Many an instructor of the Konoha Academy of the Ninja Arts had tried, failed, and avowed not to bother any further in their dealings with Nara Shikamaru. "Smart, but lazy, with no ambition," was the general consensus, with only a few stalwart members of the profession attempting to break the boy genius out of his sleepy shell. It was rather easy for apathy to become the prevailing attitude towards the young clan heir, who was more inclined towards being a cloud watcher. Nara Shikamaru was often marked present in class not by virtue of his answering to a roll call, but rather to the prominence of his signature hair style poking up in the hair , his face itself being buried in a desk, book or jacket.

Umino Iruka, a chunin-rank shinobi who taught Shikamaru in his final year, was perhaps the only man in the institute to see beyond the lazy facade. While he, too, struggled to get Shikamaru to work, he had found that by tempting the intelligent boy with intriguing, interesting puzzles, he could extract more than an ounce of effort from the dark-eyed lad.

A puzzle, after all, was so much more than a riddle, with its single-faceted answers. A puzzle could have a near endless number of elements and variables to consider, and a near endless number of solutions, if it was designed well. So Iruka worked, doing his best to encourage Shikamaru with puzzles that men thrice his age were hopeless at solving. The educator was unable to devote any significant amount of time to his pupil, but he would pass on his work to Sarutobi Asuma, Shikamaru's future genin-squad sensei.

LINEBREAK

His instructors and friends may have speculated on it, but only his father, and to an extent his mother really knew that Shikamaru was always going over puzzles in his mind.

From a young age, he taught himself basic physics, and began to break down how the world was with every shifting glance. Many times, his lazy side would dominate and lines of thought would drift and break down as he gave into the overpowering urge to sleep. At other times, doe-like dark eyes took in, questioned, understood. How is their always water to flow down a river? Because water evaporates, condenses, rains, and drains off from the ground at higher altitudes through aquifers into rivers. How does that building stand up? Weight is redirected into the walls which is itself distributed over a large foundation, reducing pressure.

But sometimes, Shikamaru would break the monotony of the world and look at the people, and try to decipher each person. It was not an activity he originally did in the Academy, but when one of his classmates had suffered a great family tragedy, and his personality had undergone a dramatic shift, Shikamaru was forced to re-evaluate the lost little boy. People were funny, being dynamic things that could always defy your understanding.

Haruno Sakura was an insecure girl, still suffering from years of bullying, who covered it up with aggressive behaviour and competition for a meaningless title as 'Sasuke's Favorite'. Hyuga Hinata was a shy wallflower who had buckled under the pressure of her father and clan's expectations for her as a future clan head. It would be easy to make such conclusions as that and leave it there, but Shikamaru wanted to know more, what drove their basest actions, desires, and instincts. To some extent, Shikamaru thought he was able to derive all information he required on each of his twenty-odd classmates over the last several years.

So it was with particular surprise that his expectations of Uzumaki Naruto were one day upset.

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"Naruto..." Shikamaru could clearly hear Iruka's voice through the thin sliding door that separated the classroom from the hallway. "I'm sorry, but you fail."

A thin stirring of guilt washed over Shikamaru. Was this not a private moment of failure that he was essentially eavesdropping on? The only real reason he stood here still in the hallway was waiting with his classmate and (annoying) friend, Yamanaka Ino, who was to be the last person to take her genin examination. Akimichi Choji, a friend of many years who he expected to be teamed with following the exams along with the aforementioned Ino, had already gone ahead after his exam, making reservations at a yakiniku restaurant in celebration of their successful graduation.

The black-haired boy resolved to take decisive action for one of the few times in his life, moving to escort Ino a few feet away so Naruto would not have to face the two as he exited, dejected as his lifelong goal was dead, only to be surprised as a second voice spoke up, one that was not Naruto.

"Ah, Iruka, don't you think we should let him pass? He does have one clone that looks at least decent." That was Mizuki, a white-haired assistant instructor who taught the class outdoors, particularly adept with projectiles.

The comeback was quick. "No, Mizuki, we can't. All the students created three perfect clones, Naruto didn't even manage a single one. That's the rules, no exceptions."

Shikamaru expected Mizuki to respond, only for a third voice, surprisingly muffled, to speak up. Silence was the voice's only answer. Seconds later, the sliding door was quietly opened, as out stepped the blonde-haired, blue-eyed student who had just failed his graduation exam.

What he had observed of Naruto told Shikamaru that the shortest boy in their class would step out, dejection clear on his face. The orphan was a person of extremes: exuberant during the best of times and the normal of times, angry when he felt slighted, and extremely downcast when something truly bad had occurred to him.

