Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto. If I were Kishimoto, I would troll the entire audience in the last chapter by having him reveal it all to be a dream that Naruto was having the night before graduation. It would explain just how goddamn ridiculous the stuff in the plot progressively became.

15 years of manga chapters, only for it to be a dream of no consequence to anything in reality. I would high-five that man from across the ocean if he did that. It would be the greatest thing ever.

Chapter 66: In the Crossfire


Ino's relationship with Naruto left her with both good and bad habits that she'd picked up from spending extended amounts of time with him. It was natural progression. She was in love with him and admired certain things about him, and while there were more than a few things of his that she could do without, a few things wound up slipping into her own approach to daily life.

The bad was that she had somewhat developed Naruto's distaste for doing nothing. It was the weekend, so she was off from her normal day job, but felt a bit stir crazy at being left behind while her normal team was off attempting to thwart Akatsuki. Sakura was busy, she and Hinata would invariably wind up at one another's throats for one reason or another (Naruto), and Kurenai and Asuma were too entrenched in their own couple-thing to bother on a day like today.

It wasn't just her. It was one of those times of the year. There always seemed to be a lull in the weeks where the chunin exams were going on.

Sure, it was exciting for the genin who got the chance to take part. But for everyone else in the ninja forces, things seemed to be in a lull in the month or so it took to get through the entire process. This time around it was taking place in Iwagakure, and the teams had set out just the other day. It would still be another few days before they arrived.

"Fall sucks," Ino said to herself as she kept herself busy tending to her clan's flower shop. Yes, she complained about working there every now and again, but that was when she had other things she could have been doing. This was literally all she had to do on that particular day. She'd already trained earlier, and she could get another session in after she'd gotten off of her shift, "I miss summer already."

Her boredom seemed as if it would be sated for a few precious moments when she heard the entry bell of the shop door opening.

"Welcome," She said before taking note of the characters that had just entered. These weren't civilians. Absolutely not.

One was a young man around her age with shoulder-length blue hair and brown eyes. He wore a white outfit with a black dressing that passed for a monk's garb, only the amount of disdain for seemingly everything around him on his face gave the idea of him being one some doubt. Underneath one of his large sleeves, Ino could make out many bulky metal braces around his bandaged arm.

The other was less suspicious, but only slightly. She had long dark hair, done up in an ornate ponytail while her eyes sat closed in a serene expression of happiness. Her clothing was extremely high-class, as the decorated red and silver kimono she wore looked like it would have definitely fetched a pretty penny, and she kept up with herself better than even a few nobles that Ino had seen. Her nails on both her hands and feet were immaculately done and painted an enchanting red, and on her back she kept an oddly out of place shamisen strapped.

She actually looked extremely familiar.

"Oh my. Sora-chan, I think this is where we wanted to go."

Fuck. As Ino could feel the woman's eyes on her, she deduced that she was definitely familiar.

Displeased at not having the sort of seniority that would have allowed him to go with Sadao, or at least go off on his own away from his crazed teammate, Sora could only voice it in a heated mutter, "You mean, where you wanted to go."

"I think that would make you the girl then," Kotoko said, walking a circle around Ino, sizing her up with a smile that covered her entire face, "Hmm, same age… fits the description we were always given of you. Yes, I can ascertain without a doubt that you are Naruto-kun's crush," Her eyes opened a hair before she flushed in embarrassment and laughed it off, "Oops. I probably wasn't supposed to say that."

Sora palmed his face in return. Obviously, she was fully aware of how to keep a secret, she was a ninja for the damned daimyo. Kotoko simply had quirks, and one of them was to intentionally create awkward situations under the guise of ignorance. In this instance she had clearly failed, since the would-be revelation meant absolutely nothing to the blonde girl, "I'm pretty sure she already knows he likes her."

Okay, obviously from the sashes they were Guardians. Ino could cleraly remember meeting one or two of those Guardian people before, and this curious woman had most certainly been one of them. Other than the clothes, she didn't even look any different from back then, to be honest.

"Err, we've met already," Ino said to Kotoko, prompting her to stop the circling. Thank goodness, because she'd begun to feel like she had a shark swimming around her. Ugh, it was kind of alarming that this was going to be perhaps the closest equivalent she was ever going to get to meeting her boyfriend's family.

…Extended family of course.

"Oh, I'm so sorry. How embarrassing. I'm terrible with names and faces," Kotoko said with an embarrassed blush, right before some facet of her smile took on a predator-like nature, "I usually only have to see or hear them once, you see."

There wasn't much Ino could think of to carry on a conversation traveling that track, so she simply decided to bring it to its blunt conclusion, "I'm not sure why, but you scare me."

"Ara, why thank you!"

That hadn't been a compliment, and that feeling of instinctive fear didn't pass Ino by when Kotoko reached out and cupped her cheeks in her hands, seemingly appraising her further. What was she, a dog in a show?

"Please let go," Ino beseeched her, becoming a bit more forceful as she let a senbon show, poking out from her mouth, poised to spit it right in Kotoko's face, with no time to dodge. Suffice it to say, Ino was not comfortable with this at all, "I think I'll get in trouble if I poison a customer."

Kotoko looked at her up close, long and hard, even opening her eyes a smidge to ensure the best view possible. Eventually, she did let Ino go with an airy laugh, "Aha, I like her. And here I was afraid that you would be some hussy that didn't deserve our Naruto-kun."

Ino felt both comforted that Naruto's senior teammate seemed to like her, and insulted that she thought she would have been a hussy beforehand. Sora and Kotoko watched in silent amusement as Ino's face shifted between expressions of relief and dissatisfaction in real-time.

Even Sora had to admit that yes, she seemed to be apropos for a relationship with Naruto.

XxX

(Sora-ku – With Naruto)

If this was the place of an Akatsuki base, it was less than what Neji had been expecting. He hadn't seen a single trap since the crow attack, so either Akatsuki were underestimating anyone that might have chosen to pursue them, or the two of them were going the wrong way.

Sora-ku was a massive city. It was truly eerie just how large it was, and no one lived there at all. The silence was chilling. As silent as things could be with a sandstorm raging around them.

"Wait," Naruto said, drawing his and Neji's progress to a halt, "…Do you hear that?" He asked as a rumbling, crashing noise grew closer and closer to the two of them. It wasn't the sandstorm. They'd gotten used to that sound.

Neji nodded wordlessly before turning on his Byakugan again, having turned it off periodically to preserve his chakra. As he did so, he immediately grabbed Naruto and dragged him up the side of the nearest building. Seconds later, forty foot waves came crashing through the streets. Waves that would have claimed them as victims had they not been as quick as they were.

The water just kept coming. Ungodly flooding claimed the entire area, up past the third story of every building within sight as Naruto and Neji looked down at the waters that had almost taken them down. From as out of the way as they were, it didn't look as threatening, as out-of-place as it was.

"You'd think that when people at this level try to ambush us, they'd plan for whatever their first move is to not work," Naruto pointed out only to get a wide-eyed look from Neji as both of them jumped away from the building across the flooded street to the other side.

