I've been writing this fic for nearly four years now. It's been quite a wild ride, and I can honestly say I've never had so much fun at times than when I'm coming up with ideas for this epic storyline.

As of this writing, I've published 38 chapters, and I don't plan on stopping any time soon. We're barely a third of the way through what I have planned out. Please, I beg of you new readers, be patient with me. It can get rocky and bumpy, and at times it will be slow and steady. But like all great journeys, it is not the destination, or bits and pieces that you pass on the wayside-it's everything taken as a whole.

I wish you would be patient with me, and please, enjoy what you read. Read some of my other stories, if you have the time, too. And as always, read and review. You guys make it all worth it.

Now accepting beta requests full time.

He was cold. But then again, he was always cold, no matter what the temperature was outside, or in his apartment, or in the Ninja Academy. His skin always felt clammy to him and anyone who could get close enough to touch him—not that he let many people get that close, even if they wanted to get that close.

But even if he wasn't perpetually frigid, the sharp night air would have made him chilly. With each shallow breath that he took, a puff of condensation steamed from his nose, as if from the nostrils of a dragon, ready and eager to incinerate any fool crossing his path. The unusually crisp autumn night caused his eyes to tear as he swung slowly, ever so slowly back and forth on the chain-link swing at the old playground he used to frequent when he was a child, long before he realized the cruel reality of his life.

Back then, when he had been a child, he could never understand why all of the parents would always pull their children away when he went too close to them. Back then, of course, he didn't know that he was the carrier of a monster, one as ancient as the world itself, older by far than any ninja village, even Konoha.

What am I doing here? the blond-haired boy asked himself for the tenth time that night. Why am I hurting myself with these memories? Naruto wanted to cry, but he didn't, he couldn't. He hadn't cried in many years, not since that horrible day when he finally realized on a conscious level that he was the harbor for a monster, a demon that had ravaged his village over twelve years before—precisely on Naruto's birthday. It had been no coincidence that the two dates coincided, either: the Fourth Hokage, the village leader and champion, the strongest shinobi in the village, had had to use a newborn baby, one with his umbilical cord still attached to his bellybutton, as a repository for the demon. Naruto never knew why he had been chosen to be the one to hold the Kyuubi; perhaps it was fate that forced the two creatures together. Or perhaps it wasn't fate, but just a roll of the dice, thrown by the gods who like to play with the lesser creatures that roam the earth, thinking so high of themselves.

Naruto chuckled at the thoughts. Well, whatever it is, he thought to himself, there is only one pure, simple truth that I can rely on: my life, for what it's worth, sucks.

A twig snapped nearby, accompanied by the softest of crunches, the sound of someone trying very diligently to sneak over twenty feet of gravel. Naruto halted his swinging, but remained with his face to the moon, a small smile creeping along his face. With his hyper-sensitive ears, he could hear the person breathing as he was sneaking up on Naruto—or at least, trying to sneak up on the blond-headed Genin-elect.

Naruto didn't move as the person crept up closer and closer to the blond-haired boy, letting his stalker think that he would be able to get close enough to touch him. With every second, with every cautious step, the distance between the two closed. Naruto had to time this just right, if it was going to work. When Naruto judged that the person behind him was close enough, he cleared his throat, breaking the silence that had surrounded him until just that moment. "What are you up to, Konohamaru?" he asked, a grin apparent in his voice. "Isn't it way past your bedtime?"

A silent curse came from the bushes behind Naruto. "How did you know?" the boy in the shrubbery asked right as he leapt over the remaining barriers directly at Naruto, a kunai clutched in his fist, aimed at the back of the older boy's neck.

Naruto quickly leaned backwards in the swing, swung his legs up, caught the fist with the kunai tightly between his ankles, and using Konohamaru's own momentum, slammed the surprised younger boy in the sand, a dirty cloud billowing up around him. Naruto jumped to his feet an instant after Konohamaru hit the ground and stepped lightly but firmly on the kid's wrist, effectively disarming him.

Konohamaru swung a leg at Naruto's body, which Naruto easily caught. Naruto twisted his ankle a bit more viciously than he had to, almost dislocating both ankle and wrist, making Konohamaru cry out in pain. Naruto held on until Konohamaru stopped squirming, then let both limbs flop to the ground, eliciting another cry of pain from the boy. He grabbed the kunai from his hand before he could think of anything else to do with it.

Naruto stepped away a few paces. "I knew," he said, "because you were careless. Did you actually think that you would be able to sneak up on me like that? As if." Naruto snorted contemptuously and turned to walk away, twirling the kunai in his hand.

"Hold on!" Konohamaru said as he struggled to his feet, kicking up sand as he arose. "I'm not finished with you, demon!" He tried to dash at Naruto, but a combination of loose sand and an overlong scarf made him fall down again. Naruto had to stifle a laugh as he watched the younger boy hit the ground in such a comic manner.

"No?" Naruto said quietly to the night air, almost to himself. "Well, I'm done with you, kid." With that, he walked away, sinking and melting into the night as Konohamaru watched in mixed fear and awe.

