Disclaimer: I do not own or am in any way related to Naruto. I am simply a fangirl trying to make her way in the world while at the same time dealing with the stories that the Naruto characters play out in my head. I am making no profit from this, unless you count readers and reviewing love.

Summary: Five years ago Naruto brought Sasuke back but received only anger in return, and so he left. Now it is Kitsune, strong and deadly, who returns to his old village. When war erupts with Konoha at its heart, what will he choose to do?

Warnings: More character introspection than plot. Not much action either. Lots and lots of spoilers, mainly about the Akatsuki and Naruto's parentage.


From The Ashes

Though no one can go back and make a brand new start, anyone can start from now and make a brand new ending.

-- Carl Bard

There was a small round table, balanced on three delicate legs, draped with a pristine white tablecloth. There were two chairs, regally high-backed, with plush red cushions. There was a white bone-china tea set, wrought with gold tracery and faintly translucent as all good bone-china should be. There were two matching plates. There was a three-tiered desert stand, with various delicacies on it.

The examinees stared.

The Kazekage placed his cup back on its saucer with a faint clink and dabbed at his lips with a napkin. "Just in time," Gaara said, sounding faintly pleased.

"But there's still some strawberry shortcake!" Naruto protested, peering at the tray. "And one of the little tart things, and those unidentifiable powdery balls that taste like orange."

"I have eaten my fill," Gaara said. "And it is not polite to keep our fellow examinees waiting."

"Aw, damn." Blue eyes swung up to look at the staring group. "Anyone wants some? Seems a shame to let the food go to waste. Gaara just finished the last of the tea, though."

The examinees continued to stare.

"Is that a no?"

Kakashi shook himself out of his surprise, and raised a lazy hand. "Shortcake," he announced, losing the battle to the wryly amused grin that spread across his face under the mask.

"Sure, help yourself. I'm not going to look away when you pull your mask down to eat, though."

"Oh, it's not for me. Iruka loves strawberry shortcake. My part in the exam's done, so I can drop by the Academy now and surprise him."

"Huh. So you can be romantic, after all." Naruto grinned at him.

"Excuse me – Hatake-san?" A frowning man stepped out from the group. "Isn't this against the rules?"

Kakashi shrugged. "What rules?" he said cheerfully. "No one mentioned any rules. I started running and you started following. I didn't say you had to follow me."

"But surely the location of the written exam was kept secret, so for these two to be here, eating breakfast –"

Gaara rose, and his expression was forbidding. "Are you accusing us of cheating?"

"It's the logical conclusion, seeing how you have apparently been here for a while. You may be the Kazekage, but even you are not exempt from the rules."

Naruto rose, too, and his smile was full of teeth. "Like Kakashi-sensei said… what rules? It's simple: the point of the chase is the destination, right? So we just scouted out the possible examination venues and found this place easily. If you used your brains you might have saved yourself a silly chase and found time for breakfast, too."

"What's the hold-up?" Zabuza strolled out of the building, and his bored glare fell on the table. "What the hell? Where did that come from? Hey, aren't those the snacks that Haku made?"

"Why are you here?" Naruto demanded. "You're a Mist nin, not a Leaf nin. You just got accepted back into Mist, you shouldn't leave too often!"

"I couldn't let Haku come here alone to take the exam, could I? I'm helping out with invigilating." Zabuza grinned nastily. "I can spot cheaters as easily as I can kill them. Eh, is that a fruit tart? Haku told me that he didn't have any left!"

"He gave them all to us, that's why," Naruto said smugly. He reached out and popped the last fruit tart into his mouth. "Mm," he said, mouth full.

Zabuza growled, and launched himself at Naruto, who dodged easily. They started running in circles.

Kakashi blinked, and then shrugged. He approached Gaara. "The shortcake?"

Gaara nodded, and handed his plate to Kakashi. "My plate is cleaner than Naruto's. You can take the shortcake to Iruka-san on the plate, but I need it back later. It is part of the set."

"Sure," Kakashi said easily, transferring the cake onto the plate. "Can I have the ball things too? Yeah, thanks. Is this all yours? No, not the pastry, I mean the furniture."

"Yes, it is. I find it relaxing to enjoy some tea on occasion, in the fresh air and under the sun. It is convenient to carry around the objects necessary to this exercise. That was Naruto's idea." As Kakashi took the last of the food, Gaara pulled out a scroll, and with a few murmured words and hand seals, he placed the scroll beneath the table and the whole ensemble – table, chairs, and crockery – vanished in a puff of smoke.

"Only you, Gaara-kun. You and Naruto." Kakashi shook his head, grinning.

Gaara glanced at the group watching Naruto and Zabuza running around. "None of the Konoha examinees are with you?"

"Nope. This time we have nine jounins on separate chases, to create more confusion. Two of them are just decoys, too, followed by fake examinees. If anyone gets lost and mistakes them for one of the seven jounin who appeared at the start of the chase, they're screwed. A test of observational powers and alertness, see." Kakashi beamed.

