s shoulders with both hands, and looked straight at the younger man, strong and mature now, so much like Minato. He thought back with a pang of sadness to those days spent ‘training’ Naruto, sharing twin popsicles, watching him refuse to give up, the time they fought Orochimaru together, the passion that had drawn Tsunade in as surely as it had drawn Jiraiya himself. If only he had paid more attention to the boy Naruto had been then…

This Naruto had grown up without him knowing. But while Jiraiya wished that he could have had a little more time with the Naruto of the past, he could not be prouder of the Naruto standing before him. “I’m not going to yell at you, Naruto. I understand somewhat. I just wanted to say that I’m proud of you.”

Blue eyes were wide. “You… you are?”

“Yeah. You really exceeded all expectations I had, brat. I think that if you had followed me, you wouldn’t have developed your potential half as much.” Jiraiya clapped him on the shoulders once more and then let go, stepping back. “You did well.”

Naruto ducked his head, and scrubbed at his eyes with one hand. When he next looked up, Jiraiya – and everyone else – pretended not to see the remnants of watery brightness in his eyes. “Thank you, Jiraiya-sensei. Coming from you, it means a lot.”

Jiraiya nodded, a little awkward himself, and moved back. Then he had an idea, and grinned. “If you’re really grateful, brat… then do that jutsu of yours, it’s been years – hey!” He turned to glare at Tsunade, holding the paperweight that he’d barely managed to catch. “You could take someone’s head off with that, old hag!”

“I can’t believe you encourage your students to use such disgusting jutsus like that –”

They were interrupted by Zabuza’s annoyed voice. “Look, can we just give you our information quickly? I don’t like being in such public places.”

They all sobered. Naruto looked at Zabuza. “That’s right… it would be a good idea for you guys to lay low until the battles start. You can stay at my inn after this, I’ll book you a room.” He turned to the rest of them. “A while ago, I sent Zabuza and Haku to monitor Akatsuki’s movements.”

Jiraiya was impressed. The kid was really on top of things. “So what did you find out?” he asked, directing the question to the missing-nin.

Zabuza looked unusually serious. “They’re after the Jinchuuriki, as you all should already know – the members go around in pairs, and each member is assigned to kidnap one Jinchuuriki. We’re still not sure what they do with their captives. Recently, however, the members were called back from their roaming. They’ve temporarily stopped collecting Jinchuuriki, in order to focus on their new goal. From what I gathered… they want to throw the shinobi world into chaos.

“And to do that they’re going to kill all the Kages that will be at the exam, and then the others that aren’t.”

Complete silence.

“There’s more,” Jiraiya said, when no one spoke. “I’ve been collecting information on them too, but I’ve been focusing on the individual members. They’re really powerful, Tsunade, Kazekage-sama. There are ten of them, after Orochimaru left. I believe two will not be present, because they currently rule Amegakure, and another one of them is more of a passive member who gathers information – but seven of them are more than we can handle. Each one is enough to rival a Kage.”

He looked at Zabuza. “We’ve met a pair before – one of them is from your village, Hoshigaki Kisame.”

Zabuza’s mouth tightened. “I know of him,” he said. “He’s… strong. Very strong.”

“That chakra-eating sword of his is a pain,” Jiraiya agreed. His gaze went to Gaara, who met it evenly. “There’s also one from your village, Kazekage-sama – you should know him. Sasori of the Red Sands.”

The light of surprise in green eyes darkened into something shadowed. “I know him,” Gaara said quietly. “At least, I know what he can do.”

Jiraiya nodded. His gaze swept the rest of the room. “They’re all very powerful – and if they want to kill the Kages, I’m afraid they just might be able to do it. They don’t work together with Orochimaru, but I believe they will use his attack to cover theirs, and maybe help add to the destruction. And Orochimaru will be attacking, there’s no doubt about that. In the chaos that Orochimaru creates, it will be easier for Akatsuki to attack and kill the Kages off. Plus, one of them is an explosives expert – they might set him to destroy Konoha, which will help that aim of throwing the world into chaos. If Konoha falls…”

He didn’t finish the sentence. They all knew.

“We can’t just tell the Kages to turn back now,” Tsunade muttered, almost to herself. “We need to contact them – we need to know if they will fight, or if they will need to be protected and hidden… no, we have to convince them to fight, because if they don’t then there is no way Konoha can withstand the attack of seven Akatsuki members and Orochimaru. Then there’s also the civilians, we have to drill them in evacuation procedures…”

“The village will be flooded with shinobi come to watch the exam, more than the capacity of the stadium,” Gaara said. “The stands will be packed full to bursting; the streets outside will be crowded. If anything happens no one in the stadium will be able to get to safety in time.”

“And there will be Sound shinobi among the people,” Naruto pointed out. “There’s no real way to screen everyone who passes through Konoha’s gates without having a line stretching all the way to Suna’s border, with the number of people coming.”

“We could ban the civilians from attending,” Kakashi suggested. “Hide them away even before the exam and until the battles end. That way we’ll have less casualties, and less numbers to deal with.”

“The civilians won’t be happy. No, scratch that, they won’t even comply with such a request if we ask. Even if we tell them that war is sure to descend, there will be a large group that won’t believe it, or will think it’s worth the risk. Especially with all the big names – the Kazekage, Kitsune, Neji, Sasuke. The villagers will definitely not want to miss Neji’s and Sasuke’s matches. And we’ll have more problems with them trying to escape protection than if we let them roam around in the first place.” Tsunade was frowning at her table. “The children and women, though, perhaps. But we ought to try to get the men in as well.”

“We need to call a war council.” Everyone turned to stare at Gaara. He looked steadily around at all of them. “A good part of every village’s shinobi will be here. If Konoha is attacked during the exam, every village stands to lose a significant part of their people. Attacking Konoha during the exam is equivalent to declaring war, not only on Konoha, but on the entire shinobi world.”

“You make a good argument,” Tsunade said heavily. “But how do we call a war council when the other Kages will take a day or two to arrive?”

“I can bring them here.” Gaara stood gracefully. “If you agree that this is serious enough, I will go to them, and bring all three other Kages within an hour, maybe two.”

Tsunade looked at Jiraiya. He nodded at her. “The Kazekage is right.”

“Will they listen, though?” Kakashi said, his expression troubled. “It’s only Konoha that’s being attacked, after all. If they agree to join forces, they’re going to have to commit themselves and their people to essentially defend Konoha.”

“We can only hope,” Tsunade said.

“I’ll go with Gaara,” Naruto said. “I’ve met all the Kages before. They might feel a bit more reassured if they know I’m going to be helping Konoha.”

Tsunade rose as well. “I’ll prepare the council room. We’ll see you back here soon, then?”

Jiraiya pushed himself off the wall he’d been leaning on. “I want to talk to you,” he said to Zabuza. “See if we can consolidate what we know about Akatsuki. And don’t think I’ve forgotten that you’re supposed to be dead, I want to hear all about it.”

Zabuza shrugged. “I don’t know the details, you’ll have to ask the brat.”

Naruto threw up his hands when they all looked at him. “Is this the time for it?” he demanded. When everyone just continued to stare – Kakashi raised an eyebrow – he huffed. “Okay, short version – Orochimaru found their bodies and reanimated them, I don’t know what for, but he decided that they weren’t what he wanted and tossed them. I happened across them when they were dying – again – and put some of my chakra in them, so now they’re animated by me. Okay? Happy now? Can we go?”

Jiraiya stared at the two men in fascination. “They’re zombies?” He paused, and looked more closely at the younger man. “Hey – you’re really pretty. Are you a guy or a girl?”

Naruto hit him. “This is not the time to revert to your perverted habits, ero-sennin!”

He rubbed his head. Naruto’s blow hurt. “I was just asking,” he said defensively, and glared at Kakashi when the other man snickered. “Fine, I’ll be serious.”

Kakashi stood straight as well. “I’ll let the ANBU know,” he said, “so we can start preparing, and call in the reserves.”

“I guess this is it, then.” Tsunade surveyed them all; watching her, Jiraiya felt a pang of sadness – they were old now, old and bitter, and the thought of going through another war was a painful one. When would they be able to rest?

When we redeem ourselves and our failure as a team, a voice whispered in his mind. When we take responsibility for our mistake, and bring Orochimaru down.

He listened as Tsunade wished Gaara and Naruto speed, and luck. Then the two were gone in that handy sand-teleportation thing that the Kazekage used. He walked towards the door, beckoning to Zabuza and Haku. “Come on,” he said. “The more we know, the better we can fight them.”

Just before he opened the door, Jiraiya looked back at Tsunade. She was watching him with the same sadness that he felt – the same ache, the same regret… the same guilt. He gave her a small smile, and he knew that she understood when she smiled back.

This is it, were the unspoken words that they both understood. This is what it comes down to. We cannot let this go on, and one way or another, we will end it.

And if we die, it was be as a team.

All three of us.

Chapter Text

Only the dead have seen the end of war.

-- Plato


They had been coming without end since yesterday – alone, in pairs, in groups, in really large groups – and there were still people hurrying in until now. The level of noise was astounding; the level of excitement was through the roofs and to the sky. Every single store in Konoha was doing unbelievably good business.

It was pretty amazing, Konohamaru mused as he threaded his way through the crowd. It was like being in a few foreign countries all at once. Every direction you turned in, you encountered a hitai-ate with a different symbol on it, even the occasional one that represented Hidden Steam, or Hidden Waterfall, or the like – villages with few shinobi and fewer still who ventured outside into the world. Every group you brushed past, your ears caught a different language, or a different dialect – a colourful, fascinating mix of tongues that sounded strange but beautiful.

There was skin ranging from snow-white to coal-black, and skin ranging from fully covered to – Konohamaru stared, awed, until his view was obstructed – almost barely covered at all. Speaking of clothes, too, there were fashions ranging from the most conservative (some people were wearing formal kimonos, of all things) to the most outrageous, even worse than Anko’s fish-net or Kurenai’s bandages or – Konohamaru shuddered at the thought – Gai’s and Lee’s blindingly green jumpsuits. There was hair way past even the normal colourful shades you could find everywhere – hair with more than one, two, three colours in it all at once, hair that was approaching neon, or hair that defied gravity even more than Hatake Kakashi’s hair defied gravity (and that was saying something).

There were so many foreign shinobi around that not only the sheer number of them crowding every available inch of space made Konohamaru’s head spin, but the sheer variety of them. He hadn’t realized that people could be so vastly different and yet still be people.

But it wasn’t only the rest of the world touring in Konoha. As Konohamaru walked on, he realized that the Konoha clans were out in full force today, too. He kept encountering the Inuzukas, with their enormous dogs happily sniffing all the strange smells, and the Aburames, snug in their trenchcoats even in the sweltering weather and stuffy crowd. Oddly enough, around them there was usually a Hyuuga to be found, too, dressed informally but set apart by their eyes.

“Konohamaru-kun! Over here! Over here!”

That shrill voice led him easily to the rest of his team, standing at the mouth of an alley. They were looking so excited they could almost burst. Moegi latched onto his left arm, Udon onto his right. “This is so cool, Konohamaru-kun!” Udon said fervently as they peered out from the relative safety of the alley, watching the world – almost literally, really – stream past.

“Yep, it is,” Konohamaru said, nodding decisively. “But we must keep our cool. We must show them that even Konoha genins are not to be looked down on!”

“You’re so right, Konohamaru-kun!” Moegi said worshipfully.

“But people can’t help but look down on you, you know… literally,” came an amused voice from behind them. “I mean, your heights leave a bit to be desired.”

The three genins whipped around. Konohamaru had a haughty tirade all ready to fly off his tongue, when his eyes registered who it was that had spoken and his words were so terrified they zoomed right back down his throat, making him choke a little.

With everyone talking about the examinees this year, it was easy to recognize the man in the white mask as Kitsune.

Moegi squeaked.

Kitsune crouched down, tilting his head curiously to look up at them – crouching, he was shorter than they were. “Are you three still genins?” he asked.

Konohamaru cleared his throat. Still genins? It was an odd question. “We’re genins,” he replied, trying to act nonchalant, “but sensei says he’s gonna recommend us for chuunin exams next year!”

“Really?” Kitsune sounded sceptical. “How long have you guys been genins again?”

“Four years,” Konohamaru said defiantly, and a little defensively. “But it doesn’t matter how many times you fail, as long as you don’t give up!”

“I see.” It was hard to tell what Kitsune was feeling from his voice alone. “Don’t you think that’s a little foolish?”

Konohamaru drew himself up as tall as he could, bristling. How dare this person insult him, and belittle the Commander’s words? “Do you know who you’re talking to?” he demanded. “I’m going to be the Shichidaime Hokage one day!”

“The… Shichidaime?” Kitsune sounded confused. “Isn’t the current Hokage the Godaime? You’re missing one number.”

“You really don’t know anything,” Konohamaru sniffed. “Our Commander is going to be the Rokudaime Hokage, and I’ll be his successor, and when the time comes you’ll regret it!”

“Your Commander?”

“Un!” This time, Moegi and Udon nodded enthusiastically with Konohamaru as he said, “Our Commander is Uzumaki Naruto – remember the name! He’s going to be the Hokage real soon.”

Kitsune was quiet for a moment. Then he rose to his feet. “You really do have faith in this person, don’t you?”

“Of course! He’s been gone for a long time, but he’ll be back and he’ll be stronger than ever, and everyone will see how worthy he is!”

“I see.” Konohamaru wasn’t good at this sort of thing, but he could have sworn that there was wistfulness in that voice. “Well, it was nice meeting you… Konohamaru-kun.”

Then he was gone, striding down the alley to disappear into the crowd at the other end. The three genins stared after him, awed.

“We just spoke to Kitsune,” Udon whispered, amazed.

“He’s so cool,” sighed Moegi.

But all Konohamaru could wonder was: “How did he know my name?”


Two days of preparations.

Only two days to get everything together.

Things were still so sketchy, and no one was sure if any of their plans would work… but no, he couldn’t think like that. They had done the best they could, and as long as each of them played their part, hopefully things would be more or less okay.

Two days would have to be enough.

Naruto strode through the streets, ignoring the whispers and stares as he passed groups of people, and thankful for the way that those in front of him, alerted by the commotion, hastily moved out of his way when they turned to see him. It made getting to the Leaf Arena much easier.

He sighed when he saw the huge crowd already waiting for the gates to open – the seats were on a first-come, first-served basis, and so many had been queuing bright and early. Naruto didn’t want to know when the first groups had started queuing – it was not even eight in the morning, and there was already a crowd that big? It boggled the mind.

He sensed a familiar presence come up to him – no, two. He turned to greet his friends. “Morning, Lee, Neji.”

The Hyuuga gave him a rare smile as Lee returned his greeting with bubbling happiness. Naruto tuned out his babble about the flames of youth outlined against the morning sky, and leaned closer to Neji so that he didn’t have to shout above the noise. “You okay with the plan? I know you must be impatient, having to delay your ascension to jounin rank.”

Neji shrugged. “The rank doesn’t matter. I know what I’m capable of, and so do the other shinobi.” His pale eyes went dark. “I’m just thinking about the casualties… I don’t agree with the part of the plan that includes not letting the crowd know.”

A hand rested on each of their shoulders. Lee smiled at them, not one of his ridiculous smiles; he squeezed their shoulders, and his eyes were serious. “I, too, feel badly for those thousands not in the know,” he said quietly, “but it is towards a greater purpose that we work today. We strive for the stability of the shinobi world – and if many must die, then their deaths will be on our conscience, but we cannot prevent them. We must instead face their deaths head-on, and make sure that it’s not all in vain.”

He let them go. Naruto looked at this unfamiliar Lee, the pomp and glitter gone, and was honoured that he was being given a glimpse of the man behind the mask that was his ridiculous appearance and grin. His chest felt tight. “Try not to die, either of you,” he said. “I only just got to know you guys again.”

“I won’t die if you won’t,” Neji said dryly, but Naruto could see the same emotion in his eyes.

He grinned, knowing that they could hear it in his voice as he said, “Deal. Lee?”

Lee gave them a thumbs-up. “Count me in.” He looked at the clock above the gate. “We should start pushing through the crowd, or we won’t make the meeting time.”

With one last nod all around, the three men turned to face the arena. Those in front of them glanced back at them, and then saw who they were and did a double-take. Neighbour nudged neighbour, and the crowd parted.

Layer after layer of people split, moving aside to let them pass, the noise level around them dropping and then roaring up again louder than ever. Naruto rolled his eyes, in the safety of his mask – what were they, celebrities?

Oh. Right.

They finally broke free of the crowd, to face the four ANBU standing guard before the gates. The two in the middle nodded to them, and stood aside to let them pass. Lee found the small door set into the larger gate and opened it, stepping through; Naruto followed, and Neji brought up the rear.

The stands rose impressively on either side, going higher and higher. Straight ahead they could see sunlight shining down on sparse grass and brown dirt. The three of them automatically fell into step as they headed right for the centre of the arena.

“Where’s Gaara-san?” Lee asked in an undertone.

“He refused to brave the crowd,” Naruto replied, equally soft. “He’s coming by sand.”

“You could have gone with him,” Neji pointed out.

Naruto shrugged, remembering his meeting with Konohamaru and company earlier. “I wanted to see Konoha as it is now one more time… before everything,” he said simply.

He knew the others understood. They didn’t say anything more.

Then they were there, morning sunlight gentle on their faces. They stood in the centre of a vast spread of land. The Leaf Arena was the largest in Konoha, and its stands could hold many thousands. Everyone else was already there – as the three men approached, Gaara swirled into being amongst the small gathering.

Raido and Genma stood before them, Raido looking as proper as always, Genma looking bored as usual. “Finally,” Genma said as they joined the group. “Okay, firstly, if you didn’t already realize, Raido and I are going to be your referees. Secondly, there’s been a change of plans – we’re shifting the order around a little, to spice up the exam. To get the crowd going, we’ll have Uchiha and Lee’s match first. The rest of your matches will follow the same order. Okay with everyone?” He didn’t wait for them to respond as he said briskly, “Good. Now, there are waiting rooms that are soundproofed if you don’t want to be disturbed while you wait for your turn, and there’s the little balcony thing set into the side of the arena for those who want to watch. Take your pick, but pick one. We’re opening the gates in five minutes.”

The group moved towards the side of the arena where they could see the aforementioned balcony. Naruto strolled along behind them, feeling a little bad about their eagerness – only he, Neji, Lee and Shino knew that soon, they would not be fighting for jounin rank in an arena, but rather for their lives in a war.

And Sasuke – did he know? Did he suspect? Probably not; one of the most important parts of the plan was to keep him from knowing. Naruto wondered what he thought about suddenly going first, instead of last. The only reason why they’d done it was to preserve the strength of the shinobi for the true fight, because after – or perhaps more accurately, during Sasuke’s match it would begin, and the conspirators hadn't wanted the others to waste their chakra in fighting one another when they would probably need as much strength as they could to fight off the invaders.

Everyone was in the soundproof room for now, waiting for the crowd to settle down before they all trooped out to watch Sasuke’s match. Naruto sat with his back to a wall, meditating, trying to settle his nerves. Gaara was beside him, which he was thankful for – even if things were awkward between them now, even if he knew he might have to give the other man up, he still loved Gaara, and having Gaara there did wonders for his mood. Besides, he’d spent almost all the past five years with Gaara, and he’d kind of developed an addiction to Gaara’s presence.

They sat there in meditative silence until Raido came for them. As according to plan, Naruto and Gaara declined to follow the rest, and remained in the room. When the door shut behind the last person, they looked at each other. Then Naruto made the hand-seals, and held out his hand mutely. It was Gaara’s choice. For fear of being spied on, they couldn't speak, but Naruto couldn't bear to leave things like this.

The Kazekage looked for a long moment at the hand. Then, his green eyes softening a fraction, he took it.

Gaara… I’m sorry.

What for? You have apologized and I have already forgiven you for the incident involving Uchiha.

Yeah, I know, but still… I’m just sorry in general. I’ve been keeping my distance, I know you’ve noticed, and I know I’m hurting you but… there are reasons. Important ones.

I know.

I’ll explain it to you after this is all over, I swear –

Naruto. It is alright. There was such peace in his mental voice. I understand.

There was nothing he could say to that. Then… I guess it’s time.

Yes.

Okay.

Naruto?

Yeah?

Gaara smiled, and it was the smile Naruto had been yearning for the whole week. Do not die.

He grinned back. Same goes to you.

They let go of each other’s hand at the same time, fingers lingering. Then, shelving their emotions, green eyes met blue, both set and determined. They formed their hand-seals.

Kyuubi and Shukaku appeared. Naruto winced at the glare that Shukaku shot him, and he was grateful when the two demons turned without a word and left the room, heading to their positions. Naruto looked at Gaara. “Shall we?”

Gaara gave him a faint smile, and swept out of the door. Naruto caught up to him, and they quickly made their way to the viewing gallery.

The match had just started; Lee was already going strong. He was a blur around Sasuke, too fast to be caught by the Sharingan or any other ninjutsu. Sasuke was forced to defend blow by blow, clearly not having expected Lee to go on the offensive so strongly and so quickly. Slow but sure, Lee herded him towards the centre of the arena, never letting up on his attacks. Naruto watched like a hawk.

Gaara tapped his shoulder. Naruto was a little surprised – what could Gaara want at this critical time? He turned, and green eyes were suddenly very close to his own. He swallowed.