But Naruto wasn't depressed, sad, or even unhappy. His face was neutral, but a person's eyes told all. Which made it worse, in Shikamaru's opinion. As Naruto walked past, his eyes didn't look like they were just holding back tears. Oddly enough, he looked...he looked...

...He almost looked as if he had been liberated from heavy chains.

Ino, later prodded at the yakiniku, would remark that the two senseis had looked heavily surprised when she walked in to take her exam. But Naruto had failed. He was out of the system now, and would no longer have any involvement in Shikamaru's life. It was a puzzle that would go unsolved, but without a personal motive to it, it was no longer interesting.

Shikamaru would not really think of Naruto for nearly two years.

LINEBREAK

"Asuma-sensei," Ino asked, "You said you'd debrief us further when we got here. Why are we here?"

'Here' was Shukuba Town, a sin city located a stone's throw away from Konohagakure no Sato, the ninja village Ino, her teammates and her sensei all served. Said sensei, Sarutobi Asuma, son of the retired Sandaime Hokage and newly-engaged Jonin of Konoha's forces, had received a mission from the recently promoted Godaime Hokage. To the frustration of his students, Asuma would only reveal the destination, and not the objective.

It was little surprise that Ino had voiced her pleasure upon learning where the mission was to be carried out. While she had improved in personality since she had first graduated from the Konoha Academy, she was still a growing lady, and few single females enjoyed being in Shukuba Town, unless they were around to make money in one of humanity's oldest professions.

"I didn't tell you this before, but," and here, his voice dropped to a whisper, and the three students channeled chakra to their ears, one of the most basic ninja techniques in the vast arsenal developed over the ages, "Shukuba Town has a little bit of a mafia problem going on."

"Hmph," Shikamaru responded in an equally quiet manner, "Doesn't it always?"

"It does," Asuma said, a slight nod to the three people looking back at him, Ino leading the formation along a wide road full of street stalls hawking merchandise. "We like it that way. Organised crime is easier to track than individual criminals."

"Then what's the problem exactly?" quietly asked Choji, fourth member of the squad, formerly the 'big-boned' boy, muscle mass beginning to expand where once he had plenty of tissue of stored energy. "Jiraiya-sama wouldn't just ask us to come here to keep track on them, would he?"

Asuma shook his head, eyes flitting around every few seconds in search of danger. "Not normally. But the gangs in Shukuba Town have been growing too big for their britches of late. The Hokage wants us to whittle them down a little, send them a message to back down."

Shikamaru knew that was all they were going to get for now until they were at their hotel. There was simply too much possibility of an eavesdropper on the street here. He allowed his mind to wander as he cast his senses out, pondering the implications behind Asuma's words. So basically the Godaime wanted organized crime to be reduced a little but not too much so as not to kill the monopoly they currently held and cause chaos in Shukuba, was that it? Satisfied that he had wrapped it up, Shikamaru allowed his eyes to wander, his sight stopping on the back of a light-blond man's head. The spiky pattern vaguely seemed..."Huh, that looks a lot like Naruto."

"Oh? Where?" Ino quickly asked excitedly, until she saw what Shikamaru was looking at. "Oh, cool, he does look kind of like Naruto from behind. I wonder if it really is him?"

Neither were expecting their sensei to go up to the blonde, however, and tap him on the shoulder. It was with slight disappointment that Shikamaru saw the man wasn't Naruto as he turned around in response to Asuma's fingertapping, but he shoved that feeling aside. Suppose it had been Naruto? Were he anything like his hyperactive self of old, he would instantly jump on them, and yatter on about their old days, and oh by the way how were they doing, and what were they as ninjas doing in Shibuka? The four may as well play a troupe using ninjutsu techniques for how much Naruto would advertise their presence, a reason why Asuma had instructed Shikamaru to leave his chunin vest at home and for all of them to dress in plainclothes.

"That...was weird," Ino voiced the thoughts of all three as Asuma slightly sheepishly came back to the group. "What was that about?"

"Your classmate...Naruto," Asuma started, and then stopped. His eyes became slightly distant, something Shikamaru knew meant he was in deep thought from many games of shogi with the elder man, before his sensei came back into focus in the present moment. "After he failed his genin exam, he disappeared from Konoha altogether. Nobody really noticed his absence until his landlord went to investigate why he had missed a payment, only to find out the boy had packed up all his life's belongings and left." In a manner that would seem an idle afterthought to Ino and Choji, but was painfully obvious to Shikamaru, Asuma added, "A couple of people have been looking for him, one of his instructors in particular."

