Final Story


"Hello Naruto. I am the Server. Welcome to the Story; a pleasant realm of make-believe for our conquered subjects to play in. Our grand game for all mankind." Co-written with Zenthisoror. AU


Level 1: Welcome to Torikagozato


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A message from status: deceased Torikagozato TESTIFICATE#475929, playerid NAMIKAZE MINATO

keep hold of your purpose. remember yourself. make this the final story. win it for all of us.


Naruto blinked.

His was staring at the back of a seat, rocking gently as something moved around him.

It was chequered a garish purple and red. A wad of chewing gum had been tucked under the built in ash-tray and become blackened with dirt.

A coach. He was on a coach. He could hear the hum of its engine and feel the rolling tyres through the cushion of his seat.

He had just peeled his cheek off the window and started glancing around the cabin when the coach ground to a stop.

Outside everything was the grey-blue of dusk. The houses were grey, the cars on the road were grey, and the streets and the pavements had all turned to a watery grey that looked and flowed like shadows.

"Hey, son," called the driver from the front, "this is the last stop. Torikagozato. Either you get off here or you don't get off at all. Hurry up and make up your mind."

"Oh, okay! Got it!" He tried to stand up, only to be pulled back by his seatbelt. He undid it, grabbed his bag from the luggage rack and stumbled into the aisle. The driver tittered at him.

Stifling a yawn and rubbing his eyes, Naruto clambered off the coach.

"If you need a ride, there's a taxi rank over by that bus-stop."

The driver was leaning out from the coach and pointing to a stop across the road. It was dimly lit, with three cars swathed in its orange light. Two of the drivers were outside of their cars, smoking and chatting animatedly in what sounded to Naruto like a non-descript rowdiness.

"Thanks," he said to the driver, and the driver tipped his cap and retreated into the coach.

Wheeling his suitcase towards the bus stop, Naruto reached into his back pocket to feel a square of leather. He pulled it out, examining the thick bundle of notes tucked into the pocket of its spine.

The taxi driver at the front of the rank nodded at him, opening his boot before he'd even gotten there and yelling some sort of humorous comment in a loud and boisterous voice that made the other men break into peals of laughter.

"Do you know...er..." Naruto said to him, biting his lip and taking in a deep breath, "4-7, Nokami District?"

"Sure, kid," the man said, voice as gruff as his wrinkled face.

Naruto breathed out.

He looked back across the road to the coach, but perhaps the driver was sleeping and had turned off all the lights, or perhaps the shadows of dusk were simply too thick to see through, because he couldn't make out the shape of the coach at all.

Or perhaps the strange coach was gone.

He settled into his seat in the taxi to face forward, and fumbled for his wallet, trying desperately not to feel anxious. The suspension of the car was so smooth that Naruto then began to wonder whether he was being driven at all.


Naruto climbed out of the vehicle, passing a few notes to the driver, who nodded before climbing out himself and opening the boot. He reached for the suitcase, but Naruto shook his head.

"I'll get it," he said, smiling as he hauled out the large suitcase.

The man shrugged, slamming the boot down and closing the passenger door with his foot. He clasped a cigarette between his lips and lit the end, letting out a reel of smoke. "Suit yourself," he said, voice gritty and aged as he climbed into the front seat. The engine stirred briefly, and left a plume of dioxides and monoxides in its wake.

"4-7 Nokami District," Naruto said again, his hands tightening on the foam handle of his suitcase as he stared at the modern-ish building. It was entirely unfamiliar to him, but he knew this was where he should be.

Naruto had no idea why he'd come here.

The doorway to the building was illuminated by lights inside, a thin square border of cold white light beaming through. Naruto slid it open with his spare hand and quickly pulled his luggage through.

The lobby was clean cut and modern, plants and couches in one corner and drinks machines by the door. The counter was empty.

After taking a final look around, Naruto tried his best to shrug off the emptiness and head for the lift. He wished half-heartedly for the rumbling of chatter, or a radio; the lobby was empty and barren, and the squeaking of his trainers and the loud rumbling of his suitcase's wheels were singularities in a great auditory emptiness. Naruto stopped his motions, listening to see if he could hear anything from the apartments above; talking, music, or the low buzz of a TV would have done nicely, but there was simply an empty, echoing silence. Even the road outside was devoid of traffic. His only reassurance was the low hum of the drinks machine, and the thrumming of his heartbeat.

Naruto approached the lift, feeling isolated and paranoid. He pressed the button urgently with his palm (which was sweatier than he'd realised), and waited for it to arrive. To his surprise, the doors opened instantly.

