Those of you who have been following this story for a long time will probably have guessed this already. I have returned, after nearly two years of silence, to deliver some bad news. This story is now complete. It didn't end the way I wanted it to end, and I'm not under some magnificent delusion that I've given it the ending it deserves.

However, what this story does deserve is my respect. I have to respect it, and you, enough to be honest: I can't continue this story any longer. Naruto no longer holds any interest for me. This has nothing to do with the quality of the story, or anything I hold against Mister Kishimoto or the producers of the anime, or anyone/anything else. I still believe that it's a great series, deserving of every accolade it's ever gotten.

I'm just not into it anymore.

Instead of allowing this story to sit around and collect dust any longer, or force it to continue even though I don't have any passion for the source material anymore, I've decided—after a long period of debating with myself and attempting without success to keep it going—to end it here.

Welcome to the final scene of "No Longer Alone."

Gaara didn't speak with his uncle again until the next exam had already begun; in fact, Yashamaru didn't speak to Gaara or either of his teammates until the Forest had opened and Anko had abandoned her new charges to their own devices. More than one potential chuunin had questioned how a grand melee possibly counted as a proper test of their abilities. Mostly, these seemed to be those whose skills excelled in subterfuge and general stealth, rather than force.

"Excelled" being an extremely generous way of putting it.

"This is the perfect test of your abilities," Gaara muttered to himself, looking irate. "Steal. Sneak. Hide. A fight between ninja should be over in seconds. The first to slit his opponent's throat open is the winner."

"Morbid much?" Naruto prodded. He rubbed his chin. "Wonder if I couldn't pass for one of the other teams' members. Right? Like, you guys lead 'em away, distract 'em for a while, then I dance on in and grab their scroll!"

"Possible," Gaara ceded, "but I think we might have something . . . more important to worry about."

"Do you think he'll want us to . . . do it during the test?" Hinata asked.

"When else?" Gaara's eyes narrowed. "We would be best served to do it then, since the exams will be the only time that my esteemed father will be here in the Leaf. Our only other option would be to catch him either on his way here, or on his way back. The last thing we want to do is allow him to get back into his home territory."

"I can't believe we're talking about this," Hinata murmured. She looked around the trees, as though she thought they might have ears and would send word of their clandestine conversation to . . . whatever authority would best be served to eviscerate her in her sleep. "Does your uncle really think we can do this?"

"We've made a name for ourselves!" Naruto said, smirking loftily. "I mean, sure, mostly that means people think Gaara 'n me are batshit crazy monsters and we're prob'ly using you for some kind of ancient blood ritual or whatever. But still! Gaara's uncle prob'ly doesn't listen to that! So . . ." His voice faded.

Gaara thought carefully, almost angrily. He said, as his fists clenched without his specific consent: "The bijuu are so powerful that my father tried to assassinate me. That was before my training." He looked at Naruto. "The two of us together? We would swallow him whole."

Naruto went suddenly pale. "You're, ah . . . kinda gettin' into this one. Aren'tcha?"

"I have too much blood on my hands already to worry about killing as a concept," Gaara muttered to himself. "If I were to concern myself with loyalty to my country, then I've already signed myself over to the Hidden Leaf. This is a matter of security, not treachery. And if I concern myself with the fact that I'm targeting family . . . well. One could hardly call a man willing to murder a six-year-old worthy of fatherhood." He looked at Naruto first, then at Hinata. "I see no logical reason not to do this."

Hinata spoke up after a period of silent walking. ". . . Gaara-kun and Naruto-kun are strong enough," she said, as though this were a foregone conclusion, "but what about me? I . . . I'm not trying to downplay my training this time," she said, as Naruto opened his mouth to speak, "but let's be honest: I'm a fresh recruit barely qualified to be here, testing to become a chuunin. I can't face a Kage."

Naruto thought about this for a moment. "Somehow I'm thinkin' we won't be taking this, like, you know. Open combat or whatever. That's kind of the stupidest way to do it, really. I been thinkin' about this for a while: all our combat training, all the flashy techniques and stuff, all that's just in case we screw up the first part."

"Ancient ninja were known for their subtlety," Gaara put in. "Hardly something many of us could be accused of having." He glanced rather pointedly at Naruto. "One strike, one kill. It was that simple. The oldest histories we have always push this. The standard combat techniques we're taught . . . an ancient ninja would be insulted by them."

Naruto grinned toothily, obviously pleased that he'd been right about something historical.

"You're saying," Hinata guessed, "if we do this right . . . we won't actually be facing your father. We won't fight him. We'll just . . . kill him."

"'Sides," Naruto said, lifting up a finger, "you're, like, the perfect recon. With your eyes 'n all." He gestured to his own eyes, widening them for emphasis. "So, like, you'll plan our route or something. And you can knock out anybody what tries 'n messes with us. Right?" Here Naruto started mimicking various stances and strikes that he still hadn't quite learned from watching Hinata practice.

It was at this moment that Yashamaru showed himself again.

They were deep inside the forest now. The canopy was so thick that it felt like they'd walked into midnight. Miraculously, they hadn't run into any of their fellow competitors—although, something about the way Yashamaru was looking both at them, and around them, told all three young ninja that he probably had more than a little to do with that.

