Author: G.A.M.M.

Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto.

The Story So Far:

Four years have passed since Pain's attack on Konoha and Madara has been defeated. Tsunade did not survive and Danzo rules Konoha with an iron fist, using a puppet Hokage. Life in the village has changed for the shinobi of Konoha. Between Orochimaru's assault, Pain's attack, and the battle with Madara, one out of every four of Konoha's shinobi was killed and nearly another quarter was too badly injured to remain in active service. With their village destroyed, their coffers running dry, and their forces depleted, Konohagakure was forced to adopt new protocols to protect its sovereignty.

Danzo and his puppet, the Rokudaime, worked with the Council of Konoha to create a new system for the shinobi of the Leaf. Off-duty shinobi are now protected by ANBU operatives within the limits of the village at all times, and a partner system has been instituted to maximize the amount of missions Konoha can accept. Jonin, ANBU and Chuunin now work in teams of two, and the village is slowly paying off its debts and securing its position in the Great Shinobi Alliance of the Five Hidden Villages.

However, trouble looms just over the horizon for Konohagakure and the world. Unrest is beginning to creep across the land, though only the wisest have begun to sense it.

Soon the world will be thrown into chaos and the fires of war.

The only hope the world has rests in the hands of the man who didn't become Hokage and the woman who foreswore her love for him.

Featured review for this chapter:

"I never read or watched Outlaw Star but this intro [quote] is chilling. It certainly drew me in. The immediate impression: this is the shinobi world. This is not the world where determination and friendship always win. I will not achieve all of my dreams by never giving up. This is the world where people kill and die and there are no happy endings."

"This world is gritty and real and consuming. I felt the angry self righteousness of Naruto's thoughts and it was simply beautiful. From there, it never lets up. Shocking revelation after another, you forge a world of deceptively good intentions and unforgivable necessities. You extinguish the Will of Fire. You crush our hero's hopes and dreams. You kill the innocent and empower the tyrannical. Complete disillusionment. Lovely."

"The cruelty strangles the reader, slowly and deliberately. There's no escape from here. You beat the remains of our hallowed savior as you take away everything he has. Maybe he'd be better off dead. So he joins the ANBU and that's it. He'd be better off dead. Goddamn you. Yet along comes Hinata, perhaps the last ray of hope for our hero. But she's clearly not the same."

"Gone are the days of innocent purity and weakness and unrequited love, it seems. What is left? Power. Cruel though it may be, this is only the beginning. The beginning to a poetic downward spiral into the abyss."

-Burnt to a Chrisp

Chapter 1:

'A New Partner'

A boy has the right to dream. There are endless possibilities stretched out before him. What awaits him down the path, he will then have to choose.

The boy doesn't always know.

At some point the boy then becomes an adult and learns what he was able to become. Joy and sadness forever will accompany this.

He is confronted with a choice. When this happens, does he bid his past farewell in his heart? Once a boy becomes and adult he can no longer go back to being a boy.

The boy is now a man.

Only one thing can be said. A boy has the right to dream, for those endless possibilities are stretched out before him.

We must remember: all men were once boys.

-Outlaw Star


Part I:


+Uzumaki Naruto +

+Age: 19 +

+Sex: Male +

+Height: 6' +

+Weight: 175 lbs. +

+Rank: Jonin Black ops. +

+Allegiance: Konoha +

+Notes: Emphasis on taijutsu and ninjutsu. Large chakra reserves. +

The print on his new identification card was crisp and clear. It was, in Uzumaki Naruto's opinion, a noticeable improvement. The old ones had too much information crammed onto them in tiny print. A quick once-over was all that was really needed, since they were only worn inside the village. The ANBU guards at his complex knew him already, so they did little more than going through the motions. They'd be a lot happier to waste less time reading the info and help him get on his way to the city proper.

It was strange at first. Being constantly monitored, passing through the small entryway in the large steel parameter wall that surrounded the apartment complex, being segregated from the civilians into different quarters, all of these things were now routine for him. Well, not just him. In fact, it was standard for nearly every shinobi in the village that didn't possess a certain level of prestige; anyone who wasn't in a clan, wasn't the commander of a specific branch of Konoha's shinobi operations, wasn't retired and wasn't the Hokage; they all followed the same rules.

Yes, things certainly had changed in the last four years…

In the aftermath of Pain's attack on Konoha many were left dead and the government was thrown into chaos. When it became apparent that Tsunade would no longer recover, Shimura Danzo took control. Since then drastic changes had fallen upon the ranks of Konoha's shinobi. There was no 'Will of Fire' anymore. Gone were the days when they could mix and mingle with the citizens of the great walled city. Now they kept to themselves in separate quarters, in a different sector of the village, and under the highest levels of security.

His life was better now. After he had brought Sasuke back he had been named as one of the city's champions. Of course many were given the title: Hatake Kakashi, Sarutobi Konohamaru, Nara Shikamaru, Tsunade (posthumous)… any and all who had sacrificed or risked their lives to kill one of Pain's avatars or fought in the final battle with Uchiha Madara.

However, there was one person, who had been given more honor than the rest, save Naruto himself.

She was a strange one. Apparently she had saved his life, jumping in at the last moment to confront Pain. She was struck down and almost died, but she bought Naruto the precious seconds he needed to…to… well he didn't remember much until after that little meeting with his father. He hadn't been conscious whilst he was under the Fox's influence. All he remembered was extreme anger and a few fractured memories of what took place in the last five minutes preceding his transformation. Short term memory loss was one of the side effects of going above three 'tails' of power. Still, there had been numerous witnesses and she seemed brave enough. He recalled her doomed match against her cousin six years ago. Brave indeed.

Yeah, she was a strange one all right… that Hyuuga Hinata.

It was petty, but he hadn't even thanked her. He'd have to do that some day.

"You are troubled. How do I know this? You haven't touched your ramen."

Aburame Shino sat on a stool next to Uzumaki Naruto.

They had an understanding. They both housed something others didn't understand.

Naruto was contemplating the events and choices that had led him down the road bleak maturity. He was sitting at a ramen stand, staring at a full bowl of miso flavored ramen. It wasn't good like the stuff he used to eat at Ichiraku. Old man Teuchi had gone out of business after Pain's attack.

Sitting at the far end of the stand was the aforementioned heiress. She was sipping at tea and nibbling on an onigiri. She didn't say a word to anyone. She kept to herself these days. He supposed he ought to take the opportunity to thank her, but he found himself hesitating. It had been four years since that incident. He would only look like an ass if he tried now. He didn't see much of Hinata these days, except in passing or during the occasional check-in on his status on her list.

Inuzuka Kiba came bounding up to the stand with Akamaru. Naruto wrinkled his nose in distaste. Kiba reminded him too much of his old self. Moreover, he smelled like wet dog.