Wheeling in his suitcase beside him, he searched for his floor on the panel and realised that the two chrome buttons read, simply, 'G' and '9'.

His finger hovered tentatively over the button, his fingertip brushing the cold metal as his hand shook.

'What am I even doing here…?'

This whole strange and unbelievable affair had come about after he had awoken on that coach, with nothing but three certainties:

'I am Uzumaki Naruto. Torikagozato. 4-7 Nokami District.'

And despite having not bought any kind of apartment or housing, not having enrolled in any local schools, here he stood, in the middle of nowhere, in an apartment complex that he hadn't even been sure existed when he'd said it to the taxi driver, getting by with the last of the money he had found in his wallet...

With a final sputter of madness, Naruto pressed in the cold chrome of the ninth floor's button.

The movement of the lift made an odd whooshing noise, the whistling of the air in the shaft as it pushed past the lift. His stomach turned at the sensation.

Naruto fixed his bag, the narrow lift barely able to make room for the movement. The three mirrors didn't create the illusion of space more than they made him feel as though he was in a cramped room filled with people, and it did nothing to ease his paranoia.

The lift doors opened. They revealed nothing but darkness. Naruto stepped out, carefully avoiding the doors closing behind his suitcase, and shuddered.

It took a moment for the lights to flicker on, and even then they were dim at best; the hallway was narrow with a rank of closed doors on each side.

Naruto looked at the first door. It was a dark, carved wood, unusual for an apartment and more suited to a house. He searched for a handle; there was none.

These handle-less doors continued all down the narrow hallway, until he came to a door at the end, to his right; its handle was a rosy gold, and it was unlocked.

As Naruto's hands warmed to the cold metal, he summoned his courage and pulled the handle down. The door swung open.

He turned on the light.

The apartment wasn't impressive more than it was eerie. The keys were covered in keyrings that he instantly recognised as his; not in that he had owned them, but in that they were things he liked, personal things, things that someone who tried hard enough may have known but they were so inherently him that it made the hairs on his arms stand up on end.

The rest of the apartment was like this; the posters in his bedroom, the food in the fridge, his bedspread, the colour of the couch, the products in his bathroom, the clothes in the wardrobe. They were all him, and everything was so clearly his.

Naruto sat down on the edge of his bed, hands knotted together and eyes unfocused. His heartbeat was a quiet incessant throbbing in his ears. He put his fingers to his temples, tried to smooth out the tense flesh. The motion did little to soothe him, but after minutes of worry, concentration and stress in a cocktail of badly-suppressed fear, Naruto climbed into the familiar unfamiliar bed and waited for sleep.

In the moments before it claimed him, he spied a list on his calendar, but only managed to make out the first, and largest, phrase at the top:

"1. UZUMAKI NARUTO - PROTAGONIST"


The morning began no less strange.

Naruto looked at the calendar. As his eyes focused, he saw not the odd list he'd seen (or hallucinated?) in the moments before sleep, but today's date covered in his own, sloppy handwriting.

'First day at Torikago High School! Don't forget: bag, planner, uniform!

BE THERE FOR 9AM'

The moment Naruto saw it, the stress of the day before overwhelmed him, and he sat back down on his bed and buried his head in his hands.

"I never fucking wrote that. I didn't. I didn't."

The clock pinned to the cream wall beside his wardrobe read twenty past eight.

'Getting to school takes how long…?'

Naruto stopped, and wondered why he was even considering attending.

That said, the more he thought about it, the more logical it became. They were the only instructions he had, if they could be called that at all; the only lead, the only anything besides lack of memory and dull confusion.

Naruto went into the bathroom to get a quick shower, fingernails cutting tiny arcs into his palm.

Amidst the onslaught of hot water, as he washed himself and his hair, it was easy not to think. Everything was too weird. The question of why exactly he had had the uncontrollable urge to come here was answered by the even stranger question of why, when he had arrived, had everything been perfect for his arrival?

He stepped out, drying himself and brushing his teeth before leaving for his room. His uniform was set out beside his bed, a typical buttoned gakuran jacket with trousers, and a collared white shirt for underneath. It was folded up carefully, and the only phrase that came to mind was 'a mother's touch.'

Naruto tried not to think about the disturbing convenience of it all.

After dressing, he combed his hair and grabbed his bag and keys (if they were in fact his) and left, locking the door after him.