The softest lips imaginable brushed against his own in the lightest of kisses. Gaara’s eyes were really impossibly beautiful, Naruto thought crazily. And his lips were like butterflies, gently fluttering, powder-soft.

Gaara pulled back. “Just in case,” he whispered, but there was unbelievable sadness in his voice. Then he was gone, in a rush of sand.

Naruto stared at where Gaara had been, almost unable to believe it. Then Neji hit his arm, wrenching Naruto’s attention back to the match. “He’s almost there,” Neji hissed.

With all his strength of will, Naruto shoved the memory of that kiss to the back of his mind and turned back to grip the railing. He watched Lee and Sasuke closely. It was almost time.

Just in case.

Lee chopped at the back of Sasuke’s neck, sending him reeling. A blow to his stomach knocked his breath out. A blow to the back of his knees sent him kneeling on the ground. The crowd gasped.

And then Lee raced away, a blur that vanished in a blink of an eye.

Just in case.

“Don’t you dare fucking die on me, Gaara,” Naruto whispered under his breath, and jumped.


Lee, panting with the exertion, leaned against the wall of the arena that Naruto had told him was safe to lean against. He watched the arena with his heart in his throat – did it work? Had he not brought Sasuke to the right place? Had he been too early? Too late?

In the distance, there was movement.

Sand, to his left, and a flash of red and clear green.

Gold eyes, to his right. Further down, long crimson hair swept the ground.

A figure dropping from a balcony set into the wall, landing lightly. Light reflected off a white mask.

Four sets of hands slammed into the ground.

The ground began to glow.

And Sasuke began to scream.


The designs glowing on the ground were really beautiful, Kakashi reflected. He couldn’t interpret them well, but he could read enough of the symbols to understand what they were meant to do. It was so simple that it was almost elegant.

Sometimes you need to use poison to burn another poison out.

The power required was immense, though, and the whole operation was pretty delicate – the moment it was interrupted it would fail, as was usually the case with rituals like these. But if it was successful, then Sasuke would be finally, finally free of the curse seal – and not only the seal, but its poisonous effects on his psyche would be cleansed.

Kakashi was really hoping that the seal was the source of the boy’s pain-in-the-ass-ness, but he doubted it. A small bit, maybe.

He could see what they had meant when they’d said that it was a fail-proof method to force Orochimaru’s hand, though – a guarantee of starting the battle in the way and with the timing that Konoha wanted, not Orochimaru. If the old snake pervert wanted to keep Sasuke as his container, he would have to intervene. The seal wasn’t only to increase its bearer’s power, after all. It also prepared the bearer’s body for Orochimaru’s possession.

He had no idea who the other two men who were feeding power into the ritual were, other than Naruto and Gaara, but their power was unbelievable. Kakashi doubted that they were normal shinobi. They were probably wanted dead somewhere.

Not his problem, though. His job was to… ah. There.

Kakashi grinned, the light in his eyes feral, as he leapt forward. The Sound nin who had been intent on trying to kill Gaara died with a gurgle, his throat slit with a kunai. A distance away, Gai broke the neck of another shinobi trying to kill Naruto. Across the arena Genma was laughing as he killed the men trying to get at the gold-eyed one kneeling on the ground; Raido was protecting the crimson-haired man with cold, deadly efficiency. Kotetsu and Izumo were standing guard over Sasuke, killing anyone who tried to get near him to remove him from his place.

The ground still glowed. Sasuke still screamed.

And in the crowd, a good number of shinobi were suddenly standing, blades out, hand seals beginning to form – but then, around them, yet more shinobi rose, eyes deadly intent on their prey. One by one, the disguised Sound nin went down at the hands of the disguised civilians – chuunins and jounins, revealing their hitai-ate, etched with symbols from all the Great Five countries, working seamlessly, grimly together.

The real civilians started screaming.

The Sound nins started fighting back.

And then things began exploding outside, the sounds echoing inside the arena, and all hell broke loose.


Tsunade watched the chaos unfolding beneath her with grim eyes from the Kage balcony, set high above all. Then she turned to the other Kages beside her. “Well, gentlemen?” she said. “It seems like our calculations were right – Orochimaru was forced to move early and so the Akatsuki will not be here for some time.”

The Raikage nodded. “And the plan must go on.” He looked up and around the city – the Great Five nins trying to push back the Sound nins swarming over the wall, the exploding buildings, the battles in the streets, the frantically escaping civilians streaming out of the arena. “Although it does not sit well with me what we must do next.”

“It has the unhappy feel of escaping to save our own skins,” the Mizukage agreed.

The Tsuchikage stood. “It may feel that way now, but when the Akatsuki descend, we will be thankful that our battles are taking place far from here, where innocent people will not be pulled into our fights. Even if it may rankle now, for our people, we must do this.”

Tsunade and the other Kages stood as well. “For the sake of our villages and the shinobi world,” the Mizukage said gravely, “fight well, my colleagues.”

“We will strip Akatsuki of so many members that it will never be able to raise its feeble head again,” the Raikage said with a touch of vehemence.

“For our people,” Tsunade said softly. They looked at one another. Then Tsunade moved first, taking off her Kage hat and placing it on her chair. The other Kages followed suit, as she removed the robes. When they were done, they looked like normal shinobi but for the authority that they exuded, and the ANBU from each village that flanked them.

The Tsuchikage grinned suddenly. “It’s been a long time since I wore my shinobi outfit,” he said, dropping the formal speech. “It feels good. The robes can be damn stifling at times.”

“I know exactly what you mean,” Tsunade said, grimacing. “And the hat! You can’t see anything from under the hat.”

“Try wearing the robes in my village,” the Mizukage grumbled. “Do you know how humid it is there? It’s like wading through mud after a while.”

“Um… Hokage-sama?” Eagle said, sounding a little bemused. “We should probably start moving.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Tsunade sighed, and then nodded at the others. “Let’s kick ass.”

“Oh, let’s,” said the Raikage, grinning madly.

The Tsuchikage nodded. “See you all later.”

In the next second, the Kage balcony was empty except for hats and robes, lying forlornly over their chairs.


Orochimaru frowned as he stood on top of one of Konoha’s watchtowers, looking out over the village. The situation looked bad – why the fuck were there so few Sound shinobi fighting in the areas where his main forces hadn’t been able to reach yet? He’d clearly sent a good third of his forces into Konoha disguised as spectators, for the element of surprise and internal confusion, so why…?

“Because we took most of them out before the battle even started.”

Orochimaru turned with a sneer, looking at Jiraiya, who stood on the other tower facing him. “What on earth are you talking about?”

Jiraiya was smirking. “You remember the Aburame and the Inuzuka? The Inuzuka dogs have amazingly sensitive noses, you know… and the Aburame bugs – now that’s really impressive. Did you know that either clan can detect the stink of snake on a shinobi?”

Slitted eyes narrowed even further. “Really.”

“Oh, and you know the Hyuuga? I’m sure you remember the Hyuuga.” Jiraiya examined his nails, the insolent bastard. “They’re really good at finding the exact nerves and chakra points to hit to immobilize people, so that they don’t kick up a fuss when they’re removed from the streets.”

Orochimaru hissed at him.

“We missed some, but we got most of them, I believe. You should have seen it. It was one of the most brilliant manoeuvres I’ve seen in a long time.” Jiraiya was smiling, but there was no humour in it at all. “Who knew that those two brats had such good brains in those pretty heads of theirs?”

With some effort, Orochimaru composed himself. When he next spoke, it was with a silky smile. “It doesn’t matter, Jiraiya. I still have the rest of my forces coming in. And there is still… me.”

Not for long.”

Jiraiya charged. Orochimaru had to abandon his summoning and leap away; Jiraiya came after him, relentless. He didn’t bother using jutsus – just his hair, physically lunging at Orochimaru.

There was no time to summon anything, or use a jutsu. Orochimaru barely had time to draw out his sword to counter the hair. Snarling, he fended off Jiraiya’s attacks, wondering why on earth the old pervert didn’t use anything else… his knowledge of jutsus was legendary. A spike of hair slashed a deep cut on Orochimaru’s arm, and he hissed, abandoning his thoughts to concentrate fully on the battle.

He finally managed to score a deep wound in Jiraiya’s side, and the old idiot finally backed off, leaping to a few branches away.

Branches?

Orochimaru looked around, and realized that Jiraiya had driven him away from Konoha and into the forests surrounding the village. So this was why Jiraiya had chosen his method of attack – it was true that a close-quarters taijutsu battle needed all concentration, more so than a battle with other forms of fighting.

“Thinking of the civilians, Jiraiya?” he called. “How touching.”

“No, just thinking of the cleaning-up.” Jiraiya smirked. “It’d be such a pain trying to remove a snake carcass from the village.”

“I imagine a toad carcass would be easier, then!” Orochimaru snarled, his hands already moving.

There were two huge explosions of smoke.

As it cleared, Orochimaru could feel the rumble of Manda’s hissing voice through the top of the scaly head he stood on. “Only the frog this time, Orochimaru?”

“The toad,” came the deep croaking voice of Gamabunta, “is more than a match for you, Manda.”

“We’ll see about that, Gamabunta.”

The smoke cleared, revealing Jiraiya on top of the huge toad’s head. At this distance, Orochimaru could not make out his expression, but the grim intent that he radiated was clear. Orochimaru cackled, and pitched his voice to carry across the distance: “I’m afraid your suicide mission is only going to claim one life, Jiraiya!”

There was a pause.

“You know,” Jiraiya said, “that’s really too easy.”

Orochimaru snarled. “Die, Jiraiya!”

Snake and toad rushed at each other, and their battle begin in earnest.


Seven heads under straw hats looked up at the explosion in the distance. The figures of an enormous toad and snake could just be made out.

“What the hell? It’s not even mid-morning yet! The battle was supposed to start late afternoon!”

“I can’t bloody believe that fucking snake managed to screw up something so shit simple as starting a fucking war!”

“Kisame. Hidan. Be silent.”

“Who are you to fucking tell me –”

It’s begun already. The Konoha nin forced Orochimaru’s hand. The Konoha shinobi are sneaky, they managed to –”

“Yes, thank you, Zetsu. We can see.”

“Also, the Kages have split up. They’re each in a different part of the forest, far from the village. They’re dressed for battle, it looks like they know we’re coming. Somehow they knew about our plans, and are ready to fight each of us.”

“I see. In that case, our primary objective of killing them holds priority over helping to destroy Konoha. We shall have to split up –”

Don’t be so hasty, Itachi. There’s more. Itachi, Kitsune is also one of those alone in the forest.”

“Kitsune’s here? I want to fight him, un!”

“We should just leave the guy alone, it’s not cost-effective to fight him as well. It’s not within the calculations, we don’t need –”

“He took off his mask. We know who he is. His identity is confirmed.”

“I don’t see –”

It’s the Kyuubi vessel. It’s Uzumaki Naruto. And it’s amazing how much he looks like Namikaze. He really looks like a clone of the man, there’s no doubt that he’s the son.”

“Namikaze? Tobi knows that name! Tobi knows who Namikaze is! Tobi wants to fight his son!”

“Hey, I had first dibs, un!”

Enough. I am in charge of this mission, and I would appreciate it if you remembered that. I will take on Uzumaki.”

“Itachi –”

“He is my target, after all.”

“…Fine.”

“The rest of you will take on your own Kages, for you know best how to deal with any jutsus they might have. That means Kisame will fight the Mizukage, Deidara will fight the Tsuchikage, Sasori will take the Kazekage, and Hidan will have the Raikage.”

“And me? My Kage isn’t here.”

“Kakuzu will fight the Hokage.”

“And me? What about Tobi?”

“You will come with me and stay out of my way.”

“But… but Tobi’s a good boy! Tobi can fight!”

“Oh, be quiet, Tobi, un!”

“Yes, Deidara-sempai.”

“Very well. All of you know your targets? Then let us make haste. We would not want to keep our esteemed Kages waiting, after all.”


Naruto opened his eyes to the most horrendous sight that no person opening their eyes should ever have to see.

Gai’s face in a very close-up view.

They were practically mouth to mouth.

“YAH!”

Naruto screamed, scrambled away from Gai, and shot to his feet. Oh gods, that had been close!

Then he remembered. “Did it work?” he demanded. He took stock of himself – he was almost at full strength, which meant… “It did, didn’t it?”

Gai beamed and gave him a toothy grin with a thumbs-up. “My eternal rival has checked Uchiha thoroughly and there is no sign that the seal ever existed!”

Naruto sighed in relief. He’d expected as much – if the ritual had worked, most of the chakra put into it would return to the people who had given it, since it had been a cleansing ritual where the given chakra would speed though the subject’s body in cycles until the foreign chakra – the seal – was erased. So, knowing that he was still mostly at full strength, it must have worked – but it was nice to hear confirmation.

Stop gloating, brat.

Hey, I’m entitled to it, okay? We did it! I’m free of my promise!

Who cares? Look at Gaara, will you?

What? Naruto almost tripped over his own feet as he whirled around to look at where Gaara had been. Kakashi was bending over him as he lay on the ground, the blue-green of healing chakra pooling in Kakashi’s hands.

He was beside the two of them in an instant. The arena was practically deserted now – how long had he been caught up in the ritual? How long had he been out? – with only the Konoha nin in the arena and lots of dead bodies, so he could hear Gaara’s faintly laboured breathing. “What happened to him?”

“Don’t shout, I can hear you perfectly well,” Kakashi said calmly. “He’s only unconscious because of the backlash when your chakra returned to you – he’s just out of it longer than you were, because of his existing injuries. The fall sent a shock of pain through his system, and when he collapsed his chakra hadn't fully returned and his unconscious body couldn't cushion himself from the fall. His rib cracked again. He’ll be fine when I’m done healing the rib, the bruises aren’t worth bothering with –”

“What rib? What bruises?”

Kakashi gave him a Look. “The broken rib and the tenderized torso,” he said. “You didn’t know? Aren’t you supposed to be his partner?”

Naruto was saved from answering when Gaara blinked open his eyes. “Stay still,” Kakashi told him. “Just a couple more seconds… and… yep. I’m done.” He pulled away and stood.

Gaara looked down at himself and up at Kakashi. “Thank you,” he said.

“No worries.” Kakashi smiled down at him. “Need a hand up?”

Gaara took the offered hand and stood, brushing off his clothes. “How long?”

“The ritual took maybe ten minutes, and you’ve been out for another ten.” Kakashi took out a couple of kunai. “I’d best be off now – and you, too. Akatsuki’s not here yet, but Jiraiya and Orochimaru fighting with their summons should have alerted them that the battle’s joined.”

Kotetsu and Izumo came over, carrying Sasuke. “What do we do with him?” Kotetsu asked Kakashi, hefting the unconscious figure in his arms.

“Stick him in the waiting room. One of you stay with him, he won’t be out for long. And he’s at full strength, so once he wakes he’ll be wanting to go off and fight, and you can let him run off then.” Kakashi nodded to Gai, who had come over. “Shall we?”

“Whoever kills the lesser number of Sound nin will have to hop all around Konoha ten times!” Gai declared.

“Yeah, whatever. Come on.” To Gaara and Naruto, he said, “See you kids later,” before running off.

“My eternal rival! What a wonderfully cool answer!” Gai cried worshipfully as he ran after Kakashi.

Izumo clapped Kotetsu on the shoulder. “Then I’ll be seeing you, too,” he said cheerfully before leaping into the stands and out of the arena, to Kotetsu’s howls of ‘COME BACK HERE, you traitor!’ But he was already gone.

Naruto ignored Kotetsu stomping off to the waiting room, cursing loudly, as he faced Gaara. “Those injuries were from that match with Sasuke, aren’t they?” he said accusingly.

Gaara shrugged. “It is not important –”

“The hell it isn’t! Why didn’t you tell me it was that bad? I thought he just gave you a couple of hits and that was it!” Naruto took a step forward. “Gaara –”

“I do not need your concern.” Gaara’s green gaze was calm. “I do not need your guilt. I need you to do what we are here to do.”

Naruto ignored him. “How could you think that I wouldn’t care?” he said. “Why did you let me go off on –”

It does not matter.” Naruto had never heard Gaara’s voice this hard before, and it shook him. “There is a war going on. Your beloved village is under attack. This is what you worked for all these years, Naruto – this is what you have been waiting for.”

“I never –”

“It might not have been a conscious choice, but I know you, Naruto.” Gaara indicated the village around them. “You have always wanted them to see your worth. You have always wanted them to acknowledge your strength. You keep saying you never want to return here, but deep inside you that is all you have wanted. Konoha is your home. That will not change. And no matter what you tell yourself, you will always want to return home.”

“Gaara…”

“So go, Naruto. Save your village.” Gaara took a step back, and managed a small, weary smile. “I will see you after the battle.”

“Wait –”

But Gaara had already been swallowed up by sand, and gone. Naruto was left standing alone amongst the bodies.

“Damn it,” he hissed with feeling. “Damn it, Gaara!”

Then he, too, turned and began running. Gaara had been right, at least – there was a war going on. And no matter how confused and conflicted he was inside, he would have to try to set it all aside and focus on the fighting.

Snarling with annoyed anger, Kitsune began running over rooftops, heading for the forest.

Chapter Text

Weep for the lives your wishes never led.

-- W. H. Auden


“So, you are the infamous traitor, Hoshigaki Kisame, formerly of the Seven Swordsmen of Mist.”

“Man, the standard for Mizukage is really dropping. The old man in my time was much stronger. You don’t have much chakra at all – whoa. What the hell?”

“I find it best to conceal my abilities, but for traitorous scum like you… no mercy will be given.”

“You just revealed your so-called abilities, you know. And even then you should be able to tell that my chakra pool way exceeds yours.”

“Did I say that I revealed all my abilities?”

“You think you can fight me without your full strength? Don’t underestimate me!”

“We’ll see about that.”


“Good afternoon. Lovely day for a stroll, isn’t it, Deidara?”

“…I’m not the child you once knew, Tsuchikage-sama, un. Don’t treat me like one!”

“And I dearly regret the loss. It’s not too late to return to us, Deidara.”

“Return to you? You’ll only limit my art once again, un! It was only when I left that my art truly bloomed!”

“Are those your own sentiments, or lies fed to you?”

“It’s not a lie, un. It’s the truth. I’m much, much stronger now, Tsuchikage-sama. My mastery of my art is reaching its peak –”

“Deidara –”

“And you will be my final short-lived masterpiece.”


“So you’re the Hokage chick –”

Boom.

“Hey –”

Boom.

“Stop throwing –”

Boom.

“– those trees at me! Can’t we start off with a nice chat?”

Boom.

“Okay, crazy chick, you asked for it!”


“You’re the current Raikage, huh? Any relation to that fucking idiot Ranmaru?”

“He was my grandfather, and a Raikage to be revered.”

“Yeah? Hah. He was a bloody pacifist, a damn waste of skin. It was my last tribute to the great god Jashin, who preaches the destruction of all things, when I left the fucking village, you know – I strung his bloody body up for everyone to see. Good days.”

“My grandfather’s guards removed the body before the village awoke.”

“What? Fucking hell! After all that trouble –”

“I, and my father before me, have carried the burden of his death to this day. Here and now, Hidan, your death will finally placate the restless spirits of my ancestors.”

“Are you a fucking idiot too? I’m immortal.”

“There will be a way.”

“Hah. You are an idiot. Let me show you what immortal really means.”


 “You must be Sasori. I have been waiting an hour for you.”

“And you’re the Jinchuuriki brat who was made Kazekage. What the hell was my old village thinking?”

“I wonder indeed.” Gaara raised a hand; sand lifted into the air, hovering. “I also must admit to wonder regarding why you left. Chiyo-san loves you very much, you know.”

“So the old hag is still alive?” Sasori shifted, his long tail rising into the air, poised like a scorpion’s sting. “If that’s what she calls love, I have no need of it.” His tail struck, speeding towards Gaara’s heart, and striking true –

But then flesh turned to sand, and sand gripped fast. It squeezed, grinding; the tail became part of the sand. A wave of it swamped Sasori’s figure, and crushed. It settled.

Silence.

Then the sand exploded in all directions as Sasori rose. Gaara blinked when he saw the pretty red-head instead of the hunched figure from before. “Ah… a puppet, I see. As befitting the legendary puppet master.”

Sasori smirked. “So this the power of the Ichibi? I see now where the Sandaime Kazekage got his idea from.”

Gaara frowned slightly. “The Sandaime Kazekage – the user of the Iron Sand?”

“Known as the strongest Kazekage in history,” Sasori agreed, taking out a scroll. “I see you know him. Why don’t I let you meet him?”

Gaara didn’t know what he meant, but if he summoned any more puppets it would be bad. Gaara immediately sent a wave of sand towards Sasori – but now, unencumbered by the large puppet he had been hiding in, Sasori was fast. He avoided all the sand while placing his hand of the scroll –

A veritable wall of puppets materialized, right in the way of the sand. Gaara snarled, and enveloped them all, crushing them into grains –

But it had been a distraction, to buy Sasori time. When Gaara could see him again, he was floating in the air, next to a puppet that looked almost exactly like the Sandaime Kazekage.

An ominous chill ran through Gaara.