Shikamaru let that sink in for a few seconds before immediately questioning the manner in which Asuma had dropped the fact of a search. It wasn't just a 'couple of people', there were actual resources dedicated to finding Naruto. Why? Wasn't he just a loud orphan who had failed his exam? What was so important about him, aside from a family name held by several hundreds if not thousands of people from the ruined Uzushiogakure no Sato?

Slowly, a puzzle was being picked back up. It had many more pieces to fit together, and many more parts to solve, but it was once more an intriguing puzzle, and Shikamaru vowed he would solve it.

CHAPTERBREAK

One year ago may as well have been ten years ago, for how all the time on the road had blended together for her. The lady she called Mistress had slowly devolved into more and more a wreck as those years passed, slowly drinking and gambling herself into a destructive cycle of self-pity and despair, and the older woman's escapades were about the only way she could differentiate between the years. For a while there, she had worried that her devotion would be until her death.

She was nearly thirty, her mistress two decades older than her. She had never achieved her dream of having a child or children, only the knowledge that chakra and her ability to heal herself internally could push her child-bearing age over another decade. Her only biological family had died years and years ago in one of the Great Shinobi Wars, and the one person she considered to be family was herself the last of her lineage. It seemed as if two of Konoha's ninja families would finally die out as their remaining scions toured the globe, running away from debt and from the past.

Then, just over a year ago, a tall man, towering over all who crowded around him at the gambling table, made a proposal to Tsunade. He was from the mostly nomadic peninsular Flower Country in the north, bordering the Land of Rice. The Flower Country people mostly exported derivatives of the eponymous flowers that made up their land, with cosmetics and seasonings being two especially popular goods. What he had, however, was what amounted to a weak poison created from mashing, straining and liquefying a specific flower in his country. The man had been fairly mum on the details, but the offer he made was far too good for Tsunade to pass up.

To research the characteristics and possible uses of the poison was their objective. Enough money to make a significant dent in the towering amount of debt Tsunade had accumulated over a decade was the reward, a third of it upfront, and she had made sure it went to the debts, and not towards Tsunade's sake fund. While her mistress still had a worrying amount of people she owed money, the additional offer of a royalty from any uses they could find for the poison was a salivating incentive.

When the two finally had their lab set-up, in a property near the north border of Fire Country gifted to Tsunade's grandfather a long time ago by the then-Daimyo of the land, it was the first time in far too long that she had seen Tsunade, famous Slug Sannin of Konoha, with a purpose in her eyes.

LINEBREAK

"Shizune!" Tsunade barked out loudly, "Get me another bag of worms!"

"Yes, Tsunade-sama," Shizune replied, promptly hurrying to grab some more of the tiny invertebrates from their formidable reserve of live specimens, before coming back to the lab room they had set up for testing. Glass vials were all over the place, chaotically strewn about in what would seem a mess to most, but fit a nice and methodical pattern to the two scientists. A pair of bacteria colony counters anchored the laboratory, and a large freezer dominated the far wall. Vacuum-sealed containers of chemicals were carefully labeled and separated in great steel cabinets, the most dangerous locked away in case of intruders during the morning hours when Tsunade traditionally slept in.

The elder of the two, Tsunade, put on a new set of latex gloves before grabbing one of the new sample of earthworms. Putting it under a microscope, she peered through the powerful lens before bringing an eyedropper over the earthworm, and squeezing a single drop of a rich royal blue liquid onto the wriggling creature.

Several minutes passed, as Shizune picked up a clipboard and started pencilling in the observations Tsunade was speaking aloud, while thinking them over at the same time. So far, they had already found that with nearly-precise mixtures of diluted sodium hydroxide and barium sulfide, the poison was neatly neutralised but made a strong dye for shades of colour between red and yellow. Now, they were close to a breakthrough on a new product after Tsunade's own heart – a sterilising solution.

"I think," the blonde-haired Tsunade declared as she finally brought her head up from the microscope, a thin sheen of sweat dripping off her forehead, "That we're almost done here, Shizune. That man, Han? Even if we accomplish nothing else out of this, even if it didn't make a useful dye, I think what we're close to getting here might be leaps and bounds above nearly everything else I've ever used in the hospital or on the field."

"Does it really seem that impressive?" Shizune asked. While she had learned a formidable amount of medical skills from her mentor, both before and during the trip, her true expertise was in poisons, something that had allowed her to catch Tsunade's eye. A sterilising solution protected against microscopic viruses and bacteria, fungi and spore – it offered no protection against inorganic poisons or organic venoms delivered through puncture wounds.

"It might not be," Tsunade admitted. "But I think, as long as this flower is available enough to support the amounts of solution doctors and medics need, the final result could be effective enough to find a spot in every first aid kit."