Naruto knew something was wrong with this town. He knew it not in what he defined as normal, but in the town's very nature; its every facet and building and system was not bizarre and other-worldly, but simply strange. Naruto wished he could put a name to the strong discomfort that shook him when he looked at those two chrome buttons.

Naruto entered the lift, and pressed G.

When he reached the Ground floor, the sight that met him was different; a bored-looking secretary was at the counter that had been empty the night before, turning the pages of a tacky magazine. The couches to his right were empty for the most part, apart from a man on his laptop with a headset and low voice. A little girl was reaching up on her tiptoes to put money in the drinks machine.

Naruto felt a little more at ease with people around him, and took the leisure of smiling at the secretary, who gave him a smile and a small wave. She pressed a button under the desk, opening the door for him, and he nodded at her graciously before passing through.

The streets were busy, and it struck Naruto that he had no map of where he was going, and yet-

'My school's only a couple of streets away… I just go straight here, right?'

He froze. How had he known that?

He walked slowly, passing the traffic when there was a large gap in it, and as he walked, the shops that he passed by - sandwich shops and estate agents - were as alien to him as they were horrifyingly familiar. Naruto felt his stomach tighten as he knew to turn right at this corner, to turn left at the next, and then it would be there in front of him, his new school-

Naruto stopped, leaning against the wall. "Why am I just accepting this?" he muttered. "I'm just accepting all the strange shit that keeps happening. Acting as though nothing's happened… I'm enrolled at a goddamn school, I know where it is, my building has nothing but my room in it - what the fuck is going on?"

"Yo, you okay there?"

A feral-looking boy with strange red marks on his cheeks jogged up to him, grabbing him by the shoulder, and asked him again, looking him in the eyes with a face that somehow looked concerned despite its fierce features.

Naruto shook his head. "Strange shit keeps happening," he said, putting his hand on the wall to steady himself.

The boy's expression changed subtly, and he bit his lip. "I see," he said. "Are you alright, though, man? If you tell me where you live, I can take you there if you think you're gonna pass out."

Naruto blinked, before shaking his head, pushing himself off the wall and standing properly. "Thanks anyway," he said, holding out a hand to the other boy. "I'm Naruto. Are you going to Torikago High School?"

The boy nodded, grinning wolfishly and shaking his hand. "I'm Kiba. Are you the new transfer student?"

'...am I?' Naruto thought worriedly. 'Probably…? Maybe not...'

"Well, uh," Naruto said, careful with his words, "I'm in the first year… are you?"

"Yeah," Kiba said, nodding, before looking at his watch and cursing. "You're probably the transfer student in my class, then. We're gonna be late. Not that Kakashi gives a crap, but… bad impression for you, isn't it? C'mon."


"Ah, just in time."

The man at the front of the class, sitting with his feet propped up on the desk, looked at Naruto expectantly. "Once you've caught your breath, please, introduce yourself to the class."

Kiba patted him on the back with a force that was less than gentle before settling in his seat, and Naruto was left alone by the board, looking out over the classroom. Quiet, comfortable conversations between classmates stopped and eyes turned his way.

As soon as he saw some of his supposed classmates' faces, he felt a strange twist in his stomach, and an odd aching in his chest. Something warm briefly fluttered inside him like an indescribably happy firework, something that was somehow more real than anything he had seen since arriving, and all of a sudden something finally felt incredibly right.

To his frustration, what that 'something' was fizzled away the moment he tried to grasp it, but it didn't matter any more. Naruto, surveying the classroom, with its selection of apparently perfect strangers, suddenly felt as though he knew exactly where he was, who he was and where he was standing.

The teacher at the desk peered over the top of a small paperback book and cleared his throat. "So, let's hear this introduction then. Your name, your likes, your dislikes, your dreams and all those absolutely fascinating little details I'm sure we will all have our lives greatly enriched by in hearing."

An introduction? He was going to give them all an introduction alright. He was going to give them an introduction that would show them exactly who he was.

He was Uzumaki Naruto, and Uzumaki Naruto did not let small things - like waking up on a coach without any memories and stepping into a life he wasn't entirely sure was his - get to him, and no way was he going to let whatever was happening to him beat him down.

Naruto snatched up the box of chalks and drew out his name in huge yellow and red letters across the length of the board. When the the final 'to' katakana was coloured in, Naruto dusted off his hands, pretended to wipe the sweat from his forehead and turned to the class with his hands on his hips and the biggest grin he could muster.