Crashing through the wall they'd been standing on only a heartbeat beforehand, the grinning visage of Hoshigaki Kisame reached out for both Naruto and Neji, grabbing both of their ankles and holding onto them.

All three of them bounced off of the walls all the way down until they hit the water and went underneath.

Smarting at the bumps and the landing, Neji was still able to move about underwater and free himself before swimming back up to the surface. Naruto remained caught and kicked at Kisame's face, missing him by inches. What he didn't miss was the spreading of Kisame's grin as he reached for the monstrous sword on his back while he had a hold of Naruto's leg.

Eyes going wide in alarm, Naruto pulled his machete from his back and blocked the strike that would have cleaved his leg from his body. That s.o.b was enjoying this. He really thought it would be that easy?

Naruto matched the maniacal grin with one of his own, and as Kisame drew back to try and take his limb again, Naruto grabbed his weapon by the chain connected to the handle and began to swing it underwater, 'Suishinki Haretsu Bunkatsu-sen (Propeller Burst Splitter)!'

The fan-like effect of the jutsu worked as a rudder and even with Kisame's iron grip, getting a face full of razor-sharp wind chakra wasn't his idea of fun. He had to protect himself with Samehada, allowing Naruto to slip through his fingers and fly out of the water, landing in a half-flip on a wall next to Neji.

"Welcome back," Neji quipped to him as they both stared down into the water waiting for the next attack, "He has the advantage down here, and I doubt he'll let us go any higher after the trouble he went through to turn the battlefield to his favor."

"Guess we won't fall in the water then," Naruto rebutted cheekily, "Got any ideas? I'm all ears."

"If I come up with one I can promise that you'll be the first to know."

"Okay. I guess I'll go punch him in the face then until you do."

Sarcasm and snark were effective methods of coping with dreadful situations. If only everything else were that simple. Sadly, most of their problems couldn't be solved just by walking up to it and doling out a beating these days, and this was one of them. It would take a little bit more than that to come out on top today.

Kisame rose from the water to stand on the surface, chuckling up at the two Konoha ninjas facing him. They survived his little ambush. Well that just made things all the more fun for him. It wouldn't have been any use getting their leader all worked up if they were that easy to take down.

Neji kept looking back and forth between Naruto and Kisame, marveling at just what he was seeing. If he wasn't looking right at it himself, he would have figured that it was impossible, 'He… he has more chakra than Naruto does,' Granted, he was looking at Naruto sans his tapping into the Kyuubi's chakra, but such a thing would have been a tall order even for a kage to boast, 'Is this even the sort of opponent we can overpower?'

After being told for years that he was a genius, it was a different thing entirely to know that he was facing an absolute monster of a man. Kisame barely looked like a human being, and with chakra like his, it was harder to be on the side of the argument that he was.

They would waste too much time fighting him together, even if they did manage to win. One of them had to leave and try to find Yugito. The positive of this development was that they absolutely knew where she was not, because there was no way someone like Kisame would have been sent to fight them if they were actually near the extraction area. There was too much of a chance of something important being broken if he did. He'd proven that much in the first minute and a half of the battle.

For goodness sake, he'd turned the streets into canals.

Closing his eyes in resignation, because it wasn't as if he couldn't see through his eyelids regardless, Neji decided to be the one to take that fall, "One of us has to take care of this, otherwise we'll both be kept here for too long. You're the faster of the two of us, so you should go."

"Neji, to fight him you'd have to get past that sword thing," Naruto said, shaking his head, "Besides, Shikamaru told me that his sword absorbs chakra. I've got way more of it to waste than you, trying to find a way to beat him."

Trial and error worked only if you had the resources to blow going from solution to solution. In this case, the resource was chakra, and in a fight like this, at least for one side, it would be as precious as gold to a peasant, or water to a desert-dweller. Neji's taijutsu caused him to expel chakra from his body with every attack. Against a person that devoured chakra casually, a fighting style like that wouldn't be good for a prolonged conflict.

The idea of splitting up was a bitter pill to swallow, even if Neji was the best choice to go off searching for the captured Miss Nii Yugito, "I don't like this," It rang too much of a precursor to some sort of catastrophe. It went against how they were trained to handle situations in a team. Splitting up was supposed to be the last choice, because at least one person usually died when they did, "We can find another way."

As positive as the sentiment was, Naruto didn't really agree. Not in this instance. Neji was intelligent and highly skilled, Naruto knew his way around fights against an extremely varied and eclectic list of enemies, but neither of them were modern-day strategy specialists. By the time they came up with something worthwhile to break away cleanly they would have been too deep into the fight to enact it, together at least.

As far as who was best to stay and best to leave, it wasn't even a close decision, not to Naruto, "Just go. I'll fight him. You're the best choice to keep looking. Heh, you'd actually know if you were close," Naruto wasn't a tracker, and even with his sensor jutsu he would have had to literally have been right on top of wherever they were hiding to find them, "Besides, even if he beats me, he won't kill me anyway."

Neji stared Naruto down, but realized that it was wasted effort. This was one of the things that he wasn't going to budge on anyway. Neji figured Naruto perceived Akatsuki as sort of his problem to begin with. He had to live every day outside of the village looking over his shoulder in case one of them showed up for him, so being able to pick and choose whenever he could fight them on his own terms (or as close to his own terms as he could manage) was probably therapeutic.

"What are you two doing up there?" Kisame asked with a grin, tapping Samehada off of his shoulder idly, "You're not coming down here? Then I guess I'm bringing 'here' to you."

Naruto had to choke back a taunt that would have sounded something akin to, 'Bring it on motherfucker!' because he had to of course remember who he was dealing with. The adage of being careful for what one wished for was applicable here, ten-fold. Aside from that, someone like Kisame probably didn't need the motivation to mutilate him to begin with.

For a brutal swordsmanship-specialist of a shinobi, Kisame had impressive hand speed, fast enough to bolt through eighteen hand-seals in less than three seconds. He had been wide-open, but had bought himself only that moment of time when he'd set Samehada down, sending it carving its way through the water and up the wall at the two young men standing on it, "Suiton: Daibakufu no Jutsu (Water Release: Great Waterfall Jutsu)!"

Naruto's first response had been to react to Samehada while the sword had been heading their way like a chakra-seeking torpedo. Instead of coming right for him, something he'd been prepared to defend against, machete in hand, the sword immediately shot out of the wall and into the air just as the water flooding the streets came crashing upward, hitting Naruto and carrying him with it.

Neji tried to outrun the rising water, but it came too fast and he found himself submerged again as well.

It was almost too good for Kisame. He could literally pick which one to go after first. As long as they were underwater they were sitting ducks, and when the waterfall ended and crashed back down to its normal level it would take them along with it, where it would probably slam them on the ground at the bottom.

Instead what he found underneath the cascading waves was a large summoned toad barreling at him. Kisame managed to dodge the full body check that the rapidly swimming toad had attempted, only for the collar of his cloak to be grabbed by Naruto's hands. The blond slammed him against the nearest wall, sending them both through it.