“You called me a legendary puppet master,” Sasori said silkily. “And I’ll let you see how I gained my title.” He waved a hand; the puppet opened its jaws. Black sand – iron sand – spewed out from it as Sasori kept talking. “I have found the secret to the perfect puppet, little Jinchuuriki – I take a corpse, and with careful preparation I turn it into a puppet that retains the original body’s skills. Do you want a demonstration?”

He gestured again. The sand formed into spikes, a whole wall of spikes – aimed right at Gaara.

“For instance, the Sandaime could turn his chakra into a magnetic field and use it to control the iron sand… somewhat like your own ability with real sand. And I control the Sandaime.” Sasori smiled sweetly at Gaara. “But I added my own twist. I won’t tell you what it is… you’ll find out soon enough.”

His eyes narrowed. “Go.”

The iron sand spikes shot at Gaara.

He called up his own wall of sand, reinforcing it with chakra, and gritted his teeth as the iron sand slammed into his own. He held it at bay, working on tearing apart the separate grains so that they would lose their form – but there was something else.

I added my own twist… you’ll find out soon enough.

There is poison on each grain of iron, Shukaku growled in his head. I can smell it, sense it through the sand. It is strong. Do not let even a grain graze your skin.

I understand. Gaara shoved his chakra into the sand. The iron sand was forced out of shape. Sasori seemed to sense it, and withdrew.

Gaara lowered his wall to see Sasori staring thoughtfully at him. “This is going to be fun,” the puppet master said finally. “Too bad I can’t kill you, but then again… I don’t need to.” He grinned humourlessly. “Though you’ll be begging for death, after a while. For three days, to be exact.”

“I know about the poison,” Gaara said calmly.

He felt a surge of vindictive glee when Sasori’s face contorted. With a wordless scream, he pointed. Iron sand surged forward. Gaara met it with equal force, growling low in his throat.

The battle began.


“What the hell are you doing here?”

“I want answers! Why did you do it?”

“Look, Uchiha, this is not the time! The village needs your help –”

“And yours, too, but you’re idling away in the fucking forest, so don’t use that line on me. Just answer me and I’ll go. Why? And why didn’t you tell me!”

“To force Orochimaru’s hand early, alright? And if we had told you, you wouldn’t have been able to act like you didn’t know, and we needed it to look real –”

“Don’t give me that shit. You didn’t have to spend all that time and power on removing my seal, you could have found another just as effective way to jump-start the war. What’s the real reason?”

“There is no other reason! Go the fuck away, Uchiha –”

“If you’d just tell me the bloody truth –”

“The truth, little brother, is that he had a prior promise to do it.”

Naruto groaned at the sound of that voice. He’d sensed the Akatsuki members approaching, but he’d thought that he’d be able to send Sasuke away before they arrived. He really didn’t want Sasuke to go into his crazy vengeance mode.

Itachi,” Sasuke hissed, hands balling into fists.

Itachi stood there serenely, with another orange-masked Akatsuki at his side. “We meet again, Sasuke,” he said. “This is Tobi. Have you met him before?”

“Tobi is pleased to meet you, Itachi-sempai’s little brother!” Tobi said cheerfully. That one eyehole in the mask turned to Naruto. “And you too, Uzumaki-kun!”

Oh, shit.

“Uzumaki?” Naruto would have said that, faced with Itachi, Sasuke would never be distracted by anything else, but apparently he’d underestimated his own importance in Sasuke’s world. His ex-teammate had turned to stare at him disbelievingly. “You’re telling me this is Naruto?”

Naruto opened his mouth to try to deny it, when Itachi sealed his fate. “Yes, Sasuke. Your former teammate is indeed the infamous Kitsune.”

“Damn it, Itachi!” Naruto snapped. “I kept my promise to you and this is how you repay me?”

Itachi raised an eyebrow. “You would have revealed yourself soon enough, in any case. In this way I can have a little fun.”

“A little fun?”

“He can’t be Naruto,” Sasuke interrupted them. “Naruto’s a brain-dead moron, there’s no way –”

“Who the hell are you calling a brain-dead moron!” Naruto yanked off his mask, quickly cancelling his voice-jutsu so that when he next spoke, it was with his normal voice. “Believe it, teme – it’s me.” He smirked at the dropped jaw and widened eyes. “Yeah, it’s been me all along. Makes you feel really dumb doesn’t it?”

But Sasuke’s next words surprised him. “You dobe,” he snarled. “You’re actually alive and well? I’ve been thinking you were dead! Do you know how that made me feel –” he shut his jaw with a snap, and settled for glaring instead.

Naruto could only stare, his own eyes wide.

“See?” Itachi said at last. “Fun.”

“Fuck off, Itachi,” Naruto muttered. He was still in shock. Sasuke actually… all this time…

“Tobi doesn’t really want to interrupt, but Tobi has questions. Can Tobi ask his questions?”

The three men turned to stare. “Yes,” Itachi said when no one else spoke. “Ask.”

“Did you make Uzumaki promise to remove the little brother’s seal?”

You promised my brother to help me remove the seal?” Sasuke said incredulously. “Why would my brother want the seal removed? Why would you promise him something like that? Hell, since when were the two of you even on speaking terms!”

“Wow, Itachi-sempai’s little brother asked all my questions for me!”

Naruto exchanged a glance with Itachi. Then Naruto said, “Sasuke, please don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re not in our league yet. So please, please don’t interfere. Go back to the village where you can really help save lives. Leave this to us.”

“You want me to leave you to fight my brother? Don’t be stupid, Naruto!” Sasuke snarled.

“No, Sasuke.” Itachi’s voice was calm. “He said ‘us’.”

“What –”

“So, Uchiha Itachi is a traitor not only twice, but three times, after all.”

Sasuke shut up, staring. Tobi didn’t sound like the idiotically happy person he’d been up to now. Naruto smiled grimly, moving so that he and Itachi flanked Tobi, in between the Akatsuki member and Sasuke.

“First, he betrays his clan. Then, he betrays his village by joining the Akatsuki. And now… he betrays even us.” Tobi was standing straight, the illusion of unthreatening shortness gone; his presence exuded pressure on his surroundings. “I suspected as much… so it was this boy that you were corresponding with. Information, in exchange for lifting the curse on your brother.”

“Let’s not bother with the small talk, Madara,” Naruto said, letting his Kitsune personality settle into his bones. “Take of that mask, I’m sure it’s uncomfortable.” He let his teeth show in a humourless grin. “After all, I took off mine already. We’re all friends here, we won’t laugh.”

“Oh? How generous of you.” Tobi took of his mask.

Behind Naruto, Sasuke gasped.

Naruto knew that he would recognize that face. Uchiha Madara was one of the most infamous figures in Uchiha history, after all. There had been a long, complicated chain of events, resulting in Madara’s presumed death – after the Uchiha clan had turned their backs on him. Now, very much alive, he hated Konoha and wanted to destroy it, as well as punish his clan for their betrayal.

He had done the latter, having helped Itachi in the massacre that had left only Sasuke alive. Now he was trying to achieve the former.

When Naruto had heard all this from Itachi, he had wondered why Madara was still alive, and had been told that he was immortal, and one of the strongest members of Akatsuki, as well as extremely difficult to hurt, let alone kill. Which was why Naruto and Itachi had decided that they would both face Madara down.

Madara smiled. “Two against one? It hardly seems fair.”

“Well, you are immortal, so I guess we’re even,” Naruto said mock-cheerfully. “Itachi?”

The Mangekyo Sharingan flared into life in Itachi’s eyes, Madara’s following not a split moment after. Their gazes locked in a genjutsu battle that only they could see.

Naruto summoned Kyuubi. As the demon materialized, he drew his katana, and spared a moment to say over his shoulder, “Sasuke, we can’t spare the time to worry about you, go.”

He and Kyuubi moved. A chakra barrier flared into life around Madara; Kyuubi burned it away with sheer overwhelming power. They approached Madara’s body, and Naruto experimentally sliced sideways with his katana. It went clean through the other man’s body like there was nothing but air there. Naruto nodded, unsurprised, and then looked at Kyuubi.

The demon rolled his eyes. “I’m on it already,” he grumbled, and concentrated. In the next instant he vanished.

Naruto looked around – Sasuke had gone, thank goodness. Now all he could do was wait. They had to hope that Kyuubi managed to find the other plane where Madara dematerialized his body to, and seal it off before Itachi couldn’t hold the Sharingan battle anymore. If that happened, well… they were screwed.

Sighing, Naruto held his katana ready, and settled in for the most nerve-wracking wait he’d ever encountered in his whole life.


Ten minutes later, Itachi staggered back and collapsed to his knees.

Madara turned to Naruto, Mangekyo eye spinning.

Naruto swore.


“Alright, spread out, check each house. There’s bound to be a few civilians who didn’t manage to get to shelters. Kill them all – ow, damn bugs. Take any valuables you find and then destroy the place.”

“Yes, sir.”

“We meet back here in – ow, what the hell? Where are all these bugs coming from? We meet back –”

“Sir, I can’t move my limbs –”

“There’s bugs everywhere!”

“They’re eating me! Sir, oh, god, they’re –”

The leader of the Sound nin managed to turn, trying futilely to get rid of the insects swarming over his body. Three completely covered-up and hooded figures stood in the middle of the street, silent and still. “What the hell are you?” he gasped.

Shino raised his head, and light glinted off his glasses. “You do not need to know.”

The Sound nin staggered, and then charged towards them with a final, desperate scream. He collapsed at their feet with a gargle, unable to be seen for the black swarm eating him alive. A few convulsions, and then he stopped moving.

“That really is freaky.”

As one, the Aburame looked up. A girl perched on a building top, bloody katana out and a fierce grin on her face.

“Saki of the Mist, is it?” Shino said, peering up at her. “My original opponent.”

“Yeah, and you’re Aburame Shino. Glad I didn’t end up fighting you, even if it would have been fun. Bugs creep me out.” She shook a few blood drops off her blade. “Killing Sound nin is way more fun though. Oh look, a new squad of Sound nin coming our way. Will you get to them first or will I?”

“You may have them.”

“Aw, how sweet. Well, be seeing you then.” She was gone in a flash, her laughter echoing in the empty street.

“What an unusual girl,” one of the Aburame said, her voice soft. “I feel rather relieved that you didn’t have to fight her, dear.”

“I could have taken her, mother.”

“Yes, perhaps, but there is a touch of insanity in her…”

“We can leave the conversation for some other time. There are enemies to fight.”

“Yes, dear.”

“Yes, father.”

“Let’s go then.”


“Damn, these guys are persistent. Akamaru, left!”

“Kiba, watch your back!”

“I know, mum!”

“You suck, little brother!”

“Shut up, Hana!”

“I told you not to call me by my name! That’s disrespecting your older sister!”

“Well, if you’d act like one –”

Kiba, Hana! Watch out –”

Mum!”

“You bastards – let my mum go!” Kiba snarled as he attacked the three Sound nin surrounding him, but they drove him back again and again, avoiding his and Akamaru’s attacks. Kiba hissed as a kunai bit deeply into his arm, his attention torn between his own fight and his mother, choking on seemingly nothing inside a triangular barrier held by three other Sound nin. Kuromaru was trapped with her, having the same difficulty in breathing, his muzzle snapping on air.

“Hana –!”

“I can’t get to her either!” his elder sister screamed back, fighting off four Sound nin of her own. She was stronger than he was, and more experienced, so four shinobi wasn’t too easy but not too difficult either, but it was enough to prevent her from going to their mother.

“Damn it!” Kiba threw all caution to the wind and began fighting in a frenzy, as he saw his mother fall to her knees. “Mum!”

Suddenly the barrier vanished as two of the holding shinobi fell backwards, their slit throat spraying blood. The third Sound nin jumped to his feet, looking frantically about – and then looking down at his chest, where two blades protruded.

The two Sand nin withdrew their swords, letting his body fall. They split – one went to help Kiba, the other went to help his sister. In short order the Sound nin were all either dead or dying.

Kiba and Hana dived towards their mother, who was taking in deep gulps of breath. “Mum, are you okay?” Kiba asked frantically.

“Yeah – Kuromaru –”

Her large companion raised his head and whined, worming his way to her side to lick her hand.

“He’s fine, mum,” Hana said gently, relief written all over her face.

Kiba looked up at the two Sand nin. His grin was shaky, but there. “A big difference from the last time Sand was fighting in Konoha, huh?”

One of them grinned back at him. “This time, with us on your side, Sound is so going down.”

“Don’t get cocky, Seiji,” his partner scolded him. He turned to Kiba. “Your mother’s going to be okay, but I suggest you find somewhere less open for her to rest a bit before she starts fighting again.”

Kiba nodded. “Yeah, I will. Thanks.”

The Sand nin smiled at him. “No problem. We should get going –”

“Ren, wait.” The first Sand nin, Seiji, looked at Kiba. “You know where our Kage is, kid?”

“The Kages are going to fight the Akatsuki individually. They gave orders that no one is to help them.”

“Damn!” The Sand nins looked at each other. It was clear that they were debating going to help their Kage anyway.

“The Kazekage especially was really vehement about that,” Tsume spoke up. Her voice was raw, but understandable. “He said that any shinobi who tried to help him would be disrespecting and undermining him.”

“That does sound like Kazekage-sama,” the second Sand nin – Ren – murmured. He looked at his partner. “I think we can do more good here. What do you think?”

“Fine, fine.” Seiji gave the Inuzuka a mock salute. “Fight well, comrades!”

Ren smiled at them. “Be safe,” he said. Then the two of them ran off and were gone from sight.

“Okay,” Hana said determinedly, making Kiba look back at her. “Let’s get mum somewhere safe, and then let’s get back to the fight.”


“She’s getting away!”

“After her!”

“Head her off at the next corner –”

“There’s six of us and one of her, I’ll have all your heads if we can’t –”

“Got her!”

The Sound nin grinned nastily as he and his squad formed a circle around the shivering young Leaf nin. “So, little girl, want to beg for your life?”

“Hakkeshou…”

“What?”

“…Kaiten.”

Chakra glowed.

When the sounds of the Sound nin screaming and their bones shattering as they hit the surrounding walls all died away, Hinata let her spin coast to a stop. She straightened, looking around her at the dead and dying, and bowed her head, murmuring a short prayer for their lives.

“That was a nice manoeuvre, Hinata-sama. By making them chase and surround you in an area with walls all around, you maximized the effectiveness of the Hakkeshou Kaiten.” Neji dropped down from a nearby roof to face Hinata.

She gave him a tremulous smile. “Thank you, Neji-kun. Sometimes… looking helpless and scared is useful.”

He gave her a little bow. “I can’t argue that. Very well done, Hinata-sama.” He looked up, a little ways behind him. “There are more coming. I think you can deal with them yourself. I’m off to find my own prey.”

“Good hunting, Neji-kun.”

“You too, Hinata-sama.”


“Fifty-four! Fifty-five! Fifty –”

“Sixty-one. Hello, Gai.”

“Oh! My eternal rival! Once again you have outclassed me! Very well, I will step up my efforts to defeat you!”

“Yeah, whatever. See you.”

“Until later, my eternal rival!”

The Sound nin backed away from the big green vision advancing on him. “What are you guys?” he squeaked.

A white, sparking smile blinded him. “We are eternal rivals!”

“But that’s not what I – argh.”

“Fifty-six! Ahahaha!”


“Die, you monster!”

“We won’t let you do your evil deeds!”

“Take that! And that!”

The Sound nin growled. “You little brats –”

Konohamaru darted out of the way as the man grabbed at him. “Moegi! Udon! Now!” he shouted.

“What the – hey!”

The trio cheered as their trap was successfully sprung, and the Sound nin was tangle in the net that they threw on him. “Yeah! We did it!”

The Sound nin snarled angrily. “You asked for it!” He formed a few handseals. “Katon –”

He never got to finish his sentence. Grimly, Iruka wiped his bloody kunai on the man’s shirt, ignoring the still-spurting blood from the man’s neck. He turned to his former students. “Well done, Konohamaru, Udon, Moegi. Are you hurt?”

The three of them were staring at him in awe. “That was so cool, Iruka-sensei!” Moegi breathed, eyes sparkling. “You just – slashed at him like it was nothing! And you got it in the first move!”

Iruka smiled at them, but it was sad. “I did what I had to do, Moegi, but remember – a life is still a life. Never rejoice in taking a life. It may be a necessity of self-defence, but death should never be a happy thing. Understand?”

The three of them nodded sombrely. “We understand, Iruka-sensei,” they chorused.

Seeing that they did understand, Iruka let his smile lighten. “Good.”

Konohamaru’s eyes widened as he remembered something. “Iruka-sensei – come quick! When we saw what he did, we knew we had to get him, but it was too late to undo the one he already made –”

“What are you talking about –” Iruka began to ask as the three dragged him into the building they were just outside of, but then the words left him as he saw it. There was a hidden door in this building, one of the entrances to a shelter, and right outside the door, with frightened children peering out…

Right before the door, was a bomb.

Iruka’s blood ran cold. He looked at all the wires running across the floor and up the walls, and knew that he could not do anything about it. He had to get the children out first. “How many are in there?” he called.

“We don’t know!” the frightened reply came. “Iruka-sensei, we’re scared!”

Iruka’s heart sank, he knew that voice. It was one of his current students. “Stay calm, Aya-chan,” he told her. “Are your classmates with you?”

“Yes, Iruka-sensei, and some of the other classes too.”

“Where are your teachers?”

“The Sound nin knocked Edo-sensei out, and the other sensei all went to fight.”

Udon raised his hand. “There are about four classes in there, Iruka-sensei.”

“I see. Thank you.” It would be impossible to get the students over the wires without touching them, and they didn’t know chakra control so they couldn’t walk over the ceiling. “Is there any other exit?”

Every child he could see shook their heads mutely.

Damn. There was only one choice. “Okay, here’s what we’ll do. I’ll go over the ceiling and get you out one by one.” He turned to Konohamaru’s group. “Has Ebisu taught you chakra control yet? Can you –”

“There is no need for that.”

Iruka whirled towards the voice. The two figures in the doorway raised their hands in the air, in the universal gesture of innocence and goodwill. “Calm down, we’re Suna nin. And we can help with the bomb.”

“Are you sure? One tiny misstep and the whole thing will go off, taking all of us and the children with it.”

The Sand nin moved further into the room. “We are Suna’s ANBU, and to us, one bomb is easy enough to neutralize,” the shinobi told them.

“Please move out of the way,” his partner said, gently. “We need space to move and observe the workings of the bomb. Tsuki, take the physical. I’ll do the web.”

“Got it, Omi.”

“What does that mean?” Moegi piped up.

Omi smiled at her. “It means that my partner will examine the wires physically, while I’ll examine the chakra web nature of the entire bomb. Often, to confuse enemies, bombs are wired in more than one way.”

“Ooh, I see.”

Iruka pulled the children away. “Let them work, Moegi. We shouldn’t disturb them.”

Tsuki grinned briefly at him. “Don’t worry. Omi and I work really fast when we work together. We’ll have you guys safe in no time.”


 “There’s no end to these people, I swear! It’s been hours! Where are they all coming from –”

“Fear not, fair maiden! I am here to aid you!”

“Lee? What the hell did you just call me?”

“Ah… sorry, Tenten! I got caught up in the moment!”

Grumbling, Tenten sent another wave of sharp metal objects down on the group of Sound nin before her. Lee was an idiot, but his presence was helpful. She could concentrate on this one group and let him have the other group of attackers behind her.

“Need any help, Tenten?” she heard Lee say cheerfully from behind her five minutes later.

“No, it’s okay… that’s the last one.” Tenten straightened, tucking the spent scroll away and pulling out a new one. “Thanks for your help.”

“Not a problem, my good –”

“I’m warning you…”

“My dear teammate?”

“Better.”

“Lee! I finally found you.” Shikamaru landed lightly on the rooftop they stood on. “There’s this group of jounin that are giving Kurenai some problems, she’s a genjutsu user. Can you take over? From my observations they should be weak to taijutsu, and likely other physical-based attacks like weapons, too,” he added, nodded at Tenten. “The two of you will be good.”

“We’ll get right on it, Shikamaru-kun!” Lee said, beaming. “Come, Tenten! Let us be off to Kurenai-san’s rescue!”

Shikamaru watched them head off, and then leapt away himself. He wished he could really delve into the fighting, instead of avoiding enemy shinobi as he ran around, but he knew that he did more good by directing those who could help to those who needed help. Someone had to orchestrate the whole thing. It had been hours now, and the war was slowing, but far from its end.

Now he needed to find Kakashi, and send him to take over Asuma, since Kakashi’s adaptive style was much more suited to Asuma’s all-rounded opponent, so that Asuma could go help Kotetsu and Izumo, whose Sound pair of opponents should be weak to Asuma’s hard-hitting wind-blade attacks, so that Kotetsu and Izumo could take over protecting one of the last groups of civilians as they were herded into shelters, since Genma and Raido who were doing that duty now were more suited to attacking than Kotetsu and Izumo’s defensive pair-work, and so would do more good fighting actively than defending citizens…

Damn, but this was troublesome as hell.


Chouji! You almost crushed me in that last roll! Watch where you’re going, you big lump, there are other groups fighting near you, you know!”

“Sorry, Ino! Didn’t see you there!”

“Oh, hello, Chouza, what a coincidence! Your son seems to still have energy, even after fighting all this time. It’s impressive.”

“Inoichi! Yes, the young ones have more stamina than we do nowadays. I’m worn out already, but Chouji still has some fight left. Your daughter seems to be a force to reckon with, too.”