"The name is Uzumaki Naruto!" he said, and he pointed at his face with his thumb, just in case some of the guys at the back needed some help fixing him in their memories. "I have no idea why I'm here, or where I came from, but that's alright, because the only thing you guys need to know is that I am awesome, and, girls, that I am awesome and single. I like ramen. If I ruled the world, there would be a dedicated time of the day just for eating ramen with jingly bells going off in churches and stuff to tell you when it's Ramen Holy Hour. My dream is to become President of Everything. Things I don't like? I don't like people who put other people down, people who mess with other people's heads and people who've got a problem with me who don't say it to my face, so if any of you ever have a problem with me, bring it on."

Naruto punched one hand into the other and beamed around the classroom with his most daring of smiles. "Come at me if you think you're hard enough!"

Stunned silence, but for a small smattering of applause from Kiba, barely suppressed giggling from a gaggle of girls and a weary sigh from the back of the classroom, which to Naruto's ears translated to a highly satisfying, "Oh boy, here comes trouble."

"Well, now that the testosterone level in this classroom has finished spiking, thank you, Uzumaki-kun. Take a seat. There's a seat by Hyuuga-san just over there." The man in the face mask pointed his ruler at an empty seat next to a pretty girl with long dark hair. "I expect that the rest of the class will introduce themselves and drag you into their oh-so-important teenage shenanigans in due course. Yippee for high school drama. Hurray for hormonal angst. I'm Mr. Hatake, but Kakashi-sensei will do."

Naruto went to his seat with a swagger in his step. He slid in beside the girl, chair legs screeching, stretched his legs under the desk and crossed his arms behind his head.

"This is totally the cool corner of the classroom," he announced to the world at large, as he settled down into his seat. He turned to the girl who was staring at him with the same wide-eyed astonishment as she might a landing alien spaceship. "Hyuuga-san, right? It's nice to meet you."

The girl started, looked away and, twisting her hands in her lap, she replied, "I-it's nice to meet you too, Uzumaki-kun."

Her voice was so soft it was only just above a whisper, and Naruto almost had to squint to read her lips, but she seemed nice enough, albeit on the ultraviolet end of the shrinking spectrum.

He smiled at her, tried to be encouraging. "Hey, we're cool-corner buddies. You can call me Naruto."

As Kakashi read out the morning's notices and room changes for lessons, the girl looked up and met Naruto's gaze with a very small smile. "Y-you can call me Hinata."

Then she blushed furiously, opened up her literature textbook and hid her face behind it.

"Now, lucky for all you keen and eager students ready to romp to the top of academic excellence," Kakashi said, standing up and tucking in his chair without moving his eyes from the pages of the novel, "we have a free study period first, and I have to attend a meeting. I'm sure that I don't need to remind you all to make good use of this time, for studying. Did you hear that, Inuzuka? Nara? For studying."

"Sure, sensei," shot back Kiba. He winked at Naruto.

"And I expect you all to make Uzumaki-kun feel at home." The class responded unanimously in an affirmative cacophony of "mm"s and "yessir"s, and Naruto revelled in the feeling of all eyes coming to rest on him.

"Alright then," Kakashi opened the door and surveyed the class with a single, bored eye. He lifted his hand in an airy wave just before the door closed. "See you, rabble. Have fun studying."

They listened to his long lazy strides slowly echo away down the hallway, fading into the distance, and as soon as they disappeared, the room exploded with noise and activity.

A group of boys on the other side of the classroom pulled their tables together and started setting up for mahjong, but all the rest descended upon Naruto and Hinata's corner with a torrent of questions.

"Hey, hey! Shove off you lot. Give the man some space!" said Kiba, shouldering through the crowd of students and shooing them away. When they had retreated grumbling to the desks and fished out their magazines and comic books, Kiba shot a small smile down at Hinata. "Alright, Hinata?"

She nodded and smiled gratefully back. Kiba turned his attention to Naruto and whistled."Hey, transfer student! Holy hell. If you wanted to make an impression, you goddamn did it. Even Shikamaru was sitting up and listening."

At the sound of his name, the boy at the desk behind Kiba lifted his head from his arms. "Kiba, when people talk at the kind of volume that guy was talking at, it's too much of an effort trying to block them out."

Kiba indicated the boy with a jerk of his head. "That's Nara Shikamaru. Don't ask him to do anything unless your life is on the line or something. Even then, think twice, because this guy's too lazy to lift even a pencil."

"Hi," Naruto greeted Shikamaru, waving for good measure.

Shikamaru briefly regarded Naruto with some interest, then yawned, stretched and sighed. "Troublesome."