Shizune stepped back a step before returning to her original position. What Tsunade had just said was powerful. She was offering confidence that with some more fine-tuning and then some trial runs they had a commercially viable mass market product. The words excited her. "Oh, Tsunade-sama, do you think the money is there to-"

"Could be," Tsunade cut her off, as she grabbed a thin scalpel, and began to dissect the earthworm, looking back into the lens of her microscope. "That's still a big if, though. That all comes down to how much a businessman Han is. I have no plans to return to Konoha to promote it to the hospitals there."

And just as quickly her exuberance came crashing. Right. Konohagakure no Sato, the hidden village she had been born in, had once served, had once expected to live her whole life and career in, until her uncle had died and Tsunade, his fiancée, had become estranged. She had decided to follow the aunt that never was around the world, learning from her, providing her company and comfort, particularly during in her long spiel of haemophobia. She had always hoped that one day, Tsunade would be able to face the inner demons which shadowed the will that had made her a legend in the Second Great Shinobi War.

With Han's offer, Tsunade had slowly been improving, drinking less, gambling less, shaking rust off the side of her that once allowed her to overcome the concoctions of Poison Mistress Chiyo, a famed puppetmaster of Sunagakure. Shizune had been nursing a small but growing flame of hope that one day Tsunade would be able to return to Konoha, with her apprentice happily bringing up the rear as they approached their hometown.

With a start, Shizune realised what she was doing. She was being negative. She shook her head aside, and started jotting down more notes as Tsunade continued her dissection. There was no way she was going to lose hope, no matter what. One day, she knew, the two would return to Konoha. No matter what.

CHAPTERBREAK

Established over a century ago, the village of Land's End, located at the northern shore of Flower Country, had grown around several hot springs, with a small port coming shortly thereafter. Of the handful of pioneers who had staked their livings on the mild coastal weather and the draw of the springs, one of them foresaw the need for something extra. While it wasn't much, members of the Ayeka family that ran the Ayeka Inn were also renowned practitioners of ikebana, the cultural art of flower gathering. The flowers that greeted visitors everywhere were a major draw, and helped to cement the Inn for its long tenure.

Satoshi, fifth clan head of the Inn, was not satisfied to leave it at that. After collecting an order inside the small restaurant area that served hungry patrons, he called out to his daughter, maid, cook and waitress all in one, "Oi, Nene!"

There was silence for a few seconds, before the sound of splashing water could be heard around the corner. His daughter Nene stuck her head around the corner, the outlines of a waterproof apron on the visible part of her shoulder, "Yes, father?"

The elder kept his gaze on his daughter for a moment, refreshing his memory of her facial profile, framed with long brown hair, bright green eyes making her the mirror image of her ailing mother. "Those three that checked in yesterday, the young couple and the taller man, they privately rented out a spring for themselves, the fourth one. They paid well and tipped well enough, I want you to go bring them a bottle of our home brew to them."

Nene nodded an affirmative before disappearing out of sight. Satoshi returned to the front end of the restaurant and started cooking the order he had received prior, going generous on the portions as the couple the meal was for were staying for over a week. After a couple of minutes, he looked up at the sound of footsteps to see his daughter come out of the backroom, a small bouquet of flowers in a ceramic vase in one arm and a bottle in her other hand. She was dressed in a short shirt and knee-length skirt, perfect for the mildly warm outdoor temperatures.

"By the way," Nene spoke up, a knowing look on her face, "I don't think those two are really a couple."

"Ah," Satoshi said, smoothly turning the conversation back on his daughter, "In that case, I don't mind you chatting up the blonde. A father's got to be sure his baby girl can find a boyfrie-"

"Papa!" Nene squealed, her face turning bright red at what Satoshi was saying.

Her father waved his hand, a smirk on his face, "I kid, I kid," he said jovially, "Or do I?" Deciding he had had enough fun at the expense of his daughter, he ruffled her hair, "Alright kid, go and have at it!"

"I'm just delivering flowers and some liquor," Nene whimpered as she walked past a couple of tables, sure that the chuckles she heard from one table were from people who had overheard their conversation. Sometimes her father just made her so mortified!

LINEBREAK

It took Nene a few minutes to make her way to the hot spring that her father had mentioned. It was early summer, with many of the flowers she and her siblings tended to in their second bloom of the year, if they were capable of blooming twice in a season. The bouquet she had just assembled was a nice assortment of pinks and purples, something she was sure their honoured guests would appreciate.

Knocking on the door in the wall to the inside of the tall fence that barred peeping toms, she announced loudly, "Delivery here, some flowers." Pressing her ear up against the door, she heard some grunting and low voices on the other side, before somebody rose from the water, a distinct sound she had familiarised herself with over the years.