The two separated after the impact, with Naruto taking the opportunity to swim to the ceiling and cut his way through, buying himself a few moments of air as the water immediately began rising on that floor as well. Outside of the room he was in, Naruto heard Kisame laugh before smashing through the wall.

He strode in with what Naruto could only describe, and would do so out loud from that day forward, as an 'S-rank' kind of confidence. Looking into the shark-like eyes of the blue-skinned man, he seemed as if he had already won, and he knew it.

"That toad thing was kind of annoying," Kisame said, though he didn't seem very put off at all by something that should have ruined his attempt to keep both Naruto and Neji diverted, "Good move to get your buddy out of here though."

Naruto grinned a mite at Neji being brought up. When he summoned the toad it immediately swallowed them both before Naruto put his counterattack into action, and then it went off with Neji still in its mouth. It would let him out when it got him clear of the water. It was a faster swimmer than they would have been able to run on the surface or jumping walls, and it could cut through buildings that were underwater, "Heh, he's gonna be pissed about being stuck in a toad's mouth when he gets out."

The water was already up past their knees, and looking out of the closest window, Naruto could see that the level of the building they were in was still stuck underneath the flooding. This was Kisame's kind of battlefield. If he didn't at least get above the water, it would get ugly in a hurry.

Kisame let out a chuckle, "He wasn't a good matchup for me anyway... but then again neither are you. I'm your worst possible matchup, kid," As if to tempt fate, he stood in front of Naruto with his arms outstretched and his chest exposed, just begging for Naruto to make a move, "Throw all of the jutsu at me you want. Hell, send as much of your biju's chakra my way as you'd like! Samehada's hungry anyway."

Naruto looked as if he were about to oblige him with an outright jutsu attack before stopping with a trolling expression. With a flick of his wrist, Naruto's chain-attached machete split the floor underneath Kisame and shot up to run straight through the man at the exact moment Samehada came crashing through the wall to impale Naruto on its spines and suck him dry of chakra as he slowly bled out.

They both could have been imagining it, but if either had been asked about that exact moment some time later they both would have sworn that they had the exact same smirk on their face, apparently having thought the same thing.

Why use a jutsu when you had a nice, sharp blade that was perfect for what you needed?

Both combatants proceeded to turn the low-hanging ceiling between them into rubble as their respective attacks failed and they both went to extreme, and destructive methods to avoid them. Samehada destroyed half of the supports on the floor trying to snatch up Naruto, and Naruto's machete not only cut through the entire ceiling with its own miss, it took out three floors up above them, bringing it all down on them.

When the dust began to clear, the entire place was still flooding, but both Naruto and Kisame sat on piles of rubble that kept them above the water, as its rise had been temporarily slowed by the debris in the way.

Both were officially rearmed, with their weapons of choice back in their own hands instead of at their respective remote controls. "Great minds think alike I see."

Naruto was taken aback slightly. No one had ever said that about his mind. Thinking honestly about his answer, Naruto reached up and scratched his wet hair, "Well, I don't know about that. Mine ain't really so great."

"Oh really now?" Kisame was finding this kid more and more amusing as things progressed. He was really going to enjoy this battle. Itachi could handle the other interlopers, if they even wound up finding him in the first place, "You'd admit that out loud?"

Why the hell not? There wasn't any shame to Naruto's game. He wasn't ever going to be a walking textbook like Sakura or Shiho, he wasn't a natural force of mental nature like Shikamaru, and he never fancied himself as one. It just wasn't the way things were.

"Yeah, my mind's not really great," That wasn't to say that he didn't have his own intellectual charms though, "...My sensei said it is scary though."

XxX

(Elsewhere in Sora-ku – With Shikamaru and Sasuke)

From the outside, the size of the city looked impressive and imposing, but inside of it, while it was still intimidating it wasn't for the same reason. Just how many people lived here at one time? How could a place like this just die and be forgotten?

"This entire city is like a slum," Shikamaru said, finding himself alarmed at the sheer number of tightly clustered buildings. He hadn't seen any wide-open spaces or anywhere that one could even call halfway spacious since they'd entered and he'd followed after Sasuke, "What is it with this place?"

Sasuke spared him a glance, as if it were funny that he would say such a thing, "How much do you know about this place?"

Shikamaru might have been a genius, but his abilities sat with tactics and strategy. He wasn't a walking textbook. When it came to history, he didn't know much about it outside of what everyone knew. It wasn't as if he paid attention in the Academy, "Nothing."

Sasuke wasn't much for talking, but as long as it killed some time and took his mind off of the nerves in his chest at possibly confronting Itachi again he was fine with it for now. Besides, this was one of the members of the temporary team that would clam up if need be.

"Sora-ku was a refugee camp," Sasuke began to explain as they ran through the empty streets, "People came here from all over the Elemental Nations during the First Shinobi World War. It was out of the way, and no hidden village wanted any part of fighting over this wasteland."

"But it became a city?"

"It tried to. It never really got off of the ground," Sasuke said. What was around the signified that much, "This place got too big. It was just too many people running away from the fighting happening all over the place… and it wasn't like this place had an oasis even half as good as Suna's. So when the water dried up, this place died with it."

Interesting. As informative as that was, it still left one massive question that none of that answered whatsoever, "So why does your clan have an armory here?" "…Sasuke… why does your clan have an armory here?"

"I wouldn't know, seeing as how they were all killed before I was old enough to learn any clan secrets," The coolness of his tone was enough to make Shikamaru cringe at how callous his suspicions made him seem, "…You can ask Itachi when we find him if you really want to know. I can't let all of the secrets die with him after all."

Shikamaru thought he was good at bringing conversations he didn't want to have to an abrupt end, but Sasuke had a way of doing it with a grim sort of discomfort that couldn't be manufactured otherwise.

With that line of questioning being blocked, Shikamaru had to wonder about something else. And that was, where exactly were they freaking going? He'd been running with Sasuke step-for-step, but he was letting himself be led by the young Uchiha chunin as they searched.

Sasuke had some semblance of an idea as to where they were going, and he wanted to know how.

Eyes darting about the area, Shikamaru noticed something as they made another turn down a different street. Sasuke was only taking a route that had a crow sitting on a ledge or a power line. It wasn't even an entire flock of them, and at times they were extremely difficult to see.

...No. That was too easy. It was far too simple of a trail to follow.

Crows were Uchiha Itachi's familiar animals, the way Sasuke had hawks or Naruto had toads. Crows wouldn't be this deep into the middle of absolute nowhere where there was theoretically nothing for them to eat. They had to be his. But then, no shinobi at the level of Itachi would ever leave something that would give away his position in any way.

Sasuke noticed that Shikamaru had been looking intently at him for some time and realized that he was well aware that something was off. Shutting his eyes in thought, Sasuke answered a question before it could be asked,

"It's not a trap," Sasuke assured him. Shikamaru's glance had been so intense for such a lazy glance that it was almost enough to make him consider the chance of him having a doujutsu. It almost compelled him to speak and explain himself or risk being labeled an idiot by someone who would definitely know, "You should have gone with Killer B. I don't want anyone around for this, even my real team."