The night was the true home of the blond Genin-elect. With the shadows carpeting his jet-black jumpsuit, he was virtually invisible to the naked eye. Only one who knew what to look for had any hope of finding him at all.

Naruto jumped lightly along the roofs of Konoha, making his gradual way toward his house, but not directly toward it. Instead, he took a roundabout route, occasionally jumping over an alley or side street, wandering aimlessly, letting his unconscious guide and direct him. Often, it was in just this way that things got exciting.

He might have overlooked it on accident, had it not been for the slight movement of hands in the light of the arc-halogen lights, bathing the street in a sickly orange. He had leapt over the street and would have moved on, regardless of what was going on down there. But he felt that something wasn't right; his sixth sense told him to go back and check it out one last time.

He skidded to a halt on the hard tar of the roof and slowly crept to the edge of the building, listening to the quiet conversation below.

"Is this all of it? Are you sure?" This voice belonged to a younger man, shaky and frightened, anxious. His voice sounded as if he were trying to talk, but had too much smoke in his throat and was just croaking it out.

"Yes, yes, it's all there," another voice said in a reassuring voice. Naruto peeked over the edge and saw that the speaker was a middle-aged man with a black trench coat that hung to his knees. He was rather taller than the other man, and a bit broader, too. His voice held an accent that Naruto couldn't place, but knew that it wasn't native to his village. In his hand was a brown paper bag, stuffed with something Naruto couldn't place.

The other man also held a paper bag about the same size as the other one. The two were standing about ten feet from each other, and were approaching each other slowly, both bags extended. A flash of insight hit Naruto as his keen nose picked up the scent of one of the bags twenty feet below.

Holy crap…is that what I think it is? Naruto thought as they grew closer to each other. As they grew within striking range of each other, Naruto had to think fast. He jumped off of the roof to the brick wall of the building across the wide alley, landing with his feet flat on the rough surface. Instantly, he rebounded from that wall to the one on the other side and landed the same. He then flew again to the other wall, landing mere inches from the ground, then launched out to the space between the men and grabbed the bags from both of their hands, tucking them both to his body as he rolled to a stop and sprang up, a triumphant expression on his face, a shocked one on theirs.

"What the…what the hell?" the bigger man thundered. He turned to the younger one. "What is this?" he yelled. "Did you bring him?"

The younger one quailed at the older one advanced on him. "I…I have no idea who he is!" he shrieked. "I've never seen him before in my life!" He started to sweat, despite the chill. "How do I know that he isn't with you, huh? This could be a setup!" He turned to run, but the other man got a tight grip on his collar and slammed him to the ground, either knocking him out or outright killing him.

"Bastard," the older man grumbled as he turned on Naruto. "Give it to me, kid," he said slowly. "Don't make me hurt you…much." He pulled a gun out from under his coat and leveled it at Naruto. "Give me that bags, and I promise you that you'll live through the night." He giggled suddenly, much higher in tone than Naruto would have thought possible. "You may have to leave a few body parts here, but you'll live, at least." He took a step toward Naruto, slowly inching along the space between the two.

Naruto stepped back, not because he was afraid of the man, but because he wanted a better look at what was in the bags. He opened up the one that the man had first, and saw what he expected: about half a dozen opium plants, ready for processing into various narcotics. Naruto scowled; other drugs were bad enough, but selling raw opium on the streets was punishable by death in Konohagakure. He set that bag down close by his side and opened up the other and tilted the mouth to the sickly orange light. He saw thick bills of ryo, and plenty of it. In that one bag was more than Naruto got from the Hokage in a year! Hot damn! I've hit the jackpot!

"Give 'em to me, kid," the man with the gun said again as he continued his advance on Naruto.

Naruto took half a step backward, lifted his right foot, and to the horror of the man in front of him, smashed the bag of drugs beneath his sandaru, grinding it with his heel until he could feel the pulp running on the concrete. "Did you know that dealing opium on the streets of Konohagakure is a capital offense? Surely, you can't be that stupid." Naruto smiled grimly. He knew that he was egging the dealer on, but that was what he wanted. The opium dealer yelled incoherently, pulled the hammer back on his revolver, and fired his gun at the spot where Naruto's head had been mere seconds before. The sound of the gun would have rung Naruto's eardrums, but in the space of a second Naruto had formed the hand signs for a genjutsu designed to suppress sound in a given area. The gun kicked, but made no sound at all.

Naruto dived before the man could fire again, scooped up a pebble laying on the ground, and flicked it at the man, right into the muzzle of the gun. The man didn't notice the action; he pulled back the hammer, squeezed the trigger, and fired.

The gun exploded, just as Naruto had known it would. A fine spray of blood flew from his hand to the wall, the ground, and his coat. Globs of meat and bone flew everywhere as he thrashed around in silence, screaming a scream that nobody would ever hear. At least, not in this realm. His hand was a mangled piece of meat, no more than a strand of flesh that might have been his thumb before hanging from what was once his wrist. Blood was seeping from it at a steady rate, trickling from it in a steady pool to the concrete below. His other hand clutched at the stump, trying to staunch the flow, but the damage had been done. In a rage, he flung himself violently at Naruto, trying to land on top of the boy, to what purpose even he didn't know. He didn't have very far to travel; Naruto was no more than five feet away. He flew through the air like a bloody, orange meat comet, directly at the boy.