"Interesting," Gaara murmured. Without looking, he gestured slightly. An arm of sand swirled into existence next to them – and in the next second, Naruto ran right into it.

"Oof!" He grunted on impact, saving himself from an unsightly fall onto his back by a neat tucked-in roll. He sprang to his feet and glared at Gaara as Zabuza, satisfied, laughed at him in the background. "Why are you on his side?"

"I am on no one's side," Gaara informed him. "I simply do not wish to waste any more time." He turned gracefully and began walking towards the building. "I will see you soon, Kakashi-san."

"Have fun!" Kakashi called.

Naruto gave him a brief grin. "See you later, Kakashi-sensei." He ran after Gaara. Zabuza strolled after the both of them.

Kakashi looked down at the plate in his hands thoughtfully. Should he try one of the little ball things? There were three left, after all, and Iruka would never know. Or he could wait until he found Iruka, and have Iruka hand-feed him! Yeah, that was a much better plan. Happily, Kakashi turned to go, and noticed the group that had followed him still standing there. "You guys still here?"

They stared at him. And then it dawned on them that they were supposed to be in the building, and ran.

"I swear, kids these days," Kakashi grumbled, watching them rush inside. "No brains at all."

Naruto finished the last of his written questions with a flourish, turned the paper over, and undid his anti-cheating wards. He glanced at Gaara, who had finished before him, and who was now leaning back in his seat meditatively. Hmm.

Grinning to himself, Naruto turned in his seat and lay down in Gaara's lap.

Green eyes opened to stare down at him. That gaze clearly said, What do you think you're doing? Naruto gave him a hopeful grin.

A faint smile touched Gaara's lips. Then the Kazekage leaned back in his seat, closing his eyes again, but this time a pale hand rose to rest on red-streaked blond hair, fingers tangling in the strands – a silent acceptance.

Naruto beamed.

They remained like that through the announcement of the end of the exam, the collection of the papers, and the dismissal of the examinees with a reminder to come back in half an hour. Some of the examinees headed out to get breakfast, but most of them stayed in the room awaiting results.

A lot of the conversations Naruto could hear were about them. He sighed inwardly; didn't these people have better things to talk about? The war was only six months gone, after all.

This make-up jounin exam was originally meant to simply complete the third round of the previous exams, but quite a few of the previous finalists had died. So, to be fair, everyone had agreed to start the exam all over again, and to allow newcomers to join as well – every village needed more officially recognized jounins now, after the war had taken many of their shinobi. And Konoha needed the revenue that hosting the exam would bring it, too, so it had volunteered to hold the exam not six months after the war ended. It was a win-win situation all around.

An approaching presence and a light cough made Naruto grumble out loud, opening his eyes to glare. Gaara hadn't moved at all. "What?" he demanded. "Oh, it's you, Nagasaki."

The Sand nin bowed lightly. "Naruto-sama, I was just wondering –"

"You can continue wondering whatever it is, if you don't stop calling me that!" Naruto said in exasperation. All the Sand nin had started calling him 'Naruto-sama' when he and Gaara had made it known to Suna that they were officially together. Suna seemed to think that their relationship meant that Naruto was some kind of consort to Gaara, and since they loved and respected their Kazekage, the conclusion they had come to was to give their Kazekage's lover an equal honorific. Naruto had been trying to stop them, to no avail. Gaara wasn't any help – if he were normal, he would have been rolling on the floor in laughter. As it was, his lips twitched in a smile whenever he heard someone call Naruto that. It was just so… incongrous with Naruto's personality.

Naruto rather suspected that this was the real reason why the Suna nin were so hell-bent on calling him by that stupid name. Their reverance of their Kage was bordering on ridiculous these days.

"Naruto-sama," Nagasaki said unrepentantly, "I was wondering if the battle that was promised me was going to come to pass? In this next part of the exam, perhaps?"

"What battle?" Naruto said blankly.

Gaara stirred. "The one I promised him against you, during the second part of the exam six months ago."

Naruto thought back, and then remembered. "Oh… yeah."

Nagasaki looked hopefully at them. "I understand that the past few months have been busy for both of you, especially Naruto-sama who has been in Konoha almost all the time to help with repairs, but… since the second part of the exam is coming up, and we are required to fight one another…"

"Suna needs jounins more than ever," Naruto pointed out. "And I did say to stop calling me –"

"We could make it an unofficial fight," Nagasaki said quickly, clearly having considered this already. "Whoever wins or loses won't take or have to give up a handprint, if you'll agree to that. I just want a chance to test my skills against you, Naruto-sama."

"There will have to be rules," Gaara said softly. "I do not want you to be too drained to fight anyone else."

The other man nodded eagerly. "Anything, Kazekage-sama!"

"Very well. You obviously know how to sense for our chakra. When the exam starts, we will unmask our chakra and await you in a clearing, so that you can look for us for the battle."

Nagasaki bowed again, deeply this time. "Thank you, Kazekage-sama!"

"Do I get a say in this?" Naruto demanded, pouting up at Gaara.

"No." Gaara didn't even bother to look at him, nodding at Nagasaki instead. "You are dismissed."