Even though he'd grown more comfortable with the idea since Team 7 had been founded, Sasuke would have never been alright with things if this same situation had come about and Chouji or Sakura had been with him. Even Kakashi, he would have had problems with. They'd constantly assured him that whenever the face-off with Itachi occurred, he would have support.

Not that he didn't believe in their strengths as shinobi, but his entire clan had been one of the most imposing forces in the history of the ninja world, and Itachi wiped them out in less than one night.

Sasuke wouldn't have been comfortable leaving his... ugh, friends, to dangle in a situation such as that. No one who didn't have a stake in taking on Itachi should have been permitted to fight against him. It was too dangerous, and the list of techniques he had that Sasuke knew about took a very particular sort of countermeasure to defeat.

A countermeasure that only he had. The last thing he wanted to hear was a speech on how it wasn't smart to fight an S-rank ninja, but if he ever figured he was going to get one of those from Shikamaru he was off on just how troublesome lecturing people was.

Shikamaru let out a bored groan, "Don't worry about it. The last thing I want is to tangle with your big brother," There was more to the mission than heading into the belly of the beast for a fight anyway, "Remember, wherever we find him, that Yugito woman will probably be there too. If it makes you happy, you can sidetrack him while I run for the hills with her."

Just like that. No shame whatsoever. Running away was always the absolute last option Sasuke would take in any situation, and in some cases he couldn't think of running even if death was assured, such as if he still wasn't powerful enough to face Itachi.

Apparently Shikamaru had discarded 'pride' a long time ago as something that would do nothing for him other than get him and his friends murdered. How practical.

Where was Killer B anyway?

XxX

(Elsewhere in Sora-ku)

Raising an eyebrow at the scene before him, Killer B stood with his muscular arms crossed over his chest.

In his spirited search for his fellow Kumo jinchuuriki, he had come across ANBU with demon-designed masks. That sort of pattern deigned them as Sunagakure operatives, and they were none too pleased to see him when he dropped in and loudly asked, putting it loosely, if they'd found Yugito. He had tactlessly interrupted their process of setting explosives as they swiftly moved through the city, grin on his face as if they were all friends.

In return, they promptly attacked him. He was not supposed to leave the city alive regardless.

That course of action did not end well for them.

"Hm," Killer B mused to himself, completely unaffected by the fight he'd just had. He didn't even have to pull out any of his swords to win, "What do you make 'a this Eight-o?"

The high-grade tags weren't able to be taken off. The way they had been set, any attempt to interfere with them would have resulted in a chain explosion occurring. It would have taken a fuuinjutsu master to disarm one. ANBU really knew their stuff when it came to the tools they used in the field.

By the time Killer B had crashed their little party, they had set up tags lining buildings as far as the eye could see down the street. It was a wonder just how many tags they had managed to set up before he'd gotten to them.

ANBU were the mark of professionalism and efficiency in the ninja world. They wouldn't have needed to stop in their progression to place their tags. They could have done it mid-step while running full-tilt, and that meant that they could have covered any amount of distance before he'd managed to cut in on them.

There was no telling just how much of the city was wired to explode, and there wasn't exactly a way to disarm them either.

"B, you need to find Yugito. Now," The Hachibi told the dark-skinned jinchuuriki from inside of the man's mind, "Whatever these guys were planning on, having this place standing at the end of it wasn't a part of it. You and those other boys need to finish the job and get out of here, fast."

Where there was one squad of ANBU, one could usually count on there being another. When they were dispatched it was usually for sensitive work that couldn't be failed, so that meant there would at least be one extra unit for backup.

At least one. Sunagakure shinobi were the types to accomplish their missions at all costs. Apparently they were pragmatic enough to know that killing Itachi and his Akatsuki partner, as well as the Two-Tailed jinchuuriki in one fell swoop, while they were encroaching in their territory and dealing with their kind of terrain, didn't come along every day.

That wasn't even counting if they knew that the Eight and Nine-Tails were there as well. If they did, there was no way an aspiring superpower could pass up the chance. The world scales were rickety at the moment, and Suna's value was on the upswing in recent years was enough to warrant the power play.

It was times like this where Killer B wished he had the chops to be more of a sensor, instead of the point-and-obliterate type.

Hey, he had a new topic to write a rap about. Now where did he put his notepad?

XxX

Hoshigaki Kisame was a man who was simply born in the wrong place, during the wrong era in history.

The man wasn't necessarily a villain. He didn't have nefarious aims as his driving force in life. He was simply a man who loved the thrill of battle, and his one abstract longing was for a world when he could get the unfiltered truth told to his face. That hardly qualified him as evil.

In the Era of the Warring States, or the days before chakra ever came about, times when the only thing that mattered was your surname and the strength your body and techniques possessed, he would have been a hero; marching from battlefield to battlefield, fighting relentlessly against any foe regardless of their stature or reputation for money and for glory, and possessing the sheer raw power, skill, and experience to come out on top against all but the most disgustingly powerful, broken of foes.

He would have inevitably died on a lone battlefield at a young age, surrounded by the dead of the opposite side in numbers that would have constituted a good portion of an army, and chances were that his body would have been found with a smile on his face. His name would have been revered, he would have been painted as a demi-god of head-on open combat.

Had he been born in the current era as a samurai in Tetsu no Kuni, there still would have been a good chance that he would have been a hero to them. His ability with a sword was enough to slay one of the Seven Swordsmen of the Mist before he even gained possession of Samehada.

Instead, because of his distaste of the cloak-and-dagger society that had borne him, he was the Monster of the Hidden Mist: seen as a disgusting anarchist and traitor to his country and village. A village that had constantly lied to him and even been betrayed by others of their own ilk that they held in higher regard than him.

Naruto didn't know any of this about Kisame. He didn't know why, despite Kisame wishing to take his life and the life of the other jinchuuriki for the power they held within, he simply couldn't find the mindset to make the fight feel personal.

But he couldn't, because he knew it was strictly professional. Kisame's ill intentions had nothing to do with any sort of dislike for Naruto's existence. It was no twisted creed or ideology that would bring out the blue-skinned man's violent side. He wanted to hurt Naruto, simply because that was how the battle would be won.

Naruto hadn't found himself wary of his own fate in combat in years. The fear of death didn't loom very heavily over him at all, and fighting to the death was no personal matter to the young man. Harsh campaigns as a Guardian had seen to that.

And because of these things, for the first time in a very long time, Naruto found himself fighting a battle for his life that he was honestly enjoying.

"You're a weird one, kid," Kisame expressed, dodging a row of wind-enhanced kunai that penetrated straight through the thick brick of the building that the walls had been stripped down to during their conflict, "...But I like it. It's no fun fighting when the other guy's too scared of you to hold a weapon straight."