Naruto was prepared. He yanked the kunai that Konohamaru had lost to Naruto not long before out of his pocket and plunged it deep into the man's chest, smashing tissue and bone, cartilage and organ even as the man's weight forced Naruto to the ground.

Blood from both wounds on the man covered Naruto as he struggled to remove the corpse of the dealer from the top of his body. As he crawled out from the quickly cooling pile of dead meat, Naruto couldn't help but see the eyes of the man he had killed, a pale, flat grey that was even then filming over. They had a shocked look on them that had followed the man into death. He hadn't expected the night to end like this, not at all.

Naruto stood over the body, the man's own blood dripping onto him as Naruto shook his bloodied sleeves, peppering the corpse with its own fluid. Aw, damn, he though as he ran a crimson hand over his clothing. The bloody thing's ruined. Naruto smiled at the unintentional pun. It was getting old anyway.

Naruto heard a groan from behind him as he surveyed the body. The man who had been knocked out earlier was starting to come to, an elbow shakily trying to prop him up as a hand massaged a temple. Naruto considered briefly killing that man as well, but quickly decided against it; it wasn't such a high crime to buy opium, not nearly as great a crime as selling the stuff. Let the man find the body of the dealer, Naruto thought to himself. That should be an appropriate enough punishment.

Well, that, and losing all of that money, Naruto thought with a laugh as he bounded to the roofs, moneybag in hand, on the way home.

On a roof some distance from Naruto, a man in an odd zodiac mask watched the boy deal with the opium dealer. He saw quite clearly what happened to the seller and the buyer. He was very used to bloodshed, and didn't flinch at all when the man blew his hand off like that. The man grinned behind his mask. Guns are so unreliable, he thought.

He knew that his job for the night was over. All he was assigned to do that night was to keep track of the boy and make any observations on his activities. When Naruto finished with the man and headed in the direction of his home, the ANBU knew that his night was over. It was time for him to go to the Hokage and make a report. He knew that he had an interesting story to tell.

Admit it, you enjoyed that as much as I did, didn't you?the sinister voice of the demon Kyuubi chuckled in Naruto's mind. You tasted the blood, and found it as refreshing, as invigorating, as I did. I know you did, my little foxling.

Oh, just shut up Naruto thought back to his permanent prisoner wearily as he unlocked the door to his small, squalid apartment. I don't need this, not after…that.

After what? After your first real taste of blood, blood that's not your own? You little hypocrite. I can see into your soul; you reveled in that. Kyuubi smiled in his cage. You're no better than me.

With a force of will, Naruto silenced the kitsune, forcing it back into the little part of his soul that it was forced to haunt. Naruto knew that the fox allowed him to push him away. If it wanted to, Kyuubi could distract Naruto with so much noise in his head that Naruto wouldn't be able to think clearly. He was much less a prisoner than a cohabitant of Naruto's body.

Naruto quickly closed the door behind him and discarded all of his clothes, even his underwear. Each and every stitch was bathed in blood, blood from the man in the alley. It stank, too, filling the small entranceway with the raunchy scent of death, a scent that Naruto was too familiar with.

Nude, clothed only with blood, Naruto gathered all of his clothes, even his sandaru, into one big pile and went to his bathroom, blood plipping behind him all the way. Once in the bathroom, he turned the shower onto hot, full blast, and dropped the clothes in the tub. He then climbed in himself, letting the scalding-hot water coarse through his matted hair, on down his body, his legs, until finally it swirled down the drain in a psychedelic spiral of red. His eyes were suddenly mesmerized by the shifting patterns of red and pink at his feet, shifting between streams and lines dancing about each other.

Naruto shook his head vigorously, splashing hot water droplets all about him. It would do no good to think about that kind of stuff right then. If he let himself become obsessed with the residue of his killing, he knew that he wouldn't be able to go back. He knew this from first-hand experience.

The voice of the fox bubbled up once more.

You do like it, don't you?'


The colors. All of the pretty, hypnotizing colors. Red is, after all, the color of life and death, right? Ku, ku.

...So what if I do? That doesn't mean that I'm like…

Like what?

Like you.

Wake up and smell the shit, foxling! You haven't even graduated yet, and how many lives do you have to your account as of tonight?

I don't want to talk about it. Just shut up. Naruto quickly lathered soap to his body and shampoo to his hair before the hot water ran out.

Five, my little jailor. Five of 'em. Each one was taken by your hand, and you don't even feel guilty about it.

Naruto was just rinsing the suds off of his chest when the water began to lose its warmth. Damn, he thought as he quickly doused his head and felt the shampoo run over his eyes and into his mouth. Naruto spat in distaste as he idly picked up the bloody kunai off of the tub floor and twirled it around in his hand. You are a bastard, do you know that?