And with apparently little else to say, the boy buried his head in his own arms and fell instantly asleep.

"That's Shikamaru for you," said Kiba with a toothy grin. "He sleeps through pretty much everything. I don't even know how, man. My teachers pick me up on it instantly…"

"Maybe it's because you're so loud…" a plump, cheerful-looking boy added mildly, having joined the growing group around Naruto with a bag of crisps in hand. "And maybe it's because… unlike you… Shikamaru is actually getting good grades these days…"

"No-one asked you, Chouji," Kiba said sullenly, folding his arms.

As the two bickered behind him, Naruto took the chance to glance around the classroom. It was all the usual blank faces with the usual buzz of noise - cliques of girls that snickered and muttered in low voices (occasionally turning around to look at him), boys messing around with baseballs, phones being checked and gasped over, lots of bad jokes and overloud laughter.

His eyes came to a stop on the far right corner of the classroom.

There was a boy sitting in silence at his desk. Dark haired and dark eyed, he was holding a textbook in one hand and reading with such a disinterested expression Naruto half-wondered if he was doing it just to avoid being talked to. He looked surly, bored and about as likely to have a sense of humour as a tree. Naruto wouldn't have been surprised if his frown lines spelled out 'bastard' across his forehead.

And Naruto knew him.

But where? Where had he seen him before…?

The boy started, and looked up from his book.

Their eyes met.

Eyes widened. Eyebrows lifted. Eyes narrowed.

The gaze lasted a long moment, until-

"Sasuke-kuuuun!"

An army of girls stormed to the back of the classroom, buoyed by a cloud of cheap perfume, and swarmed around the boy's desk. Ignoring the girls with an expertise that could only have come from a lifetime of practice, the boy turned a page of his textbook and continued to read, but Naruto spotted the steadily deepening frown and clenching jaw and couldn't help but grin.

Hah! That guy wasn't so good at keeping his cool as he obviously liked to think.

"The chick magnet over there?" Naruto asked Kiba, pointing at the dark-haired boy with a flick of his thumb. "Not that he looks like he cares..."

"Uchiha Sasuke," Chouji said, his tone as though he were reciting from a book. "Heartthrob with a tragic backstory. Despite the attention he gets from women, he shows little to no interest in them. Pretty much every guy hates him for it."

Naruto nodded. "Sounds annoying… wait, backstory?"

"Uh, anyway," Kiba said, intercepting quickly, "he's a dick. Don't let it get you down if he's a total ass to you. It's probably his form of welcoming ritual…"

A boy with a high-collared jacket and a pair of dark glasses shuffled next to Kiba, and Naruto wondered when he'd even gotten there. "Kiba likely dislikes Sasuke because of that one occasion with this girl he had a crush on. Why? Because-"

Kiba poked the boy in the side of the head, expression irritated. "It's been like ten minutes, and you're already trying to ruin my reputation with this guy."

"I'm sure you were doing that well enough on your own," the high-collared boy added quietly, pushing his glasses up his nose, and Kiba twitched.

"This is Shino," Kiba explained in a half-hearted growl. He slung his arm around the newcomer's shoulder. "Kinda quiet, but he's cool. When he's not being an ass to me."

"Yo," Naruto said, grinning widely and leaning back on his chair.

Kiba nudged Naruto with his elbow, wiggling his eyebrows vigorously. "I saw you talking to Hinata earlier. 'Sup with that?"

"A little overprotective, Kiba?" Chouji jibed, and Kiba batted him about the head. Chouji wailed, pouting and rubbing the point of contact.

"I don't need to be protective of her. If Neji found out someone was trying to flirt with Hinata, they'd die. Knee to the balls. Potentially the spine. No questions asked."

Naruto winced more in sympathy for his manpride, and less so for his life. "Neji?"

"He's her cousin in the year above." Chouji put his hand on Naruto's shoulder and looked grimly into his face. "He's scary. Don't do it, Naruto."

"Uzumaki-kun!"

Naruto turned towards the strident female voice with his most welcoming of smiles. "Hey, feel free to call me Naruto - "

He stopped.

The girl in front of them, with long bubblegum pink hair, was smiling gently at him, green eyed and pretty. Naruto pushed down a blush, and tried to speak, but his tongue had suddenly turned as limp and useless as a dead caterpillar.

"Hi," she said, before putting her hands behind her back and shuffling her feet. "I just came over to talk to you about clubs! Have you decided which one you want to join yet?"

Naruto slipped on his words, mouth dry, and he heard Kiba snicker behind him. "Er...no, not yet. What…what ones are the people I know in? And um- what's your name?"