"Naruto-san, Hinata-san, Shino-san." He hailed. "This is a rare sight."

"Indeed." Replied Shino in his usual monotone.

Naruto got up from his stool and quickly paid the vendor. He had no intention of sticking around. He didn't have time for idle pleasantries today. Shino had been right, he was troubled. Today was the day his coveted isolation would end. He walked away from the stand and down the road without a word.

Yet again, he had broken a promise. He had failed to give Hinata the acknowledgement she deserved.

And yet, he couldn't help but feel a little jaded. His title had been the same as the rest of them. Didn't he deserve something more along the lines of 'Savior?' Hadn't he been the one to ultimately save the village? Hadn't he avenged his master and taken down the remaining incarnations of Pain? Hadn't he redeemed the irredeemable when Pain sacrificed himself for the lives of the villagers? They had all been brought back to life, save those whose bodies were utterly destroyed. Not even Pain's awesome power could bring those pour souls back from the dead.

Had the villagers and the shinobi really forgotten the words they had said when he returned, beaten, battered and bloodied from battle?

"We believe in you, Naruto!"

Everything had been so simple then. 'Hokage this' and 'Hokage that.' It was shortly thereafter that his eyes were brutally pried open until he could no longer deny what he saw. The gratitude of the village had been short-lived, shorter than Naruto deserved. He had deserved to be Hokage. He had earned it. The Council of Konoha hadn't even considered him. He was strong yes, but dangerous and impulsive. Raw power did not a Hokage make. He was more valuable to the village as a weapon. A tool to be used.

That had been the last straw for Uzumaki Naruto. His parents had died to save their village, and what thanks did they receive? Their son: feared and ridiculed. He should have been treated like a hero, and instead he was treated like scum. He had tried to overcome their hatred. He had become a shinobi, despite the scorn of his teachers at the academy. He had saved the village twice, and would later, save it a third time. After all he had done for them, the village had turned its back on him. His dream of becoming Hokage had been cruelly snuffed out by those he had fought to protect. He had trusted them. From that moment on, Naruto swore he would never put his faith in them again. His loyalty to Konoha was unchanged, but the way he viewed the shinobi world would never be the same.

Raw determination could not change the world. Time would pass, history would mark you down in the books, but ultimately no man could rule another's fate. That was the province of the kami.

When the afterglow of his heroism had faded, the village went back to viewing him as he once was… almost. They feared him, but he was human now. It wasn't the kind of respect he had once desired, but he had to admit, it was better than what it had been. No longer was he a demon that walked amongst them. Instead he was a weapon: a man capable of incredible destruction should he ever lose control. The power of the Kyuubi remained an S class secret. Only a few people had seen it break loose in the attack, and all of them had already been privy to the knowledge.

Naruto had thought that Hinata might have seen it too, but it was not so: she had been knocked-out before he had summoned that terrible power.

That terrible power had saved the village, but had proven he couldn't be trusted fully to safeguard the Kyuubi.

When he was denied the seat of the Hokage, a part of the boy inside him died.

He was a man now. Other things had happened as well, but that was the beginning.

A man had to accept the reality of his situation and Naruto had done just that. He recalled the events that had led him down that path.

The boy, the dreamer inside of him, hadn't known his peril. At first, directly following the destruction of Konoha, things had seemed to be going that boy's way.

A delegation from Kumogakure had arrived with the intention of requesting Konoha's aid in tracking down Uchiha Sasuke. They made their offer and returned to Kumo. Originally their orders had been to go after the Uchiha immediately, in reprisal of his attack on one of their shinobi, a certain 'Killer Bee.' However, Konoha was in no position to help. Every shinobi was needed to rebuild. After describing Konoha's weakened state to the Raikage, Kumo devised a cunning plan. They sent a large force of shinobi towards Konoha to finish what the Akatsuki had started.

They claimed to be coming to help Konoha rebuild. Low cunning, but cunning nonetheless. People would believe any lie if they were desperate enough.

Konoha was plenty desperate.

During this time Naruto stole away with Kakashi and Sakura, to make one last attempt to save Sasuke... or kill him. Instead, they ran into 'Bee,' who had gone into hiding after the attack on his person. Naruto quickly befriended Kumo's jinchuriki. They both had very outgoing personalities (to say the least), and when Bee figured out that Naruto was also a jinchuriki, he came forward with his own secret. The two formed a special bond. Bee decided to join them in their hunt for Sasuke, and on the way they ran into the force from Kumogakure.

Bee's authority superseded the Jonin in charge, and instead of attacking Konoha, the shinobi of Kumo turned back for their village. Bee was convinced that the two powers were destined to become allies, just as he and Naruto were destined to become friends. Naruto was struck by the idea, and went to speak with Gaara, the Kazekage, about an official alliance. Soon word spread, and Gaara was approached by the aging Tsuchikage, who wanted to be party to any negotiations. The Mizukage contacted the Raikage for similar reasons, and so it was that a summit of the five Kages of the great hidden villages was scheduled to convene in a week's time.

That presented a problem for Konohagakure. The Godaime still hadn't recovered, and they needed someone to step into the role of Hokage temporarily, for the sake of the summit. Danzo seized the opportunity and used his sway over the Council to become Hokage, at least until Tsunade regained her strength. The summit was somewhat successful, in part because Naruto was friends with the Kazekage and the Raikage's brother. Together with Danzo and the other Kages, he helped forge a temporary peace. Nobody wanted another shinobi war, so they agreed to a nonaggression pact.

It was to be kept for a single year.

Things might have gone better, but Danzo wasn't considered trustworthy by the other Kages. If it hadn't been for Naruto, there likely wouldn't have been any peace at all.

The year flew by, and Konoha continued to rebuild and put itself further into debt. Uchiha Sasuke and his group were still abroad and working for the last remnant of Akatsuki. Rumors of an even greater foe began circulating through the hidden villages, and the meeting at the end of the year of the pact would be a very crucial one. The time was fast approaching, and after nearly a year it was clear that Tsunade was only becoming weaker. The Council brought it to a vote, urged by Danzo, and it was decided they would let the Godaime rest. To keep her alive any longer would be cruel and unneccessary. The chance of her recovering had become infinitesimal. It was the humane thing to do. They pulled the plug. Konoha was without a Kage for the second time in three years.

That posed yet another problem. Even Danzo admitted that the other Kages wouldn't trust him. He put his lust for power before the needs of the village (so it appeared) and stepped down.

A new Hokage was needed.

Naruto had expected to be chosen. He had rehearsed what he would say to the people of Konoha over and over again. When he was called in front of the Council he was so bursting with joy and excitement, he thought he would die. In a way, dying would have been easier. The Council had called him for the explicit reason of explaining exactly why he couldn't be selected as the next Hokage. He was too dangerous and unpredictable.