Moving her ear away from the door, she steadied herself on her geta, patiently waiting for somebody to unlock the door for her, or to announce that she could come in on her own with her key. The sound of footsteps made it the former option, and the door quickly slid open.

Although Nene had seen the blonde before when he and his two friends (family?), she had to admit, he was handsome with his long, wild hair, and deep sea blue eyes, accompanied by rugged facial features that had what seemed to be thin tattoos. That he answered the door with only a towel around his lower body didn't help to keep her hormones in check. He seemed young, though, young enough not to have yet hit his seventeenth birthday. That was off-putting.

Then he spoke, "Good morning, I'm Hiyoshi. You said you had some flowers for us, I can see that, but the bottle?"

"Huh?" Nene asked, before snapping out of her momentary confusion. "Oh, right, the bottle." She wanted to slap herself for making such a poor first impression. "Father said to give you this as a complimentary gift for renting the bath house."

"I see," Hiyoshi replied levelly as he accepted the bottle, and walked over to a small table, and then removed the cork. While Nene set down the vase on the table, she watched, mystified, as Hiyoshi did a quick sniff test, tilted the bottle slightly, allowed a single drop onto his finger before licking at it. As he set the bottle down and glanced back up, he saw Nene's confused look. "Ah, sorry if I offend," He apologised. "I was just checking the general taste, Soka has her likes and dislikes."

Nene was quick to associate the name Soka with the girl Hiyoshi had come into the inn ago with, and she took a glance over at the small hot springs to see the other two travelers, the girl and the taller man, idly noting neither were wearing towels inside the spring. The girl was waving at Hiyoshi. While her dark-skinned colouring wasn't at all unusual this far north, Nene had certainly never seen anybody with the lime-green hair Soka had. "I see. Was there anything else the three of you wanted before I leave?"

"Well..." Hiyoshi was about to speak up, only to be interrupted by a voice far deeper than his own.

"You could recommend us the best boat currently in port to take us up north," The tall man was speaking as he rose out of the water, grabbing a towel and wrapping it around his waist. As he approached Hiyoshi and Nene, the maid-cum-courier girl noted his facial features, brown eyes, oddly gaunt cheeks and short brown hair. His height was the most imposing part of him, as he towered over her.

"Ah...um..." Nene fumbled her words as she got over the intimidating figure the tall man made, "Where to? To Earth Country?"

He shook his head only a tad. "Non. To the north."

Nene's eyes widened, "You mean to the Ice Country?" The Ice Country was the northernmost inhabited land on the planet, covering a tiny smidgen of the North Continent before it gave way to unbridled ice and frost, treacherous mountain ranges and cold that could chill a man to death in minutes. It was said only a few courageous souls had ever seen the End of the World.

"Ah, yes," Hiyoshi spoke up again, bringing her attention back to him, a small smile on his face. "You could say we're pilgrims, of a sort. There are a few shrines in the Ice Country we wish to visit. Most of them I guess are not very famous, though you may have heard of the Ice Valley Shrine."

"I have," Nene confirmed. It took an arduous trek north into the mountains, but was not too far from the shore. Idly, she wondered if any of the other shrines they intended to visit were further north. If so, well, she had some ammunition next time her father tried teasing her. Prime boyfriend material or no, there was no way she would go out into the uncharted territories of the North Continent. She hated the cold. "You said you wanted a ship that could take you to the Ice Country. Only one of them in the port right now will take you that way before leaving to go to Lighting Country." She mentally cursed at her lack of paper and pen at the moment, but figured the details were short enough that the three before her would remember them easily. "Seek out the captain of the Crass Lady, his name is Iori, to get passage in six days from now." Giving a half-second for a seamless transition to make her next words seem like an afterthought, she added, "Tell him I or my father sent you, please." While they Ayeka Inn made more than enough money on its own, making money from referrals to ships at the port didn't hurt.

The smile on Hiyoshi's face grew wider, as he gurgled what was clearly a restrained chuckle. "The Crass Lady? Sounds like Soka on a bad day." In response to a shriek of denial, he turned around and caught a balled-up towel that was thrown right at him. Nene had witnessed the whole incident as the dark-skinned girl had reacted indignantly, and let out a soft laugh herself before Hiyoshi turned back to her. During this whole time, the tall man had wandered off, laying down on one of the chairs sitting around.

"Anyways, give your father a thank you from all three of us," Hiyoshi said, making pleasantries, but making it clear that Nene should leave shortly. "I'm sure me and Soka and Yukimura will enjoy the drinks."