“She takes after her mother, I swear she can defeat her enemies simply by yelling –”

Dad! Stop saying embarrassing things!”

“Sorry, Ino-chan!”

“I see the women of your household have you well under their thumb, Inoichi.”

“Story of my life, Chouza. Be glad you have a son.”


“Genma!” Raido leapt to catch the other man as he stumbled in his run over the rooftops. “Shit, you’re exhausted –”

“I can still fight.” Genma pushed him away, but he was unsteady on his feet.

“It’s been hours, you need rest!”

You don’t.” Genma grimaced. “And the Sound shinobi are still around, and the Kages are still battling out there.”

“You won’t do any good like this,” Raido snapped. “Please, Genma, take a break. Get some stamina back. I don’t want to worry about you dying while I fight –”

“My life for Konoha,” Genma said tiredly, “will be a more than worthy trade.”

Raido glared. “Not to me, damn it. Look, just a few minutes, alright? The war’s in our favour already. It can do without us for just a few damn minutes!”

Genma eyed his partner. Things were not good when Raido started cursing, and he was going to be pretty much useless in this state… “Just a few minutes, then.”

Raido nodded tightly, and slid an arm around Genma’s torso. “Come on. You can lean on me.”

“Yeah… thanks.”


They had been fighting for hours.

Their summons had long gone, having torn each other up. Jiraiya and Orochimaru now stood facing each other across a wide spread of broken trees, panting with exertion, bleeding and bruised. Jiraiya was really feeling that deep wound in his side; Orochimaru was favouring a leg that was missing a chunk of flesh on the side.

And then Kabuto appeared.

“Orochimaru-sama, are you alright?” The medic-nin grabbed his master, supporting him. Healing chakra began to glow around his hands.

Jiraiya chuckled tiredly to himself. Great, just great. He had hoped not to use this jutsu, but…

There was plenty of blood on him already. He coated his fingers, and drew quick symbols on his cheeks, his forehead. He raised his shirt and painted the last on his stomach.

He formed the seals.

They were suddenly in a slimy, red, warm cavern, the three of them. Orochimaru stumbled; Kabuto couldn’t react in time, and fell along with him. To their disgust, the ground gave underneath them. They got to their feet, but it was a struggle to keep their balance.

Jiraiya stood where he was, balancing perfectly – he’d had practice, after all. He watched the struggling men, and made no move to attack. “I normally use a variation of this,” he said, distantly. “A few years ago, for example, when I was fighting Itachi and Kisame, while protecting Naruto and Sasuke. I trapped everyone in the stomach of one of my toads. But that technique is only for capturing, and this… this is for killing.”

Suddenly his hair shot out – Orochimaru and Kabuto jumped back in time to avoid fatal injuries, but Kabuto sustained a few wounds that started bleeding, and they both fell again.

“This technique is different,” Jiraiya said, watching as they got to their feet. “Instead of a toad, we’re in my own stomach. Don’t ask me how I’m in here as well – I didn’t invent this. I don’t think we’re really in my stomach per se, actually, but just that part of us that matters.”

“Is there a point to this, Jiraiya?” Orochimaru snarled.

“Yeah, I suppose.” Jiraiya smiled faintly. “You were right, Orochimaru, this is suicide – but you were wrong. It’s going to claim three lives.” He knelt on the moving ground. “You both spilled blood here, Orochimaru, Kabuto. And while this technique will kill me, it will also kill those whose blood has mingled with mine in this place.”

He formed five simple seals, and gently placed one hand on the ground.

“I only wish I had more time to say goodbye,” he said quietly.

He placed the other hand down.

Orochimaru and Kabuto started screaming.

The agony was unbelievable, but Jiraiya had learned to distance himself from pain, a long time ago. So it was that even as every fibre of his being felt like it was being torn apart, blood cell by blood cell, he closed his eyes and thought about his precious people, as Naruto would call them – Naruto. He was glad that he had been able to see the boy one last time. Naruto, and Tsunade, and Kakashi, and all his old students, and so many others…

Please be safe.

Jiraiya smiled.

And then he knew no more.


Gaara was tired.

It had been so long, so many hours that had dragged by slowly. He had been doing a lot of running, and he’d used up a lot of his chakra and energy desperately trying to keep from even being scratched by the black sand. He couldn’t get his own sand past the black ones, or else he’d have crushed Puppet Boy long ago, turning the Akatsuki member into just another part of his sand.

He’d torn away Sasori’s human skin an hour ago, revealing the puppet within. Now he knew why Sasori wasn’t tired at all – he couldn’t get tired. Really, all he had to do was just keep up his attacks, causing Gaara to run and expand his chakra forming defensive sand walls, and he would win in another hour or so because Gaara would simply collapse from exhaustion. Then he could poison him to his heart’s content, or just kidnap him for the Akatsuki’s Jinchuuriki collection. Or both.

At least, that seemed to be his plan.

Gaara had other ideas.

It had taken him until now to fully figure out how it worked, weariness and the constant need to run hindering his thought processes. Now, however, as Sasori pulled back to regroup his sand and launch another attack, Gaara came out from behind the tree he’d been resting against.

And stood there, in the open.

Sasori stared at him, puzzled. “You’re giving up?” he said, sounding disappointed. “I thought there would be more fight in you.”

In response, Gaara concentrated.

The iron sand wavered

 Sasori’s eyes widened. “What the –”

The iron sand formed spikes… but this time, the spikes were directed towards Sasori and the puppet Sandaime.

“I see,” Sasori said, chakra flaring around him. “Iron sand is yet another form of sand, after all… but it’s still subject to the laws of science, little Jinchuuriki. And you’re tired, and your chakra reserves are failing. You can fight my hold over the sand all you want – but I will win in the end.”

The iron spikes slowly, slowly began to turn, revolving around to face Gaara. He let the effort show on his face, grimacing. He started to shake.

Sasori’s face was a puppet’s, but he somehow managed to convey a triumphant smirk. “If you give in now, I’ll be nice and only give you a little dose of poison.”

Gaara fell to his knees. The spikes were fully facing him now, and beginning to move towards him.

“Well, little one?”

Green eyes looked up. “No,” said Gaara.

Sasori and his puppet were swallowed from the back by a wave of normal sand. Gaara could sense them freeze in shock, within his sand, and then start to struggle.

He clenched his fists.

After a while, the two cocoons of sand dissolved, falling to the ground. There was no trace left of either puppet.

Gaara remained on his knees, gathering strength. It had taken a long time to figure out how to modify his power so that it would work on the iron sand, since it wasn’t the type of sand he was used to. Then he’d had to put up that little act at the end, in order to distract Sasori from the real attack, but that distraction had consumed a lot of his chakra, as well – it really had been hard to hold back the sand, with Sasori fighting him.

That was not a bad fight, Shukaku spoke up grudgingly. Even if you took that long to figure out how to work the sand. I could have done it faster.

I did the best I could. Even to himself, his mental voice sounded exhausted, Gaara noted.

It is not over yet, though. I have sent out my senses, and the results are… not desirable. You will be able to sense more than I can, trapped like this.

Gaara took a deep breath, and wearily sent out his power through the forest, searching for familiar chakra –

The Mizukage, skin scraped raw and chakra eaten by the great broadsword still coming at him, only managing to keep fighting by sheer strength of will, the last flickering traces of his chakra eclipsed by the still-enormous sun of his opponent’s power.

The Tsuchikage, robes tattered and charred along with his body, still being bombarded by little flying bombs.

The Raikage, dying on the ground, as wounds opened by themselves on his body, slowly, because his torturer did not want him to die so fast.

The Hokage, exhausted, and even having the upper hand, still enduring wounds with every attack.

Itachi and Naruto, almost broken mentally and physically, but still trying to kill an opponent who could not die.

Gaara opened his eyes. He had not even realized that they were closed. “Naruto,” he whispered. He refused to think about the fact that he could not sense Jiraiya’s chakra at all. If what he suspected had happened had indeed come to pass, it was the living who still needed help.

Kyuubi is still missing from this plane, Shukaku told him. He is still searching. I know you decided that it would be him who searches, because Naruto would have the aid of Itachi while you would be alone, but now that you are done with your battle, I will join him.

And end up having sex with him in some other plane? Gaara was too tired to be polite.

I will forgive you your insolence this once. Shukaku paused, and then continued, If the brat dies at this time, Kyuubi dies. He needs a few more decades yet for his host’s death to not be fatal to him. I will search with him now, and because this is too important for us to fail, we will not be distracted from our task.

In answer, Gaara wearily formed the seals. Shukaku poofed into existence next to him. Looking up at the demon, Gaara said wearily, “I apologise. I am just too tired to think straight.”

Shukaku looked at him, and then inclined his head slightly. “I know,” he said. “That is why I forgave you.” Without another word, he vanished.

Gaara stared at the place where he had been standing, trying to think. Naruto was important. Shukaku had gone to help Kyuubi, who was helping Naruto. But – he was not the only one losing, suffering, dying.

I have to help the other Kages.

But how? He was too tired; if he fought, it would not make much of a difference. The sword that the Mizukage faced would hurt him, too. The bombs that attacked the Tsuchikage would be just as effective against him. Any injuries inflicted on the Raikage’s apparently immortal opponent would simply reflect on the Raikage himself, as was the case now. The only one he could help was the Hokage – but to save only one, when the others were dying?

In his mind’s eye, the arena glowed.


They were going to die.

Naruto knew this hazily at the back of his mind, as he and Itachi attacked Madara relentlessly. They’d found that while physical attacks were utterly useless, the elemental attacks did have some impact on Madara’s insubstantial body. As a result, they had been throwing elemental jutsus at Madara for the past few hours while trying to avoid his eyes and his attacks.

But elemental jutsus took up the most chakra.

And even though he and Itachi had a much higher than normal reserve of chakra, it could not last forever. Slowly but surely, their reserves were dwindling. When they were out of chakra, they would be out of defences – because right now, not being able to kill their opponent, that was all they were doing: defending.

And when that time came, they would die.

A blast of water came at them; Itachi and Naruto leapt out of its way. Naruto leaned against a tree, panting, staring at Madara, who raised his hands, preparing to form another seal –

And who abruptly disappeared.

In a swirl of black sand.

Naruto stared. And then he stared some more, as a familiar figure emerged from the shadows of a nearby tree, looking completely exhausted and bloodied and pale but alive. Naruto could have cried.

“How did you transport him? He has no body.” Itachi’s voice was tired as he addressed the newcomer.

“He has to materialize his hands when he forms seals,” Gaara said, voice so soft with weariness that he could barely be heard. “All my sand needs when it teleports someone is a part of that person – it latches on to the part of you that makes you, not your body. Your physical self is just dragged along after it.” He raised his hands.

And then Naruto found himself caught up in a cocoon of normal-coloured sand, and the unsettling feeling of being in two places at once. Then he was released, and stumbled onto hard dirt – not soft forest soil. Familiar hard dirt.

He was in the arena.

And in the centre of the arena… a pile of Akatsuki? They were moving sluggishly, as if every twitch of muscle was an effort, but they were cursing very vehemently – one of them at a volume and with a vocabulary that could cause ears to bleed.

A swirl of sand before him revealed Gaara. He stumbled to the ground, on his knees, and caught himself with his palms on the ground. His fingers flexed.

The ground began to glow, very softly.

Naruto staggered to his feet, forcing himself to limp over to Gaara – Madara had scored a deep gash on his left leg, and now that he didn’t need to force himself to move at normal speeds, he could afford to favour the injury a little. He stared over the red hair to the Akatsuki. “Why aren’t they moving?” he croaked.

“The black sand… is iron sand.” Gaara’s eyes were closed, when Naruto looked down at him. “It has a very potent poison in it. From what I inferred from Sasori’s words, one scratch leaves you numb, and in agony for three days.”

Naruto had no idea where the sand had come from, or the poison, but he didn’t care – it worked, and that’s all he needed to know. “And even Madara is affected, because his body is still connected even if it’s in different planes,” he murmured to himself. “Gaara… you’re a genius.”

A soft laugh. “If you think I am a genius now, look at the circle.”

He squinted, trying to read the symbols as the glow increased. “You modified it…” he said slowly, “into… a containment barrier?”

“No elements or jutsus inside will work on anything outside,” Gaara confirmed. “The immortal one was using a jutsu on the Raikage… he would inflict the injury on himself, and the Raikage would receive the same, and because the Akatsuki is immortal he would not die. I had to find a way to end it.”

“Why isn’t he up and running? If he’s immortal, the poison shouldn’t affect him…”

“Maybe because the poison is extremely potent, or because it will not kill him but paralyze him in pain? I did not expect him to be affected, to be honest. I was simply trying to get him away from the Raikage.”

“We got lucky? Oh good. Who cares how it happened, then.”

The glow was intense, now. Naruto had to keep blinking the light-spots from his eyes.  “Gaara? What are you doing?”

“Madara is affected by the elements, right?”

“Yeah… fire works best. I think because it’s the pure element, so its reach is farther between the planes than the others.”

“I have a theory.” Gaara turned those beautiful green eyes up to him. “Your fires did not hurt Madara as much because they were not intense enough, and could not reach far enough to affect the plane his body is in.”

Naruto stared. “What are you trying to say?”

“I am feeding enough power into the circle to contain an inferno, I hope. You will have to do this quickly, because I fear I will not last long enough. I only had time to draw one energy point, so the only one who can feed the circle is me, and so we cannot count on help.”

“Gaara –”

“Burn them, Naruto. Burn them all.”

Blue locked with green. And then Naruto stepped into the circle. He stared at the Akatsuki; those who could look at him glared back.

There was the faintest light of fear in their eyes.

Naruto raised his hands, and called fire.

Flames raced from him, setting his clothes alight; he didn’t care. He concentrated on filling the entire circle with fire, fire, more fire. Black robes with red clouds caught fire, as did the grass. Naruto’s clothes were completely burned away now, replaced by flame – he was cloaked entirely in flame, and more flames grew. He poured all his energy, all his power into making the fire burn.

I am a being of fire, Kyuubi had once said to him. I can call it and command it even without words and seals. It cannot touch me. And now that I have merged my power with you, even if our minds are separate, you too can command fire. You can stand in flame, and flame cannot burn you.

And you can make it turn the world into a sea of fire.

He knew that there were people outside, and that even if the flame was contained, the heat wasn’t, and the heat would be intense. So he let the circle barrier contain the fire, and put all his will into keeping the heat inside, as well, not just the flame, because otherwise people would still get burned, with the heat.

Gaara would get burned.

And that was not acceptable.

The Akatsuki were screaming, now. They could not move, and they were screaming, helpless. Naruto wanted to block his ears, to shut out the sounds of the lives he was taking. It was an urge that he had long denied, as Kitsune – an urge that he had not felt for a long time, as killing became routine. But this was the first time he was burning his enemies alive, and it was more gruesome as any other death he had given. He wanted to stop looking; he wanted to stop listening.

But he couldn’t, because it wasn’t right. If he could bear to kill them this way, then he could bear to witness it. To face what he was doing, and accept the bleak truth of it, knowing that he was the one causing their agony.

This was his way of honouring the dying, and of doing his penance.

He could sense, through the flame, the Akatsuki dying, one by one. Lives flickering, fading, gone. But there was one – there was still one that refused to die.

Uchiha Madara.

The flames could not reach him.

Naruto focused harder, forcing the heat inwards, bearing down on that one last life. The flames generated more and more heat, and he gathered it, wielded it, forced it to press down –

And then, all of a sudden, he sensed Madara’s body materialize.

In the next split instant, it was incinerated, and Madara was gone.

He hadn’t even had time to scream.

Naruto registered a presence next to him. Kyuubi placed a hand on his shoulder. “We sealed the plane off,” he said softly. “Madara’s dead, Naruto. They’re all dead. You can let go now. Let the fire go…”

Kyuubi’s voice was soothing, persuasive, and slowly as he listened to it, as he listened to the flow of words, Naruto relaxed. The fires diminished, growing smaller, smaller. The heat dissipated bit by bit.

And then the only fires left were the embers, cooling in the ground.

Kyuubi’s physical presence disappeared. In Naruto’s mind, he heard the approval as the fox said, You did good, Naruto.

What took you so long?

The Kyuubi snapped his teeth. You don’t know how difficult it is to search the planes, brat, so don’t complain.

I’m back to being a brat, am I?

You will always be one. The Kyuubi’s voice was amused. But since you’ve been a good brat, I’ll give you a reward. Look around you, Naruto. Look up.

He raised a heavy head, and blinked open heavy eyelids. He looked.

Standing scattered in the stands, awe on their faces, were shinobi. Male, female, old, young, from all the shinobi villages – they stood there, watching.

And when they saw Naruto look up at them, they started cheering.

Naruto just stared blankly, completely empty of anything, including emotion. Then a shadow fell over him, and wonderfully soft cloth covered his shoulders, hiding his body. Naruto took a second or two to focus on the faces peering at him.

“Naruto,” Kakashi said solemnly, “Did you know you’re naked?”

Iruka hit him. “Now is not the time to make jokes, Kakashi!” He gently adjusted the blanket around Naruto. “Are you alright? Do you need medical attention? You don’t look burned, but is there anything else?”

He just blinked.

“Naruto. I need you to focus.” Kakashi took over, taking Naruto’s face in his hands, staring intently at him. “Do you need medical attention? Because we need to decide whether it’s you or Gaara who needs Tsunade’s skill now.”

The words took a moment to make sense.

When they did, Naruto’s heart stopped.

Gaara.

He tried to get up, but his limbs wouldn’t move. “Gaara, how is he, was he burnt? Kakashi-sensei –”

“Naruto, are you hurt?”

“Just superficial wounds.” Itachi, Itachi’s voice, tired but smooth as always. “The Kazekage needs the attention more. He has a strong will, do not write him off as dead so quickly. Tsunade may be able to save him yet.”

Kakashi narrowed his eyes. “You’re –”

“Itachi is innocent, no one is to touch him!” Naruto heard Tsunade’s voice boom from behind him. He tried to turn – Tsunade meant Gaara, Gaara was behind him, he had to see –

Strong arms picked him up carefully. He knew this smell. In that moment he thanked the gods for Itachi, who knew what was important and who didn’t ask stupid questions.

Then Naruto was looking down at Gaara, surrounded by medic-nins, Tsunade barking orders while chakra glowed around her hands, held over Gaara’s chest.

Gaara, who looked dead.

Naruto cried out, reaching out towards the other man, struggling to get out of the suddenly restrictive hold. He was barely aware that he was crying Gaara’s name, over and over. There was a flurry of activity around him, and then someone was apologizing to him, why were they –

Fingers pinched a nerve in his neck.

No!

But the blackness closed in anyway, and the last thing Naruto saw was the colour red.

Chapter Text

That you were once unkind befriends me now,
And for that sorrow, which I then did feel,
Needs must I under my transgression bow,
Unless my nerves were brass or hammered steel.

For if you were by my unkindness shaken
As I by yours, y'have passed a hell of time,
And I a tyrant have no leisure taken
To weigh how once I suffered in your crime.

O that our night of woe might have remembered
My deepest sense, how hard true sorrow hits,
And soon to you, as you to me then tendered
The humble salve, which wounded bosoms fits!

But that your trespass now becomes a fee,
Mine ransoms yours, and yours must ransom me.

-- Shakespeare, Sonnet 120, That You Were Once Unkind


Naruto awoke to an unexpected ceiling.

He shot upright, and then groaned, clutching his head as the world swam before his eyes in a bout of sudden vertigo, from sitting up too fast. He rubbed away the lingering spots, and then looked around. Yes, it was his room at the inn. Why was he…?

Oh, right. The nurses had finally gotten up their nerve to kick him out of the hospital, forbidding him to return for at least a day. Frankly, Naruto was surprised that it had taken a week of his refusing to leave Gaara’s bedside (except to go back to the inn to shower) for the nurses to get fed up. Their awe (or fear) of him must be stronger than he’d thought.

He decided not to risk the wrath of the nurses – some of them, he suspected, were doing nin-training on the side. The problem was that he now had a free day. What the hell was he going to do with a free day?

“Good morning, sunshine!”

Naruto froze. Then he glared incredulously at the figure perched in the window. “What the hell, Kakashi-sensei?”

Kakashi chuckled. “I’ve always wanted to say that.” He hopped into the room. “But that’s all you’re getting from me, you know – the rest of my pet names are reserved for Iruka only.”

Naruto threw a pillow at him. “Too much information!”

“For instance,” Kakashi continued shamelessly, “there’s the obvious ‘dolphin’, of course, but then there’s Ruka-chan, or just Ruka –”

“If you don’t shut up I’m going to tackle you out the window, I really will!” Naruto paused. “Why in the world are you up so early?”

Kakashi sighed mournfully. “My darling Ruka-chan –” he ducked another pillow, “– kicked me out of bed. He went to the hospital bright and early to see you and Gaara, but heard that you’d gotten banned for the day, so he’s making me come to get you while he makes breakfast.”

Naruto brightened. “Iruka-sensei’s cooking?” He jumped out of bed. “Cool.” Waving a hand in the vague direction of the living room, he called over his shoulder as he headed into the bathroom, “Wait there, I’ll be out as soon as I can.”

When he emerged, Kakashi popped his hideously orange book back into his vest and beamed at him. “Shall we?”