"Nephew," Yashamaru said softly, smiling down at Gaara like a beneficent deity upon its chosen acolyte. Gaara, for his part, managed a vague imitation of someone in a pleasant mood, for about six seconds. Yashamaru's face descended into absolute despair. It was obvious that he had no desire to be here, and he'd only put on a happy face for Gaara's sake; proof, perhaps, that he hadn't learned quite as much about his nephew's reputation as he thought he had.

"I have a question for you, Uncle," Gaara said. "What do you think will happen, when this mission is completed? When, or if, the Fourth Kazekage is removed . . . what will become of you?"

Yashamaru shrugged. "I am not doing this under any delusion of nobility," he said. "I have failed my village, my fellows, and my lord. I expect no forgiveness. Most likely, I will die for this transgression."

"Unless," Gaara guessed, "you are instated as the Fifth Kazekage."

Yashamaru actually laughed. It was a painful sound. "Me? Lead the Sand? Absolutely not. To do that would only be to continue in the Fourth's shadow. If I have my way, the Fifth Kazekage will be your sister. She is the . . . least tainted of his remaining children. She can still be taught to lead."

The conversation continued, half in code, as Gaara probed his uncle's motives for this mad mission. They walked through the forest, sometimes taking completely random routes on paths that would have barely served the animals that lived there. Ignoring his disposition, which seemed strangely deferential, almost submissive, in Gaara's presence, Yashamaru was clearly a master.

"I'm startin' to think you can see things that don't exist yet," Naruto murmured thoughtfully. "Is this one of those things Kakashi-sensei keeps talking about?" He screwed up his face in imitation, pulling up his jacket so that his thick collar covered half of his face. "See everything. Focus on nothing."

Yashamaru turned to glance at Naruto, and smiled. "Something like that," he said. "We don't want to run into any of your fellow competitors. This is our best time to plan, with the least chance of discovery."

"Is there really no one watching us?" Hinata asked.

Yashamaru looked around. "Not here," he said.

"How can you be so sure?" Gaara asked pointedly.

Yashamaru didn't answer.

He led his young assassins into a small clearing. At the center was a fire pit, which was clanked by clean-cut logs. Yashamaru sat down on one of them, looking up at the canopy with an idle sort of satisfaction, as he waited for the three genin to follow his lead.

Hinata sat first, and Naruto joined her. Gaara continued to stand, crossing his arms and eyeing his uncle suspiciously. "You have the very particular attitude of someone waiting for something. Dare I ask what?"

Yashamaru leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees, and said, "When I was on my way here, I heard some very . . . interesting stories about you three. Those stories led me to something that I think will prove useful to you. You didn't think I would have you three plot a world leader's assassination alone, did you?"

There were no sounds, no footsteps or crunching leaves, to announce anything. Just a soft breeze, and the vague ambience of the forest around them. For a moment, it was almost possible to believe that they were out here for a camping trip, on vacation instead of on assignment.

By the time Gaara, Hinata, and Naruto had had the chance to glance questioningly at each other, two new figures had joined them around the deadened fire pit.

One was heavily muscled, bare-chested with black pants and thin strips of black cloth wrapped around its face. The other was delicate, masked and clad in formal wear.

Between them, plunged halfway into the earth, was a sword fit to cleave a god in half.

Momochi Zabuza looked idly at Yashamaru, then at the three young soldiers.

Haku reached up and removed his mask. "We hear that you three are planning to overthrow a corrupt government," he said, smiling daintily. His eyes practically danced with anticipation. Naruto's mouth fell open. Hinata's eyes were wider than soup plates.

Something dangerously close to a grin rose on Gaara's face.

Zabuza put a hand around the hilt of his weapon.

He said, in a quiet rumble, ". . . We want in."


I started this story in 2005, the year after I graduated high school. I was 18. For the most part, I had very little idea of what I was doing. I was a new writer, testing the waters of a new franchise and largely having a hell of a lot of fun with it. I always thought that Naruto got the short end of the stick when it came to teammates, you see, and I wanted to see what would happen if he had been given a pair of compatriots who would actively support him, rather than give him the . . . tough love, shall we call it, that he gets in canon.

That was the extent of my planning, and I think that's why I had to end it here. I didn't plan out an ending. I didn't know where I was going. I had intended, basically, to just follow along with the manga/anime, and see where it led. Hence, when I lost interest in the manga/anime, this story kind of got lost in the shuffle.

This is not to say that I dislike this story. I love it. I love everything it stands for. I love the growth that it allowed me to achieve as a writer, I love the wonderful response that it's gotten from you, my audience. I love what it represents. That's why I have to let it rest here. I owe it that much.

I'm sorry to anyone who wanted this story to continue, and I'm sure there are quite a few of you. I wish I could somehow jumpstart my interest in Naruto again, such that this tale could reach a proper conclusion. You deserve that. But I can't be the one to give it to you. Not anymore. If anyone would like to continue the story, take my premise and run with it, please feel free. I don't own this story. You do.

Thank you all so much. For your feedback, for your support, and for allowing me to take some time out of your day to share with you a little story about a group of kids who deserved more than they got.

This is goodbye for now. If I ever do come back to the Naruto franchise, it will be with a completely new story.

This journey's done.

Take care, and be good to one another.

~ I.B.