Naruto kept trying to keep the grin off of his face, but it kept slipping back on involuntarily, even as Kisame completely dodged his projectile barrage, "Feh, I've got a granny back in the village who's scarier than you!" Tsunade definitely wouldn't have appreciated the jab, but it didn't really matter.

He was feeling far too easy-going that was probably advisable for something of this nature, but he just couldn't help himself.

Kisame was Naruto's better in experience, un-augmented strength, ferocity, swordsmanship, taijutsu, and could neutralize Naruto's ninjutsu if he failed to use it correctly. But, it was Naruto's fight and he would be the only one to bear its consequences. His friends and loved ones would not be in immediate danger if he lost. The mission wouldn't end if he was defeated, as Neji, Sasuke, Shikamaru, and Killer B were more than enough to get the job done, as long as he hurt Kisame badly enough to keep him from getting back to Yugito in time to keep the others from rescuing her.

It was a fight that Naruto would need to use the full measure of his abilities to win, that he could use to test how far he had really come, without the dark cloud looming overhead that countless other things would fall apart if he found himself unable to come through.

Once again, it had been so long since he'd had a fight that he could actually find a reason to enjoy.

That didn't mean his heart wasn't pounding, his stomach wasn't churning, and his mind wasn't buzzing. The water was getting higher, and even though there were plenty of spaces to stand on, and the ceiling and the following five floors above them had been opened, time was wasting.

Every second that the fight carried on, Kisame gained more of the field advantage, and Naruto could count on using some sort of environmental equalizer to even the playing field.

Naruto saw his hands move for hand-seals and quickly formed one of his own. In the time it took Kisame to form twenty water clones out of the liquid around Naruto's elevated perch of building rubble, Naruto had created a number that could dwarf them. Smoke and water flew through the air as the clones clashed and dispelled one another in a stalemate, but a grin came to Kisame's face.

He wasn't quite done with his attack just yet.

Every day Naruto had to thank Iruka, for teaching him his first real jutsu outside of Shadow Clones. For trying to give him just a little extra when he needed it. Naruto's own constant use of the technique to feel out the world around him during battle, just in case, saved his life.

As the water from Kisame's water clones fell apart, they reformed before they could ever hit any other sort of surface. He'd been making the hand-seals ever since he'd finished creating the clones.

"Suiton: Suikodan no Jutsu (Water Release: Water Shark Bullet Jutsu)!"

They reformed into sharks that came together right around Naruto, all colliding in a monumental explosion, but Naruto didn't find himself caught inside of it. Having felt the shift of chakra in the air itself around him, he was able to prepare a Shunshin and disguise a leap into the air where he could finish a counterattack with a single flip to disguise his hand-seals and the moment he fired it.

"Moegara Nagare no Jutsu (Cinder Stream Jutsu)!"

From his mouth, Naruto let loose a forceful cloud of hazardous black ash as if it were shot from the mouth of an erupting miniature volcano. Kisame cackled and moved to avoid the widespread attack, able to outrun it, as there was no wind blowing inside to make certain parts of the cloud's movements unpredictable and that much more dangerous.

As the burning-hot ash hit the water, steam immediately rose up into the air, concealing a portion of the room long enough for Naruto to use it to get close to Kisame, his hand drawn back, palm open for the coup de grace.

Kisame gleefully brought Samehada down, impaling that hand on the spines that lined the odd sword's frame, "Ah-ah-ah. That jutsu is pure chakra," He was well aware of just what the Rasengan was, "You literally would have hand-fed my weapon, kid."

The steam and the darkness concealed Naruto's sly look from view until he morphed into ash before Kisame's eyes.

Ash that had been in the form of a man, barreling for him at full speed before the chakra keeping its shape had been taken, all without its momentum ever truly being completely stopped.

Samehada found itself covered in sticky, black ash that Kisame could hear sizzle. It let out a steaming hiss as he swung it through the water to try and give the blade a chance to clean off. This quick motion almost cost him his head, as Naruto's machete came sailing past it. The blade didn't even touch him, only the wind chakra surrounding it did, and cut deeply into Kisame's cheek as it sailed by.

Damn wind chakra users. He'd have to make sure he dodged wider or kept Samehada in the way from now on to keep a blade from even getting close enough for that elemental affinity to come into play.

"Why couldn't I sense that wasn't you?" Kisame asked, unamused. The two sure-fire things he could rely on no matter what in battle were that Samehada could absorb any kind of chakra, and that because of the sword's sensitivity to chakra itself he would always be aware of where his enemy was.

Naruto didn't answer. Not directly at least, "Didn't you guys know? It isn't really a big secret. Misdirection and clones are my thing," It wasn't as if he knew in the first place.

Naruto's constant use of chakra echolocation to keep track of his surroundings forced his chakra into the surrounding area. All of the surrounding area, if it wasn't allowed the amount of open space needed to dissipate or found itself stopped by a solid object first. Therefore, whenever he used it, for a small window of time Samehada would feel Naruto's presence everywhere, making it impossible to give Kisame an easy giveaway to his position.

He would have to use his own natural sixth sense for danger instead of Samehada's ability to easily feel out chakra if Naruto managed to outmaneuver him again. Just like the good old days. It made him feel nostalgic.

"Well?" Kisame said, beckoning Naruto forward to continue, "Let's go then. If a baby scratch is the worst I can expect out of the big, bad jinchuuriki, I guess I overestimated you. Get down here."

"No," Naruto said, shaking his head from where he was sticking to a wall.

"Come here," Kisame repeated in an encouraging tone of voice, as if he were calling for a puppy.

"Nope."

"You can do it," Kisame continued, adding a rhythmic whistle and audible pats on his own thigh that really did make Naruto feel like he was calling for a dog, "Come on boy!"

Naruto, ever the eloquent linguist, shot back with a raspberry and a thumbs down. He didn't want to say it out loud, but he could just feel what was waiting for him under the surface of the murky, dark waters.

It was harder to feel things through the water when he wasn't in it, but if it had the shape of a shark and circled like a shark it was probably a good bet that it was a shark. Multiple sharks.

"Heh, and here I thought I'd been sly about it," Kisame said, admitting that he was found out before shooting a quick look at the steadily rising water that he stood on the surface of, "I summoned them back when you escaped the first floor and they followed us on up. Trust me, if you fall in that water, you're as good as chum."

As good as chum. Naruto didn't like the sound of that. It sounded... messy.

Kisame had no problem upping the ante either.

"But don't worry. I'll call 'em off of you once they take an arm or two. Maybe a leg. I can't let them get at your guts and risk killing you and all."

Naruto pursed his lips in thought at his current circumstances. While he could have stood back and threw ranged attacks at Kisame, his own personal style of fighting was most effective when he could get in close, as his better finishing attacks came when he was within arm's reach of the other guy.

Even if it was stupidly dangerous to get that close to a person with a gigantic chakra-eating sword who knew how to use it, his best bet at putting him down was doing it within melee range.

It didn't seem like he would be getting the option to choose how the battle would be fought though.