It cut him to the quick. His dream had always been to become Hokage and protect the village. That way, everyone would have to acknowledge him.

And so the first blow to the boy and the dreamer was struck.

Hatake Kakashi was the first to be offered the position. The Hatake was already a legend in the shinobi world. He had experience and knew more jutsu than anyone alive. The only other shinobi in history that had surpassed his knowledge were the Sandaime Hokage and Orochimaru. One was dead and gone, the other... well nobody knew his whereabouts, and he was a traitor.

Kakashi turned them down. He claimed he wasn't the kind of man who should have that level of responsibility, and he was probably right. What kind of impression would he have made, offering peace in one hand, and holding an ero-novel in the other? Kakashi was content with his current role in the village, and nobody could persuade him otherwise.

The next person to be offered the seat had been Nara Shikaku. Shikaku was both brilliant and experienced. He wasn't on Kakashi's level as a shinobi, but he was still one of the strongest in Konoha. The Council believed his wisdom and intellect made him an ideal choice for Hokage. It was a good choice, but Shikaku also turned them down. He said that the duty of leading the village into a new era of peace should be given to one of the next generation. At first, the Council dismissed his advice. They felt the village needed experience to guide them. It was Danzo who jumped on the idea, and urged them to heed Shikaku's advice. After a little prodding, they agreed. They didn't know it at the time, but they had just ended an era.

The 'Will of Fire' was about to sputter and die.

It hadn't seemed that way at first, especially considering the next person they had selected was one of the Konoha Twelve.

Of all the people in the village, the last person Naruto had expected to become Hokage, was chosen.

As he wondered aimlessly down the roads of Konoha towards the Hokage Tower, he gazed up at the Hokage Monument. They had finally gotten that pineapple shaped hair just right.

Nara Shikamaru was lazy, and when he was offered the position, everyone who knew him, or even knew of him, thought he would turn it down. It would just be too troublesome.

Even to this day, three years later, nobody knew why he said 'yes.'

Shikamaru met with the other Kages a month after he was sworn in, and the Great Shinobi Alliance of the Five Great Hidden Villages was realized.

A permanent peace.

It was shortly after that event that Madara Uchiha had attacked Konoha. No one had suspected he was the secret leader of the Akatsuki. He came to finish what he'd started, and create a world without war, under the dominion of an Ultimate Tsukuyomi. Konoha had been caught completely off guard, and it seemed that there would be no escaping their destruction. Not this time.

Naruto and the Konoha Twelve, along with many of the best Jonin and ANBU of Konohagakure had stood against him, but they were quickly overwhelmed.

In the end, Naruto had drawn Madara away from the village, luring him away by exploiting his need for the power of the Kyuubi to complete his plan and enslave the world.

That was when Sasuke and his group showed up.

Sasuke had defeated Orochimaru and left Akatsuki. The confrontation with his brother had changed him. He was determined to destroy Konoha himself.

For the first time in nearly four years, Naruto and Sasuke fought side by side again, and together they managed to grasp victory from the jaws of defeat.

After the battle, drained and near death, Naruto and Sasuke had come to an understanding.

Itachi's actions had all been for the sake of his little brother. It had been his wish that Sasuke become strong enough to save Konohagakure from its enemies, namely, Madara. Sasuke had sought revenge, but in what he thought were his last moments of life, he declared his long journey for revenge was over. He had defeated the strongest shinobi in the history of the world. He didn't need to prove himself any longer. The Sandaime was dead. It was he who had ordered Sasuke's clan exterminated. There was no more need for vengeance or retribution, let alone revenge.

Sasuke would not die like Orochimaru or Madara, choking on a final breath full of hatred. He would die with honor, knowing that at the end, he had paid for his crimes.

Finally he would get his wish, what he had been searching for his whole adult life.


Sakura and Karin denied him his wish. Together they saved both Naruto and Sasuke from the brink of death.

Sasuke and his group returned as heroes of the village and were given amnesty.

Only Karin and Sasuke stayed. Jugo and Suigetsu went their separate ways, to find their own paths.

A great danger had passed, but Konoha had lost some of its finest. They had become the weakest hidden village.

Danzo used this hard fact to remain in power. He carefully played on the insecurities and fears of the Council. There was peace now, yes, but how long could it be expected to last? The Tsuchikage was old and failing. He would keep to his word and uphold his commitments to the Alliance, but how much longer could he last? Danzo's eyes-and-ears told him that the next Tsuchikage might not be so honorable, and the hatred between Iwagakure and Konohagakure ran deep. Could they really put all their faith in such a young and inexperienced Rokudaime to maintain the peace when war might loom just over the horizon? Shikamaru was one of the greatest minds in the village, but he had only been a newly-minted Jonin when he was elected Hokage. Did he command enough respect to do what was necessary? Konoha was ruined financially and weakened militarily. Could Shikamaru really be expected to restore them to their former prosperity and power on his own?

It didn't take long for the Council to give in to their fears. Who better to guide Shikamaru than one of the oldest and wisest, albeit ruthless, shinobi in the village? Shimura Danzo had been the head of ANBU's ROOT division. ROOT was supposed to have been disbanded. After Pain's attack, several nameless crisis had been averted by the actions of Danzo and his ROOT operatives. Shimura had come forward with proof of his actions, and though they were kept secret to all but the Inner Council, they were deemed necessary, and were credited with saving the village in their own right.

With great cunning Danzo had maneuvered himself into the ideal position as advisor to the Rokudaime. He was given full authority over all ANBU operations, as well as responsibility for Konoha's security and finances. Over time, the Council had come to regard him secretly as the true power in Konoha. His ideas had started to turn the fortunes of the village around.

Or at least they thought they were his ideas.

Danzo contacted the Daimyo of the Fire Nation, and secured loans for building new structures in Konoha and improving the fortifications. He changed the way the majority of Konoha's shinobi operated. In order to maximize the amount of missions the village could accept, to help them replenish their coffers, he altered the make-up of the teams that accepted the bulk of the village's missions. The standard trios and quartets were set aside by necessity, and the shinobi of the Leaf were adapted into mostly two-man teams. All Jonin, ANBU, and Chuunin were split into duos, and though the casualties on missions increased, the number of missions the village could complete in a month was almost doubled. The standard trios and quartets were reserved exclusively for Genin teams and ANBU operatives on security details.

After the damage Konohagakure had suffered, it was easy to convince the Council to increase security. Konoha's defense garrison was tripled, and most of the shinobi of Konoha were relocated into secure walled complexes. The complexes were guarded day and night by ANBU operatives, to help preserve their shinobi against any future attack. If the security was breached, killing the shinobi of Konoha would be hard to accomplish when they were gathered en mass. Each complex was a massive apartment building that housed shinobi of every rank, from Genin to Jonin and ANBU. To get in or out, every shinobi was required to pass a checkpoint and present their personal photo identification. The size of the ANBU's forces was doubled to protect Konoha's shinobi. In addition, being ANBU gave a shinobi a certain anonymity, and the village was able to accept more dangerous and higher paying missions. Solo work was encouraged when possible.

