Disclaimer: I own nothing. And that's the problem.

WHERE a faint light shines alone,
Dwells a Demon I have known.
Most of you had better say "The Dark House," and go your way.
Do not wonder if I stay.
-Edwin Arlington Robinson

Naruto had always thought Shikamaru was a genius.

He had spotted that deliberate, calculating, don't-act-without-reason-behind-it quality of his sometimes-buddy early on, before they had become genin, before that bearded chain-smoker had begun playing games with the other boy. He had known that Shikamaru couldn't be the lazy idiot he passed himself off as, cruising on chance and the naggings of his mother.

Idiots, Naruto argued, aren't admitted into the Academy in the first place; they would die in the exercises that were only the merest hint of what ninja faced – live steel, and instant-kill attacks, and explosive materials a prominent part of the lesson-plans - and maybe parents would raise an outcry. They're weeded out before they can step foot on the ancient linoleum of the Academy, with application tests and physicals and warning pamphlets about the exercises.

And mere chance, he argued further, does not allow for a grade point average precisely that to keep from getting kicked out of the Academy – an average that fluctuated as the rules for the cut-off point were changed.

Shikamaru's only stupidity, Naruto opined, analyzing the other boy's actions with the air of the slightly condescending, was to get caught.

They knew Shikamaru, now; they were on his back twenty-four-seven and wringing his brain for all they could get out of it, like someone using a blade until it went dull. He had been made a chuunin, with all the concomitant responsibilities and losing the relative freedom and training-time of a lower-ranked, not-so-closely-monitored genin. And for what? A green vest and an access level to material that someone could easy enough snitch for themselves?

Catch him fumbling that badly? No way.

They'd never know about what was in his skull until it was too late.

Naruto had a Plan, and come hell or high water he'd stick to it. He had known what he'd had to do ever since he was a little boy, crying in impotent rage and pain, soaked with dirty street-water that turned brownish-pink with his blood, and no one even pausing when they passed him by.

Become Hokage, climb as high as he could until he got to the point where there was no one higher than he was, no one more powerful, no one able to touch him. He'd stand so high, and everyone would be beneath him, under his feet, and by all the demons in hell, and the one inside him, they'd be sorry then.

They couldn't know that, of course. He knew they watched him, getting all jumpy and cautious whenever he snarled or got angry or did anything mad. So he smiled all the time, or sometimes he'd let himself look sad and puppy-eyed but that didn't really work because no one believed that, and hepretended he was a jovial loser that no one had to be scared of, honest.

Sometimes he slipped. He had to admit that. Maybe he couldn't be so down on Shikamaru when he'd come damn close himself to letting on. The fight with Neji, and Gaara, and oh gods, the fight with Zabuza and Haku on the bridge, when he'd gotten so angry that he'd let himself go. And the fight with Kiba, he kept almost going through with a clever clever trick, make the dog howl, trick the dog by pretending to be one, but then he'd remind himself of what they did to foxes who outsmarted the hounds too well.

For that one they called out the whole damn pack.

But, he argued to himself, wanting to go back to feeling like everything was on track, it had been necessary. He couldn't look like a complete loser, or he wouldn't get trained. If he lost the element of surprise, of being underestimated, he'd get strong enough to make up for it. And if he hadn't spoken up for Hinata, hadn't protected Sakura, how could he make his righteous, happy, friendly - and most importantly for his purposes - forgiving character-sheet stick?

Yes, starting to make friends and being respected a little was alright. He could change the Plan a little. Sometimes he even wondered if he needed to be Hokage – not right away, maybe? That old lady would make a good one. And it wouldn't hurt to grow stronger alongside his yearmates for a while.

Then Sasuke left, and he fought for real that once, and when it was all over he stared at nothing and tried to feel nothing.

And he fell back to his Plan.


My first piece of fiction after midterms! Yay. And I just realized that, damn, I've been writing a lot about Tenten lately. What a nice change of pace this is! Depressing and angry and about Naruto. Hm.

Written after reading a book by Alden C. Carter called 'Up Country', and it's a really good piece of fiction. You really feel like you're inside the guy's head, and it's a real head – not just whining about the opposite sex and petty problems, and yet not overdramatic either. Gimme a shout if you're interested to know more about it.

Sometimes I wonder if Naruto is really as happy as he looks. Actually I'm pretty sure he can't possibly be that happy, but then I wonder to what extent is it a lie. And I will slash my wrists before I write anything about Naruto and 'his mask' unless it's an actual ANBU mask or something. Someone remind me of this in case I ever start whinging about "They couldn't see through his MASK. No, not his MASK."