Slamming his hand on the surface of the water, Kisame sent a large surge of it into the air that transformed into large water sharks. Naruto wasted no time cutting them up from a distance, but that only made things worse, "Suiton: Amesuikouha (Water Release: Rain Water Shark Wave)!"

The sharks exploded into a countless number of droplet-sized sharks that rained down from above. Every single drop that touched Naruto painfully cut into his clothing and skin, almost making him lose the grip of his chakra on the wall.

'What?' Naruto thought, his nerve endings searing from the attack. He couldn't have dodged a jutsu like that even if he'd been outside, 'Gah, that fucking hurts!'

It felt as if someone had dragged a shark's tooth down his body in over a dozen different areas.

His blood hit the water and the real summoned sharks within began to freak out in the general vicinity. For the first time, Naruto could actually see fins breaking the surface. But that wasn't even the worst thing about it all. He'd extended his chained machete to destroy the water sharks in the first place, and after being cut up by the miniature shark drops he hadn't had the time to retract it back, instead needing to protect his eyes and throat from being cut.

It had fallen down below, and Kisame had managed to get a hand around the chain, "Heh-heh... this'll be fun."

With a single, herculean yank of the chain, Kisame tore Naruto, and several bricks stuck to his feet, off of the wall.

Naruto didn't so much hit the water, as he forcefully caused it to part with his body. And the sharks couldn't have been happier... if sharks could feel any emotion separate from the desire to kill.

As the water bubbles from where Naruto went under vanished, Kisame let out a content sigh. Sometimes it was the simple things.

He'd give his sharks a bit of time to take off a limb or two before he went down to retrieve whatever was left of Naruto. It should have been fine. Jinchuuriki were made of tough stuff, so as long as he stepped in he wouldn't wind up killing the boy.

From underneath, the water began to bubble and started to feel hotter. That wasn't supposed to happen. The spines on Samehada began to shake wildly, as the mouth at the top of the weapon seemed to be salivating at the prospect of devouring the delicious chakra it could feel just under the waves.

Chunks of shark began flying up from the depths below, staining the water red with blood and body segments. One couldn't help but feel a sense of dread as a result.

"Hm," Kisame said, surrounded by portions of his summon creatures, "...This is a new and exciting turn of events."

The building was not strong enough to stand up against the implosion that quickly followed.

XxX

Shikamaru had been confused.

One moment he had been heading into what Sasuke had assured him was Akatsuki's lair where Itachi awaited them with the Nibi jinchuuriki (because of all of the cats outside apparently trying to get in) with a plan of action fully prepared in order to retrieve Yugito with the ever-dangerous Uchiha Itachi as the man who would be guarding her. The next moment he was standing outside, an unknown distance away, with dozens of cats surrounding him and pawing at his legs.

Also, he had Nii Yugito in his arms, and she looked none too hale and hearty. A blue glow on her skin that looked faintly like veins could be seen. Ugh, were those her tenketsu glowing from inside of her body? What the hell were they doing to get the Nibi out of her? Whatever it was, it hadn't finished though. She was alive, which was the entire point.

Yes, Shikamaru had been confused... for all of three seconds.

"Oh, goddamn Sharingan!" He complained to himself before looking around at the cats surrounding him, "None of you'd happen to be able to understand me, would you?" Because if they could, he could have asked them how to get back to wherever it was he'd gotten Yugito from, where he knew Sasuke undoubtedly still was.

Really, if it was Itachi who'd ensnared him it showed a measure of foresight that he'd managed to wipe Shikamaru's memory of how they had even gotten to the lair in the first place, and if it had been Sasuke, he was an idiot/asshole. There wasn't even a sign of the sparse trail that only Sasuke had been able to find and follow in the first place any longer.

After his question to the amassed cats, all Shikamaru got in return were happy looks and meows from the felines as he held the container of what was technically the world's most powerful cat, now safe and sound for the most part, "Of course not."

With a sigh, he figured that the best option for now was to find the others, who would no doubt have more effective methods of combing the city for Sasuke again. After all, tracking was the furthest thing from Shikamaru's particular skill-set, and hadn't the plan been to leave with Yugito in the first place after Sasuke had taken to trying to tear Itachi apart?

Apparently it had worked. He would rather have been able to ensure that he hadn't left while Sasuke was gravely wounded and a sitting duck for whatever way Itachi would have chosen to kill him, but seeing as how he couldn't find his way back on his own it was time to attend to the mission for the time being.

Seriously, the Uchiha had be the most troublesome clan of all time if this was how the two last remaining members of the clan were. Just a headache all around.

Well, if the gravity of the situation was just as it truly seemed it was, there would soon be at least one less of them in the world.

He sincerely hoped that particular fate didn't befall Sasuke, and that it could wait until he was able to come back with someone who could actually find him again..

XxX

With a simultaneous blinking of eyes, both Itachi and Sasuke snapped out of the dual genjutsu they had both been locked in for the better part of five minutes. As both of them stood in the open, empty chamber that had been used for the attempted sealing of the Nibi, Sasuke noted with comfort that Shikamaru was gone.

'Good,' Sasuke thought to himself in relief, 'It worked.'

He hadn't expected Itachi's very first move to be a genjutsu. He should have expected it, but he didn't. In his conversations and training with Naruto on fighting Itachi he hadn't thought of it, mostly because it hadn't happened to Naruto. That was probably because of the goggles he'd been wearing at the start though. He remembered being told that Itachi bewitched him at the very first opportunity when they had been broken.

Stupid. That should have been all the warning that he'd needed to bring it up while he and Shikamaru had been brainstorming approaches to the fight. All of that thinking had gone out the window within a second.

"You broke the genjutsu on your friend," Itachi observed, sounding moderately surprised, "You really have improved, to find yourself capable of doing that and then repelling my own illusion that I'd cast on you."

Sasuke didn't rise to the praise. He didn't want to hear it. In truth, he hadn't broken the genjutsu on Shikamaru, but Itachi didn't need to know that if he didn't already. When Itachi had caught them both the second they had entered the great sealing chamber, Sasuke had chosen to override whatever Itachi's genjutsu would have done to Shikamaru, instead hypnotizing him into quickly taking Yugito and leaving.

Itachi couldn't move to stop Shikamaru from leaving. He had to remain fighting Sasuke inside of the genjutsu that he had initiated, lest Sasuke reverse control and take it for himself. Eventually they stalemated, but by then Shikamaru had been long gone per Sasuke's mental 'urging', and he wouldn't be coming back anytime soon.

"I knew you and I would meet eventually," Itachi told Sasuke as the two brothers continued to stare one another down, "I'm glad to see that you haven't been relying on the mark that-."

"Shut up. You've had enough time to talk. I'd heard enough of what you had to say when you left," Sasuke said bluntly, cutting him off with a cold, reserved fury. It was far from what Itachi had been expecting. He'd been expecting a hot temper. A man that would have been chomping at the bit, insatiable at seeing him dead at his feet, "I don't care what you have to say, I don't care what you think of what I am or how far I have or haven't come."