Of course, all this had to be consulted with the Rokudaime and be given his stamp of approval. Shikamaru could have easily resisted the changes if Danzo hadn't taken steps to prevent him from doing so. He convinced the Council that their new Hokage needed to get his experience from the ground up. Just as Genin started with D rank missions, the Hokage should start by running the every day comings-and-goings of the village. Shikamaru ended up so loaded down with paperwork that he didn't have time to attend most of the Council's meetings. Danzo threw end-run after end-run around the beleaguered Nara, and Shikamaru quickly learned to pick his battles. Due to the shadow-user's lack of involvement, Danzo truly became Konoha's ultimate ruler.

It was ironic that he ruled from the shadows, while the Hokage could actually command the shadow itself.

Danzo secretly knew, in his deepest and most devious of hearts, that Shikamaru had been the perfect choice to secure his power. As one of the greatest minds in Konoha, if not the greatest, he would have been a threat to Shimura, had he decided to move against him. As Rokudaime, the Nara was so overburdened with mundane responsibilities that he didn't have the time to stage any sort of real resistance. He was smart enough to know when he had lost, but also smart enough to continue to do what he could; which wasn't enough to take Danzo out of power. Shimura forced the Hokage into an odd sort of complacency. They seemed to have an unspoken agreement that they would work together for the good of the village, while they worked as a constant check to the others power. So far, Danzo had been winning the battle. He considered it a rout, but even so, he maintained his vigilance. This arrangement could go on until Shimura died if he played his cards right, or end suddenly and spectacularly if he let his guard down for even a moment. He had every advantage except for raw intellect, but he made up for it with experience, influence and cunning.

The day might come when one of them finally achieved complete sovereignty of Konohagakure, but until that day, they played their deadly game.

And deadly it turned.

After being attacked and nearly destroyed three times, Danzo convinced the Council they needed to know exactly how loyal the shinobi of Konoha really were. His logic was relatively simple: 'Trick me once, shame on you, trick me twice, shame on me... trick me three times...' It didn't take much more than that to launch a formal investigation into all shinobi of Chuunin rank or higher. All shinobi of Chuunin rank and up were privy to specific information about Konoha's defenses. In order to protect the village, they needed to know. Genin could simply be directed by their superiors, but the rest of them needed to know what their specific orders were in case of fire, disorder, or attack. Shikamaru had known what Danzo was up to: he wanted to root out all those who secretly opposed him. There weren't as many as some might expect, and those who didn't approve of his methods were discreet, but he was bound to discover some of them and make an example.

Shikamaru did everything in his power to stop it, but even the Rokudaime couldn't overrule a unanimous vote of the Inner Council.

The investigation was made public and official. An announcement was made that an investigation was being launched to root out any insurrection, and that those found guilty of treason would be exiled on pain of death or executed publically. Konoha was making a fresh start for a bright new future, and it couldn't do so without purging itself of any last vestige of dissension. An inspector-general was appointed to carry out the process, none other than Morino Ibiki.

The investigation went on for nearly half a year, and at its end nearly two dozen shinobi had been found guilty of treason and plotting insurrection. Most were inactive shinobi, or in the reserves, but three or four had been active at the time of the attacks. It was on these that the punishment and scrutiny fell heaviest. Danzo had managed to find irrefutable proof of what they had done. At this point nobody in the village dared question him. Even if some, or all of the evidence was obtained illegally, or even falsified, Danzo had become too powerful, and even the Rokudaime didn't have the influence to counter any of the allegations.

It may not have been a popular campaign, but it had been backed fully by the Council of Konoha. Even if people secretly blamed the Shimura, not a thing could be done to stop it.

There was one shinobi in particular that the shinobi of Konoha, and even many of the villagers had a hard time accepting as a traitor. He had been a Chuunin, and his crime had been plotting insurrection against Konohagakure, specifically Danzo, the Rokudaime and the Council. His plan had been to attempt a coup d'état and place a new Hokage in power, a Shichidaime. The evidence had been conclusive, though many secretly believed it was a set-up. After the trial, he was executed publically the next day.

Despite what had happened, the blonde ANBU still thought of his old sensei fondly.

His name was Umino Iruka.

Naruto had thought he knew how the world worked. You did your best and got what you got. Even after he had been cruelly disillusioned, Iruka's death went against everything in which Naruto had ever believed. If a good person tried do good, then the result was usually good. Not always, but when among other people who were good and were your comrades, then yes, always.

Naruto had come to accept the reasons he couldn't be Hokage. Even if he might have been a great Hokage, a Hokage couldn't rule using fear. In spite of his best intentions, a good part of the village would have feared him. For the village, he would make any sacrifice, even if it meant the end of his dream.

So he had given up on becoming Hokage.

In his heart of hearts he knew Iruka had not.

His sensei had died because he believed in Naruto. He had been the first person to ever stick up for the village troublemaker. When Naruto had learned that he was the jailor of the Kyuubi, Iruka alone had saved him from the darkness. Were it not for him, Naruto may very well have turned into the demon the villagers feared he was. Iruka had shielded Naruto physically and emotionally from the harm Mizuki had tried to do to him. Then he had given him the first step towards his dream: his hitai-ate. Iruka had always watched out for him, taking him out for ramen, tolerating his pranks at the academy and frequently getting him out of trouble. He had even been there for him at the Chuunin Exams, even if it was by chance. Iruka had never given up on him to the very end.

An end that meant his death.

Naruto was a man now. He had to accept the consequences of his actions.

Iruka had died because of him.

Most of what was left of the boy and the dreamer died.

He spoke about his feelings to his closest friends. They all told him that Iruka had chosen his own path, and even if they believed Naruto's take on why he had supposedly betrayed the village, they absolved Naruto of any guilt, unconditionally. That had only been proof for Naruto. No one was willing to accept the cold hard truth. Iruka had died for him, and he would never forget the lesson his sensei's fate had taught him.

The only one who remotely agreed with him was Kakashi. The Sharingan-wielder professed that Naruto may have been indirectly responsible. He continued to say that he had personally been directly and indirectly responsible for the death of his closest friends and others. He shared the tale of how he had abandoned Obito and killed his first love, Rin. Obito had been possessed and taken over by Madara, and nearly unleashed the greatest evil ever conceived by the mind of man on the world. Kakashi could live with those things, because ultimately all adults had to make their own choices.

It was Naruto's opinion that these cases were different from his and Iruka's. Iruka had died in support of Naruto's dream, not because of outside circumstances.

So Naruto made his own choice.