She blinked, before smiling brightly and laughing. "Sorry! I forgot to introduce myself. I'm Haruno Sakura!" Her cheerful charm captured Naruto in a whirlpool of pink and heaven ('and berries, holy crap, she smells like an angel!'). She started counting off her fingers. "I'm in the Debating Club…Chouji's in Cookery, Kiba's in Biology with Shino, Shikamaru's in the Shougi Club. He's really good at it, you know! And… Ino's in Flower-arranging and -"

"What about Sasuke?" Naruto asked, curiously, but the innocent question somehow changed Sakura's pretty smile to a badly-concealed frown.

"He's not in any club," she said stiffly. Then she was smiling again, and bouncing on her feet as though she was impatient with excitement. "Well, anyway, Naruto, I just came over here to tell you that Debating Club would be so happy to have you! Clubs are compulsory in Torikago, so you'll have to join something eventually, but I think you've got a little until you need to decide. Feel free to come check it out!"

Naruto nodded fervently. "Uh, okay, thanks."

Sakura grinned. "Think about it, okay?" she said. "I'll see you, Naruto!"

The moment she was out of earshot, Kiba collapsed with laughter.

"Oh man, you sucker," he snorted derisively, "You've got the hots for her?! You should see her temper! I'd have mind to tell her, but she'd break your goddamn bones!"

Naruto pushed into the side of Kiba's head with his palm, before frowning. "Kiba," he said, "Why's Sasuke not in any clubs? Sakura said they were compulsory..."

"He's too cool for 'em."

"Seriously?"

Kiba suddenly looked uneasy. He scratched behind his ear, licked his lips and glanced over his shoulder. When he spoke again, he had lowered his voice and his tone had become serious. "Nah… it's a bit more than that. He got special permission to drop out after what happened to his family."

Naruto's eyes widened. "What? Why? What happened?"

Kiba made a hurried shushing noise and looked over his shoulder again, towards the corner where Sasuke was still resolutely pretending that his legion of fangirls weren't shrilling their undying love for him about his desk.

"Just don't talk about his brother when he's around," Chouji added solemnly. "Or brothers in general, actually."

"Why?"

It was as though the air itself thickened around them, and even Shikamaru - who Naruto had thought to be asleep - shifted uncomfortably in his arms.

"Man, it's just kinda horrible," Kiba said, tone quiet and subdued and out of place in the hecticity of the classroom. "Can we not talk about this?"

"Yeah…"

Naruto snuck another glance at Sasuke; the boy looked up at him for a brief moment, before Sasuke glared at him and looked away. The period ended without further incident, but Naruto's imagination wandered. The long stretch of sky outside the window drew away his focus, and his mind was lost.

Naruto's school day was relatively busy; he'd sat next to Shikamaru, who he found - when he wasn't sleeping - was far more intelligent than Naruto could ever hope to be, and then Kiba was next to him in another, and he had found his passion for dogs and veterinarian pursuits.

He also discovered that his P.E. teacher was a man with a penchant for green spandex suits that showed far more anatomical definition than Naruto cared to know about, and a habit of bursting into floods of tears over a student's progress. Kiba also insisted, with plenty of arm-nudging and embarrassment on Naruto's part, on introducing him to the popular male student game of guessing the cup-size of their principal, until Sakura appeared and glowered Kiba into a squeaky apology.

Their lunch hour was spent with Kiba giving Naruto a disorganised tour of the school. The school was made up of four interlocking C-shaped buildings, some parts brick and some parts concrete, arranged around the sports grounds and car-park; Naruto never even managed to actually have his lunch, because Kiba thought that the tour couldn't possibly be complete without going to see the tennis courts and chicken sheds.

But the sense of something other, something supernatural, supervising him became stronger yet when Naruto began to walk home.

Naruto had decided to take a different, longer route back to his flat. The walk was supposed to clear his head. All it did was make him feel increasingly unnerved.

He had never been down these streets before. He knew in the same way that he knew that he was Uzumaki Naruto, and that he was new to this town and the school.

He knew that he never been down this street before with the same conviction that after another few more streets, three blocks, a walk through a park and then a narrow alleyway that squeezed between a barbershop and a cafe, he would reach the front door of the flat that he now called home.

"I've never been here before," he repeated to himself out loud, earning an odd look from an old man who had joined him at the crossroads. The sign was yet to change. "I'm new to this town. There is no way I'd know the way back."

The red light winked out. The green man switched on.