“Yeah. You’re still reading that trash?” Naruto said, shaking his head, as they made their leisurely way over the rooftops. “It’s rude to Iruka-sensei, you know, reading about busty girls having sex with muscle-men.”

“What busty girls?” Kakashi said innocently. He passed the book over to Naruto, who eyed the busty girl on the cover and gave him a Look. “No, really, open it.”

Naruto did. Hot gay sex screamed up at him. He slammed it shut, turning red, while Kakashi laughed hysterically next to him. Shoving the book back, he shuddered as Kakashi tucked it away again. “That’s just… disgusting.”

“Oh, really?” That one-eyed gaze was too shrewd for comfort. Naruto scrambled for something to say. “I didn’t know ero-sennin used to write yaoi.”

“It’s the only yaoi book he ever wrote,” Kakashi said. There was a wistful note in his voice as he added, “He signed it for me, too.”

Naruto felt the same sad smile surface on his face, and his chest ached, as it always did, at the mention of Jiraiya. “An autographed copy? It’s pretty much priceless nowadays. You can live like Itachi off the proceeds.”

“If I ever care to sell it, I’ll have it made,” Kakashi agreed.

They both knew that he would never sell any of his Icha Icha books, though. Not just because he loved them… but because they were part of Jiraiya’s memories.

Iruka welcomed them both with that sweet, cheerful smile of his. He hugged Naruto, and smacked Kakashi when he tried to get the same. “Go stir the miso soup,” he ordered, smile tugging at his lips.

Kakashi gave him puppy-dog eyes – or eye, rather. “Don’t you love me anymore, Ruka-chan?”

A vein on Iruka’s forehead twitched even as he blushed faintly – and stomped hard on Kakashi’s foot. The jounin yelped and hopped away. “Kitchen, now!” Iruka ordered. Pouting, Kakashi went.

Naruto watched this all with wide eyes. “Wow… you’re like a demanding wife, Iruka-sensei – ow ow ow!” He clutched his throbbing head and whimpered. “I’m sorry!”

“You’d better be!” Iruka was fighting a blush as he led Naruto to the dining table. “Come on, sit down. Have you been eating properly?”

“You brought me lunch every day in the hospital,” Naruto pointed out.

Iruka glared at him. “And I would bet that’s the only proper meal you ate.”

“Ahaha. Uh… well.” Naruto scratched his head sheepishly. “The nurses bring me sandwiches sometimes?”

Shaking his head in exasperated fondness, Iruka ruffled his hair. “Naruto… you were pretty hurt, too. You need to take care of yourself.”

Naruto shrugged. “Mostly my wounds have healed.” He looked down at the table, eyes shadowed. “It’s not me that’s in a coma, Iruka-sensei.”

Iruka’s hand rested comfortingly on Naruto’s head. “Gaara-kun is strong. He will pull through.”

“He’s right, Naruto.” Kakashi came out of the kitchen, bearing a tray of soup. He set it down on the table and looked seriously at his former student. “And he’s receiving the best care in the entire world – the Hokage herself checks in on him every day.”

Naruto took a deep breath, and then put on a smile. “Yeah. Baa-chan really cares for him, and not just because he’s the Kazekage. I think she sees him as another me… when he wakes up, he’s going to have to deal with a Hokage who treats him as a little brother.”

“All the better for Suna-Konoha relations,” Iruka said cheerfully. He tugged on Kakashi’s sleeve. “Help me get the rice, I’ll serve the egg.”

“Of course.” Kakashi caught Iruka’s hand and pulled him into the kitchen, to Iruka’s futile but also not very serious efforts to get free.

Watching them, Naruto had to smile. Their relationship really was one of the better things to come out of the whole war. In fact, many relationships had evolved from the mess – knowing that their loved ones could have died, many had thrown aside their fear of rejection and just gone for it, or at the very least allowed themselves to acknowledge what they felt.

Kakashi and Iruka came back with food, and after distributing it, they sat. “Itadakimasu!” Naruto said happily over his food, and dug in.

“Manners, Naruto,” Iruka reminded him, glaring. Naruto eeped, and slowed down.

“So who do you think is going to be the new Raikage?” Kakashi asked Naruto. “You know the candidates, right?”

“Yeah… I worked with Ran before, and I’ve talked to Yuma a couple times.” Naruto chewed thoughtfully. “I really don’t know… I’d prefer Ran, to be honest, he’s more serious in his work and he’s good at the political stuff, but Yuma’s better at the social part of it. He’s more approachable, and the villagers like him more.”

They chatted about various topics, laughing more often than not. With Iruka and Kakashi, Naruto could really relax. His teachers knew almost every bit of his past, including some of Naruto’s work as Kitsune – he’d been hesitant when he had first told them a story or two, at their prompting, but it had gradually begun to flow more easily when they simply accepted it as a part of who he was. Naruto knew he was blessed to have the two of them, and he was glad that the two of them had each other. He knew that Kakashi had held Iruka when he’d wept for his dead colleagues; he knew that Iruka had held Kakashi when he’d silently grieved for his.

Then Kakashi glanced at the clock, and rose. “We’d better get going,” he said to Naruto, who looked on mystified as Iruka nodded and stood as well, beginning to clear up.

“You and Iruka-sensei have an appointment?”

“Kakashi… you didn’t tell him?” Iruka glared at the jounin.

“I did!” Kakashi protested. Then he looked at Naruto’s bemused expression and Iruka’s glower. “Uh… perhaps it slipped my mind.”

Iruka hit him. While Kakashi wailed in the background about abusive love, he turned to Naruto. “The Hokage wants to see you,” he told the blond. “The nurses were supposed to tell you, but in the fuss of kicking you out they forgot. Kakashi will go with you, he has business there, too.”

“Baa-chan wants to see me? Whatever for?” Naruto got up, helping to clear the dishes as well.

“I have no idea.” Iruka waved him off. “It’s alright, I can handle the dishes without getting hurt,” he said dryly. “Go on, don’t keep the Hokage waiting. And when you’re done, I expect you to make full use of your day!” he added, sternly. “No moping around – get out into the sun, stretch a little. Got that?”

“Yes, Iruka-sensei,” Naruto said meekly.

Iruka grinned at him, and gave him a quick hug. “Go on, then. The sooner you get the meeting done with, the sooner you can get out into the village.”

Naruto laughed as he pulled back. “You’re really turning into a mother, Iruka-sensei.”

“Don’t make me hurt you,” Iruka warned, fighting a smile. “Go!”

“Yes, yes, I’m going.” Grinning, Naruto snagged Kakashi and dragged him to the window. “See you later, Iruka-sensei!”

Kakashi left him on the first floor of the Hokage tower with a pat on the head and a lazy wave. Naruto rolled his eyes after his retreating back, and made his way up to the Hokage’s office. As he walked, he became aware that every person he passed did a double-take, and then not-so-discreetly stared at him as he walked past them. He could feel their eyes on his back, and could hear the explosive whispers that would arise once he was past.

Naruto was used to this behaviour, from his childhood… but it was with one big difference. Instead of disgust, there was awe. Instead of fear for their lives, it was a respectful fear of his power.

Instead of hate… there was gratitude.

How ironic, Naruto thought to himself, keeping his expression cool. I dreamed of this when I was a kid… but I never dreamed that it would feel this uncomfortable.

The ANBU standing guard outside the Hokage’s office doors straightened when they saw him – which was quite a feat, since they were already standing pretty tall to begin with. To his surprise, they gave him a tiny bow. “Uzumaki-san,” the one with the bear mask said respectfully. “Please enter, the Hokage is expecting you.”

Naruto gave them the cheerful smile he used for people he didn’t really know. “I think I’ll wait.”

“But –”

“There are three Hyuugas, one Uchiha, two Inuzukas, one Aburame, and Shikamaru in there,” Naruto said, nodding at the door. “I really think I’ll wait.”

Before the ANBU could speak again, the door opened, revealing Neji. “Just come in, Naruto,” he said, quirking an eyebrow. “We don’t bite.”

“Kiba does,” Naruto said immediately.

From inside the room, Kiba’s annoyed voice said, “Only in battle!” Akamaru barked agreement.

Neji rolled his eyes, and grabbed Naruto’s wrist, yanking him into the room. He closed the door behind them, releasing Naruto, and gave him a gentle shove. “Move it, Naruto,” he said. “It’s not polite to make people wait.”

Naruto shot him a dark glare. “You know, I liked you better when you were stoic and silent.”

Neji smirked at him. “Then you shouldn’t have influenced me.”

Sighing, Naruto followed him further into the room. He waved. “Hey, baa-chan. Hyuuga-san, Inuzuka-san,” he greeted Hiashi and Kiba’s father, the head of the clan. He smiled at Hinata, and then looked at Shino and Kiba, and Shikamaru at the side. “Hinata-chan, Shino, Kiba, Shikamaru. Itachi.” He raised his eyebrow at the imposing man. “Nice to see you out of your bat cave.”

The other man didn’t bat an eyelash. “Good to see you out of the hospital room that is not even yours.”

Naruto made a face at him.

“Okay, enough talk,” Tsunade ordered. “Now that Naruto’s here, we can get down to business.”

“Uh…” Naruto peered at them nervously. “I thought we already did the whole cover-up thing? You know… Itachi innocent, me not insane –”

“No, it’s not about that,” Tsunade said impatiently. “Why do you think all these people are here?”

“To prevent me from running away?”

Are you going to run away?”

“That depends. Are you going to lock me up?”

“What for?”

“I don’t know, something! I’m sure you can invent something.”

“Hokage-sama.” Itachi interrupted them serenely. “Why not let me explain?”

Tsunade waved a hand. “Fine, go on.”

Naruto turned to Itachi with a sigh as the older man gave him a faintly warning look. He mimed zipping his mouth shut, crossed his arms and waited.

Itachi looked amused. “First of all, Naruto, do the choice of people in this room hold any significance to you?”

What? Naruto looked around. “Um… no?”

“The famed intelligence of Kitsune,” Itachi murmured, and raised his voice to talk over Naruto’s squawk of protest. “Never mind. Naruto, in this room you have representatives of all the strongest clans in Konoha. The Hyuuga. The Aburame. The Inuzuka. The Nara. Me. And while the Akimichi and the Yamanaka could not make it, they have authorised Nara Shikamaru to speak for them, since the three clans are allied.”

Naruto looked at Shikamaru, who gave him a lazy smile.

“And the clan heads of the Hyuuga and the Inuzuka have even found the time to be here, and myself as head of the Uchiha – what is left of us, anyway.” Itachi smiled faintly. “So you can see the strength of the approval give to this proceeding.”

“What proceeding?”

Itachi gave him his smug, ‘I Knew You Couldn’t Resist Asking’ look. “What else? Surely you can figure it out.”

Naruto stared at him. Then he stared at Shikamaru, who was smirking now. He stared at Kiba, who rolled his eyes and gave him a ‘What, Are You Stupid?’ look. He stared at Shino, who looked steadily at him, but there was a secretive smile on his face. He stared at Hinata, who was looking extremely excited and happy. He stared at Neji, who was also – the bastard – smirking at him as if to say, ‘Yes, You Are Stupid’. He stared at the two clan heads, who looked gravely at him, but with approval in their eyes.

He stared at Tsunade, who threw up her hands and snapped, “Oh, for – we’re offering you the position of Hokage, brat!”

Naruto stared some more. And then he began edging towards the door.

A strong hand clamped down on his shoulder. Itachi looked amusedly patient, but his grip was inescapable. “Naruto…”

“You’re all mad!”

Tsunade’s eye twitched. “Watch it, brat.”

“I’m an assassin! I’ve killed lots of people!”

“So you’re strong – an absolute requirement for the post,” Shino said quietly. His glasses glinted.

“I have the demon fox inside me! Everyone knows!”

“And you have full control over it. Besides, the Kazekage’s a Jinchuuriki too,” Kiba pointed out, grinning madly. Akamaru’s tail was wagging furiously; it barked happily in agreement.

“I ran from Konoha for five years!”

“Officially it’s known that you were on an undercover mission,” Shikamaru drawled. “And anyway, no one cares about that. What they care about is that you came back and did what you did.”

“I… I collaborated with one of the Akatsuki! With the enemy!”

Itachi thwacked him upside the head. “What kind of excuse is that, brat? It was my cover, remember?”

“I, uh, I –”

“Naruto-kun,” Hinata spoke up. She did not blush when he looked at her – the war had made her stronger, and anyway after they’d had a long talk when she’d visited him and Gaara in the hospital, she’d accepted that he didn’t like her back. The latest he heard, Kiba had asked her out, and she’d agreed. Now, Hinata looked steadily at him, smiling. “Isn’t this your dream? Why are you fighting so hard against it?”

Naruto stared at her, and then at everyone else. That was a good question. Why was he fighting it? He’d earned it, after all, he’d saved the village…

The village.

“The villagers… I don’t know if they will agree,” he said, looking at Tsunade. “They’ve hated me for being the holder of the Kyuubi for years, surely they can’t get over it just like that?”

Tsunade looked amused. “You haven’t been on the streets yet, have you, brat?”

“Or even looked at the tags on the enormous pile of gifts and flowers in Gaara’s room?” That was Neji, his voice wry. “You do realize that a good half of those are for you, not just the Kazekage.”

Naruto’s jaw dropped. “Seriously? Are you sure?”

Everyone his age – they had all been to visit him – nodded.

“Whoa.”

“You walked up the tower when you came here earlier,” Itachi said. “Did you not notice the attention you would surely have gotten?”

Naruto remembered the gazes, the whispers, the respect. “Oh… yeah.”

“Anyway, we already did a ground survey while you idled away in the hospital,” Tsunade said briskly. “The villagers love you, I don’t believe they will have a problem with you being the Hokage. You saved them, you killed the Akatsuki, all the Kages are grateful to you and have made public announcements of the fact before they left, and… you’re Minato’s son.” Her eyes softened. “Don’t you think that you deserve this more than anyone?”

“Your father was a bright star that shone too briefly.” Hyuuga Hiashi’s voice was strong, and deep. Naruto couldn’t look away from that intense, pale gaze. “Now, as his son, you are more than qualified to achieve what he wished to achieve, but could not.”

“Uzumaki Naruto.” Kiba’s father smiled at him. “This village has wronged you for a very long time, and yet you still believed in Konoha. We would be honoured if you could find it in your heart to forgive us and lead us, or at the very least, allow us to make up for past wrongs.”

Naruto looked around at all those faces, believing in him, and swallowed. “I’m too young for this,” he said weakly. “I’m only in my twenties, for god’s sake.”

“Only on the outside,” Hyuuga Hiashi said gently. “But on the inside, you have witnessed so much more than men twice your age. And your father was not much older when he assumed his position either.”

“Don’t you think we thought of all this before we decided to offer you the position?” Tsunade said, drawing Naruto’s gaze back to her. She gave him a tired smile, and he could see the sorrow in her eyes. “I’m getting old, Naruto. And with Jiraiya gone…” She closed her eyes briefly. “I just want some peace.”

Naruto remembered her grief, the sobs that had torn themselves from her body when he’d forced her to face her loss in the privacy of this office. She’d been holding it in, putting on the mask of the capable Hokage, and setting aside her own personal grief for the all-encompassing grief for all the deaths, as befitting a leader. But Naruto knew how broken she really was.

That bleak afternoon had served to show him plainly how much the Kages were supposed to give up for their village, how the Kages were supposed to live for the village, above anything and everything else.

Could he really do that?

Did he want to?

He rubbed a hand over his face, chest aching for some unknown reason. “I’ll… need to think about this.”

“Of course. Take your time. You don’t have to give us your decision until after all the official business is over, which will take a few weeks.”

Naruto looked at all of them again, and then nodded. “Yeah. Okay.” He paused, and then turned towards the door.

“Naruto.” He looked over his shoulder at Neji. “If you want to talk to people… you know where to find me, or Hinata-sama. Lee should be helping Gai repair houses near the school district.”

“I’ll be meeting my team for lunch at our usual restaurant,” Shikamaru spoke from his corner. “Chouji wants to talk to you, he said he got chased out of the hospital room too soon.”

“Sakura is in the ICU of the hospital,” Tsunade said quietly.

Naruto hid a flinch at the name. “Okay,” he said again. “Um… thanks, guys. I might take you up on those offers.”

Then he left.

Walking back through the tower invited the whispers and stares again, but this time, since he was actually looking back at those who stared at him, he received more than just the gossipy usual. Several jounin, when he caught their eyes, either nodded at him or gave him a little acknowledging bow. The ANBU he saw around nodded at him.

Then he finally went out into the streets. It felt strange to be walking so openly – as a child, he’d always either be running or hiding; as Kitsune, he’d had the mask to conceal him.

Now he felt exposed to the world.

There were, again, whispers and stares, but this time it was blatant. Naruto resisted the urge to squirm, or hide. His mind flashed back to childhood again – but he pushed the memory back, and he stood straighter, head held up, and walked with easy confidence. He was no longer that child, who had been nothing but a useless burden on the village. He had nothing to be ashamed of.

He had everything to be proud of, now.

To take his mind off the attention, Naruto decided to make a list. There were people he wanted to talk to, before he made his choice. People he had to talk to. He would go for that lunch with Shikamaru’s team – Chouji had always been one of the people he’d liked, and who hadn’t laughed at him or scorned him, and he could put up with Ino’s presence, especially since Shikamaru had bet him that she and Chouji would get together in three weeks. Knowing that she had it in her to like Chouji, Naruto felt better towards her.

Oh, he hadn’t taken Shikamaru’s bet, of course. You only bet against Shikamaru if you wanted to lose money.

After lunch, he’d look for Lee. If Lee didn’t already know about the deal, then he deserved to. And after Lee, maybe back to Iruka and Kakashi, who definitely deserved to know. Naruto had to smile at the thought of Iruka’s reaction. He’d have to prepare some tissues.

There was still quite some time left before lunch, though. Which meant… Naruto’s smile faded, but he firmed his resolve. He wasn’t sure how he felt about her still, but he would have to go see Sakura.

While his mind had been thinking, his other senses had been alert. His body stopping its movement made Naruto come back to reality. What…?

There was a little girl, tugging at his pants leg. Did children actually do that anymore? Naruto decided it was a stupid thing to wonder about, and crouched down next to her slowly, so as not to frighten her. He smiled warmly at her. “Hello! And who might you be?”

She looked at him with those big child’s eyes. “I’m Akiko,” she said solemnly. “And you’re the fox.”

“Ah… yeah.” Did she mean Kyuubi fox, or Kitsune fox? Was she going to bite him or something?

“Mommy and daddy say that you saved the whole village.” She looked expectantly at him.

Naruto was lost. Okay… so no biting was forthcoming. What was he supposed to say, though? “Well, I helped, but it wasn’t only me. There were lots of other people, too, particularly my friend Gaara, he did most of the work. Do you know who Gaara is?”

Her nose scrunched up in thought. “He’s like the Hokage, from another village,” she said at last, “but I can’t remember the word.”

“The Kazekage,” Naruto told her. “He’s not from here, but he helped save our village. He’s really the one everyone should be thanking.”

The girl thought about this. Then she seemed to decide that Gaara, being not of this village, was unimportant, and looked at Naruto again. “But you saved us too, right?”

“I… guess you can say that.”

He blinked when a little rag doll was thrust under his nose. “This is Neko-chan,” she said. Naruto looked at the doll in the shape of a girl, and wondered why in the world she had called it a cat. “She’s mine.”

“Uh… that’s great.” Naruto tried a smile. It seemed the best option.

“Tetsu stole her once, and I was very upset,” she told him confidentially. “I would have been sadder if I’d lost her again. But you saved the village, so you saved her.”

“I did?”

“You did.” She nodded. Then she patted his knee. “Mummy and daddy say that when someone does something nice, you should say thank you.” She looked at him, and smiled cheerfully. “So thank you, Fox-san.”

Wow. This was… pretty nice. He grinned back at her with feeling. “You’re welcome, Akiko.”

She nodded firmly, and then tilted her head. “You have nice whiskers, like a real fox,” she said suddenly. “I like them.” Then she ran off.

Naruto blinked after her. “Uh… okay?” he said out loud.

When he straightened, feeling confused but really pleased by the encounter, he felt two presences behind him. He turned. It was a couple of civilians, looking nervous.

He tried his I’m Harmless And Innocent smile on them. “Can I help you?” he said cautiously. He seriously hoped that they weren’t the kid’s parents, going to yell at him for corrupting her or something.

The man wiped his palms on his pants. “Kitsune-san… no, Uzumaki-san,” he corrected himself, making Naruto stare in surprise. They had to be twice as old as he was, and yet they were talking to him so… deferentially. “We – my wife and I – just wanted to thank you for saving the village.”

Oh. Feeling awkward, Naruto raised his hand to the back of his head sheepishly. “Um, no problem. I couldn’t very well let a few thousand people die.”

“But you could,” the woman blurted. She clapped a hand over her mouth, eyes wide.

“What my wife is trying to say,” the man said hastily, “is that… well, we know you didn’t have to.” His face twisted in something that looked like guilt. “We were one of those who hated you before,” he said at last, his nervousness spiking. Naruto could smell it in the air. “We saw the demon in you… it killed our two children. We hated you for it. We were happy when you suffered and rejoiced when you disappeared for years. So we know full well that you had no obligation to Konoha, to help Konoha, seeing how you were treated. But we were wrong, we see that now. And we are deeply sorry for it, and deeply grateful that you found it in you to still come back and save the village that hurt you.”