The world was unfair and cruel. Anyone who thought otherwise was a fool. You did your best and died by the will of the kami. He had always spoke out against the existence of fate, even going so far as to beat Neji down because of his twisted philosophy. Now Naruto was beginning to believe that things happened for a reason. Iruka had to have died for a reason, or the world was completely meaningless. No matter how hurt he was by he sensei's death, Naruto had to believe there was meaning in it. There had to be a reason.

There had been another reason he had beat down Neji.

He had nearly killed a friend and comrade. If Naruto clung to anything, it was his loyalty to his comrades and Konoha. Even after not becoming Hokage. Even after what had happened to Iruka. If he had one dream left it was that his friends would always be there for him, and so far, they had. Iruka had died for that very reason, so it had to be true. Naruto would never abandon his comrades, his friends.

Seeking solace, he had turned to Sakura. He had not expected her to love him up; she had gotten together with Sasuke. Still, she was a healer. Danzo had ordered the construction of a new hospital and Sakura had become its head doctor. If anyone could have found a way to heal his wounds, it would have been her.

Sakura had recommended that Naruto make a life for himself outside of being a shinobi. She had insisted that the real meaning of life was in the relationships a person had with their friends... and their loves. Naruto did believe in love. Not the kind of love Jiraiya had always gone on about, but real love. He had not believed he could find it, but he had believed in it. After a lot of mental cudgeling he finally agreed to try dating. It had been almost impossible. He was bad at that sort of thing in the first place, and anyone who was interested in him was after his fortune or fame. He was the son of the Yondaime, one of the last two Uzumaki and had come into the wealth of his parent's estate. It had been hard work, but Naruto still had faith that he could achieve anything reasonable he had set his mind to to achieve.

His options had been both limited and limitless. Anyone of age in the village had been potential game, but he had not dared to get involved with anyone he knew. He couldn't risk losing one of his friends, he valued them too much. So he had decided to seek love among the ranks of the civilians. It would have been better to have had a nice village girl anyway. It would have made things simpler.

After some months he had finally managed to find a woman he had thought might care for him. He had not had particularly strong feelings for her, but she seemed to have had them for him. They had carried on for some months, though they had kept their relationship secret and it had been relatively chaste. The last thing they had wanted was other's interfering and potentially harming their relationship.

She had known about his fortune and fame, but not about his demon. Finally the time came when Naruto began to develop feelings for her. Before things went any further, he had known he had to tell her about the Kyuubi. Revealing it later would have only harmed the relationship even more. He was allowed to tell other adults of the village, and if she had truly cared for him and handled it like an adult, Naruto believed they could've worked it out and developed a deeper and lasting relationship.

Her reaction had been so extreme, so awful, that Naruto had vowed never to speak her name, or think of her again.

The lesson he kept: the demon inside of him was more than anyone could accept. The Kyuubi was a part of him, and in a way, to love him was to love the Kyuubi. The Fox didn't speak to him anymore, their minds had merged, or the Kyuubi had simply ceased to exist as conscious being after sitting so long in its prison. Perhaps it was still there, and just didn't want to talk to him anymore. Maybe it was as tired of the world as he was. In any case, no one could love him.

Nobody could love him without loving the demon inside of him.

He still had every man's natural lust for the fair sex, but he supressed it as much as he could. He would never be hurt that way again. Even so, he couldn't stop himself from occasionally dreaming about some nameless woman confessing her love for him. She would declare she loved him, even with his demon, and then make passionate love to him.

He hated those dreams.

With no hope of leading his people, no guarantee of his actions bettering the world, and no chance of anyone ever loving him intimately, Naruto sought out the only reasons he had left to go on. He was a shinobi of Konoha, and he had friends and comrades who cared for, valued and trusted him.

It would have to be enough.

The last part of the boy and the dreamer died with a whimper.

The world couldn't hurt him anymore. He was a shinobi of Konoha.

And he was ANBU.

Naruto signed up for the ANBU less than a week after the boy inside him died. He would fight for his village until the world turned on him. Until that day, that was all he could do.

Under the partner system, rookie ANBU were put under the tutelage of an older and more experienced operative.

Uchiha Sasuke had joined the ANBU almost as soon as he returned to Konoha and was fit for duty; his crimes expunged. Hatake Kakashi had returned to the ANBU as well, his service had been desperately needed, and he didn't have it in him to coach another Genin team or teach at the Academy. He didn't want the additional strings attached to being a Jonin, so he returned to the black ops. Upon his return, Sasuke had been given to him as a rookie. No matter the skill set, a rule was a rule, so the Uchiha learned under the wing of the legendary Copy-Cat for a year and a day.

The timing had been perfect, and acting like his old self, Naruto had begged Kakashi to take him on. He had, though he spent a lot of his time drinking. Apparently Kakashi was having more trouble dealing with his demons than he had previously let on. Naruto learned a lot under Kakashi. To the Sharingan-wielder, nothing was more important than the lesson he had taken to heart all those years ago. A lesson he had learned the hard way.

"In the ninja world, those who break the rules are trash... that's true, but those who abandon their comrades are worse than trash."

Naruto took it to heart as well. He remembered the words from his first full day as a Genin, and the bell test, but now the words held meaning they hadn't before.

Now he had experienced the hardships that made the message hit home.

He would never forget.

Some vestiges of Naruto's old spirit remained. He was still rambunctious and loved ramen, and he had become rather flippant and prone to swearing: a natural evolution of his boisterous self. He enjoyed drinking as well, but not overly much. To the world he remained the same old Naruto, but his friends knew him better. He had changed, and unless by some miracle the world and the kami deigned otherwise, he would remain changed.

The boy was gone. Only the man remained. Dreams were for boys, and one day all boys grew up and became men.

Still, all boys had the right to dream.

Naruto had forgotten: all men were once boys.

And yet, there were some things even a man had difficulty living with. Kakashi was living proof of that.

Naruto could never forgive Danzo for doing what he did. He didn't know if Iruka had acted on his plot of sedition or not, but he was sure his sensei hadn't done anything worthy of an execution. Of course, being a part of the ANBU gave him access to information most shinobi of Konoha could only dream of.

Soon he would have his answers.

He wasn't stupid, as some believed him to be. When he was young he had been hot-headed and immature. The loss of friends and those he considered his family had sobered him greatly. If anything, he took after Kakashi now. Not in the perverted sense; he enjoyed his solitude. He had no desire for company other than the occasional drinks he shared with some of the old Konaha Twelve.

A subtle sadness permeated his being. He could never go back to the way he was: that ignorant, happy, willful boy. In a certain way he was glad, joyful even. He would never be deceived again.

There were still some things worthy of some sort of happiness.

"Naruto-dobe." The Last Uchiha nodded curtly. "You ready for a rematch?"

"Not today, Sasuke-teme. I have business with the Rokudaime."

"Hn." The Uchiha continued down the street, as arrogant and proud as ever.