Kyuubi chuckled in his human cage. Of course, little one, of course. After all, I'm just…like…you. Before Naruto could say anything, Kyuubi sank back into his dungeon, chuckling all the way.

Naruto's dreams that night didn't bring any relief to his conscience. He didn't feel guilty in the least for what he had done—after all, if the Konoha police, or the ANBU, or even any ranking shinobi for the village had caught the man, then he would have met the exact same fate—albeit, perhaps in a somewhat different manner than Naruto had given him. Naruto's dreams, though, were plagued with the voice of the Kyuubi ringing through his ears, haunting him, teasing and torturing him. When the fox wanted to, he could invaded Naruto's dreams personally, doing to the boy in his mind what he could not do to his body.

Naruto didn't usually remember the details of his dreams, not unless the Kyuubi was a part of it. In his dream, Naruto was running through a maze of alleys, being chased by not just one Kyuubi, but a thousand of them, ten thousand of them. Just when he thought that he was free of one, just when he thought he had turned down a aisle that he thought was safe, another would appear right behind him, right in front of him, right beside him. They were all different sizes, too, some as small as a kitten, some the size of mountains. No matter how large they were, though, he would never see them coming, even if in the realm of logic, he could never conceivably miss them. Over time, as he began to wear down, miniature foxes would nip at his exposed toes, or take a chunk out of his arm, or his leg.

By the end of the dream, he was bleeding from a hundred wounds, hardly able to stay erect. At the last intersection, when he knew that he was about to die, one last Kyuubi appeared in front of Naruto. Naruto knew then that this was the real Kyuubi, the one that had invaded his dream. As it opened its mouth to swallow what was left of Naruto whole, its voice rang clearly throughout Naruto's mind: I'm just…like…you…

As Naruto was swallowed whole by the fox and felt its throat muscles squeeze and contract about the boy, crushing him into a pulp, Naruto's last thought was, Aw, crap.

An unrested Naruto walked down the main thoroughfare of Konoha, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. Restful sleep had been impossible for the Genin-elect. Images of the Kyuubi had flown by his dreams, haunting and taunting him long after the boy had woken up from the psychological assault put upon him by the demon in his belly. Naruto never needed much sleep to be alert for the next day, but with the fox plaguing him all night long, it had been impossible for him to get even the minimum requisite amount.

It was when Naruto was once again rubbing sleep from his eyes that he noticed a place that he hadn't been in a long while—the Ichiraku ramen stand that he had gone to many times in his childhood before he realized that a diet of three servings of ramen a day wasn't very good for a growing boy—especially not a prospecting shinobi.

Still, Naruto was hungry, especially since he hadn't had time to make himself much of a breakfast, just a slice of toast with some butter. His stomach seemed to agree with his mind, as it growled as soon as soon as he passed the stand and smelled the enticing aroma wafting out from under the stall flap. Naruto checked a nearby clock; he had over forty-five minutes before he had to be at the Academy. With a grin of anticipation, he ducked under the flap the doubled as a sign and was pleasantly surprised that the seat that he had thought that he had vacated for good over a year ago that was his regular was unoccupied, although there were patrons to each side, one old man and a woman in her early twenties. He sat down between the two; as soon as the old man saw Naruto and recognized him, a look of disgust crossed his face. He threw a few bills on the counter and left his half-finished bowl on the table.

Naruto frowned and sighed as the man left. Almost everywhere he went, something like this happened to him. No matter how many times it occurred, Naruto just couldn't get used to the feeling of rejection the others put upon him. It wasn't that he cared a damn about the people themselves…but it did get old after awhile having people treat you like you had the plague or something.

A snort from his left reminded Naruto that he wasn't the only one at the bar. He looked at the woman, and was surprised to discover that she wore a Konoha headband on her forehead. She wore an odd outfit for a shinobi; instead of the standard jumpsuit-and-vest combo preferred by most Chunin and Jounin, she had on a body stocking that seemed to be a metal fishnet weave with not much on under it and a tan trench coat over that. Her purple hair was tied up on top of her head in a spiky 'do, giving her the appearance of a pineapple. Naruto snorted at the mental simile, but only just. He sensed that this woman wasn't any ordinary shinobi, but one of quite a bit of power, even among the high-ranking squad.

"What're you laughing at?" the pineapple-haired shinobi asked pointedly, menacing Naruto with a chopstick as she chewed a mouthful of noodles.

Naruto snorted again. He didn't care if she was a Jounin; she seemed to be all right. "Well," Naruto started, "you laughed at me first, so I think that I should ask that particular question right now." Naruto paused, waiting for the kunoichi to respond to his reply. Would she go off on him in front of a crowd of people, many of whom were watching at the moment?