The Suna nin grinned happily, and left them. Naruto heard his footsteps fade into the background noise, and then, when he was sure no one was around to see, shifted so that he nuzzled Gaara's thigh, dangerously close to his hip and… other places. "Then do I at least get a reward…?" he murmured softly, wickedly.

A barely noticeable shiver ran through the body underneath his cheek, and fingers tugged his hair lightly. "Behave," Gaara murmured. "And maybe you will."

Naruto couldn't keep the silly grin off his face. He was still unused to the Gaara that sometimes teased back, but he liked it. He liked it a lot.

Gaara knew what he was thinking, Naruto could tell. Quick fingers pulled at his nose before returning to his hair. Naruto's grin grew wider.

The half-hour passed comfortably in silence, and people began trickling back in. The results were announced, the information about the second part of the exam was given out – the rules were the same as before – and people began leaving. Naruto stirred, and opened his eyes to look up at Gaara. "Shall we go help Kiba and Hinata-chan move?"

Green eyes blinked open and looked down at him. "Very well."

Kiba had proposed after five-and-a-half months of dating Hinata, but there had been problems with their families – Hinata had been officially named the Hyuuga heir, and Kiba was the heir to the Inuzuka clan. Both clans had wanted the other to take on their family name, and to keep the offspring. In the end, the agreement was that Hinata and Kiba would each keep their family names, and if their children had the Byakugan, they would be raised the Hyuuga way, if not, the Inuzuka way. With the bloodlines mixing, there was a fifty-fifty chance of either happening, and the couple had been made to swear to keep trying until there was an about equal number of children of either type.

Hinata had been red throughout that entire discussion, Naruto heard, and even Kiba had been blushing.

Anyway, that was why, rather than arguing again about whose compound they would stay in, Kiba and Hinata had decided to get a house of their own, between the two compounds. They didn't really need help moving – generations of both clans had turned up to help – but it was the thought that counted. Besides, the more helpers, the faster it would go – and Naruto knew that Hinata wanted to be fully moved in by the end of the day, so that after the second part of the exam ended, they would have a home to return to.

Naruto also knew that the Inuzuka and Hyuuga had secret plans to finish decorating and unpacking the house for the couple during the week of the exam, so that they would return to a real home, not a house that they needed to unpack after a gruelling week of survival. He rather worried about the conflict that would arise when the very volatile and touchy Inuzuka tried to work with the very proud and prickly Hyuuga, but as long as the deed got done with minimal damage, he figured, it was good enough.

He and Gaara arrived at the small house that was to be Kiba and Hinata's new home. The couple was directing all their helpers, and greeted Naruto and Gaara warmly. Neji nodded at them from one end of a large sofa; Lee greeted them exuberantly from the other end. Other Rookie Nine Plus Three, fresh from their written exams as well, were also present – Sasuke gave them a grudging hello, Sakura a cheerful one; Team Ten appeared at an upper window and shouted down greetings – Shikamaru merely waved – and entering the house, they found Tenten and Shino, as well.

There were Inuzuka and Hyuuga everywhere, too; Naruto suffered a hair-ruffle from both Inuzuka Tsume and Hana, and a quiet if slightly arrogant greeting from Hyuuga Hanabi and a more formal one from Hiashi. Other Inuzuka yelled hellos cheerfully enough, and the Hyuuga deigned to nod and smile.

It all gave Naruto a warm, happy feeling – he was surrounded by the yells and laughs and the very presences of all his friends and other Konoha shinobi. There was a festive feel to the air, with none of the tension of the exams to spoil the mood. It felt – really, really good.

And what made him feel even better was how everyone welcomed Gaara warmly as one of them, not a Suna nin, not the Kazekage – just a friend. The closer-knit group of Neji, Hinata, Lee and Shikamaru were the most comfortable with Gaara, of course, but the others were friendly as well – even Sasuke managed a tiny smile, which Gaara returned with an almost-smile of his own. Everyone knew by now, even if it was still unofficial in Konoha, that Naruto and Gaara were together, and not only accepted it but celebrated it. The few times that Gaara had accompanied Naruto to Konoha on some of Naruto's frequent trips back had demonstrated that fact clearly.

Gaara had once confided in Naruto that this feeling of a home-away-from-home, of having another almost-family in Konoha, was a feeling that he hadn't expected, but treasured very much. Naruto had given him a really deep kiss for that one.

They donated about an hour of labour – well, Naruto did, Gaara just used his sand to move everything, which made him really popular amongst all the helpers – before Kiba bellowed, "Oy, lunch time!"

"Kiba-kun, the whole neighbourhood can hear you!" Naruto heard Hinata yelp.

Hiashi, who was passing by at the moment, shook his head sadly. "I knew I should have gotten her a puppy when she was younger, so that she would have gotten the urge for a pet out of her system."

Naruto stared after him, bug-eyed, as the older man regally descended the stairs. Had Hyuuga Hiashi, grouch and stick-up-the-ass Head of the Hyuuga Clan, just made some semblance of a joke?