A tiny smile tugged at the Uzumaki's lips. Some things never changed.

Sasuke was, ironically, his closest friend.

After all the Uchiha had put him through, Naruto couldn't bring himself to hate him. It had been Sasuke who turned the tide against Madara in the final battle. The Uchiha had seen the light, or so he said. It had been over three years since that day. So far, Sasuke seemed to be keeping his word.

Who was he, Naruto, the jailor of a demon, to question someone seeking redemption?

Since then the two had fallen back into their old routine almost like clockwork. The constant rivalry and banter between the two was infamous among the shinobi of Konaha, second only to the massive tirades between Sasuke and Sakura.

The pink haired banshee had finally gotten her wish and was paying for it dearly. Sasuke wasn't the greatest husband to ever live. In fact, Naruto was pretty sure he had agreed to Sakura's proposal just to shut her up. Fortunately for Sasuke, their jobs didn't allow them much time to see each other. He was in ANBU and she worked as the head of the medical staff at the hosptial with Shizune as her aid. Karin had started working there too, but as a civilian.


Naruto really felt sorry for her. With the death of her master a lot of Shizune's spark had been taken away. After she'd lost Iruka (the two had been in a serious relationship) the apprentice medic-nin became a shell of a woman. Sakura had managed to convince her to go and work in the hospital again. It had probably saved her life.

Naruto tried not to linger on the troubles of others. Negative emotions could interfere with missions. In his line of work, losing focus for even a second often meant the difference between life and death. No matter how powerful one became, no matter how many unbeatable techniques one possessed, a single kunai could bring death in a moment of negligence. Kakashi had once explained to him that the reason he was still alive was that he never disregarded his own mortality.

There were other dangers too. The Sharingan-wielder was well aware of the thin line all ANBU walked between the world of shadows and the world of the living. If one strayed too far into the darkness there was no coming back. Recently he had been stressing this to his former pupil, but Naruto ignored his sensei's misplaced paranoia. How could he, the jailor of the Kyuubi no Yoko, succumb to darkness? He had conquered the demonic Kitsune contained within his soul. Depression wasn't about to beat him where a god-fox couldn't.

Still, he had to admit that something felt off, as of late. He was a standard asocial, not that there was much of a social life to be had as a shinobi anymore. Yet even for a shinobi, even considering who he was, from an outsider's perspective he was behaving strangely. Perhaps it was his prolonged isolation, or perhaps it was the oddest feeling he had that something was coming… something big…

It was probably nothing. Best to forget it over a drink with the Hatake.

Outside of his old team Naruto didn't see anyone very regularly, save maybe Shikamaru and Hinata. The former was, of course, the puppet Hokage of Konaha, so it was on a fairly regular basis that he saw the shadow-user. Shikamaru was an excellent Hokage, or at least as excellent as one could be considering his position was more of a formality now. Genius that he was, the Nara was slowly getting more and more sway over the village and the Council. Naruto hoped that one day he would restore the post to its former glory. If anyone could do it, it was Shikamaru.

Hinata was a different story entirely, and an odd one at that. It had all started the day Naruto had heard that the young heiress had begun to accept suitors, or rather, challenge them. By Hyuuga law, she had the privilege to challenge any suitor who approached her to a duel. Should she win, she was given the choice to decline them, or judge them worthy of her.

Being a suitor didn't guarantee marriage. In fact, there had been a long line of suitors until Hinata had begun to whittle it down. The only one that Naruto knew personally was Kiba. The poor Inuzuka had been sent back with his 'tail between his legs' so to speak. He had probably only been allowed on the list to humor the patriarch of the Hyuuga.

But there are some foes a man, or in this case a woman, cannot fell.

Naruto walked past the Hyuuga clan complex. That man had caused him a lot of trouble.

Namely, Hyuuga Hiashi.

One day, a few months before her seventeenth birthday, Hinata lost a match to a suitor from Kumogakure. Kumo was infamous for its lust of Konohagakure kekke genkai, and a legitimate marriage to Hyuuga Hinata, the equivilant of a princess in Konoha, would have solidified the tenuous bonds between the countries. Hinata had, in truth, been forced to lose the match by her father, who she still had difficulty dealing with. After she had proven herself as a capable Jonin he had let her reclaim her position as heiress (his denouncement of her is yet another story), but he still ruled his clan with an iron fist.

Hyuuga Hiashi had never been a lenient man.

So Hinata had asked Naruto to beat the man from Kumogakure. It was a simple loophole, really. In theory, all he had to do was become one of Hinata's suitors, beat her in a match, and then challenge the man from Kumo to a duel. Assuming he won both duels, he would automatically kick the foreign shinobi off the list (as he would be less worthy than Naruto and thusly below consideration) and afterwards he could formally withdraw his name from her list. In reality, the hardest part had been convincing Hiashi to allow him to be added to the list. It was only Hinata's stubborn insistence that as the son of the Yondaime and the sole heir of the Namikaze name, Naruto could not in honor be refused, and the stipulation that he had to face her in a duel and beat her in under ten mintues, that the Hyuuga lord finally conceded.

It had been a good match, but Hinata hadn't really given it her all. In the end Naruto had been the victor, as planned, but he was always left wondering at what the outcome of a real fight would have been. Hinata had become much stronger than he ever thought possible, especially considering who she had been just a year or so earlier. Could she have lasted more than ten minutes if she really tried? If she continued to grow stronger at that rate, she might become one of the strongest kunoichi in Konoha; in the world.

He would have to find out one day. The only person who had ever been able to challenge him like Hinata had had been Sasuke (though he was admittedly much, much stronger), and the Uchiha rarely held back. Perhaps Hinata had achieved more than he really knew. Of course she could never beat him; no one could, not even Sasuke, (that fight always ended in a draw.) Still, he was curious to see her true potential. Had she inherited the Hyuuga bloodline stronger than Neji? Naruto had heard a vague rumor that she had beaten Neji recently in a sparring match. Could it be true?

He decided he didn't care one way or another. It was what it was.

What he did care about though, was the odd request she had approached him with shortly after he had defeated the man from Kumo.

After he had defeated the man from Kumo (who turned out to be pretty strong himself, though no where near as good as Hinata) the Hyuuga heiress had requested that Naruto keep himself on the list. The proposition had been presented under the premise that if Hinata was forced into losing again, Naruto would defeat whoever it was that came to claim her hand; assuming she didn't want to marry whoever the guy was. He couldn't just be taken off the list and put back on again. It was against Hyuuga law. Naruto was beginning to wonder if she would ever pick a guy. It had been almost three years since she had started accepting suitors, for kami's sake.

Hinata must have had very high standards.