Naruto was saved for the moment by the daughter of old man Ichiraku, the resident barhop Ayame. "My god, if it isn't Naruto!" she practically squealed with delight. Ichiraku and Ayame were two of the few people in the village who didn't treat Naruto with contempt. Ichiraku knew that the demon in his belly had nothing to do with the person Naruto was, and passed his sentiments onto his daughter, who treated the boy as a surrogate little brother for much of his childhood. Indeed, Ayame had come to Naruto's defense several times in the past, from defending his name from those who would speak unkindly of the boy to defending his body from those who would hurt him for circumstances beyond his control.

"Hey, Ayame," Naruto said sheepishly. He had always liked the girl, but was sometimes embarrassed by her flamboyance in his regard. She always seemed to overdue it whenever it came to the smaller (though not by much) boy. "Long time, no see."

"I'll say!" the girl exclaimed as she leaned to prop her elbows on the bar, her eyes staring intently into Naruto's. "How long's it been, about a year?"

"A bit more," Naruto answered, a blush of embarrassment on his face. Every one of the patrons at the stand were staring at Naruto intently, many of them with amusement, but a few with thinly-masked disdain or hostility. Ayame seemed to realize where Naruto's attention was drifting. Composing herself somewhat, Ayame stood erect.

"So, what'll it be?" Ayame asked, taking a paper pad out of her apron, a pencil seemingly appearing out of nowhere. "The miso's good today, but so is the beef and the shark fin variety."

"Um…I think that I'll have the miso, if you don't mind," Naruto said as he eyed the clock hanging above the grill. "Could you hurry up a bit, please? I'm gonna be a bit late myself if I don't hustle myself."

Ayame's smile brightened. "Of course, Naruto-kun." She shouted over her shoulder at her father. "Daddy! Guess who's back? Naruto!" she exclaimed without waiting for her father to answer. She ruffled his hair as she went off to place his order. "We'll have your food to you real quick, Naruto-kun!" she said as she went out of earshot to speak to her father.

A few moments of relative silence followed her departure, quickly followed by a clamor of murmuring voices in the stools. Heads bent together, Naruto guessed, to talk about Ayame's rather robust pronouncement. That is, all save for the woman at his side, the purple-haired kunoichi. After stirring the dregs of her ramen for a few moments, she turned her attention back on Naruto.

"So, you're the Uzumaki kid, huh?" she asked, somewhat redundantly. She took a sip out of the tea cup that sat in front of her. "What's the big rush?"

Naruto smiled slightly; she seemed to have forgotten that she was about to start grilling Naruto for information on another subject entirely. "Well," Naruto began, "today's graduation day at the Academy."

"Really, now? Isn't that interesting?" She took another sip of her tea. "You think that you'll pass today?"

Naruto snorted. "Of course I'll pass; what do you think I am, stupid? All you have to do to pass is to be able to perform a simple Bunshin, and you're home free!" The blond looked sideways at the woman. "Give me a little bit of credit here, will ya?"

The woman nodded. "Okay. You'd think that someone with your…reputation…would be able to pass something like that, is all." She smiled again, as if at some private joke, and tossed a few bills onto the table and stood up to leave. "See ya around, kid," she said over her shoulder as she left.

It wasn't until she was about twenty feet away that Naruto realized something. "Hey, lady, what's your name?" he called out to the retreating figure.

The woman stopped for just a moment and looked back at Naruto. "Call me Anko," she called. "Anko Mitarashi."

Naruto felt a chill crawl up his spine as she disappeared into the crowd; he had heard of this woman before. She was a Tokubetsu Jounin of high rank. He had just had a chat with one of the village's legendary sadist, and had come out of it unscathed. Naruto suppressed a shiver as his breakfast was delivered by Ayame; he knew just how lucky he was.

Naruto made it to the Academy just in time after leaving the ramen stand. Ayame insisted that the noodles for Naruto for that day were free, as a welcome-back gift. Gratefully, Naruto accepted, as he had forgotten his wallet at home,

The Academy classroom was almost full by the time that Naruto entered the room. Some of the students milled about the room talking to each other, while others sat in their seats, solitarily contemplating the day. A couple of familiar faces, Naruto noticed, were absent from their usual seats: the Akimichi, Chouji, and the Nara, Shikamaru, protégés from two of the most powerful hiden clans of the village. Naruto looked at the clock on the wall. Only three minutes left, Naruto thought to himself. Where can the porker and the layabout be?

As if to answer his unspoken query, the classroom door burst open, Shikamaru pulling Chouji by that ridiculous scarf he always wore. Ah, Naruto said to himself with a slight smile. Now I see. Chouji was carrying an armload of snacks: potato chips, cakes, muffins, pork rinds, and even what appeared to be a whole melon.

"Come on, Shikamaru!" Chouji was saying as the slimmer boy of the pair. "It's not my fault I was hungry! I hardly had any breakfast this morning!" With that, Chouji plopped down in the nearest available chair and began devouring the spread on the desk in front of him.

The usually stoic Nara gave Chouji a lazy glare. "Chouji," said Shikamaru, "I was at your house this morning. I was in your kitchen. I pulled you out of the house, and you were still chewing what looked like your third helping of potatoes." Shikamaru sighed and sat down next to his best friend. "You can be such a drag sometimes." Chouji wasn't listening, as he was blissfully deep into his second bag of potato chips.