"Is that so?"

"Yeah," Sasuke replied without a bit of a bite to his tone, without so much as a shrug, "Itachi, I've wanted this since I was seven. I worked every day from then on trying to get strong enough to kill you. I was obsessed with it, and I still am. But here's the thing. I've had years to think about it, and killing you isn't the worst thing I can do to you."

"What else could you do?" Itachi asked him in return, "I have nothing for you to take away from me. Nothing other than my life. My life in exchange for the lives of our entire clan," The thought was meant to be antagonistic, but Sasuke merely shook his head, "You say no?" How was he so calm?

"The thing that really got to me about our clan, after you murdered them all-," Sasuke said, his eyes glazing over, as though he were fading back to those times inside of his mind, "-I noticed that after there weren't any of us left, eventually people forgot about us, about our clan, about everything we were that made us great," It happened so quickly, it was heartbreaking to consider, "People only remembered us because of the Sharingan. And that's what I want to do to you."

"What in the world are you talking about Sasuke?"

"Like I said, the worst thing I can do isn't killing you. The worst thing I can do is kill you and then... just let the world forget about you," Sasuke said, his voice echoing out clearly in the vast, empty chamber, "After I see the light leave your eyes, after I destroy whatever's left of your body and walk out of here, I'm never going to think about you again. I'm never going to say your name again, I'm never going to tell anyone I killed you. No one but me and the others on this mission are going to know. No one will talk about it, about how even in the end Uchiha Itachi went out with a bang. No one's going to remember how strong you were, how accomplished you were. And that'll be my revenge."

Because killing a ninja wasn't good revenge. Everyone died, and most ninjas would die in battle. That was a given, and when the better ones went out, even the stories of their deaths were told. No one would ever know that Itachi died. As far as the world would be concerned, he would just disappear, never to be heard of, seen, or spoken of again. No one would know why, and in the end the only person that it would matter to (Sasuke) wouldn't care.

The truly great ones were remembered for decades, entire generations after their deaths, and beyond. Itachi was great. To not recognize that was a travesty, it was a disservice to him and the level of mastery in the ninja arts that he'd reached.

It was the cruelest thing Sasuke could think of doing to Itachi that would give him peace in the end.

"I'm going to get on with my life. Whatever that means in the long run, I don't know," Sasuke continued, "What I do know, is that one day I'll hear someone talking about something that you did or were a part of, and they just won't be able to remember your name, just like they don't know mother's name, father's name, our aunts, uncles, and cousins, when they talk about anything involving the Uchiha Clan."

Itachi's face remained expressionless throughout it all. He didn't flinch, he didn't even blink.

"They'll ask, and the person they ask won't know either. Then they'll just drop it altogether and talk about something else," The apparent comfort that particular thought gave Sasuke, with the topic involved would have been enough to send a chill down a regular man's spine, "And when that day comes, I'll smile. And no one will know why, except me. Because that's when I know I'll have gotten my revenge."

The day when he could say 'Itachi', and the person he said it to would reply, "'Itachi' who?"

Calmly considering all of this, Itachi closed his eyes in regards to his younger brother, "I see. Very well then. This battle will decide which one of this cursed clan of ours will live on."

With that, Sasuke began to move as Itachi vanished in a flock of crows that disguised his movements.

As well as a single drop of water that hit the ground without the former's notice.

XxX

(Konohagakure no Sato – Hokage's Office)

A meeting over the training methods involving one particular boy didn't exactly scream excitement. The process of mapping out the process of what Konoha and the Guardians knew of a jinchuuriki's development was more like pulling teeth than anyone wanted to bring notice to.

Asuma rubbed the bridge of his nose at the monotonous practice that Hiruzen had been inscribing down in scroll form for the last few hours, in duplicate. He didn't even know why he was there. When it came to training Naruto, Asuma hadn't had anything to do the jinchuuriki aspect with it.

He took to studying Hiruzen's expression, and his hopes raised when he saw the old man's countenance change. His hopes were rewarded a matter of moments later, "Is there anything else that went into his training?"

Thank heavens! Asuma could have cheered.

Jiraiya immediately shook his head as he leaned back in his head, "Nope. That's everything I did, thankless labor that it was."

"A lot of chakra control in there," The blind Guardian Sadao pointed out, having been there to overhear for the sake of the daimyo, "You weren't kidding."

Much to Asuma's silent amusement, no one looked more relieved at the dreadful business of note-taking being wrapped up than his father Hiruzen, "Well I believe that's the end of that particular shred of business," The Hokage said, rolling up one of the two scrolls he had prepared before handing it over to Sadao, "I don't think I need to tell you to keep this safe until it's in the proper hands."

Sadao nodded diligently and took the scroll, putting it away for safekeeping. Everyone stood and prepared to head out, but the sunglasses-clad young man's face twisted "I know what I said when I got here Hokage-sama, but that was just something for the ears of your people."

It was sort of expected. Sometimes you had to get a second meeting in private under the guise of another more public purpose. Usually the reason for such a thing was to talk about something that would have made the country seem vulnerable while bringing up something that made them look strong on the surface. How political.

Hiruzen repositioned himself in his seat, having been just about to see Sadao out at the conclusion of their meeting. Clearly things were just getting started. With that in mind, he filled his pipe with tobacco and lit it, taking a quick puff before exhaling the smoke and restarting the conversation, "Well then, what extra business does the capital have with our village?"

Blind didn't necessarily mean blind. Sadao could feel the sheer power rolling off of the man, even in his advanced age. The way that they had been talking about Naruto beforehand, Hiruzen laughing at stories as if he were Naruto's fond grandfather, that was over with and done. Pleasantries were gone, and now it was about the pure business.

"I'm the only one of my team that knows why we're really here, so don't worry," The leader of the Guardian Ninja group said, holding his head high to keep his respectability as a representing party. Why the hell wasn't this Nobuyuki's job again? "The real reason we came here to talk to you about is something the daimyo figured you and yours would be best suited to handle."

"And what would that be, young man?"

Just thinking of the man's name made Sadao's skin crawl, and he had never even seen him in person. But from dealing with his subordinates in the past, having heard stories of the man in the past, and knowing what he knew now of his growing power, he felt justified, "...Orochimaru."

Jiraiya narrowed his eyes, barely blocking a growl from sounding through his gritted teeth. Asuma audibly sucked his teeth. Hiruzen himself, a veteran of schooling his reactions to things of a detestable nature, didn't outwardly react at all.

Why was it so difficult to find a way to cut this particular snake's head off?


Omake: 'Til What Do Us Part? (3)

"No."

"You know, I'm trying to help-."

"No."

"Sasuke, seriously-."

"No," Sasuke said, for what felt like the eightieth time that day since he'd come across Naruto, "Whatever it is that you want, I don't want any part of it, idiot," He had taken one look at Naruto and seen that he had the look on his face of a man with a plan. The problem with that being that all of his plans weren't exactly good for the people around him, "Take your bullshit to someone dumb enough to actually let you finish a sentence."