Naruto looked at the two of them, almost shaking with fear of what he would do, and surprised even himself when he finally smiled, gently. There was none of the vindicated anger, or need for rubbing it in their faces, or vicious satisfaction at seeing those who had treated him so badly before humbled before him, emotions that he had imagined he’d feel when this day came, a day that he’d dreamed of so long. I’ve really grown up, he thought to himself, amused.

Out loud, he said, “It’s okay. About the past… it’s over. I’m just happy that you don’t hate me any longer.”

The relief rose off them in waves. Then the woman turned a little, and beckoned to someone behind her. A young boy came forward, watching Naruto with curious fascination and a little hero-worship. He held out a basket to Naruto, who took it, confused.

“This is my son,” the man said. “We had him after the… the demon’s attack.” To the boy, he said, “This is Uzumaki-san, Nozomu. Greet him nicely.”

The boy glanced at his father, and said, “Nice to meet you, Uzumaki-san.” Then, bursting with excitement, he said quickly before his parents could silence him, “Can you really call fire without using jutsus? Can you teach me?”

“Nozomu!” his mother cried, while his father made a grab for the boy, who evaded it nimbly.

Laughing, Naruto intervened. “It’s okay, really!” He looked down at the kid. “Yeah, I can call fire just like that. But it’s not something that anyone else can do, sorry.”

The boy looked like all his dreams had been fulfilled, even so. “Can I see it? Please? Call some fire!”

His father managed to grab him then, and hit him on the head. “Don’t be rude,” he scolded. “Uzumaki-san, I’m sorry.”

“No harm done,” Naruto assured him. He grinned at the kid, who looked disappointed. “It’s not a good idea to waste power if you don’t have to, remember that. Save it for when you really need it to defend the people you love.”

He received a vigorous nod. It seemed like any of his words were holy writ. Naruto repressed a snicker.

The woman gestured at the basket in his hands. “I run an unofficial cookie business,” she said, “and my customers always say my cookies are the best in the country. Please accept that basket as a token of our thanks… and our apologies.”

Naruto lit up. “Cookies? Cool! Thanks!” Then he realized that the couple was hiding a grin, and he made an effort to tone down his happiness. “I mean… yeah, thanks.”

After exchanging a few more words, Naruto bid them goodbye, and continued walking, feeling ridiculously pleased. The incident had done wonders for the lingering bitterness in him.

He was stopped just a few metres down by yet another group, this time a bunch of older citizens, who also wanted to apologize and thank him, and had yet more gifts for him – canisters of tea leaves, this time, handpicked from one of the most famous tea fields in Fire country, and quite expensive. Overwhelmed, Naruto accepted it with thanks, and chatted with them for a bit. He’d always gotten the worst and most vicious reactions from the elderly, in the past. It was always painful for parents to bury their children, but the elderly usually lost both children and grandchildren, and due to their age, could not bear new children to ease the pain of loss.

And that seemed to break the ice for the villagers. Every few steps, Naruto was accosted by people who temporarily left their repairs of their property to come and talk to him. More often than not, they had little gifts for him, and soon Naruto could hardly move and see for the baskets, boxes, little tokens…

Just as he was wondering what to do, he registered a familiar presence. Hands helped lighten his load, and he grinned at Kakashi and Iruka. “Thanks!” he said, and waggled his eyebrows. “Out for a little lovebirds’ walk?”

Iruka glared at him. “Do you want these gifts to be dropped, Naruto?” he demanded as Kakashi took the last of the gifts from the blond.

“No, that’s food, don’t drop the food!” Naruto yelped in mock-horror. Then he remembered his schedule. “Iruka-sensei, Kakashi-sensei, I need to talk to you guys again. Are you free in the late afternoon?”

“Yes, come by my house again then,” Iruka assured him.

“Good, I have lots of people to visit today.” Naruto beamed at him.

“Is that so?” Kakashi hefted the load in his arms. “We’ll drop this off at your inn for you, then. And a word of advice – if you actually want to make it anywhere,” he added, “you’d better take the roofs.”

Naruto grinned sheepishly. “Good idea. I’ll see you later, then.”

He left his teachers and bounded up to the rooftops. Up here, there were no villagers to stop him, and he made it to the hospital in record time.

Now… where was the ICU again?

He found the ward, and was told that Sakura had just finished her rounds and was taking a break in the nurses’ break room – and also that the nurses were really grateful for his help, and sorry for the way he had been treated, and did he have a girlfriend?

“Uh… no. Excuse me, I’m really in a hurry!”

He practically ran to the nurses’ break room. What the hell?

Sakura looked up when he came in, and quickly shut the door. He turned, and realized that she was the only one inside – a blessing, of sorts. They stared at each other silently.

“Naruto,” Sakura finally said, softly. She fiddled with the coffee cup in her hands.

“Sakura,” he said, trying to make his voice sound neutral.

She gave him a forced, light smile. “You look harried.”

His smile came easier. “Yeah… your fellow nurses are scary.”

He was surprised when she laughed. “So they’ve made a move on you?”

“How did you know?”

“You’ve been the hot topic of conversation just about everywhere, you know,” she said, smiling. “And among the girls around my age, the main talking point is how hot you are. And not as a conversation topic.”

Naruto’s jaw dropped. “What?”

She nodded, that laughing smile he’d loved on her face. “You’re apparently the number one catch right now. For the first time ever, Sasuke’s relegated to a poor second… or was that third?” She grinned at him. “Gaara’s second, depending on whether you’re talking about Konoha nins or just hot guys in general.”

Gaara?”

“Of course.” She looked at him with a raised eyebrow. “You’ve been glued to his side the past week, you can’t tell me you haven’t noticed how hot he’s become?”

Naruto sputtered. “You can hardly see him for the bandages!”

Her eyes narrowed at him. “I don’t mean that. I meant, surely you noticed how hot he is what with all the time you spent together before – otherwise why would you be glued to his side now, when he’s all wrapped up in bandages?”

Naruto’s jaw worked, but no sound came out.

She laughed. “Don’t worry, it’s only obvious to me, I think, because I know you.” Then she seemed to realize what she had said, and her smile fell.

“Sakura…”

“No, wait, let me say this first.” Sakura took a deep breath, and straightened. “I was extremely out of line… that night. And I want you to know that I didn’t really mean what I said, it was just that I was emotionally distraught… and I fully regret every single word. I’ve been examining our team’s relationships over and over again, these past few years, and I realize how blind I was… and how badly I treated you. I tried so hard to make us a team, but I was trying all the wrong things.”

She looked right at him. “You brought Sasuke back, at the risk of your own life. You kept your promise to me. You always have.” She looked down, tears forming in her eyes. “And for the past few years, I kept thinking back on how I always dismissed you, how I never considered what you would feel… I really regret it all, Naruto. I just… I just want you to know that.”

Naruto watched her rub at her eyes, trying to be strong… like she had always tried to be. And he finally let go of his bitter anger, of his resentment of her. Like Sasuke, like Gaara, like he himself, like all of them – she had been struggling, too, trying to be strong, trying to keep up, trying to keep Sasuke from slipping through their fingers. And the past five years couldn’t have been easy for her, either.

He’d never really wanted to be mad at her, Naruto realized. Even before now, he had cared for her as a friend, even as he wished he didn’t still care.

“Sakura,” he said.

She nodded, not looking up.

“Does this place have good coffee?”

Pink hair flew as her head snapped up, with the most hilariously incredulous look on her face. “Coffee?”

“Yeah,” he said, grinning. “Is it good? I’m not going to drink it if it’s not.”

She looked like she was resisting the urge to throw her coffee cup at him – that scary side of her that Naruto had always suffered from, but was now very amused by. “Go get your own coffee if you’re so picky!” she snapped. Then she coughed. “I mean… um…”

“But I guess I’ll just take what I can get,” he said. When she looked oddly at him, he smiled at her, and moved to the couch next to hers. “May I sit?”

She stared at him, and the smile that appeared on her face – relieved, happy, tearful, regretful – was beautiful. She would never be at the top of any ‘hottest girls’ list, but she had her own beauty, one that Naruto had been drawn to when he was younger. “Sure. You… um… want some coffee?”

“Yeah, that’d be good. It’s always nice to have a hot drink when you chat with friends.”

Her smile was brilliant. And Naruto felt another piece of his scarred heart warming, being soothed, being healed.

They talked for ages, the nurses not daring to come into the room. When Sakura had to go on her rounds again, Naruto left with the promise of having lunch or dinner with her someday. He quickly escaped the nurses who were staring hungrily at him and giggling, and took to the rooftops again.

When he entered the barbeque restaurant, he headed for the table that he knew his friends would be at. Chouji waved at him, mouth full; Ino smiled, her arm in a sling. Shikamaru shifted to the inner seat. “Naruto,” he greeted. “Sit down, sit down. Grab the meat before Chouji does, or you’ll go hungry.”

“I’m not taking it all!” Chouji protested. He grinned at Naruto. “So, you’ve really risen up in the world, huh? It’s hard to believe that you’re Kitsune, you were really freaky when you first appeared in the exam to talk to us.”

“The first morning, right?” Naruto laughed. “Yeah, I was still pretty caught up in Kitsune’s personality then. But you know, the more people who found out, the harder it became to keep it up.”

“Yeah, I heard you got busted really fast,” Chouji said gleefully. “Ow!”

“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Ino said sweetly, her eyes glinting. “Or I’ll step on your foot again.”

“But my mouth will always be full!”

“Then don’t talk!”

“But it’s Naruto! We haven’t talked to him in ages!”

“Then don’t eat!”

“But…!”

As they bickered, Naruto nudged Shikamaru. “Are you sure they’re going to take three weeks?” he whispered loudly. “They’re already acting like an old married couple – ow!”

That scary smile of Ino’s was turned on Naruto. “What were you saying?”

“Uh…” Naruto knew his eyes were wide. “Nothing, just… just talking about Shikamaru and Temari!”

Shikamaru choked. Ino looked liked she’d just been told that New Year’s would come early. “Oh, Temari, is it? That pretty kunoichi from Suna? Do tell, Naruto-kun!”

“Yeah, tell!” Chouji chimed in, looking happy that he could get revenge on his teammate for teasing him.

“I’ll get you for this,” Shikamaru muttered, jabbing Naruto in the side with an elbow.

Lunch was as light-hearted and fun as Naruto could have hoped. Ino had really toned down on her catty ways, and was much easier to talk to now. Team Eight were really close, and he watched their interactions with wistful pleasure. They never made him feel unwelcome, quite the opposite in fact, but you could tell that the three of them had a really special relationship.

This is what a team should be, Naruto found himself thinking.

He felt a sense of regret when they had to split, Shikamaru needing to head back to the Tower, Ino and Chouji needing to help repairs. He waved to them as they left, throwing invitations to have lunch with them again over their shoulders as they ran off. Then he made his way to the school district, to find Lee.

Lee had already visited him in the hospital, and so when Naruto stood below the roof he was working on and called up to him, he waved and called, “Just a moment, Naruto-kun!” He hammered the plank he was holding in, and then dropped lightly down. He beamed when he was face to face with Naruto. “I see you’ve finally left the hospital! Is Gaara-san up already?”

“No, not yet.” Naruto shrugged off the worry, and smiled at him. “You free for a while? There’s something I want to talk to you about.”

The other man looked at him thoughtfully, and then nodded. “There’s the nearby park, it should be empty right now, since it wasn’t damaged.”

They walked to the park, and Naruto told Lee about the offer. After a bout of exuberant, tearful joy, Naruto managed to calm the other man down. Lee seemed to sense his change in mood, and after sobering, said, “What is it, Naruto-kun?”

Naruto took a deep breath. Then he said, “What if I don’t take the position?”

Lee looked confused. “But… why not? You deserve it, Naruto-kun, and I’m sure you can do a fine job!”

“Yes, perhaps, but…” Naruto looked down, unable to meet Lee’s eyes. “If I become Hokage, Konoha will become all that I know. I’ll hardly get to travel out at all. A Kage needs to actually be in his village almost all the time: it’s his duty, his responsibility. And… well… I’ve gained a taste for the freedom of being able to go anywhere whenever I feel like it. And… there’s still…”

“There’s still Gaara-san, right?”

Naruto’s head snapped up and he stared at Lee. “What? How? You –”

Lee’s smile was that serious one he didn’t often show. “It’s pretty obvious, observing you for a while,” he said. “Neji knows it, too, and Hinata-san. I think Shikamaru-kun as well? He seems to know everything.”

“But –”

“And besides,” Lee added, with an uncharacteristic wicked grin, “Neji told me about the kiss during the third exam.”

Naruto choked. “But no one should have been paying attention! Everyone was watching the fight!”

“My teammate has all-seeing eyes, remember?” Lee said proudly.

Naruto could only stare, feeling a blush heat his cheeks.

Lee patted him on the shoulder. “Do not worry, Naruto-kun!” he declared, with a shine in his eyes. “Love is love, no matter the gender or age! Love should not be hidden! Love should be celebrated! And love between men should be held up to the world equally as –”

“Okay, okay, keep your voice down, Lee!” Naruto waved his arms frantically, trying to signal his friend to keep quiet.

“But love should –”

“Not this love!” Naruto buried his face in his hands. When he spoke next, his voice was muffled. “If I choose to stay in Konoha, Gaara must not know that I love him, okay? He already… I think he already has feelings for me, I can’t give him hope, or he’ll be really hurt if… if…”

“…I see.” Lee was back to being serious. “If you are the Hokage, and he is the Kazekage, then political considerations will not allow two such great leaders of different villages to have a romantic relationship. Not to mention the difficulty of carrying out such a relationship even if it were allowed.”

“Yeah, you get it.” Naruto looked back up.

Lee nodded. “So… what is it that you have come to me for, Naruto-kun? I can’t make the decision for you.”

Naruto sighed. “I’m not asking you to make the decision. I’m just… I just wanted to know what you’d think if I gave up the Hokage position for such personal reasons.” He looked at Lee, trying to smile. “I want to know if you would feel disappointed in me.”

The other man considered this gravely. Then he said, “Perhaps those who do not know you would not understand. But as your friend, Naruto-kun, I will support whichever choice you make. Yes, I would much prefer you to stay, and become Hokage as is your due, but it is time that you choose your life for yourself, a life that you truly will not regret. I could never be disappointed in someone who stays true to their heart, and most of all, I could never be disappointed in you.” He gave Naruto a big, cheesy, but heartfelt grin. “You are one of the people I hope to reach one day, Naruto-kun, Hokage or not. I am proud to be your friend, and I will stand by you in whatever you do.”

Naruto let out a shuddering breath. “I… thank you, Lee.” He found himself blinking back tears, and snorted at his own sentimentality. “Sorry,” he said, wiping his eyes. “I was talking to Sakura earlier, and then I met Team Eight… I’m a bit emotional today.”

Lee clapped him on the shoulder. “Men should not be afraid to show their tears,” he proclaimed. “We are human, after all! We are creatures of emotion! We –”

“LEE! My lovely student! If you do not return here THIS INSTANT, you will have to run fifty laps around the school!” Gai’s voice boomed from not so far off.

“YES, Gai-sensei!” Lee yelled back. To Naruto, he said quickly, “I have to go. Remember, stay true to yourself, Naruto-kun!”

“LEE!”

“YES, Gai-sensei! See you, Naruto-kun!”

Naruto watched Lee speeding off with amusement, and more than a little fondness. He was really lucky to have friends like Lee, cliché as that sounded.

Setting off again, Naruto headed for Iruka-sensei’s apartment. Yet another two people in his life he really did not want to disappoint.

Iruka and Kakashi heard him out. They reacted in the same way as Lee had, when Naruto told them of the offer – Iruka actually almost cried, and Kakashi looked so proud that Naruto felt his heart swell with it. Really, they were like husband and wife, and Naruto their child – but it was a wonderful feeling, one that he’d yearned for all his life.

He asked them the same question he’d asked Lee, with more dread in him than before. But he needn’t have worried, and Iruka made that very clear. He actually scolded Naruto for thinking that way, with Kakashi chiming in.

But for all their reassurances, Naruto’s heart felt heavier. They were the parents he’d never had; they were the family he’d always dreamed of – albeit weirder and gayer.

How could he give this up?

Naruto talked for a little while more with them, and was grateful for their tactful avoidance of the whole Hokage issue, knowing that they didn’t want to give him any more pressure. But he could sense their worry, and when he bid goodbye to them, Iruka gave him an extra tight hug, and Kakashi’s hand lingered in his hair after ruffling it – and Naruto knew without them saying it, that for all their words, they would rather him stay, and no matter their words some part of them would be disappointed if he gave up the Hokage position, but they would not say it so as not to burden him further.

Naruto left Iruka’s house with a smile, but his steps were heavy.

And then there was only one person left. Naruto knew that he couldn’t put it off any longer.

He went to see Sasuke.

When he knocked on the door, it swung open. Sasuke nodded at him, not surprised at all, and stood aside wordlessly to let him in. Naruto looked around the bare, drab apartment as Sasuke closed the door behind him – and noticed that the apartment looked a little less bare and drab than before. He saw the painting hanging on the wall, a cheerful and disgustingly sweet depiction of a fluffy fox playing with a fluffy bunny on fluffy grass with fluffy clouds in the sky and a beaming sun (literally – the expression looked a little like Kakashi’s curvy smile) overhead. It was completely out of place, and clashed horrendously with the Uchiha ‘dark and brooding’ image.

Naruto grinned.

“I can’t believe Itachi actually kept it,” Sasuke grumbled, coming up to him. “Scratch that, I can’t believe you actually had the balls to give it to him.”

“You should have seen my other gifts.” Naruto watched Sasuke duck into the kitchen, and he looked around some more. He caught sight of the fishbowl tucked in the corner, next to the window. “Oh my god, you have seen my other gifts. You’ve kept my other gifts. I can’t believe Fish is alive!”

“I can’t believe you named the fish ‘Fish’,” Sasuke called from the kitchen, his voice dry. “And for your information, it’s not me who kept the gifts, it’s Itachi.”

“I can’t believe he managed to keep Fish alive,” Naruto said, wide-eyed. “I thought for sure he’d Mangekyo Sharingan it and chuck its poor little dead body in the toilet bowl.”

“Even if Itachi would waste the Mangekyo on a fish, he would never chuck it in the toilet. What a disgusting way to treat a dead animal.”

“Fish.”

“Whatever.” Sasuke came back out, and handed Naruto a mug of green tea. “The fish isn’t the worst of it, though.” He shot Naruto a glare. “I can’t believe you gave him –”

“Oh, no way.” Naruto began grinning again, a cock-eyed grin. “No freaking way. He kept it? He actually kept it? This I have to see!” He looked around, and headed purposefully towards the bedrooms.

“The one on the left, dobe,” Sasuke said, following him. Naruto obediently changed directions and headed to the door on the left. He opened it and stuck his head inside.

And promptly burst into laughter.

Sasuke had a very smug grin on his face when Naruto closed the door, still laughing. He took a nonchalant sip of his tea. “Pretty good, isn’t it?”

“Oh god…” Naruto gasped for breath. “You drew wrinkles on it! You turned the Sasuke-plushie into an Itachi-plushie! Oh god…”

“I heard about the note that you sent along with it,” Sasuke said, eyeing him like a hawk eyeing its prey. “You’d better watch out, dobe. One day I’ll do something nasty to you.”

The note? Naruto thought back. Then he howled with laughter. “So… so now instead of hugging you to sleep every night… he’s hugging himself to sleep!”

“He tried to give it to me.” There was a smile tugging at the corners of Sasuke’s lips. “I told him that there was no way I was going to hug him to sleep.”

Naruto was laughing so hard that tears were coming out of his eyes. Sasuke tactfully took the mug from his hands, preventing the tea from being spilled with how hard he was shaking with laughter. Naruto followed him as he rolled his eyes and went back into the living room.

Struggling to tamp down on the laughter, Naruto wiped his eyes, and finally took the mug back. “I’ll get you your own plushie soon, how’s that?”

“Do it and die, Uzumaki.”

Naruto calmed down enough to sip at his tea. It was pretty good quality tea, and he said as much: “This is good.”

“You wouldn’t believe Itachi’s back pay for doing the Akatsuki thing,” Sasuke said, shrugging. “We’ve enough to live comfortably for a long time.”

“He’s moved in with you here officially, huh?”

“Yeah.” Sasuke looked away.

Naruto took the hint and changed the topic. “Why this place still? I mean, I understand why not the old Uchiha compound… but why not a nicer apartment? Or you could decorate this place a bit more.”

Sasuke shrugged. “It’s fine like this. We might add more stuff later. When there’s need, I guess. Itachi says maybe a new couch.”

Naruto privately resolved to buy more ridiculous gifts for them – definitely the Sasuke plushie. “Still calling him Itachi?”

“Yeah.” Sasuke looked down at his tea. “It’s going to… take a while, before I can call him – it’s going to take a while.”

There was nothing he could say to that, so Naruto didn’t try. He drank from his tea, and then decided to cut to the chase. “Sasuke… you know why I’m here. You know what I want to ask.”

Sasuke was silent for a while. Then he nodded.

Naruto sighed. Guess he had to actually ask it, huh. “So why? After five years of wavering… of not letting yourself get close to anyone… why did you choose to stay?”