"Yes, yes, of course," Nene said, as she picked up an older vase of flowers to bring back to the inn. "I'll be off to the inn, now. I hope to see you at our restaurant for dinner tonight," She added, again trying to drum up a little business from the three patrons. A couple of quick goodbyes later, with a wave from the green-haired Soka (and nothing from the tall man, who she now knew as Yukimura), Nene was off.

She was a little bit disappointed as she left, though. Her father had been right. Despite the little interaction Hiyoshi and Soka had, the two seemed quite smitten with each other in their few moments.

CHAPTERBREAK

At the end of the world, the sun was more dangerous than the cold. Here, there was so little moisture that clouds barely blocked out the sun. Here, the atmosphere that protected the rest of the planet from harmful light radiation was the thinnest. Here, if one was travelling at the wrong time of the year, he could be exposed to an eternal day. Here, the permafrost absorbed little light, reflecting most of it into the eyes of wanderers. Here, the sun could beat down and wear out an unprepared adventurer.

He wasn't unprepared. He had traced this path once before, a lifetime ago, under conditions far more precarious. Powerful shades covered, filtering out most of the intense sunlight. Clothing protected every piece of his skin. While the presence of the beast within and his own natural healing abilities would keep him from ever getting to the point of skin peeling under the sun's glare, it was still possible for him to suffer from a simple, preventable cause of death: dehydration.

It wasn't all bad, however. When night fell and the howling winds calmed down, all was silent but for the crunching of the snow under their boots, making the beautiful majesty of the aurora borealis even more inspiring. Watching the green lights bounce and dance in the northern sky was a dazzling vision, something that could perk up even his two comrades.

Walking near in-step with him were the two friends he had picked up over the last two years, she, Fū, former jōnin-class ninja of Takigakure no Sato, he, Han, former jōnin-class ninja of Iwagakure no Sato. Both of them had been cast out from their villages, becoming wandering rōnin until he had picked them up. There was solidarity in numbers, after all, a lesson he had learned quite well, and he gave them purpose, so when the time came, they would not forfeit their lives without a battle.

The trio had jaunted across the Elemental Nations for nearly a year, learning, taking in. The three made quite the sight to the citizens of the many towns and villages they went through. Han, the tallest of them, with his lean and tall figure, attracting stares as he towered over everyone else. Fū, looking noticeably younger, with a chocolate-brown complexion, lime-green hair and pupilless violet hairs, a shocking and unique mix of colours that served as a taunt to the enemy without trying to hunt her down (for who could forget somebody with her features?). Naruto, by far the youngest-looking, a wild blonde mane grown down to past his shoulders, piercing sky-blue eyes that could cloud over into grey in seconds.

They had fought where they saw injustice. Even in the cases where the others were reluctant, Naruto demanded it, even if in so doing it acted against his more eventual goals. He had little desire to feel guilt over leaving others to suffer when it could be easily relieved. "Shinobi Rule Number Four: A ninja must always put the mission first. Shinobi Rule Number Twenty-Five: A ninja must never show emotion." Well, nobody had ever accused him of being a successful ninja when he was young.

More than one intelligence service inside the Elemental Nations had been confounded by reports of shadowy vigilantes toppling tyrants. What they did find out was less than what they didn't, and their known knowns and known unknowns, were it to ever become vital information, would be anchored down by the unknown unknowns. That was the way the three operated, seeking not to confound with conflicting data, but to hide the majority of what they did behind tiny bits of seemingly unrelated morsels of reports from spies.

And they had forged connections, a wild array of them. Inside the Flower Country especially, in which the three established their base of operations, clearing out the local underground, a daunting task in itself. Those few who knew of the triumvirate's actions were undying loyal to them: those same few were often in positions to influence the general opinion of the public. It was with that which Naruto, Han, and Fū had cast out their net, snagging in contacts from neighbouring lands, forming a small but extensive network to establish a realm of influence.

Much work had to be done to cement the long-term power play they were making. But that mattered little now, for once Naruto had decided they were able to take a temporary leave without their creations collapsing, they had taken off, and headed north, to where an important reunion would occur.

To the End of the World.

A PROLOGUE SCENE

Only the crackling of fire interrupted the still night, the smoke the burning trees gave off intermittently casting a haze against the bloody moon, itself soaking the earth with its red pallor. The beats and pulses of red light that came between the wisps of smoke were not unlike the heart in its death throes, pumping the last of its lifeblood.

A lone figure walked along the scorched battlefield, grass crunching underneath his footwear. He had long ago learned to walk without creating noise, silence the essence of the shinobi. Now, he craved that noise, anything to remind him he still lived. The collective heart had pumped out all its life-giving liquid: he was its remaining component, the last living mammal across the span of his dying world.