"Oy, Hyuuga, that's my son you're insulting!" Tsume hollered from downstairs.

"If you did not have such insufferably sharp ears, you would not have heard me," Hiashi called back.

Naruto raised an eyebrow at a giggling Sakura and Ino. "They do this often?"

The girls nodded vigorously. From the corner, Shikamaru grumbled, "Two of the greatest clans in Konoha, reduced to squabbling children."

"We heard that!" Tsume and Hana bellowed together.

"Heard what?" Hiashi could be heard demanding.

Shikamaru winced. Naruto lost the battle to laughter, and Gaara was smiling faintly.

A buffet table had been set up in the small garden surrounding the house, and everyone converged on it happily. Ino and Shikamaru held Chouji back while everyone else had their pick first, with Chouji wailing his unhappiness and hunger in the background, and then they all leapt clear as Chouji was released and pounced on the food. Naruto couldn't remember ever laughing harder at the various looks on all the faces, and the sight of Hyuuga Hiashi leaping away, spilling not a drop from his cup or food from his plate.

Gaara was frowning at the plate of food that Naruto had piled for him, because if left to his own devices, Naruto knew that Gaara would not take more than a few bites. His lover was too thin for comfort, and Naruto was determined to fatten Gaara up. "Eat it," he told the redhead firmly.

"All the food has run together," Gaara said disdainfully, almost like a cat in the way his chin tilted up and his eyes narrowed. "Your eating habits may run to the disgusting, Uzumaki, but not – mmph!"

Naruto grinned and clicked his now-empty chopsticks at him. "You have to eat that now!" he said gleefully. "And no talking – it's rude, with food in your mouth."

Gaara was glaring at him, promising painful nights alone on the floor. All the girls around were giggling at them again.

"Get a room," Chouji grumbled.

Ino rounded on him. "And why don't you get food for me or hand-feed me too, hmm?" she demanded, hands on hips. "All you care about it eating everything yourself!"

Chouji looked trapped. "Uh… Ino-chan… that is…"

Kiba was smarter. When Hinata turned to him, blushing faintly, he already had his plate offered to her, chopsticks at the ready. Her blush grew deeper as Hana whistled and said loudly, wiping away a fake tear, "My little brother's all grown up and manly now!"

"Shut up, Hana!" Kiba hissed as Hinata turned tomato-red.

"Don't call me by name, you disrespectful pup!"

From the corner of his eye, Naruto watched Sasuke silently drop two egg rolls onto Sakura's plate while she stood there wide-eyed. Naruto was amazed that Sasuke remembered that she liked egg rolls. He turned away, fighting a grin: it looked like Sakura's efforts were slowly but surely paying off.

Gaara had finished his mouthful, and was now looking doubtfully at his plate. Naruto felt a little bad – he knew how picky the other man was about his food. He leaned closer, and murmured, "I'm sorry, Gaara. I just wanted you to eat more; the way you eat isn't healthy."

"…I understand." Gaara looked more resigned than anything. "I will endeavour to finish the food."

"I'll eat the rest, if you can't," Naruto offered.

Gaara inclined his head in agreement, and began eating in dainty bites. Naruto smiled at the sight.

"Yo! Looks like things are going well," Kakashi said cheerfully from the gate.

Next to him, Iruka held up a plate of sugar cake rolls. "Hello everyone! We brought dessert," he said, smiling.

"Kakashi-sensei! Iruka-sensei!" Naruto ran to greet them, hugging Iruka as Kakashi saved the plate of rolls from falling to the ground. Beaming as he pulled back, looking the short distance up to Iruka, Naruto remembered that today was a school day. "Is this your lunch break, Iruka-sensei?"

"Yes, it is. I wanted to see how you were progressing, and if you needed any help." Iruka smiled down at Naruto, and then at Hinata and Kiba, who had come up to them. "I'm volunteering Kakashi if you do."

Hinata smiled back shyly. "Thank you, Iruka-sensei, you didn't have to."

"No, no, Kakashi needs the exercise," Iruka told her solemnly, eyes dancing with laughter. "Don't worry about it."

"Are you saying I'm fat?" Kakashi mock-yelped, placing a dramatic hand over his heart.

"Well, you're definitely lazy enough," Kiba said, grinning.

In a movement too quick to see, Kakashi had Kiba in a headlock. He ruffled Kiba's hair hard, and then let go. "You're a disrespectful little brat," he informed the younger boy, who was rubbing his head with a grimace. "Next time, I'll use the Thousand Years of Pain on you, and see how you like it!"

Naruto winced at the memory, turning faintly green. He could see Sasuke and Sakura wince, too.

Kiba eyed the three of them. "I don't want to know," he said, backing away.

Beside them, Iruka was hugging Gaara, who was returning the embrace, albeit a little stiffly. Iruka pulled back quickly, since it was obvious that Gaara was unused to it. "You look well, Gaara-kun," he said warmly.

"Not according to Naruto," Gaara grumbled. He held up his plate. "He forced this on me."