The two sides of the crosswalk moved forward, flowing into each other, melting through in time to the crosswalk chimes, and Naruto's feet navigated him through with an ease that he would have called habit if only he had crossed this road before.

He shivered, and it had little to do with the cool air that had blasted out from the convenience store that he passed.

At the next road he needed to cross and turn left, he spun on his heels and went right, whistling between his teeth as he did so.

"Shouldn't you be going home, Uzumaki Naruto?"

Naruto froze mid-step. The whistle died on his lips. He glanced over his shoulder and met the gaze of a young woman, who was standing at the crosswalk, clutching the hand of a little girl.

The little girl was watching him too. Her eyes stared out from under the brim of her yellow bucket hat - wide, dark and hollow.

"Yeah, I'll go eventually," shot back Naruto, with a bravado he didn't entirely feel. "But I thought, since I'm new here and all, why not take a detour and get a feel for the place? It's been pretty strange so far, but maybe that's just my bad first impression."

The little girl's mouth that dropped open like a trapdoor, and as the voice of a grown woman came out from a six year old girl's round face, a chill ran down Naruto's spine. "All adjust eventually. There is no need for you to be afraid."

"Who said anything about afraid?" He breathed in and took a step towards the little girl. "Who the hell are you anyway? How do you know my name?"

At that moment, the crosswalk lights changed. The little girl blinked, looked away from Naruto, and then she and her mother were crossing to the other side with small, hurried steps.

"Hey!" he called after them, as they melded with the crowd. "Hey, wait, I'm not finished with you yet! Come back!"

"Uzumaki Naruto."

He whirled round and came face to face with a group of five middle school girls - all rolled up sleeves, experimental make-up and jangling keychains on their bags.

"It was the name you gave us when you registered," came the voice of the woman again, this time from the lips of a tall girl with pimples between her eyebrows. "Whether it was your real name or not I cannot say, but it is what you told us to call you."

"And by 'us' you mean who exactly?" Naruto demanded.

The girls drew closer. He swallowed, stood firm where he was. The girl with pimples was towering over him by a foot. From the other side of the street, it would have looked as though - shame of shames - a high school boy was being bullied by a gang of middle school girls.

"Allow me to introduce myself," said the voice, again through the empty face of the girl. "Hello, Naruto. I am the Server. Welcome to the Story."

"The Story?"

"A pleasant realm of make-believe for our conquered subjects to play in. Our grand game for all mankind." The voice of the Server smiled, but the girl did not. "Thank you for entering voluntarily. We have high hopes for you, Uzumaki Naruto. We look forward to how you might come to entertain us."

Her voice grated on his ears. He gritted his teeth. "Yeah, except, I'm not interested in entertaining anybody."

"Oh, not anybody." All of a sudden the middle school girls were moving on. Naruto was left wildly searching around for the new source of the voice. He spotted an old man on a bench, a walking stick propped against his knee, and the old man's mouth dropped open. "You will be entertaining everybody. Do keep that in mind as you play."

Naruto walked towards the old man and came to a stop beside him. "What is that even supposed to mean?"

The Server made a small noise of amusement that didn't quite fit the crinkled lips it came through. "The upload filter was supposed to select for intelligent subjects, but no matter. As you weren't here for the start of this round, I will explain. The aim of this game is story creation and progression. You and your fellow human players, Naruto, are agents of the plot."

"Plot. Right." Naruto thought for a moment. "You know, I think I might have lost it already. The plot."

"This particular Story game that you have volunteered to take part in is a high school drama setting," the Server went on smoothly, as though Naruto hadn't interrupted, and now her voice was coming from the television shop further along the street. The old man relaxed back into his slumber on the bench, his chin resting on his chest. "We based all our Story games on dramatic scenarios our researchers discovered were popular and well known amongst your people, so that you human players would behave to your greatest dramatic potential."

On the television screens in the shop window, the blank-eyed newsreader looked up and shuffled her cards in her hands and the Server spoke: "In taking part in this game, Uzumaki Naruto, there are three basic rules that must be observed.

"One, all must endeavour for plot progression. Any attempt to hinder, impede or rewind the plot will be severely punished.

"Two, all must play for the greater good of the audience's pleasure. Any attempt to stagnate the Story will be severely punished.

"Three, all actions carried out by players that severely affect the cast or plot must be proposed to I, the arbiter, the Server, first before execution. Any unpermitted actions will be severely punished."