He stopped at the foot of his former village's once second greatest monument, now the only remaining proof of her existence: the Tree of Life, from whose seed the ancestors of the former daimyo of Fire Country were claimed to have been birthed from. Only its formidable presence, roots that crawled over a thousand kilometers, had saved it from the apocalypse.

"Kurama," He spoke, his voice dry.

There was no Kurama, not anymore, but a part of the entity that lived in his head recognised the name, and it shuffled around before responding, "What do you want, U-zu-ma-ki Naruto?" Its booming voice suffixed by a drawl.

Humankind's sole survivor cast his hand about, making sure to get the endless fields of lifeless fauna in his field of vision. "Was this what you really desired when you fought the Rikudou Sennin? The end of the world?"

There was no answer. Naruto expected none.

He abandoned the pack he had been carrying on his back. He made to move, only to hesitate, before shrugging off the white cape that cloaked his frame, flames licking its bottom side. There was little use for it anymore. He didn't dwell on it as he wrapped his arms around the bark of the Tree, and started to climb.

In what seemed the blink of an eye (for time was meaningless at the end of the world), he found himself near the top of the Tree. As he had gone higher and higher, the bark had begun to lose its texture, becoming shrivelled, gray. Eventually he had to abandon his attempts at climbing by raw exertion, and start using chakra to scale the tree before finally reaching its upper branches.

It was one such branch that he looked out from. From here, he could see a small lake nearby, the red light of the moon creating an eerie reflection. Then he looked at the ground. It was over two hundred and fifty meters to the ground, a testament to the Tree's stature, something that had been enhanced by his predecessor, Hashirama Senju, during the man's own reign as Hokage of the now-defunct Konohagakure no Sato. Two hundred and fifty meters was a long fall.

Not even he, Uzumaki Naruto, the second man to ever host the Juubi, could survive such a fall.

He took the chance to sit down. Only an immortal moment existed between now and the end, and he would use that moment to pray for his lost friends.

"We could go back."

Opening his eyes, Naruto scoffed, as he followed the trail of a blaze of fire that had been burning constantly in the distance. "Time travel? Don't mock me, Kurama. I already came up with that idea, you were observing when we decided it couldn't work." We being the few remaining minds that hadn't yet been slain in the battles with the endless hordes of demons that had poured out from the horrible gates which had been opened by that man's folly.

That the same folly had led to his becoming host to the Juubi went unsaid.

The ten-tailed chakra intelligence was quick to reply, slow to speak as Naruto sat patiently, listening. "It was thought im-poss-si-ble because it would defy reality. But reality's tether was weakened during the opening of the gates."

"And?" Naruto prompted, warding off the excitement that attempted to build up in his soul. He was not going to give himself an inkling of false hope.

The Juubi almost seemed tired as it continued. "Those creatures from Beyond expended an enormous amount of energy to bore into this world. More than even I once had. But every new bore required less energy. There is inertia in moving between worlds. So there is in moving through time, but that inertia has been overcome. In that we have an advantage."

"We?" Naruto asked, shooting up onto his feet. "And what of you, Kurama? How do I know you won't seek to take advantage of this time travelling, if it really works? I trust you, but I don't trust the Juubi."

For the first time, the entity that Naruto housed seemed annoyed. "I am not Kurama. I am the Juubi."

"You are Kurama, strongest of the bijuu." Naruto snapped at the beast. "You are the Juubi. The Juubi is not Kurama."

A growl emanated from the great being, before it stopped. "You are right, U-zu-ma-ki Naruto. I am Kurama." Its admission over with, it continued, "I have the energy to open a gate. But only one gate. The past Juubi would be unable to do it. It is only we nine recombined that I the Juubi could possibly hope to open one gate. And only now. When you return to the past, I will be no more. Only Kurama of that time will remain."

Naruto stopped the angry pacing he had begun to do, wearing his footprints into the sprawling tree branch. "You'll die, Kurama? I...I can't accept that."

"There is more, U-zu-ma-ki Naruto," the Juubi intoned. "The time of this realm and the time of their realm are not in lockstep. Whatever time you return to, the denizens of this world will not remember this never-future. Those of their realm will stay moving forward in time, seeking to return to this world to kill its sole survivor, boring one last hole with less energy than ever before. What they will do when they find a world green and blue once again, ripe with life."

LINEBREAK

I fell in and out of fanfiction writing, and did this one over the span of a few weeks, but it was relegated to the backburner and I have come to realise I do not have the oomph to write epics. So I am going to reveal what would effectively have occurred up to a point, as well as some background information. IF anybody wishes to adopt this, go ahead.