Naruto smirked to himself – he knew Iruka better than Gaara, and he knew that Gaara had just trapped himself. Sure enough, Iruka immediately looked concerned. "You know, Naruto-kun may be right – you're too pale, and too thin, that can't be healthy…"

As Iruka led Gaara into the garden, talking earnestly about healthy eating, Naruto snickered at the mutely pleading green gaze that Gaara cast over his shoulder, and simply waved in a 'you're on your own' gesture. Gaara's eyes narrowed, but then he was forced to return his attention to Iruka when the older man said sternly, in Teacher Mode, "Are you listening, Gaara-kun?"

Kakashi came up to Naruto, hands in his pockets – Kiba was carrying the dessert tray over to the table, with Hinata hovering beside him, clearly not trusting her fiancé to not drop it. The silver-haired man sounded amused as he said, "Throwing Gaara-kun to the wolves, I see."

"I'll tell Iruka-sensei that you called him that," Naruto threatened.

"Then I'll just kiss him until he forgets," Kakashi said, smirk obvious in his voice.

"Too much information!"

Kakashi laughed, but then sobered. He looked at Gaara and Iruka, and said quietly, "Have you told him yet?"

"No," Naruto replied, equally soft. "Not yet."

"Why not?"

"I have a plan." Naruto gave his former teacher a quick grin. "All will be revealed soon enough."

Kakashi shook his head, amused. "Still keeping secrets, I see."

"Not for long," Naruto said, gaze going back to Gaara. He knew his smile softened, but he couldn't help it. "Not for much longer at all."

Kakashi patted his shoulder. "Well, whatever you've got planned, good luck."

"Thanks, Kakashi-sensei."

Naruto watched as Kakashi headed for the food, and then went to save Gaara from Iruka.

Ten minutes into the start of the second part of the exam, Naruto and Gaara met up in a wide clearing, unveiled enough of their chakra for a skilled shinobi to track them, and settled in to wait.

Ten minutes later, the clearing was full.

Naruto looked around incredulously at the sheer number of people crowded into the area, arguing with one another over who was to fight him and Gaara first. What the hell? From next to him, sitting comfortably cross-legged on a flat rock just before the tree line, Gaara gave him a Look that clearly said, Do something.

You do something, Naruto's glare said.

Most of them are here for you, was the serene reply in green eyes.

With a sigh, Naruto clambered to his feet on his own rock and cupped his hands around his mouth. "OY!" he shouted.

Silence fell. Everyone turned to stare at him.

Lowering his voice to its normal volume and crossing his arms, Naruto tried to make his glare scary. "What the hell is this?"

"We're supposed to fight one another in this exam, right?" a Grass nin called. "So why can't we fight you?"

"Strategically that is a moronic thing to do," Naruto snapped. "You don't pick the hard battles, you pick the easy ones so that you can pass this round!"

The Grass nin shrugged. "There's no other way we can fight with you seriously. A battle with you is worth sacrificing a handprint if we lose."

"The third exam –"

"If we pass, and if we happen to get matched against you," a Rock nin interrupted him. "The chances of that are slim."

"Why didn't you try this the last time we had the second exam, then?" Naruto demanded, looking around. "I recognize some of your faces."

"Last time, you were Kitsune, and the possibility of a fight to the death was high," another Grass nin spoke. "This time, your reputation as Uzumaki Naruto of Konoha has lowered that possibility."

"So… you're all challenging me now because you think I'm nice?"

"Can't argue that."

"Yeah, that's pretty true."

"I'd have put it another way, of course…"

"Not all of us are here for you."

That last caught his attention. "What, you're just here to watch?"

The Mist nin rolled his eyes. "Your ego is admirable. When I said we're not here for you, I really meant it. I'm here to fight the Kazekage."

Gaara finally stirred. "Why me, and not Naruto?"

"You're more powerful than he is."

"Hey!" Naruto protested. He wasn't offended, but he liked to think that he was at least Gaara's equal.

"It's true," a Cloud nin called out. "In the Kage-Akatsuki Battles, the Kazekage was the only one who defeated his opponent, and managed to save the other Kages as well. And you, too, Uzumaki-san."

The various fights that had become known as the Kage-Akatsuki Battles had gotten around, Naruto knew. He was just startled at this interpretation of events. He'd known that Gaara had saved them, but he actually hadn't seen it as Gaara had saved them, exactly like that. It was just… what had happened.

Gaara gracefully unfolded himself, standing on the rock. "I was lucky in my opponent," he said, voice clear and crisp, carrying well even if it was soft. "It could have been any other Kage in my place. We all played a part. If the others had not fought their opponents to such an extent, weakening them enough for me to snare the Akatsuki easily, my plan would not have worked."

"It did, though," the Cloud nin said.

"That's enough for me," the Mist nin agreed. "If I could fight both of you, I would, but if I had to choose one… well."

Gaara and Naruto exchanged looks. What do we do now?

"Okay…" Naruto ran a frustrated hand through his hair. "We can't fight everyone, there's too many of you. How about this – you guys go and fight amongst yourselves, and on the third last day, those who have all five of their handprints and haven't lost once can come fight us, okay? Then you can spend the next couple days hiding."