Naruto had been following Sasuke from the produce store closest to the Uchiha District, and he knew that once Sasuke entered that threshold he would not suffer Naruto intruding on that hallowed ground without permission, especially to annoy him. He had to find a way to convince him before he disappeared behind those walls.

Time to get creative.

"It's something useful you know," Naruto insisted, actually impressed with Sasuke's composure. He hadn't turned on him like a venomous snake yet. Naruto had honestly expected him to shoot at least one fireball at him by now. Maybe it was because they were in public? "You know, clan stuff."

Sasuke scoffed at the thought, holding his bag of groceries at his side, "Right. I'm so sure. Because you're all about knowing what my clan's all about."

"Well, I don't. But don't you want to restore it or something?"

Sasuke stopped dead in his tracks, forcing Naruto to do the same lest he bump into him from behind. The raven-haired chunin froze in place, head lowered, and that was the point where Naruto figured he might have made a mistake, "The next thing you have to say better be really good, or they'll never find your body."

While Naruto was more than certain that in a fight he could give just as good as he could take, something about the way Sasuke said it made him take a step back, "I'm just saying, what's the reason you never pick a girlfriend from any of the girls who like you?"

This was something that didn't end in the Academy either. Girls from their class that hadn't even moved on to become genin that year, or had quit the program in the meantime still looked at him as the messiah of dark hotness. In four years that one thing hadn't changed at all.

Sasuke turned around and aimed his ire elsewhere, having been given a prime target to do so. Oh, he could have stood there all day long and rattled off reasons why. And as therapeutic as it would have been to do so, it simply wasn't his style. Mental health wasn't exactly an Uchiha priority, so he kept it simple. "Because they suck at life," Not just as kunoichi, but at life in general.

Harsh enough to make Naruto wince, but in the end he could see his point. Sasuke didn't bat for the other team, and he wasn't celibate. Just because Naruto never saw him looking at girls didn't mean that he didn't. Hanging around Jiraiya made sure that he knew when a guy was checking out a girl, even if it was for a split-second. Sasuke had the Sharingan, so it wasn't like he needed his gaze to linger on any woman he considered fine in order to get a splendid eyeful.

No, him disliking girls was never the problem. He just wanted a partner that was worth a damn.

"Would you be into a girl that could kill you in a straight fight?" Naruto asked, getting Sasuke to stoically raise an eyebrow questioningly, "What I'm saying is, if I introduced you to a girl our age who was strong enough to kick your ass, what would you say?"

"I'd say, she's probably not from this village."

"Wow, that was... cold."

"I'm not taking it back."

It didn't matter. They were getting off-track anyway.

Refocusing on the matter at hand, Naruto pulled a picture from his pocket to show Sasuke, "This is her."

Why he had a picture of Shizuka was a question that should have been asked by someone who knew what was going on. Unfortunately for the sake of common sense, no one like that was around at the moment.

Sasuke looked at the picture, then to Naruto, then back to the picture once more before disregarding it entirely in exchange for the best question he figured he'd ask anyone that day, "What are you getting out of this, and how is it going to screw me over?"

"What?" Naruto looked taken aback, "I'm not trying to screw you over."

"You might not be trying to, but this will somehow. I know it will," Sasuke said, with the wisdom of knowing how dealing with Team 10 usually wound up. That girl was gorgeous, and Naruto was saying that she was strong. If she had a compatible personality, which meant that she didn't talk about nothing to the extent that he wanted to stab himself in the ear with a pencil, that spelled 'jackpot', but even so, nothing was ever that easy, "What's the catch?"

"There's no catch."

Cue deadly, penetrating, interrogative stare of death.

"Really."

Stare.

"...Well..."

Naruto could be extremely persuasive with his words from time to time, but when it came to deflecting suspicion he was rather bad at it. He had far too many tells and simply could not lie to anyone's face at all. Not effectively at least. He was too honest to fool people that weren't willing to take things at face value.

The only thing that kept him from actually spilling the truth to Sasuke was timely intervention. Unfortunately it was from the person that they had been talking about at the time. Naruto almost cursed out loud when he saw Shizuka, which wasn't really fair. She wasn't a bad girl, it was just that she wouldn't take no for an answer.

"Naruto," Shizuka greeted with a small smile before realizing that he was in the company of someone else, "I'm sorry, I don't know your name."

"Sasuke," The young Uchiha was more than willing to introduce himself, mostly because this worked out for him. He knew Naruto was up to something, and while he wouldn't get a straight answer out of him, he could get one out of this girl, "You two know each other?"

"Of course. Naruto is my fiancé."

It was difficult to actually surprise Sasuke, at least enough for him to outwardly show it, but that did it. Once again, he looked between Shizuka and Naruto several times, "...How?"

Shizuka seamlessly explained, even as Naruto palmed his face at everything falling apart. And it had been going better than he figured it had any right to up until that point, "By proving himself my better in the ninja arts," In other words, he beat her in a fight, "Per the customs of my village, we're supposed to be married."

Ah, there was the catch. And it was quite the dandy as well.

Sasuke looked at Naruto one more time before actually letting out an honest-to-goodness laugh, brief, cruel and at Naruto's expense though it was.

Curiosity sated and conscience clear, he turned to leave with nothing holding him back, "No," He said as an afterthought as he departed, sounding much brighter about his refusal for Naruto's 'request' this time around.

He would have wished him good luck, but he really didn't.

Shizuka watched Sasuke depart with a thoughtful frown on her pretty face, "Was he a friend?" She asked.

"Yes..." And Naruto did not sound enthusiastic about that fact at all, "...The bastard."

Shizuka noticed that, as well as picking up on how antisocial Sasuke seemed to be, "It doesn't quite seem like he is," But what did she know? She didn't have that many friends herself, even back in the Nadeshiko Village, "He doesn't seem to like you. Am I wrong?"

Not really. Not under normal circumstances. But he and Sasuke weren't normal people. One day they could find something obscure to bond over that no one else other than them would get, and the next they could be a moment's notice away from trying to kill each other without a second thought.

"It depends on what day it is," Naruto admitted with a sigh.

Well, that took Sasuke out of the running. He had been Naruto's best chance and his first choice for around his age someone that could defeat Shizuka. Back to the drawing board.

…Did Neji have a girlfriend?


Alright everybuddy. That's the chapter for you. Next time, stuff goes down, hard. All over the place. Keep that ball moving now!

Also, to Shisora.

For the love of God man, stop being awesome.

The dude sent me $100 on Playstation Network. Ridiculous. When the revolution begins and the world is mine, he will be given a sizeable plot of land, and a title of some sort, like the nobles of old. Because that's how I roll.

I'll give him somewhere cool, like New Zealand. My seat of power will of course be Australia, because that place is super-cool, it's an island nation/continent, chock-full of all sorts things that can kill you. Seriously, everything in Australia can kill you, and that is not an exaggeration. It's absurd.

I totally forgot what I was talking about. What was the point of this again?

Eh, whatever. I hope you enjoyed.

Kenchi out.