So far, none of her suitors had stayed on the list except Naruto himself, and that was for practical reasons... at least she claimed them to be. Hinata was almost nineteen, and in just over a year she would have to take a husband. Other than Hanabi, she was the last of the Hyuuga's female nobility and there were no more male Hyuuga nobility left. She was under a lot of pressure. That indirectly put Naruto under a lot of pressure. Hiashi would kill him before he married his daughter off to the jinchuriki of the Kyuubi no Yoko.

He was absolutely certain of that.

So it was with more than a little trepidation he acquiesced to her request, though he had yet to be called on again to defeat another would-be suitor. Her father hadn't tried to pull the same move twice, and Hinata had become pretty strong, unless he was mistaken about her progress. Still, Hiashi had to have something up his sleeve. He wouldn't let his daughter marry a jinchuriki.

From time to time Naruto would check in with her to see how things were progressing, secretly hoping that she would just pick someone and get it other with. So far, no one had sparked her interest. He was actually beginning to get nervous... really nervous. Hinata had begun accepting suitors sometime shortly after her sixteenth birthday, the legal age according to Hyuuga law. He hoped she would pick someone soon. He couldn't exactly withdraw his name from the list without it being a huge insult to the Hyuuga clan. That was the absolute last resort.

Being the Kyuubi container was becoming more and more dangerous as the time for her to marry approached.

Naruto had inherited his father's estate shortly before the battle with Madara, when he was deemed responsible enough to handle all of the old Namikaze family wealth, at the age of sixteen. Naruto had decided to keep his last name as Uzumaki, in honor of his late mother, Kushina. The name Hinata Uzumaki did have a certain ring to it... but that wasn't a thousandth part of what would be needed for Naruto to face down Hiashi, even if he was ten times stronger than the man. Hiashi was just down-right scary. Still, Naruto did have a great deal of prestige. It was probably the only reason he hadn't been forcibly removed from the list yet.

He wasn't just another shinobi of the Leaf, he was Uzumaki Naruto. U-zu-ma-ki!

That didn't fool anyone.

Being the son of the Fourth had done more for his reputation than anything else. For those who knew Naruto, it made little difference. He was the same kid they grew up with those many years ago. Well, not the same kid, but near enough as makes no difference. He wouldn't have had it any other way. Formalities among friends were just way too weird for him.

Being more mature, he wasn't as apt to be an obnoxious show-off anymore. Besides, showing-off might hurt his reputation as one of Konaha's strongest: Naruto, Sasuke, Gai and Kakashi.

"Oi." Speaking of which... "Meet me at Genma's later tonight?"

A familiar masked face peered with great interest at a small orange novel.

"Sorry, Kakashi-sensei. I may be there, but for another reason."

His old teacher didn't even look up from his reading.

"Suit yourself then." He said in his standard bored monotone.

"What about your wife?"

"I'm out on a mission tonight."

"Right." Naruto continued on his way to the Hokage Tower, still lost in thought.

Hatake Kakashi was, once again, doing what he did best: dancing with death.

The Copy-Nin had somehow managed to survive the horrendous over-usage of chakra he had put himself through during the assault on Konoha. Either that or Nagato-Pain had brought him back the one time he had died. Naruto hadn't brought that up in any of their many bar room conversations. Some things you just didn't ask.

Naruto had begun to think that if Kakashi specialized in anything (other than being a pervert) it was that he just didn't die. Ever.

He had honestly never known a shinobi who had had so many brushes with death and survived every time.

Gai seemed impervious as well, though he didn't accept S rank after S rank like the legendary Sharingan-wielder. Instead, he was the head coordinator of the intensive taijutsu ANBU training program, a sort of boot camp that all new recruits were force-fed through. The equivilant ninjutsu and genjutsu training programs were headed up by none other than Yamato and Yuhi Kurenai, respectively. None of the three were active ANBU operatives except for Yamato. In any case, they spent most of their time teaching the new recruits. Yamato was Kakashi's ANBU partner, but the Hatake prefered solo work, so the arrangement was suitable to both of them. They did go on the occasional mission together, but no more than that. Training recruits was more important. Assuming they made it all the way through, a recruit partnered with a more senior black ops. member. A veteran, who would show them the ropes of what did and didn't get you killed in the field.

Operating as a two-man team was much different than working in a traditional trio or quartet.

Which was exactly why Naruto was sitting outside the Rokudaime's office in the Hokage Tower.

It was his turn, or so they told him, to take on a rookie. He wasn't very pleased with the idea. Not in the slightest.

He was a solo man, bred and born, taken to doing things in his own style. He was a veritable one-man army, and could carry out the jobs of multiple shinobi with his shadow clones. The completion of his fusion with the Kyuubi had granted him better chakra control than he had ever had, and so his limitless stamina had become even more absurd. Add in being the first and only shinobi to master the usage of nature chakra while in combat by himself (with the use of some handy kage bushin), and he was virtually unstoppable.

Of course his genjutsu was pretty weak (he barely passed ANBU basic), and he was limited to the wind element give or take a few C ranked jutsu in the other elements with one or two B ranks in fire (his second elemental attunement he had discovered; likely a side effect of hosting a nine tailed demon inside him and merging with it), but that didn't mean his taijutsu and ninjutsu didn't more than make up for it.

There were some things though, he could never make up for, not completely.

The Namikaze estate loomed up out of the shadows. He was nearly at the Tower. He still had just over an hour before his meeting, but Naruto didn't want to be late and risk an even greater punishment from the Rokudaime. It was going to be bad enough as it was. Maybe if he had lived up to his father's reputation, things might have been different.

He had never been able to master his father's jutsu. The technique that had given Minato the nickname 'Konaha's Yellow Flash' had truly been his and his alone. It was also true that what Naruto lacked in godly speed techniques he made up for in raw power (almost.) Nothing could match the might of his Futon Rasenshuriken as far as he knew. With the addition of nature chakra he had been able to reinforce his arm in a way that prevented the horrible damage it did on the cellular level. Instead, it left the arm bloodied and battered: nothing that a halfway decent medical shinobi couldn't fix. Then again he could always toss it… if it worked on Pain it would work on pretty much everything else.

Of course, even he could run out of chakra and succumb to his wounds... eventually.

That was his one weakness, he supposed. Although the power of the Kyuubi he wielded healed him at a faster than normal rate he wasn't invincible. A medical shinobi would be a real asset to him… especially one fluent in genjutsu. More than that, the one thing Naruto lacked was stealth. Oh, he could move quickly and quietly, but no better than most ANBU. He could transform, and he had a few other tricks to deceive the enemy, but by then, it was usually too late. He had been very, very lucky so far not to have spoiled his one-hundred-percent success rate as an ANBU operative. What he really needed was someone with advanced scouting techniques, so that he wouldn't have to rely on quick thinking and brute force to save a botched situation.

He spent the next hour in the Hokage's waiting room contemplating his fate. It was unavoidable. He was required to take on a rookie. Hopefully, it would be someone useful, someone whose personality was not altogether intolerable.