Naruto turned his attention away from the comic antics of his classmates and scanned the room for another one of the academy students, the last Uchiha, Sasuke. The last in the village, anyway. There he was, the "elite" Uchiha, sitting at the front row, with half of the girls in the class fawning over him. To his credit, he was doing an amazing job of ignoring them, a difficult feat with two to his side, two behind him, and one sitting on the desk, basically obstructing his view of the front of the class.

The girls vying for his attention were, of course, Sakura Haruno and Ino Yamanaka. Man, those girls were annoying. Naruto had the same attitude toward women that Shikamaru did: they were more trouble than they were worth.

Want to make some trouble? the Kyuubi asked, speaking for the first time all day.

Naruto paused. What kind of trouble? the blond replied. If allowed to run free, Naruto knew that the fox could get out of control. If allowed the use of his body, Kyuubi could very well graduate from nuisance to menace.

Kyuubi sensed Naruto's wariness. Fear not, I will not harm those tasty little morsels,Kyuubi purred. I'll just make them stay away from the Uchiha, is all.

Oh, really, Naruto scoffed mentally. And how will you pull that trick off, Baka-kun?

You'll find out, kip. Give me your eyes. Curious as to what the fox could be planning, Naruto relinquished control of his eyes to the fox. From his perch from the top of the classroom, Naruto had a clear view of each girl fawning over the raven-haired Uchiha.

A curious itching behind his eyes alerted Naruto that the fox was now in complete control of them. He could feel the red chakra seeping gently through them, flowing across the room like dust in the wind, malicious intent heavily laced on every iota of chakra. It wasn't killing intent that the fox was drifting through the room to the girls—to do that to multiple targets at once on purpose, Naruto would have to be staring the girls in the eye. Instead of killing intent, Kyuubi was sending the promise of bad things to come if the girls didn't immediately find something else to do. Of course, they didn't consciously realize what was going on—but they suddenly felt very, very uncomfortable with Sasuke.

Naruto chuckled as the red chakra dissipated throughout the room, spreading the residual bad feelings to several of the other students of the class. Shikamaru and Chouji were some of the closest in the class to the girls and Sasuke. Shikamaru gasped in open amazement when Chouji, quite suddenly, put his fifth bag of potato chips on the table and said that he didn't want to eat anymore.

The fox was laughing uproariously as he relinquished control back to his jinchuuriki. What did you do? Naruto asked the fox.

Oh, I merely made sure that that Sasuke wouldn't be getting any attention from any of those little girls any time soon.

Could you teach me how to do that, Kyuubi-san?

Oh, "san" is it now? Learn to suck up a bit better, and I might just do that… With that, Naruto felt the fox sink back into its cage deep within his mind—or, to be more exact, it was probably in his belly, where the seal was stamped on his body.

Naruto thought on what had just happened with his eyes. It had been a technique that was ocular; did that qualify it as an doujutsu, on par with the Sharingan and Byakugan? After a moment's consideration, Naruto decided to himself that it didn't, as it wasn't an inherited technique, and as of yet, he couldn't do it by himself. True, if demonic chakra was necessary, Naruto was the only one able to perform it in the village, but Naruto didn't have the ability to control his chakra as finely as the fox did.

Naruto's musings were brought short by the entrance of his two teachers into the room, Iruka- and Mizuki-sensei. As it was the last day of the class, there was an air of excitement that even the two of them seemed to pick up on. They sat down at the desk at the front of the class, heads bowed together in private conversation, although Naruto could probably figure out what they were talking about.

They're trying to figure out who'll pass, and who'll fail, Naruto thought to himself with a smirk on his face as he sat down at the nearest desk, next to the only girl in his class with a kekkei genkai, Hyuuga Hinata. She turned to look at who had taken her adjoining seat, and when she saw the black-clad Naruto next to her, let out a small yelp. Naruto knew that she was actively afraid of him, more so in the past few months than before; he couldn't understand why, exactly, as he had never done anything to her in his life that would merit fear.

Naruto knew that the property of the Hyuuga clan was one of those most hit hard during the attack of the Kyuubi almost thirteen years before, and she had probably picked up on the bad feelings she had for him from her parents. As Naruto watched her out of the corner of his eye, he could see a small line of sweat form across her forehead as her knuckled turned white gripping the desktop.

Weakling, the fox inside of the blond sneered as it reared its ugly head. All the power of the Byakugan, and all she can do is stutter and shiver like a rabbit freshly shot with a bolt.

Shut up, baka-fox, Naruto thought to his prisoner. You're not helping any. Yet, Naruto had to agree with the Kyuubi; she did have a lot of potential as a shinobi, and, although not the weakest girl in the class, she wasn't anywhere near what someone of her caliber should have been.

A bell tolled in the distance; finally, class was about to begin. The class's head instructor, Iruka-sensei, stood up and walked to the front of the class. The Chuunin calmly let his gaze sweep over the students of his classroom, taking note of each and every pupil he had. "Well," he said with a smile, "congratulations on making it to this day, the last day you'll have with me as your official sensei.