This is a time-travel story, Naruto only. This would have been revealed in a couple of chapters. There is already a touch of foreshadowing here and there, easily mistaken for hinting at other possible story implications.

It differs from far too many time-travel stories I see in that Naruto doesn't stay behind in Konoha. He fails the genin test deliberately to get an out to leave Konoha. While of course he's still an important military resource, he wouldn't be a missing-nin, a status that would mean something to him. Being able to travel the world would allow him to corral resources from the world at large.

The main thing he does, of course, is to snatch Fū and Han once they leave their villages (supposing Deidara was telling the truth and assuming Utakata was the odd one out). A twist that would have arrived later on is that the bijuu would have been able to take on semi-physical forms as actual manifestations of the animals they represent, and the three jinchuuriki would abuse this fact to basically produce certain items - the 7-tails would be able to secrete some biological substances. This is what the 'businessman' (who is actually Han in disguise) approaches Tsunade with, a secreted subtance that would end up making many useful substances once chemically treated, the strained flower thing being a lie, and the 4-tails could spit out lava rich in certain minerals.

Of course, it's also mentioned that the Sandaime 'retired' in the text. That's because Naruto would have settled his base in the 'nomadic Flower Country' bordering the Land of Rice, and would have cleared out the Sound bases, delaying Orochimaru from his attack and perhaps either killing or recruiting Orochimaru later on.

I was planning to take a leaf from Matdeception's Advent to Hell story, also for the Naruto fandom, the few chapters that he wrote which can be found on FF. In the original timeline, Tobi would have majorly botched a summoning effort, opening a gateway to hell. Nearly the entire world is wiped out before Naruto manages to close the gateway.

Because of the gateway being opened and closed, it creates enough dimensional instability that Naruto can actually time-travel, as opposed to using Kyuubi chakra or something. This can be found in the prologue that is posted right at the end of this story. If this were to be completed as an actual fic, the prologue would not be posted right at the beginning of the story – it would have been probably at least five or six chapters in, long after the revelation that Naruto is a time traveler. This is 'his last blessing', being able to go back and redo things for the better.

But his closing of the gate(s) wasn't perfect, and demon-land isn't affected by his time travelling. They remember the world is out there, and they're intent on breaking the gate open again to once more invade the world, except when they come out they will be returning into a world ripe for destruction again. Some of their numbers were whittled down previously, but they still are legion.

In the prologue in the old future, Naruto becomes the new Juubi jinchuuriki. In the process of killing Tobi, Tobi does something stupid that opens up a gateway to another realm for Lovecraftian monsters, demons, etc.

The Juubi's personality is...Hmm. Kind of hard to describe. It shares a little bit of the aspect of every individual bijuu from Shukaku to Kurama, and then some of what the Juubi once was before Rikudou split it. It has extremely rigid manners of speech as you can see, which should be indicative of its personality.

Naruto isn't...exactly sane, as you can tell, given his calling the Juubi Kurama over and over again. The Juubi is, period. It is its own entity. The cuddly baby bijuu weren't bloodthirsty little monsters or anything while the Juubi was this being of destructive potential, so the act of splitting it apart probably gave the separate parts new life and thus new personalities. Merging back together, the Juubi shares parts of the personalities of the bijuu and part of what it was once.

Naruto just can't accept that Kurama no longer exists except as a small part of far greater whole, so he calls it Kurama over and over again in denial.

Anyways, Naruto travels back to the past, where Kurama actually is again, though without the decade or so of personality evolvement he had while Naruto was his host past the age of twelve. So in his untouched past, Naruto aims to play the Machiavellian and Bonapartian games to somehow both unite as much of the Elemental Countries as he can, stop Akatsuki while attempting to recruit the individual members (it would be a shame if members as powerful as Pein and Tobi had to be offed) while still getting the nations to train up in anticipation for an inevitable war.

The final element that was already touched on is that Naruto and Fū and Han were travelling north, to the Ice Country (so kind of like Greenland, mostly ice with the southern tip green). Then they would travel north to The End of the World, analagous to our idea of the North Pole. There, Naruto would initiate a ritual to summon Genbu the Black Tortoise, one of the four Great Beasts of mythology, and the only Beast that he would have been able to have summoned in the past once the world went to shit. Finding the locations of where to summon the other three beasts would also take up a significant amount of time (Suzaku would be easier than Byakko and Seiryuu because Genbu 'of the North' and Suzaku 'of the South' would have been taken to literal extremes, being located near the north and south poles) but having all four on hand against the denizens of the demon realm would be a major coup.