He let Sasuke have his time to think how to answer, and moved to the window. It overlooked a side street, with a good number of people walking around. The noise level was low, though, since it wasn’t a market street with stalls.

Sasuke joined him, and leaned idly against the windowsill. “There are lots of reasons,” he said at last. “And I don’t really know what they are, even now. I still can’t quite figure out what parts of my feelings were my own, and what parts derived from the corrupting influence of the seal. The seal really amplified the negative emotions, for one.”

“That’s for sure,” Naruto muttered under his breath. Sasuke had been much worse emotionally – more hell-bent on vengeance, more angsty, more volatile, more bitchy – after receiving the cursed seal.

Sasuke shot him an annoyed look. “Don’t rub it in,” he snapped.

“My bad.”

They both sipped the tea. Then Sasuke sighed. “Up until the exam, I hadn’t really decided. One the one hand, there was Sakura and the rest, who put up with me for five years… and I knew by then what Orochimaru would do with my body. On the other hand I still wanted vengeance and power. But then… the exam happened.”

He paused. Naruto was silent, trying to be as unobtrusive as possible.

“The funny thing about that fight was that I wasn’t thinking about all the reasons for my hesitation. The only thing I could think of… what it came down to in the moment… was that it was either Sakura’s life or Orochimaru’s power.” His voice grew soft. “And watching her fight, all I could think of was that she was going to die, and it made me think of you. I truly believed you were dead – there had been no news of you at all, and you had been so useless when you’d left. And the thought of your death just… really struck me, then. And I thought of you, dead, and of Sakura, dying.

“And don’t ask me why, but I just couldn’t let both of you die.”

He stopped talking, then. Then two of them stood there in silence, broken only by the quiet voices and laughter filtering up from the street below.

Then Sasuke pushed himself off the windowsill. He held up his mug. “You want a refill?”

Naruto gulped down the last of his tea, and handed the mug to Sasuke. “No, thanks. I’ve got to be going.”

“Back to the hospital?” Sasuke disappeared into the kitchen to dump the mugs, and came back out. “No change in Gaara’s condition, I heard.”

Naruto knew his smile was wan. He didn’t bother answering, and said instead, “One last question, I swear. How… how are you coping?”

Sasuke’s smile matched his, but it was a tad bitter. He stuffed his hands into his pockets. “What do you think?” he said. “I find out that my brother, who I spent my entire life wanting revenge on, was actually the saviour of the village, and my entire clan was going to betray Konoha by starting a war, and that my brother was supposed to kill me but he couldn’t because he loved me too much.” He stopped, and blinked, as if surprised by his own rush of words.

Naruto found his smile turning a little more real. “You called him brother.”

The look Sasuke gave him was a mix of annoyance, exasperation, frustration, and a little affection. “Stop prying into our lives, dobe,” he said.

“How can I? You brothers are so stupid.” Naruto ducked a blow from Sasuke. “But you know, I was right – remember I once asked you what you’d do, after your vengeance was complete? You said it didn’t matter. Bet you don’t feel so cool now, teme.”

Sasuke snorted. “If you want a fight, dobe, I’ll gladly play along.”

Naruto grinned. “No, thanks – watching Gaara sleep is more interesting than fighting you.” He yelped as Sasuke landed a very hard blow on his arm. “Hey! Bastard!”

“Wimp,” Sasuke retorted.

Making a face at him, Naruto headed for the door. “Your hospitality sucks. I’m leaving you here with Fish, the poor thing.”

Sasuke leaned against the doorframe, watching him as he put on his sandals. “You’re welcome to take Fish back if you feel so sorry for him.”

Naruto waved a hand. “No, no, you need some humanity in your lives.”

“Fish is a fish. It’s not human.”

“I mean taking care of it would make you guys more human.” Naruto rolled his eyes, and straightened. “Well, this is it. See you sometime soon, then, teme.”

There was an unreadable look in Sasuke’s eyes. “What’s your definition of soon?” he said, and they both knew his real question: Are you staying in Konoha?

Naruto met his black glaze. And then he smiled faintly, and shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said honestly.

“I heard about Tsunade’s offer.” Sasuke shifted, crossing his arms. “It’s your dream, isn’t it?”

“It… was. It may well still be. I’m not too sure on it myself.”

Sasuke snorted. “You don’t seem to be sure about anything.”

“Well, all my decisions are big ones!” Naruto said defensively.

Sasuke hesitated, and then said, with ill-feigned casualness, “Itachi seems to like you, god knows why… and I wouldn’t mind you sticking around either. You’re entertaining. And the rest of the Nine, and Lee and even that bastard Neji… I know they find you amusing too. The village could do worse than you for a Hokage.” He hesitated again, and then added, looking away, “And we have a lot of… time… to make up for.”

Naruto blinked in surprise. It was the closest Sasuke could come to asking him to stay; it was the closest Sasuke could come to admitting, ‘I have a lot to make up to you’. It was the closest Sasuke could come to an apology. Naruto slowly smiled, and he nodded. “I’ll think about it.”

“If you can.” Sasuke waved lazily at him. “Don’t trip over your feet as you leave, dobe.”

“Don’t close the door on your own stuck-up nose, teme,” Naruto retorted, but he was grinning. He turned and ran down the corridor, waving over his shoulder. He heard Sasuke grumble something under his breath, but there was the lightness of laughter in it, before he heard the sound of the door closing.

There. The final item on his list, done.

The sun was already setting, the sky a deep blend of reds and oranges and blues, casting a faded-photograph hush on the streets. Naruto leapt lightly on to a rooftop, and began leisurely making his way to the hospital. It had been a day, he reasoned; the nurses hadn’t said anything about night.

And as he moved, he thought about all his precious people. There were so many of them, here, and his friendships with some of them were only just beginning. People who he’d never imagined would think so highly of him, people who he’d never imagined could understand him so well… he thought of Hinata-chan and Lee, who’d always believed; of Neji, who’d spoken so honestly to him about debt and respect; of Shikamaru, whose burdens Naruto understood too well; of Chouji and Ino and Kiba and Shino, who he barely knew, but who he wanted to get to know better. Of Sasuke, and Sakura, and how they just might finally be able to be the team that they were meant to be. He thought of Iruka and Kakashi, and Tsunade, and of Jiraiya and Sandaime who were forever lost to them.

He thought about his most cherished dream, tattered and battered and locked away, but still alive in its banished corner, still burning, even if he’d thought that he had killed it ages ago. He thought about his nindo, his ninja way, and all those who had always had faith in him, and how he never wanted to let them down. He thought about his father, and what he’d sacrificed for the village and those he loved. He thought of the people of Konoha, finally, finally seeing him as not only one of them, but one of the best of them.

And then he thought about Gaara, and Kankurou, and Temari, to set against all the people of Konoha.

The choice seemed clear.

And yet…

Just in case, Gaara had whispered, and he had sounded so terribly sad.

Like he had already lost, and he accepted the fact.

“What am I supposed to do?” Naruto yelled up into the darkening sky. But, of course, there was no answer. It was his choice.

This is something you have to figure out yourself, Naruto.

But he didn’t know how.

Chapter Text

I have had worse partings, but none that so
Gnaws at my mind still. Perhaps it is roughly
Saying what God alone could perfectly show --
How selfhood begins with a walking away,
And love is proved in the letting go.

-- C. Day-Lewis, Walking Away


When Gaara awoke, there was no one beside him.

He blinked at the dull white ceiling and the slowly whirring fan in its middle for a while as memories paraded themselves before his eyes, and pain marched through what seemed to be every part of his body. Then, slowly and carefully, he sat up and crossed his legs beneath him. He had questions that could not wait.

Searching for Naruto’s chakra was almost like breathing, something so essential to him that Gaara normally did it without thinking, but today he was worn enough and drained enough that it would take effort. He settled into a meditative position and frame of mind, and sent his senses out.

Naruto was a bright, brilliant flame in the midst of other weaker presences. Gaara could sense that he was happy; some parts wistful and troubled, but happy. Next to him was Shikamaru, almost overshadowed by Naruto, but the jounin was one of the Leaf nins that Gaara had taken careful note of since he was considered a friend now, and so he could recognize Shikamaru’s subtle presence easily. Presumably the other two people they were with were some of their year-mates.

So… Naruto was alive, and happy, and well.

And he was surrounded by friends, while Gaara had woken up alone.

Gaara was happy for Naruto, he truly was. It was one of his goals in life to ensure that Naruto was happy, and if Naruto was happy, then Gaara was happy as well. And Naruto was alive, and healthy, and that was enough to make the world right, because a world without Naruto in it was unthinkable. Right there at the end, Gaara had been afraid for the other man, because he had sensed Naruto’s life burning up with his efforts, along with his prey. It had been his last thought as he’d fed the final traces of his life energy into the holding circle. He was glad that his fear had not come true.

So Gaara was happy.

He was.

He would not allow himself to acknowledge any other emotion – not the loneliness, not the desperation, not the fear, not the betrayal – no other emotion but happiness. Even if those other emotions were drowning him and suffocating him at the same time, a curious and terrible combination.

A slow death is the worst way to go, Baki had once said. Gaara understood now what he had meant.

This was dying, slowly.

Gaara looked out of the window. It was just before noon, and the sounds from outside the village were peaceful, the sun warm. At least he had managed to save Naruto’s beloved village; he’d been afraid too, towards the end, that his death would come before the last of the Akatsuki burned.

There were gifts all around him: flowers, food, cards. He was pleased by their presence, and grateful, but these were dead things – and as surrounded by silence as he was, he craved for people by his side. He craved for a particular person by his side.

No. That would not do. Naruto was not his alone, even if he wished for it to be so. Naruto was a gift to the world, and Gaara could not monopolize him.

But his mind refused to stop dreaming that he could.

Growling low in his throat, Gaara forced his body to move, to stand. He did a few stretches against the screaming pain until it subsided to the stabbing of million needles, but that he could handle. He found some of his clean clothes neatly folded on a chair, and dressed. Then he held out his hand to the sand gourd in the corner. It dissolved, and then reformed on his back, Gaara’s body protesting in agony to the sudden weight but then adjusting with ease of long practice.

Welcome back to the world.

I have been sleeping for a long time, have I?

A week now. It has been boring stuck in your empty head.

Gaara smiled faintly. Then it is a good thing that we will be returning to Suna shortly, I suppose.

You really will leave Kyuubi and his brat behind?

It is not my choice, Shukaku.

The racoon grumbled. I could make Kyuubi force him to come.

No. Do not interfere. If Naruto chooses to stay here, it is only a two-day run at normal speed from Suna, half a day for you. A few hours from you and Kyuubi each, and you can meet in the middle.

A grudging silence. Gaara nodded to himself, and then let the sand swirl him away.

The Hokage knocked over her chair in jumping up at his appearance, and then sat him down with a delighted but exasperated lecture on overdoing it when he had only just woken from a coma. Gaara endured her fussing in bemusement. She was like a scarier, bustier, more intimidating and powerful Iruka, overwhelming in her concern.

“And of all the times to wake up, you had to do it on the day that Naruto was kicked out of the hospital,” Tsunade finished. Gaara’s heart stopped, and then started again at a furious pace. “He refused to leave your side the entire time you were unconscious, you know. The nurses finally ganged up on him.”

“He did?” Gaara chided himself for the blatant hope revealed in his voice. As the Kazekage, he knew better than to show his emotions so openly.

“Yes, he did.” Tsunade smiled at him, and there was something in her expression of Temari, or of how Tsunade smiled at Naruto. Like a sister and her beloved little brother. He could see that to her, his feelings for Naruto were plain.

But there was something else in her expression, too. Something that looked like guilt, and a heavy burden, and the look of a leader torn between decisions. Gaara watched her as she finished her examination and went back to her seat, and said, “Is there something you wish to tell me?”

She sighed heavily. “I’m not sure if I should be the one to say it, but I’m worried that you may need to prepare yourself for the news.”

“It has something to do with Naruto?”

“Yes.” Tsunade looked at him searchingly. “Kazekage-sama… Gaara. I called Naruto to my office this morning, and – you have to understand, after Jiraiya…” She had to stop, taking a deep breath, before she could continue, and it was all the confirmation of the older man’s death that he needed. “After Jiraiya, I don’t think I can be what this village needs –”

And just like that, Gaara knew. He held up a hand, stopping her words. “You offered Naruto the position of Hokage.”

To her credit, she didn’t try to say anything else – no excuses, no reasoning. “Yes.”

Gaara closed his eyes. This was it, then. He’d told himself not to hope, but hope was a treacherous thing, and it lingered even as you desperately tried to erase it, knowing that you would only get hurt… “I understand.”

“Gaara, I’m sorry.”

But Gaara smiled at her, really smiled, because he knew well her burdens as a Kage and did not want to add to it by showing her his pain. “I do understand… Tsunade-san. And there is no need to apologise.” He thought of Naruto, a Naruto loved by his friends and his village, and felt a sense of it being right. “He was born to inspire others,” he said, “and he has long been due recognition.”

Tsunade looked hard at him, as if trying to see his lie. But Gaara was not lying – with that last flicker of hope gone, a kind of peace had settled over him. He felt numb, and his chest felt like a gaping, yawning hole – but if feeling like this meant that Naruto would get his chance to shine, then Gaara would not mind feeling this lost and empty for his whole life.

“He will make a fine Hokage,” he told her softly, “and you will be able to finally rest.” He tilted his head. “You are not the only one who watches, Tsunade-san. I know that Jiraiya-san’s death is one that you will mourn every day from here on. I am sorry for your loss.”

It was her turn to smile sadly, but her sadness was amplified a hundred times, because unlike his situation with Naruto, she would never get a chance to even speak to Jiraiya again. “So am I,” she said.

They shared a moment of understanding, of chances lost, of love unable to be returned. Then Tsunade said lightly, “Naruto will probably be back in the evening. I think he’s been going around catching up with friends today.”

Gaara nodded. “I will await him in the hospital.” He hesitated, and then said, “When will I be cleared to leave?”

“Leave the hospital, or leave Konoha?”

“Both.”

“You can leave the hospital any time, but I don’t think you’re in any shape to head back to Suna.”

Gaara checked his chakra levels. “I have more than enough to use my sand transportation technique. With it, I will be back in Suna in half a day, instead of the two days via running. My body will not be overly stressed.”

Tsunade frowned. “There’s still the danger of chakra depletion. A huge amount of chakra and your life energy has been forcefully pulled from your body, damaging you physically. I could barely find the trace of life energy left in you that I needed to bring you back. If you strain your chakra again so soon…”

“I will take care to prevent that from happening. I know my limits. I plan to undertake the journey in sections, and rest in between.” Gaara looked directly at her, willing her to understand how much it hurt if he had to stay here any longer than necessary.

From the look in her eyes, she understood, and while she didn’t like it, she wouldn’t stop him. “At least travel in the day. I don’t suppose you have enough chakra to take a passenger with you? I’d feel better if you could take at least one of your jounin with you for protection. Your Sand shinobi are still hanging around here helping with the repairs, you know. They haven’t dared come in to see you, but the nurses are complaining that they’re badgered about your condition at least thirty times in a day.”

Gaara found himself smiling. “I am fortunate to have shinobi who care for me,” he said. “It took a while, and a lot of effort on my part, but I think it is worth it.”

Tsunade laughed. “It certainly is. If they were any more devoted to you, I think my nurses would have staged a revolt until I booted your shinobi out of Konoha.”

“Do you need them for repairs? I might be able to lend them to you for another few days.”

“No, it’s fine. With the larger summons and the Kages having fought outside the village, the damage is a lot less than before, even with the bombs.”

Gaara nodded. “Very well. I think another night’s rest will restore my chakra enough that I can bring another person with me. Would you happen to know where my jounin are? I need to tell them to gather the others, and prepare to leave.”

“Sure, which do you need?”

“A man called Tsuki. He has –”

“I know who you mean. We owe him quite a few of our children – he and his partner dismantled a bomb right outside their shelter.” Tsunade rose. “I’ll find him and send him to you, while you return to the hospital to rest, am I clear?” When he nodded, she added, “You’re definitely leaving tomorrow morning, I suppose.”

“Yes.” Gaara gave her a faint smile. “Thank you for… everything, Tsunade-san.”

To his surprise, she gave him a bow, a deep bow. “Thank you, Gaara,” she said. “You sacrificed yourself to save a village that isn’t even yours. If you had not poured your life into holding that circle, the flames would have exploded, obliterating a good part of the village. As the Hokage, I am fully in your debt. Rest assured that if anything happens to Suna in the future, Konoha will not hesitate to send any help needed.”

Gaara inclined his head gracefully. “Thank you… Hokage-sama.”

She smiled at him. “Rest well, Kazekage-sama.”

Gaara stood, and bowed slightly to her. Then he let the sand take him back to his room. His presence had not yet been missed, and so he gratefully set down his gourd and let his abused form stretch out again on the bed. Now that he was back here, trapped by himself in the quiet, his thoughts came back with a vengeance. He felt so… hollow. It was hard to breathe, and even as he wondered whether it was because he’d taken a chest blow in battle, he knew that wasn’t it.

It was hard to breathe because of the knowledge that rested heavy, like a stone, inside of him.

He was going to be alone again.

Gaara was terrified of being alone, so unbelievably terrified; it had always been this way ever since Yashamaru had tried to kill him, and had been killed instead. He was terrified of being alone, forgotten, used, thrown away. He’d always needed other things to validate his existence; for years it had been by fighting and killing, but then Naruto had come. And now, Naruto was leaving. Gaara felt hysteria rising in him, and his breath became short and sharp, his heart pounding loud – he struggled to calm himself down, thinking not of being alone in Suna, but of the times he had not been alone.

Naruto…

Gods, it hurt.

Gaara clenched his fists, viciously shoving down the urge to curl up into himself and shut out the world, like he’d done so many times in the past – if he shut his eyes, and covered his ears, and sang the songs that Yashamaru used to sing, then the monsters would go away… except that the monsters were inside him, and it had never worked. So he refused to be this weak now, ever again – if not for himself, if he couldn’t be strong for himself, then he could be strong for his village.

Because Naruto had taught him how to be strong, even when it felt like you would never know what happiness felt like again.

Naruto had taught him how to smile.

It’s my nindo, see? Never let anything get you down!

So Gaara carefully gathered up the hurt, the aching, the terrible hollow aching, and packed it away tightly inside of him. He could not give Naruto any doubts about his decision. He could not leave Naruto with regrets about being the Hokage. It was the last and the most important gift that he would ever give Naruto, the man who he loved.

He would let Naruto go.


Naruto returned to the hospital to find what seemed to be the entire Sand contingent camped out on the ground floor. He blinked.

What the hell…?

Two Sand jounin appeared at the foot of the stairs, and an immediate hush fell. Naruto’s brow furrowed. He knew them. They called out two names, and two shinobi threaded their way to the front of the crowd, and disappeared up the stairs in a flash.

Naruto decided that he wasn’t going to get any answers by staring, so he pushed his way through the crowd as well. It was harder than he’d thought, because he was constantly being greeted.

“Kitsune-san! You look really different without the mask.”

“Not now, Taki.”

“Hey, Kitsune-san, are you really –”

“Not now, Nabe.”

“Kitsune-san –”

And so on.

Finally. Naruto gave up and just shoved his way through, ignoring his friends’ indignant yells. He wondered how the nurses were taking this, and then decided that as long as he wasn’t going to get in trouble for it, then he’d leave the Sand shinobi to face the nurses’ wrath.

He reached the two shinobi watching his progress amusedly. They actually applauded when he arrived before them. He gave them a black look, and said, “Ren, Seiji… what the hell is going on?”

“Ah, Kitsune-san! Or is it Uzumaki-san now?” Ren said cheerfully.

“Naruto is fine,” Naruto said impatiently. “What are you guys doing? And by the way, you know ANBU weren’t supposed to be sent to Konoha. Kankurou is going to be pissed that you disobeyed his orders and snuck in here.”

Seiji smirked. “Naruto-san, you should know better. Would we let our Kazekage fight without his most elite bodyguards? Besides, everyone else agreed with us, and helped smuggle us here. If you want to punish anyone, you’ll have to punish everyone.”

Naruto rolled his eyes. “Like I’d want to waste my time punishing you guys. Anyway, you haven’t answered my original question – what’s going on?”

“I thought you’ve been by his side the whole week?” Ren said, surprised. “Shouldn’t you know?”

Naruto stared. Then: “Oh god, don’t tell me on the first and only day I get kicked out of the hospital, Gaara wakes up?”

Ren and Seiji exchanged glances. Then they looked at Naruto.

“You have shit luck,” Seiji said, grinning.

“Worst timing ever,” Ren agreed.

Naruto swore, and raced up the stairs.

He collided with a nurse, and he would have ignored her and rushed straight on if they hadn’t been on the stairs, meaning that she would have fallen and broken her neck. Growling with impatience, he righted her, and was about to run off when she grabbed his wrist. “What?” he snapped.

And then he blinked. “Sakura?”

Sakura rolled her eyes. “Yes, none other. Naruto, about Gaara –”

“Yes, I know he’s awake, and if you’d let me go I –” He tried yanking his wrist back. It was like trying to escape cement. Damn Sakura and her super-strength!

“That’s not it!” Sakura glared. “I heard about the offer.”

Naruto blinked, and stopped tugging. “What? You know? But –”

“I heard about it from Gaara.”