"Why the third last day?" someone called.

Naruto shrugged. "I was thinking that if there aren't enough people who fit the requirements coming to fight us, and we end up short of handprints, we'd still have time to go around looking for more."

"If you're worried about lack of handprints and trying not to skew the results at the same time," Neji drawled from edges of the crowd, "why not ask those who are already defeated to come fight you instead?"

"Oh… yeah." Naruto frowned. "That makes sense." He glared as Neji rolled his eyes.

"But then those of us who are stronger will not have a chance to fight you," the Mist nin protested.

Naruto threw up his hands. "Fine! Both groups can come find us, okay! But if you've already lost once, and you have a decent chance of getting all the five handprints you need, we reserve the right to not fight you. Okay? Are we done?"

Various nods through the crowd assured him that they were.

"Good. Now go away."

People began leaving, in swirls of mist or puffs of smoke or simply flash-stepping away. Naruto sighed, and dropped down onto his rock. Gaara had already resumed his seat.

"Uh… Naruto-sama?"

Oh, right.

With a groan, Naruto slid to his feet again. Nagasaki brightened, seeing that Naruto was going to keep his promise to battle. The blond eyed him. "This is unofficial, right?"

Nagasaki nodded quickly.

"Okay. Half an hour, tops. No killing. No permanent maiming. No last-resort secret family jutsus that will kill yourself and all that shit. No…" Naruto paused, and sighed. "Do we really have to do this?"

The Suna nin looked crestfallen.

Gaara tugged Naruto's sleeve, pulling the blond down. He whispered a few words into Naruto's ear.

In a flash, Naruto had Nagasaki by the arm, and was pulling him towards the centre of the clearing. "Let's do this!" he said happily.

The Sand nin's eyes were wide. "What did Kazekage-sama say to you?" he blurted before he could think better of it.

Naruto eyed him. "If I told you I'd have to kill you, because Gaara is mine," he said, with a smile full of teeth.

Nagasaki winced. "Sorry I asked."

Beaming, Naruto patted his shoulder. "That's okay! Now come on, let's get this over with. Then I can get down to serious business."

The second exam passed uneventfully; the same Konoha shinobi who got into the third round the last time did so again – Neji, Lee, Sasuke, Shino – with the addition of Hinata. It seemed that she had really gained the experience and confidence she needed during the war. All three of the Suna nins who had been in the last exam got in this time, with the addition of another man called Tora. Saki of the Mist was in, and she was not the only one – her colleague Ume had died in the war, but two Mist nin had replaced him, the Hoshino twins.

The Grass nin from before, Akira, had sustained serious wounds and could not take part; two others, Hijiri and Kai, were going to represent their village in the third exam this time. Satori of the Rock had survived, and was joined by Ayako, the third female to pass the second round. There were also two Cloud nin, Endo and Jin, who were grimly determined to prove their village's mettle seeing how the last Cloud group had all been killed before the exam even started.

Villages normally did not send many shinobi to take part in exams that were not on home turf, for security issues, but with the two greatest threats to the shinobi world decimated – Orochimaru was dead, his forces scattered (what was left of them anyway), and the remainder of the Akatsuki was lying so low as to almost be buried in the ground – the villages seemed to think that it was safe to send a larger number of participants than usual. The fact that they all desperately needed official jounin probably played a big part in their decision, too.

Naruto wondered how the organisers would deal with the large number of people who passed this round. Another pre-third-exam elimination round? But Konoha had to keep in mind that the other villages needed more people to pass…

Ibiki was in charge of concluding the second exam this time, and when he cleared his throat, the hall fell silent. "As you have probably noticed, we have a surfeit of participants for the third exam," he said, gruff voice echoing. "Normally we would hold an elimination round immediately, but taking into consideration the needs of the villages, we have decided to try something new. The battles of the third exam will be conducted in pairs."

Murmurs of interest swept the hall. This was new indeed. Jounins often worked individually, and so it was tradition that potential jounins were tested on their individual strengths.

"In light of the recent tragedies of the war, one of the lessons learned is that working alone is not always the best way to go. Having a partner and knowing how to work with one is often essential. Of course, you will still be judged individually – just because your partner is made a jounin does not mean you will be as well. However, the way you work together will factor in your individual assessments. Also, you do not necessarily need to work with your partner – you may choose to carry out individual battles in the arena at the same time. Tour opponent pair may choose to work as a pair against you, though, so you will have to use your judgement."

"Do we choose our own partners?" Nagasaki called out.

"I was coming to that. To be fair, your partners will be randomly chosen by the computer, and then the pairs will be randomly assigned opponents. Any questions? No? Very well. Please direct your attention to the screen."