"Your final exam—the last test to determine whether or not you become a Genin for the Leaf village—is today. When your name is called, come through the door to the adjoining classroom. Until then, wait here." He turned to the classroom door in question, then stopped. "Oh, yes, I forgot. Your final exam will concern your bunshin skills. You must be able to perform at least three simultaneous bunshins to pass the exam, but I doubt that you will have any problems with this. You are all exceptional students, of course."

As Iruka and Mizuki stepped into the other room together, Naruto snorted to himself in mirth. Bunshins? Why don't they just ask us if we can throw a kunai at a target? The bunshin is one of the easiest techniques to pull off. Why would they ask shinobi who have gotten this far if they could do one of the most rudimentary techniques in the book?

It's simple, you imbecile, the fox interjected. Shinobi represent their village. If they accidentally let some little shit-stain pass and become an official ninja for the leaf, how would that make them look, huh, little fox? This test is to weed out the last of the weaklings you have here.

Don't call me 'little fox,' bitch-kitsune, alright?

Whatever, Kyuubi mumbled as it sank back into its hole.

Mizuki opened the door and, poking his head into the room, called out "Aburame Shino." The stoic bug user got to his feet and slowly made his way to the sensei. As he passed through the door, he looked back to the class, his emotionless glasses-covered eyes passive as Mizuki shut the door behind them.

Immediately, the class broke out into rapid conversation. Naruto knew for a fact that Shino would pass; over the years at the academy, the bug user had performed the bunshinflawlessly many times, as any ninja of their rank was expected to do. The main topic of conversation was, of course, who would be the one student in their entire class to fail. Almost inevitably, every year, there was at least one student who couldn't measure up to the Leaf standards and was held back. Sometimes the tart would repeat the class, but much more often than not, he or she would just go back to their parents after wasting four years of their life throwing shuriken. Roughly twenty-five percent of Konoha's adult population who weren't already shinobi had, at one time or another, taken the academy courses and failed before they earned their leaf headband. While some of them were bitter about flunking out of the course, most came to realize that not everybody was cut out to do the tasks that a shinobi was supposed to carry out—assassination, espionage, and the like. Not everybody was cut out to be a cold-blooded killer—hell, Naruto didn't think that some of the people that had gotten this far had what it took, especially the girls, such as Hinata Hyuuga and Sakura Haruno.

Within moments, Iruka opened the door and called out for the class porker, Chouji Akimichi, to come and take his own exam. And so it went, one by one, until there were only three or four left in the classroom. Not a single student had come back, so nobody knew who had passed or who had failed. Only Naruto, the lone Uchiha, and Ino Yamanaka remained in the room. An uncomfortable silence hung between the three Genin-elect; Sasuke had always despised Naruto for what he was, and Ino didn't seem to like a single boy in the class except for, of course, the raven-crested Uchiha, who was himself mostly indifferent to the girls.

Ino seemed to want to spark up a conversation with Sasuke, so she slid into the seat right next to the boy, blushing slightly as she did. She got closer to the boy than he would have liked, but he didn't make any move to get away from her. "So, Sasuke-kun," she purred, "I know you'll pass, that much is a sure thing, but who do you think has failed this year 'round?"

Sasuke hummed for a moment. "Dunno," he said. "Most of us, I know for a fact, can produce at least one bunshin. However, a few of the others have trouble with multiple clones. I guess it all comes down to who is weakest in concentration of us all. Youichi might have trouble with it, I saw him struggling to maintain just two clones the other day, and they could barely move."

Even though Sasuke couldn't see it, Naruto nodded in agreement. Youichi, one of the few non-clan students of the academy, had shown a natural aptitude for genjutsu early on in the academy, but nearly no skills in ninjutsu and even less in taijutsu. But he stayed, barely passing year after year, passed more out of pity than any real hope of the boy becoming a ninja for the Leaf.

Youichi had never shown the same hatred toward Naruto that many—or most—of the other students of the Leaf had thrown to the boy. Although not a very good ninja, as far as practical abilities went, Youichi had a remarkable memory for ninja history and tradition, two of the subjects that Naruto was lacking in. Youichi had let Naruto cheat off of his work in those subjects a number of times, giving Naruto the top overall scores in the class, just behind Uchiha Sasuke.

The reason that the Uchiha held the top score in the class and not Naruto was, in fact, because Naruto didn't want to have the top scores; those who seemed to be the best of their rookie year seemed to get a bit more attention than they wanted. Take Hyuuga Neji, for instance: he was the pride and shame of the Hyuuga clan. As a member of the branch family, he should have been overlooked by the others. Instead, he stood out like a sore thumb as being vastly superior in fighting abilities than any Hyuuga his age, even his junior by one year, Hinata; perhaps even the strongest any Hyuuga had ever been at that age.