The words resonated in his mind. It took him a moment to understand it, and then another moment to realize what it meant, and then another moment to remember how to breathe. “How?” he said weakly.

“Apparently he went to Tsunade-sensei when he awoke.” Sakura finally let him go, but Naruto couldn’t move. “Naruto… when I went to see him, it was – I don’t know how to describe it. He seemed fine, he acted fine, but somehow I get this feeling…” She blew out her breath. “You’ll understand when you see him.”

Naruto just stared at her. He hadn’t even planned on telling Gaara yet, until he’d sorted out his feelings. He hadn’t wanted to hurt Gaara, but it seemed that fate had conspired against him yet again. “Why?” he said at last, finding his voice. “Why would she…”

“Because she wanted to prepare him for it, I guess.” Sakura bit her lip. “Naruto… I’m really happy for you, you know that? You deserve the position. I really would like you to stay, because I feel that I haven’t gotten to know you at all, and I really would like to have our old team together at last, like the other teams are together. But… but if…”

She sighed in frustration. “What I’m trying to say is… ah, hell.” She gave him a light shove up the stairs. “Just go see him. I’m sorry I rambled on.” When Naruto just stared at her some more, her brows snapped together. “I said go, Naruto.”

He went, automatically. His body moved by itself, as his mind buzzed blankly.

Gaara knew.

What was he supposed to say now? How was he supposed to act?

He got to Gaara’s room, but stood outside the closed door. He raised his hand to knock several times, and let his hand fall several times again. He wasn’t prepared for this!

Just as he was wondering if he should leave first and figure out what to say before coming back, the door opened to reveal two amused faces. Naruto blinked, and then sighed. “Just how many of you managed to sneak over here without Kankurou knowing?” he demanded.

Omi laughed. “You saw Ren and Seiji then, Kitsune-san?”

“Naruto, just Naruto.” He eyed them. “So it’s just you four then? Truthfully?”

“Just us,” Tsuki confirmed. He looked Naruto up and down, and said, “So it’s true, then. You’re really the Konoha Jinchuuriki, and the Yondaime Hokage’s son?”

Naruto glared. “Yeah, and stop bringing it up, will you? I’m still the guy who trained with you and I can still kick your asses.”

Omi sighed. “Kitsune – no, Naruto-san, you know what Tsuki’s like. Just ignore him.” He grabbed his partner’s arm. “Let’s go, Tsuki. Let Naruto-san have some time with Kazekage-sama.”

Naruto stood to let them pass. Just as Tsuki was dragged past him, however, the Suna nin tapped him on the arm. “I’d just like to say, on behalf of the rest of the Sand, that you’re welcome to stay with us. You’re practically one of the Suna shinobi already, you know. And you’ve lots of friends among us. We’d hate to lose you to a village that never really appreciated you anyway.”

“You only appreciated me because you only knew me with the mask,” Naruto said absently, not really thinking about his words.

Omi stopped short, and turned to look at Naruto, bringing him out of his thoughts. “Naruto-san, it was because of the mask that you can really know we like you for who you are, not what you are – not the Yondaime Hokage’s son, not the Jinchuuriki of Konoha. Sure, you acted cold and everything at first, but can you honestly say you didn’t act like yourself once you got to know us better?”

There was nothing he could say. Omi gave him a satisfied smile, and then resumed dragging Tsuki down the hall. The taller shinobi gave him a smirk and a mocking salute, and then they disappeared down the stairs.

You can really know we like you for who you are.

Damn. This day just got more and more complicated.

Naruto took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and went into Gaara’s room, closing the door. Then he turned to face the bed.

Gaara sat there, cross-legged, dressed in his normal clothes and not the hospital shift he’d been dressed in when comatose. And the moment Naruto looked at him, he knew what Sakura had meant.

Everything about him was perfectly normal, except that it wasn’t.

In real life, Naruto reflected, there was nothing so dramatic as dead eyes, or eyes with light sucked out of them, or all that poetic crap. Gaara’s eyes were as beautiful as ever, and the light reflected in them just as always. And yet… it was wrong. This wasn’t the Gaara he loved.

“Naruto,” Gaara said.

And the voice, the tone, that was all wrong, too.

“You’re awake,” Naruto said, and then smacked himself on the forehead. “Okay, that was stupid.” He took a step forward. “You really like to make my life difficult, don’t you? You just had to wake up on the one day I wasn’t here.”

Gaara tilted his head. “I know about how you were here all the time. Thank you for your concern.”

What? What the hell was that? ‘Thank you for your concern?’ This was going really badly. Naruto bit his lip. “Gaara… about the Hokage thing. I… I haven’t –”

“You will make a good Hokage, once you cure your aversion to tact and red tape. Congratulations, Naruto.” Gaara smiled, but it wasn’t his smile. Naruto felt a desperate sense of loss. “I truly believe Konoha will prosper under your leadership.”

Okay, this whole formal thing was starting to piss him off even through the guilt. Naruto struggled to rein in his temper. “Gaara, please don’t do the diplomatic thing. I haven’t –”

“This is your home. I said that before, did I not?” Gaara was still calm, too calm. “The villagers love you, now. You have a place here, the highest place you can have. You have old friends who have waited to be with you again for a long time.” Those green eyes were steadily trained on him. “You would be a fool to leave this place. And you are not a fool, Naruto.”

“Look, I know – I know you have some… feelings for me, okay?” Naruto ran a frustrated hand through his hair. “You can’t expect me to believe that you’re just – perfectly fine with me staying here.”

“I might have had some feelings for you,” Gaara said neutrally, “and there may be lingering traces still, but they will fade. It is nothing to worry about –”

“Don’t give me that crap!” Naruto snarled. “You kissed me, remember? And –”

“That was meant to signify goodbye.” Gaara sat up a little straighter, and pinned Naruto with his gaze. “Have you not noticed that I have pushed you constantly to reunite with your friends, and to stay in Konoha? My intention all along has to be for you to remain here. That you have been offered the position of Hokage aids my plans greatly. Suna and Konoha will never be enemies as long as you and I are alive.”

Just in case, Gaara had whispered, and his kiss had been so soft.

“I don’t believe that,” Naruto said, the anger gone. He took another step forward. “That kiss… it was a promise. It was a question, it was – I don’t know what the hell it was, but it definitely wasn’t goodbye. Gaara… I normally hate talking about emotional crap, but this time, please talk to me. Don’t just make the decisions by yourself –”

“I have always made the decisions. Have you not realized? You have always been content to let me make the decisions, except when it relates to Konoha. And ever since we came here, I have let you take over, in preparation for the day when we separate. You were born to be Hokage, Naruto. This whole time in Konoha proves it.”

Naruto shook his head vehemently. “Don’t try to use that on me, Gaara. It won’t work. I know you –”

“No. You don’t.” The words were flat, and stopped Naruto in his tracks.

They looked at each other, Naruto not knowing what to say, Gaara not saying anything. Then, finally, the redhead sighed. “Go, Naruto,” he said, and there was at last some emotion in his voice – weariness. “Do not embarrass yourself by arguing against what will be. I am still your friend, and as a friend I am telling you that this is the best path for you.”

Naruto gritted his teeth. Damn it, the idiot Kazekage could be so stubborn at times! “Look, I know things don’t look good right now, but –”

Gaara’s eyes narrowed, and his chakra suddenly flared. Naruto blinked. “What –”

“Kazekage-sama!” Two jounin burst into the room. “Is there a problem?”

“No, everything is fine.” Gaara inclined his head towards Naruto. “There are still many of my shinobi waiting to speak with me, Naruto. Please leave.”

Naruto’s jaw dropped. He couldn’t believe Gaara was dismissing him, like… like… like just another damn shinobi. He straightened, feeling some of Kitsune’s coldness seep into him. “Very well,” he said grimly, “but I’m coming back when you don’t have your shinobi to hide behind, and you are going to let me talk this time.”

Gaara just stared at him, silently.

“Fine!” Naruto snapped, and spun on his heel. He stormed out.

He was halfway down the stairs when he remembered that the rest of the Sand nin would be below, and he really didn’t want to face them right now. Changing directions, he headed for the big window at the end of the corridor.

He would let Gaara get over the news first, Naruto decided as he leapt over the rooftops, under the moonlight, heading to the inn. Then, when Gaara was more receptive and when Naruto had worked on controlling his anger, they could have a proper talk, and maybe figure out what to do together.

Yeah, that was a good idea. Things would look better in the morning.


“OY, SHUT UP!”

The noise died down. All eyes turned to Kiba, most of them glaring.

Kiba glared back. “Finally.” He turned to Hinata and gave her an embarrassed smile. “It’s all yours, Hinata-chan.”

Hinata nodded, looking nervous but determined. She looked around the meeting room at all the people sitting or lounging around, and cleared her throat. “Thank you for coming, everyone. I, um… I called this meeting… you all know why I called this meeting, right? Or you wouldn’t have come.”

She took a deep breath and continued. “Naruto-kun is important to all of us here. And we are important to Naruto-kun… in various ways. Friend, brother, a role model…” she smiled at Konohamaru and crew, who were looking uncomfortable and awed at the same time, surrounded by their seniors. She didn’t know them well, but she knew that they were close to Naruto, too, and they deserved to be at this meeting. “And so, I have asked all of you to come here this evening… because Naruto faces a very difficult decision… and he needs our help.

“And I really hope that we can do what’s right, and put his happiness before our own.”


There was a hand shaking him awake, very vigorously. Naruto groaned. “Go ‘way,” he mumbled.

The hand left. And then:

“Naruto, if you don’t wake up in the next three seconds I’m going to grope Iruka in very inappropriate places, in public.”

Pause.

Then Naruto shot up from his bed with a yell. “Get your perverted hands off Iruka-sensei, you perverted… huh?”

He rubbed his eyes. No, the people in his room were still there. He stared. “What are you all doing here?”

“I think the question is,” Neji said dryly, “what are you still doing here?”

“This is my room, isn’t it?” Naruto said blankly. Then the sentence registered. “And what do you mean, still?”

“See? I told you he doesn’t know,” Sasuke said with smirk.

Sakura sighed. “How could he not know? Perhaps he just overslept?”

“No, I think he really doesn’t know,” was Kakashi’s critical opinion. “His stuff is still unpacked.”

Naruto groaned. It was too early for this. “Look, someone just tell me what’s going on. Why are the… four of you in my room?”

Kakashi’s eye twinkled. “Well, you see, I was out on a morning stroll to look for chipmunks when –”

“Gaara’s gone,” Sasuke said bluntly.

Naruto looked at him incomprehensibly while Kakashi muttered about disrespectful ex-students. “What, he was kidnapped?”

Sasuke sighed in exasperation, giving him the ‘You Are Such An Idiot’ look. Sakura intervened. “Naruto, Gaara left early this morning with one other Sand ANBU. He’s using his sand transportation technique to cover the distance back to Suna in sections.”

“What? He left? He can’t have left! He’s not well!”

“Well enough, apparently,” Neji said.

With a growl, Naruto swung his legs off the bed. “That idiot! When I catch him –”

“Naruto, you are going to sit down and listen!” Scary Sakura had come out, and Naruto’s body instinctively obeyed. He stared wide-eyed at her. “Look, say you do catch up to him. What then? What will you do? Ask him nicely to come back to Konoha?”

“But he can’t leave yet!”

“And why not?”

“Because he’s injured! He’s not up to travelling such a distance!”

“Tsunade-sensei already cleared him,” Sakura informed him. “There’s nothing to hold him back.”

“But…” But there’s me.

Sakura seemed to read the thought in his eyes, and she softened. “Naruto,” she said. “Let’s go through this step by step, okay? What are your reasons for staying in Konoha?”

He gave her a Look. “All of you are here. And the villagers don’t hate me anymore. Oh, and the Hokage thing. I would have thought it was obvious.”

But Sakura was smiling, satisfied, not put out at all. “And what are your reasons for not staying?”

Naruto looked nervously around the group. “Um…”

“Just say it,” Sasuke told him, rolling his eyes.

“Well… Gaara. Mostly.”

“Okay. Now, these are your two options. Option one, you go back to Suna with Gaara as a representative of Konoha of some sort – which becomes official once you pass the next jounin exam – and you get to travel freely back and forth and see us whenever you like. Option two, you stay in Konoha as Hokage, and see us all the time… and never get to see Gaara, except on formal occasions as Hokage and Kazekage.”

Naruto looked at her mutely. He already knew all that. He just didn’t know what to choose.

Neji rolled his eyes and stepped forward. “Naruto,” he said, almost gently, “what we’re saying is, it’s a choice between not seeing us as often as you’d like, and not seeing Gaara at all.” White eyes caught his, and held, boring into him. “Which choice is worse?”

“Not seeing Gaara,” Naruto said without even having to think.

“How much worse?” Kakashi said softly.

“How…?”

And then it hit Naruto, really hit him, that being Hokage would mean not having Gaara by his side. Not having Gaara in his life. Not being able to see him, talk to him, feel his presence, not to have his scent always lingering around him…

Not being able to love him.

Oh.

Oh.

He remembered all those times Gaara looked at him with such sadness and wistfulness, and all those times Gaara hinted but never pushed, and all those things Gaara had done for him without being asked, without mentioning it, not once. He remembered, and realized that even as Gaara had loved him he had been silently preparing for the day when he would be left alone again.

Gaara… loved him.

As much – perhaps even more – than he loved Gaara.

He looked up the faces around him, finally knowing why they were there. “But… the village. Tsunade-baa-chan. And – and you guys. All of you have such faith in me, you’ve all believed in me for so long! I can’t just –”

“Naruto.” Kakashi was as serious as he’d ever been. “There are some things you need to know. Some things you need to hear from each of us. We’re here because we don’t want you to choose your path out of a duty to the village that you don’t really owe, or a loyalty to your friends for all the wrong reasons, or because you’re clinging to dreams and hopes that other people have to remind you of. We’re here to knock some sense into you.

“And then, you can decide for yourself what you really want to do.”


“What are you doing?”

Naruto stopped running at the sound of that cold, annoyed voice. He looked around to see Gaara step onto a nearby branch, glaring at him, and he breathed a sigh of relief, resting his hands on his knees and trying to get his breath back. “Oh, good. Things were beginning to hurt.”

“Then you should not have tried this in the first place.” Gaara crossed his arms.

“I’m healthy enough,” Naruto protested. “It’s just cuts and scrapes and bruises.”

“Those are still injuries,” Gaara snapped. “You should not be pushing yourself to run this hard.”

Naruto gave him a Look, still breathing hard. “So says the guy who’s expanding chakra teleporting himself halfway across both Fire and Wind country, after he just came out of a coma partly resulting from chakra exhaustion.”

“That is different. I am not straining myself –”

“So you do still care,” Naruto interrupted, grinning. He felt like teasing this Gaara a little; this Gaara before him was the Gaara he knew, not the stranger he’d been talking to the past day. “Despite telling me that you don’t.”

Gaara glared at him. “I am just being concerned for a colleague –”

“You wasted chakra coming back for me.”

“I was not coming back for you.”

“It’s the complete opposite direction from where you’re going.” Naruto straightened.

“I came here to tell you to return!”

Ooh, a flustered Gaara. “And I am returning. To Suna. With you.”

“You would leave your village without a Hokage?”

“Tsunade-baa-chan can’t step down for months yet, while things are settling down,” Naruto said, his amusement increasing with every comeback Gaara tried. “And in those few months, we’ll figure something out.”

“There is no way to –”

“I will find a way. Haven’t I always? For heaven’s sake, I became Kitsune, and you can’t tell me that there’s anyone who doesn’t think it’s a miracle. And even if I don’t…” Naruto shrugged. “I’ll be disappointed, and I’ll mope about it for a while, and some part of me will always regret, but it won’t hurt as badly as leaving you will hurt. You can’t imagine how it felt when I thought you were dead.”

“Your friends –”

“Practically kicked me out the gates.” Standing on opposite branches wasn’t conducive to his plan, Naruto decided, and dropped to the ground.

Naruto –” Gaara’s yelp was cut short as, dropping to the forest ground as well, he saw Naruto perfectly fine, and grinning to boot. Green eyes narrowed. “You followed me to tell me you are going to abandon your village, family and friends, and then to bait me? Uzumaki, you overestimate your –”

Naruto kissed him.

Gaara’s lips were soft as he’d remembered, and they were parted in shock, a fact which Naruto happily took advantage of. The other man aligned perfectly with Naruto’s slightly taller frame, his slimmer figure a perfect fit in Naruto’s hold, and he was so warm.

Naruto had to finally pull back, though, when there was no response. He grinned ruefully down at Gaara. “You know, you could work with me a little here.”

“This is madness,” Gaara whispered, and in those wide green eyes Naruto finally saw what he wanted to see – emotion. His heart ached when he realized that what he was seeing was loss, and hurt, and a fear of loneliness so strong it made Naruto’s throat tighten in empathy – but at least there were emotions, now. The Gaara that had felt so wrong had had no emotion in him at all.

“We’re both nuts, what with Kyuubi and Shukaku and all,” Naruto said softly. “So I guess it’s fitting.”

“You should be the Hokage. You should be surrounded by your friends, the family you have always wanted, your teachers, your teammates –”

“And all those people got together and decided that they were going to kick me out of the village themselves if I didn’t see reason.” Naruto grinned at the incredulous light in Gaara’s eyes. “Yeah, they held a meeting last night and sent some representatives to talk sense into me this morning. And you know, they asked me why I wanted to be Hokage in the first place – and I remembered that I wanted to be loved by the village, to be respected. And I have that, now. I don’t need the Hokage position.”

“That may be so, but the village needs you.” Gaara pushed his chest, hard, but he refused to release Gaara from his arms, and physically he was stronger than the redhead so Gaara gave it up and settled for upping his glare.

Naruto sighed. “You know, everyone keeps telling me not to fight what I want. Why are you allowed to do it?”

His joking tone fell flat when Gaara’s glare faltered, and changed. “You need your precious people around you,” he said, and there was such pain in his eyes now. “I will not let you give them up because of me –”

“And like they said, I can always go back to visit. But if I become Hokage as things are now, I lose you. Permanently.” How could he ever have doubted that he loved this man, or that this man loved him? “Gaara, for once, stop talking. Please?”

“I cannot make you as happy as they will make you.”

Naruto rolled his eyes. “Wrong.”

Gaara gave him an annoyed look. “Naruto –”

“Do you love me?”

Gaara stiffened. “What?”

“Do you love me?” Naruto repeated, amused.

“Naruto –”

“Because I’m in love with you, you know,” Naruto said, almost conversationally. “I’ve been in love with you for a very long time. But it took me until this morning to realize just how far gone I am. It’s a done deal. It’s hopeless. And if you don’t feel the same way, I’m going to be really heartbroken, and use that tree over there to bash my head in. Just so you know.”

That completely stunned look, together with the disbelieving hope on Gaara’s face – is this real? Can it be true? Is Naruto just being an idiot again? – was just about the cutest thing Naruto had ever seen. He knew he was grinning like the idiot Gaara suspected he was, but he didn’t care.

“Naruto,” Gaara said finally, cautiously, “Did the nice nurses give you some pills to take –”

Naruto shut him up with a kiss again. He’d never been able to win Gaara verbally, so he decided that he wouldn’t try.

And finally, finally, he felt Gaara kissing him back. That stiff body gradually relaxed, pressing against him, and Naruto tightened his hold, wanting this feeling to never end –

Gaara flinched in pain, and immediately Naruto loosened his grip. “I’m sorry, I forgot you’re still hurt,” he said hastily. “Honestly, what possessed you to leave when you’re in this state?”

“I… was running from you,” Gaara admitted, his head resting on Naruto’s shoulder.

Oh. Right. Naruto winced. “The two of us are so messed up,” he muttered. “Why can’t we just go back to how we were? You know, the whole one mind, two bodies thing?”

Gaara was silent. Then, very quietly, he said, “I have been slowly losing you, the entire time we were in Konoha. Do you know how much it hurt, Naruto? You cannot imagine it. It was like watching you die, slowly, and knowing that there was nothing I could do to stop it. And I do not have the strength to go through it again.”

“You won’t have to,” Naruto said fiercely. He pulled back enough to look into Gaara’s eyes, willing the other man to see. “Look, I’ve spent what feels like eternity agonizing over this, and I didn’t make the decision easily. This is what I want, Gaara, and I won’t change my mind.”

They stared each other down, a battle of wills, Naruto trying to make Gaara believe. Finally, Gaara quirked him a smile, that purely Gaara smile that Naruto hadn’t seen for a long time. “If you ever regret your decision and try to remedy it, I will not be responsible for my actions,” he said lightly, but Naruto saw the vulnerability, the resignation, the deadly seriousness… the hope.

“You’d better not let me regret it, then,” Naruto said, but his smile was soft. It turned wicked, though, as he added, “Starting by kissing me back properly, maybe. Or – oh, yes, letting me know that I’m wanted. It’s not nice when one side’s confessed his undying love, and the other side’s just trying to shoo him away, you know.”

Gaara smirked. “Perhaps the other side has not been fully convinced yet.”

“Oh?” Naruto raised an eyebrow. “Well then – let me convince you.”

Green eyes widened. “Wait, I did not mean – mmph!”


When the frantic Sand ANBU found his Kage an hour later, he took one look at the scene, turned a bright red, and fled.

Of course, he soon came to his senses, and returned half an hour later with a camera.