Everyone turned to stare. The first pair was Mist's Hoshino Ran and Sand's Tora, causing the Hoshino twins to look at each other disappointedly. Next came Shino and Saki of the Mist, the former shrugging resignedly, the latter smirking ironically at the twist that made former opponents partners this time. There was Fujiwara and Hidaka, the Sand pair that worked so well together; the two were delighted with the result. Endo of the Cloud and Kai of the Grass bowed politely to each other when their names appeared together. Hoshino Rin shrugged fatalistically at his brother when he was paired with Hijiri of the Grass; when Hinata and Ayako of the Rock were paired, the two women looked determined to prove that they were better than any male duo.

At this point, with only four pairs to go, all eyes were on Gaara and Naruto. Surely not…?

The tension heightened when Neji and Lee were next, the two teammates looking pleased but glancing warily at the remaining six. Everyone held their breaths when Satori of the Rock was matched with the ever-enthusiastic Nagasaki. No one even moved as the screen flashed, and the announced the second-last pair…

"Uchiha of Leaf and Jin of Cloud," Ibiki reached off the screen. He was a battle-hardened, scar-ridden Torture and Interrogation specialist, but this time, even he sounded taken aback. He blinked.

Silence fell.

The screen whirred again, and finally, proudly, displayed its last pair.

Gaara and Naruto.

Absolute, stunned disbelief.


All eyes slowly turned to stare at a wide-eyed Nagasaki.

"I… protest?"

It when then that Naruto completely lost it. He dropped to the ground and laughed so hard that he was actually rolling on the floor. If he had ever needed a hint from the Fates, or whatever God was up there, this was it. It couldn't get any clearer than this.

From all around him, he could hear others protesting as well, but there were also those battle-crazy ones like Saki of the Mist who were fully in support, anticipating a great fight, while Ibiki tried to get things under order, to no avail. But Naruto could care less about them. All he needed was the glimpse of laugh-crinkled green eyes and a fond smile directed down at him, and everything else became unimportant.

All these six months, Gaara had constantly tried to tell him that he was making the wrong choice, and there was always that shadow of doubt in his green gaze: did Naruto truly love him? Did Naruto love him enough to not resent him for what he would have to give up? Naruto had a plan to erase that doubt, but that plan had only been finalized recently, and in the past six months his heart had ached knowing that he hadn't healed all the hurt that he'd caused Gaara in the past. And oftentimes he, too, wondered if he was doing the right thing.

Now, though… Naruto wiped away tears and grinned ridiculously up at Gaara. "See? We're fated, you and I," he said. "And don't ever doubt it."

For once, Gaara's gaze was clear, and light. "With this big a sign, even I must keep my doubts to myself for once," he said wryly.

Ibiki's voice boomed through the hall, then, making everyone wince – he was using some voice-amplifying jutsu. "LISTEN UP! I understand some of your worries, but rest assured that the system was not tampered with, and to be fair we must abide by the pairs that have been selected – yes, to be fair, and the next person who questions me will be kicked out of the exam!"

The noise subsided.

"Good. Now. The computer still has to pit the pairs against one another, so sit quiet and watch the screen. And instead of wasting your breath arguing with me, why don't you spend it praying that you won't go up against the Kazekage and Kitsune, hmm? It will do you more good."

Naruto pushed himself to an upright position and eyed the other examinees. He almost choked and started laughing again when he realized that a good number of them actually were praying. Gaara's smack upside the head reminded him to be a little more diplomatic, though, but it was damn hard to keep his laughter silent.

Oh well. All the better. Naruto looked up at his partner, who was watching the screen, and had to smile. Yes, his plan looked set.

This jounin exam would be the most unforgettable one in history, and not just because of the battles. Naruto was going to make sure of it.

"And yes, the referee has called it, we have a winner! The most exciting fight in history, folks, what a great story to tell the grandkids, this is a day to remember through the ages! What an amazing showdown! What a fight! Every bit of this victory was fought for tooth and nail by Hyuuga Neji and Rock Lee, there were some really suspenseful points there, and even though at the end we can all see that the fight's been under the Kazekage's and Kitsune's control all along, the Leaf geniuses put up a superb fight indeed, no doubt about it! What an inspirational display of seamless partnership! I've never seen anything like it! It's like they can read each other's minds!"

Naruto tuned out the exuberant announcer and the screaming crowd on its feet, in order to steady his nerves. He'd never felt this nervous in his entire life. The fight had been challenging – as expected of Neji and Lee, whose teamwork was almost as good as his and Gaara's – but it had been relatively easy, considering how Naruto had been distracted throughout the entire thing by the carnivorous butterflies gnawing at his stomach lining, in anticipation of what would come after the fight.

A hand touched his. Now will you tell me what is wrong? You have been jumpy the entire day. The entire week, actually.

Naruto gave Gaara a falsely bright smile. Wrong? Nothing's wrong! Everything's fine! We've won! Yay!

Gaara gave him a narrow-eyed Look. You do realize you just went 'yay'?


"Ladies and gentlemen, may I have some quiet, please?"

Naruto thanked the heavens for Itachi as the older man's voice boomed over the stadium, cultured as always even though it was magnified. The noise subsided a little, but not much.


That one sharp word snapped out over the arena. Silence fell.

"Thank you. Naruto, if you please?"