So, Naruto was happy to take a back seat to Sasuke, in this instance only. Even if he had wanted to be tops in the class, Naruto wasn't so sure that he would have been able to bring his problem subjects up enough to take the limelight from the "dark avenger." Let him have his glory. Let him see how…troublesome…it could be with people after you, wanting to be the one to take down the "elite" Uchiha.

There was another reason that Naruto had let Sasuke be the overall best in the class: exactly what would the parents of most of the students in the class say if they knew that the best they had was the village jinchuuriki? All in all, it was better for him to keep as low a profile as possible.

Within a few moments, Iruka-sensei opened the door to the other classroom and called out for Sasuke. He grunted in acknowledgment and silently made his way to the instructor, Ino making doe eyes at the back of the boy. The moment the door closed, however, the environment in the room immediately changed: Ino had never made it a secret that she openly and intensely disliked Naruto, not for what was in his body—she was one of the few people in the village that acknowledged that that was outside of his control—she just didn't like him for the fact that he was the only one who could ever best her precious Sasuke-kun in an even fight during practice. In her eyes (and the eyes of most of the girls in the class) there shouldn't be anybody who could be better than Sasuke—at anything, period. The cold shoulder was always pointed frostily at the demon boy, chilling even him to uncomfortable extremes.

A few silent moments later, Mizuki-sensei opened the door. "Come on, Naruto, your up," he said with a smile. Naruto nodded at his teacher and descended to the lower floor. As he passed Ino, he surprised himself by saying "Good luck" to her as he walked away. Naruto didn't have to be a psychic or even look backwards to know that a puzzled expression was sprawled across her face.

Naruto passed through the threshold on into the room, while Mizuki closed the door behind him and took his place beside his superior. On the table in front of them were four leaf headbands, all gleaming, all blue-banded. Naruto did some quick mental math: if the academy had planned for a best-case scenario and had laid out one headband for each student in the class, then that meant that with only Ino left after him, two of the students from his class had failed. Naruto was almost positive that Youichi was one of those two; who was the second?

"All right, Naruto," Iruka said, bringing the boy out of his investigative musings. "You know what to do. Three bunshins, if you please."

Naruto snorted. If the man wanted clones, he'd give him clones…but not just three. Naruto grinned wickedly, and Iruka, knowing in advance, groaned in frustration. "Bunshin no jutsu!" The room was filled by not just one Naruto clone…not thirty…but by three hundred Naruto clones. "Well?" all three hundred clones seemed to say at once, although the teachers knew that only one was real. "Do I pass?"

Mizuki had a bemused smile on his face, whereas Iruka had nothing but a scowl. "Naruto," he said evenly, although he was certainly at the edge of his patience. "What have I told you about showing off unnecessarily?"

Naruto shrugged unselfconsciously and approached the table with the hitai-ate, examining each one in turn. They all looked the same, identical down to the last detail. Naruto knew that they all came from the same shop, had been pressed by the same hands, so id didn't matter which one he took…but for some reason, he hesitated. None of the Leaf headbands on the table felt right to him. He didn't know why the feeling washed over him, but Naruto just couldn't bring himself to grab one of the proffered symbols off of the table in front of him. They were just too…perfect. To unstained. Most of the headbands that he had seen around the village had at least some wear and tear.

"Iruka-sensei," Naruto carefully began. "Do you have to wear a headband to be a ninja for the Leaf?"

Iruka traded a glance with his colleague, but it was Mizuki who spoke up. "I don't think that it is actually a law that a ninja has to wear a headband for the Leaf, but it's highly unorthodox for anyone but an undercover operative to decide not to wear one. Is there any reason why you don't want one?"

Naruto hesitated for a second; how could he say this without sounding stupid? "I just think," he began, "that it might not always be a good idea for a shinobi to advertise his presence all the time, even in his own village."

Iruka looked bewildered. "What are you talking about? Do you honestly expect to be attacked within the walls of Konoha?"

"No," replied Naruto. "I just…it's bad enough that I get a lot of flack for being the jinchuuriki for the Kyuubi. If some people knew that I was a shinobi as well, then things might get worse."

"But you don't have to wear it all the time," Iruka pointed out. "Just when you're on official Leaf business."

"Yes, but still…"

"Just take one and put it in your pocket, if you want," Mizuki offered. "You don't have to even wear it out of here. We can order that you wear it during missions, but beyond that, it's you're decision, Naruto-kun." Iruka nodded in agreement. Sighing, Naruto did as he was told, grabbed one off of the table and stuck it in his back pocket, taking care to make sure that one of the ribbons wasn't hanging out of the back of his pants.

Iruka nodded as the boy did as he was told. "Be at the classroom at nine in the morning," he told the younger boy before he left. "You'll be introduced to your senior Jounin instructor and teammates then. Until then, you're free to go as you will."

Naruto left the room through a side door, his back to his sensei—his former sensei, that is. The next day would begin his official career as a shinobi for the village Konoha. Naruto couldn't stop a slight grin from forming across his lips. He just couldn't wait.

Well, what do you think? Any criticism-as long as it is constructive-is welcome. That's about it. Have a nice day.