Somehow he didn't think he would be so lucky.

And so it was with more than a little hesitation that he finally turned the handle on the door to the Rokudaime Hokage's office and stepped inside.

"Took you long enough. If you'd waited out there any longer I was going to drag your ass in here with kage-mane no jutsu." Shikamaru drawled from behind some logistics scattered on his desk. He took a slow drag on the cigarette pursed between his lips. "You're wearing that stupid expression you get whenever something pisses you off." He observed. "What the hell are you worried about anyway?"

Naruto had been sitting outside Shikamaru's office for the last hour worrying. He really hoped he didn't get saddled with some idiot. Or worse, some girl.

He really didn't need that.

Shikamaru put aside the reports he had been looking at. Some sort of odd trouble was brewing in the farthest reaches of the north, at the utmost tip of the Land of Spring, formerly the Land of Snow. Vague accounts of a strange ship had come back from his eyes-and-ears in the country. It didn't seem very worthy of note, but Shikamaru took his duties as Rokudaime very seriously.

Despite what others might think. He wasn't that lazy. Okay, he probably was, but paperwork was just so troublesome. Curse that Danzo.


"Don't 'hn' me. That's the Uchiha's brand of bullshit."

"I aint worried about shit, you lazy bastard. Don't think that just because you're all high and mighty now that you can boss me around." Naruto's frown broke into an easy grin. "Then again, it was me who was always ranting about becoming Hokage back in the day wasn't it? Funny how things turn out in the way you would least expect them."

Shikamaru nodded his agreement. "Yeah, yeah, whatever."

"So what's the damage?" The blonde ANBU queried.

"You mean the new partner assignment?"

"You know damn-well what I mean." He growled.

"You know those bastards down at HQ really had it in for you. You have no idea how many strings I had to pull to get you a halfway decent partner. I'm not sure if you'll be pleased with me, or just downright pissed." Naruto cocked an eyebrow at the statement. "But I can assure you that you won't be disappointed."

"Oh really?" He replied suspiciously. "Why's that? This new recruit wouldn't happen to be skilled in genjutsu and medical now would he? Does he have advanced scouting abilities?"

"You're kidding yourself if you think I was going to let you off that easy… only mid-level medical jutsu. No genjutsu to speak of. A heavy emphasis on taijutsu with a few high rank water jutsu here and there." Shikamaru listed off the numerous things written on the shinobi's profile. "More speed than power and great tracking and scouting skills… I assure you your partner is everything you will need in the field. Maybe she'll even get you to lighten up a bit, you tight bastard. You're almost worse than Sasuke-san these days."

Naruto snorted at the thought. "Me, more stuck up than that Teme? Come on Shika-sama, don't give me that crap! Wait: did you say 'she?!' Hell, Shikamaru-sama! You did not just stick with some stupid girl!"

Naruto only added the 'sama' honorific to Shikamaru's name when he was pissed, really pissed. Of course, he was usually pissed at Shikamaru in general. In that case, it was just 'Shika-san.'

"That's Rokudaime Hokage-sama to you, and she's hardly stupid. If anything, this one will keep you on your toes." The Hokage made an overly dramatic act of shaking his finger at the rebellious blonde. "Maybe she'll even beat some manners into you too. You've always lacked the finer side of the equation when it comes to dealing with the clientele. Maybe she'll even convince you to shower more than once a month. Oh, and I wouldn't go calling her a girl. You'd probably piss her off."

"What do I care if I piss her off?"

"Well the least you can do is try not to smell like piss." The Nara muttered. "Mendokusai."

"Don't be disgusting Shikamaru-san," Naruto bantered, ignoring the shadow-user's mocking demand for formality, "I shower at least once every three days."

Troublesome indeed.



"You know I really didn't need that particular piece of information, especially from you Naruto-san." Shikamaru complained half-heartedly, shuffling the papers cluttering his desk. "Here."

He snuffed out his cigarette in his gold-plated ashtray, a real extravagance in Naruto's opinion. Casually he reached into a drawer beside him and pulled out a small jug of sake and two glasses. Shikamaru poured them each a healthy shot. It was hard rice liquor.

"Here's to your new partner."

"Here's to hoping she dies off so I can do solo work again." Naruto remarked sarcastically.

He would never wish for the death of a comrade, but still... he wasn't looking forward to this.

Both took their shot one gulp. This done, the Hokage put the glasses discreetly back into the hidden compartment in his desk (installed by the Godaime for obvious reasons) and handed Naruto the file with the name of his newest partner assignment on it. The burn in his throat was still fresh as he read the name printed on the info-folder that had just sealed his fate.

"No way…" His eyes widened.

It was just a little weird. Even for him. That it would be her of all people… was this what he had been sensing over the last few days?

'Somethings coming… something big.' The words floated through his mind.


"Send her in." Shikamaru raised his voice loud enough for the ANBU guards outside to hear.

The door to the Rokudaime's office creaked open. A beautiful woman, sporting magnificent blue-black hair that went just below her shoulder blades and the most bewitching pale lavender eyes, entered. She was shorter than Naruto by a few inches; maybe she was 5'8. Tallish for one of her sex, but then again, Naruto was pretty tall himself, so he didn't mind. What he did mind was how distracted she was going to make him wearing the ANBU gear that clung just a little too tightly to her superb curves. Curves that would make almost any woman in the village jealous. Hell, people came from halfway across the shinobi world just to get their asses handed to them by her.

"Hello, Naruto-kun. Or should I say, 'Dark Fox?'"

Curse Kakashi. He hated that stupid codename. It was the most obvious codename in the history of codenames. Curse the tradition that had started up when the duo system was introduced, giving the senior partner the authority to choose the new ANBU operative's codename. They should have kept the old system and let the head of the ANBU pick the codename. Even Danzo would have given Naruto something more... codenamey. It was like painting a big target on his chest that said: 'Here I am, Konoha's jinchuriki of the Kyuubi no Yoko! Please, kill me now!'

It was almost as bad as the old orange jumpsuit he used to wear. It was amazing that 'kill-me-orange' color hadn't gotten him butchered. Curse Bobo the clown shinobi and his inspiring jumpsuit!

He would have his revenge. He would give her the worst codename ever! That would show her! That would show that stupid girl!

But this was no girl.

No, the person standing in front of him was most definitely a woman. Perhaps the most beautiful woman in all of Konohagakure.

It was either the beginning of his worst nightmare, or the best wet dream he'd had in years.

In the deepest recesses of his heart, there was a glimmer. Maybe those dreams about that nameless woman had meant something... but no, that was impossible.

He put on his trademark grin. Maximum cheese.


A/N: Overhaul complete. Keep in mind some of the things I left out. Specifically, why Shikamaru accepted the position of Rokudaime. It will be a major part of the story later on.