Naruto pulled away from Gaara with a weak smile and waved up at Itachi in thanks. Then he quickly set up a voice-amplification jutsu and cleared his throat, wincing as the wound was magnified. "Good day, my fellow citizens and shinobi. You all know who I am, but I need to say this anyway, so please put up with me.

"I am Uzumaki Naruto, the carrier of the nine-tailed demon fox, and also the assassin known as Kitsune, though I've given that up lately. The thing is, I could have been Uzumaki Naruto the mass murderer, or Uzumaki Naruto the vengeful demon-child, or something like that. I could have stepped onto the wrong path so easily, and instead of saving Konoha, I could have been the one destroying it. But I'm not. And the reason why I'm here now is because I have had people keeping me on the right path all this time… especially one person.

"The Godaime Hokage has offered me the Hokage position –" Naruto had to stop here temporarily because of the roar from the crowd. He grinned at the show of support, and waved at the Konoha citizens on their feet, cheering and clapping furiously. "Yes, thank you, thank you… please calm down! I'm not done! Okay, yes, thank you… where was I? The Hokage position. I was offered it… but I turned it down."


"The reason for that was because of the person who kept me sane and who helped me walk the right path all the time. I love Konoha, and I want to do all I can to protect this village, and I would love to do it in the position of Hokage, but if the price is giving up the one I love… if that's the price I would have to pay… it's too high a price. Because the one I love isn't from Konoha, and we would never have been able to be together if I became the Hokage, since I would have to stay in Konoha almost all the time.

"For the past six months I have been working on this problem, and I've only recently found the solution. I've perfected a jutsu that allows me to transport myself long distances in an instant, so that I can be with the one I love whenever possible, and yet be back in Konoha at a moment's notice when needed. And so that you can notify me in an instant, I've also come up with a device that allows long-range communication, so that you can call me immediately when there's trouble.

"And now that you know all this…" Naruto took a deep breath. "I would like to humbly ask all the citizens of Konoha present if they would agree to my being the Hokage… and loving Gaara of the Sand, Kazekage of Suna, at the same time. Because I cannot leave him. He's a part of me, now. And if you can give your blessings to our relationship, then I would be honoured to be your Hokage."

The silence persisted.

Movement, to his right. Naruto turned, a little worried about Gaara's reaction. He hadn't said anything about his plans to Gaara, because he'd wanted to make it a surprise… he'd wanted to prove to Gaara that he wasn't afraid to announce their love to the world, that he really would give up the Hokage position without any hesitation if necessary… his thought derailed themselves at the suspicious brightness in green eyes.

Gaara never cried. It was a fact of life. One plus one equals two, salmon swim upstream, Gaara never cries. But now… okay, no tears fell, so it wasn't technically crying, but still…

A little dazed, he held out his hand, not knowing what else to do. And with a faint but no less beautiful smile, Gaara simply reached out and took it.

It started with one pair of hands, clapping. And then another pair joined in, and another, and suddenly the whole stadium was awash with yells and cheers and thunderous applause. The crowd was on its feet again, but this time it was jumping.

Throat choked up with unnamed emotions, Naruto cancelled the voice jutsu with a one-handed cancellation seal and beamed at Gaara. I think that's a yes, he mouthed.

A corner of Gaara's lips twitched upwards. They might be cheering for your dismissal, you never know, he mouthed back.

Naruto rolled his eyes. Gaara had the oddest sense of humour sometimes.

And then shinobi after shinobi was leaping down into the arena, surrounding them, Sand and Leaf alike and even some from other villages. Naruto and Gaara found themselves in one handshake after another, and showered with blessings. They caught each other's gazes through the press of people, and read the same intent in each other's eyes.

A minute later, too fast for even a trained eye to follow, two figures darted across the rooftops hand in hand, leaving one clone each behind in the arena they had escaped from.

They had more important things to do, after all, that required the privacy of their own rooms.

Happy ever after, huh, brat?

Nah. I see lots of paperwork in my future. But… close enough, I think. Close enough.

End Epilogue.

Finally finished! I kind of lost inspiration for the epilogue, you might have noticed, and I'm sorry for that. It's not the most brilliant of wrap-ups, but it gets the job done.

And yes, it is cheesy. Sorry.

I skipped the fight scenes! Because I couldn't think up even one plausible but cool way the battle could go.

A big thank you to everyone who's been reading and reviewing! And to those lurkers who have been following, I hope you can find some time to just drop a line to tell me if it was good enough since we're at the end.

It's been a great journey with you guys and all the characters, and I hope you had fun, too. Because that's what this story was meant to be. It wasn't meant to focus so much on the pairing, actually. This wasn't meant to be a NaruGaa fic at all, but simply a Naruto-verse fic. For myself, it was my attempt to delve deeper into the Naruto characters, to see if I was interested enough, if there was potential enough for me to get into Naruto. (: Actually, if i had to redo this, I would have taken out the pairings and just make it a gen fic, but what's done is done.

Gosh, for an epilogue this sure was long.

Ashen Skies