Naruto repeated the rules to himself then shook his head as though clearing water from his ears and focused on the newsreader smiling prettily out of the screens. "Okay," he said, and the newsreader continued to smile. "I get it. Everybody here - all the humans in here - are characters, and for some reason - "

"For the entertainment and pleasure of your loyal and very excited audience," purred the Server from every television in the shop.

" - we're trying to make a story. Fine. I'll humour you. But if this is a game," Naruto took a deep shaky breath and looked the newsreader in the eye, "how do I win?"

"There are many ways to win," said the Server, her voice soft and soothing, now from the mouth of the weather man as he gestured at a patch of sunshine. "You could survive to still be a member of the cast when the final episode comes round. Perhaps you could top our character popularity poll. Perhaps you and your fellow humans manage to build the perfect Story, or perhaps we will reward you for keeping us so thoroughly entertained. It rather does depend on the progress of the Story, and what sort of ending you arrive at…"

The weather man pointed his drumstick towards the north and grimaced, indicating a patch of low pressure weather. Naruto stared. "Then how did the last guy win?"

"Do not worry, Naruto. A human has yet to win this game, so you are under no pressure at all to live up to any sort of species standard." The news bulletin ended, went into the commercials and next time the Server spoke it was as a buxom blonde in a bikini, lying on a beach with a box of chocolates at hand. "You can play to your heart's content."

Naruto's face reddened and anger and indignation rose up inside him like a flame in oxygen. "So we don't stand a chance of winning until you decide on some whim of yours that we can?!"

"I didn't say that, Naruto. Perhaps you should calm down." The blonde woman selected a chocolate and bit into it, a strand of caramel bridging the gap between the chocolate and her lips. "I can see that you are getting somewhat upset."

"'Somewhat upset'? Upset? You have no idea about 'upset', but I tell you what, Server," he shook his finger at the face that came next - a man in a shaving cream advert, running manicured fingers over a stubble-less chin, "by the time I'm through with you, this world, and this whole stupid game, you will know exactly what 'upset' means, because I will win this. Just you watch me."

"So you will be playing to win?" Naruto jumped. This time it was a middle-aged man, jogging on the spot, his belly bouncing up and down in the folds of his T-shirt. "And what do you expect as a prize, Uzumaki Naruto?"

"I want out," he said instantly, balling his hands into fists. "I want out of whatever pathetic, sick-minded, story-world this is that you've cooked up."

The jogger's hair flopped up and down on his forehead. "Out where, Naruto? Just where exactly do you think you will be when you leave this game?"

Naruto opened his mouth to shout back his answer, but then stopped, because where his mind went to look for the source of his conviction, it found only blank, ragged emptiness, as though a part of him had been carved out and half-heartedly patched with shadow.

"You don't even remember there ever being such a place, do you?" the Server taunted him, triumphant and scornful. "Poor Uzumaki Naruto. Lost Uzumaki Naruto. Pitiable Uzumaki Naruto. If that is the case, how can you be so sure that there is anything beyond this game at all? Who is to say that nothing is on the other side but a devastated world, a reality so terrible not even you could face it anymore?"

"I know there is something! I just know, like the same way I know who I am, and I know…" he frowned and thought hard, "I know I'm here for a reason…I'm here to look for someone."

The Server laughed, and it was disconcerting to hear such loud and icy laughter coming from the jogger's face when the man's expression remained as still and stiff as plastic. "Gut feelings? You believe in your instincts?"

"I'm Uzumaki Naruto. My guts speak the truth," he said solemnly, "and I listen to my guts."

"How very human," the Server commented, and Naruto had a distinct feeling that she was disgusted. "Then consider this. Perhaps I was the one who constructed those gut feelings inside you, and that belief of yours - of something beyond this game - was just something added to you, to spice you up as a contributing character. Maybe that purpose of yours was just something I created to give you dynamism, so it were."

"Don't flatter yourself," Naruto retorted with a grin, but even he knew it looked forced. "You wouldn't know first thing about how to make a person, because you don't have any imagination - otherwise, how come you need us players to make up the Story for your audience? You're just...you're just the voice in the elevator!"

"The voice in the what?"

"Yeah," said Naruto breathlessly, frustration fading into confidence as he got into his stride, "the one that tells you what floor you're on, when the doors are opening, to mind the gap, stuff like that. That's all you are. The really annoying voice in the elevator."

The Server seemed distinctly unimpressed. "I see."

"And I am me," Naruto pushed on, certain that the Server was listening even though the jogger had moved on. "And I'm going to win this game, and beat you."

Laughter, and this time it came from the top of a wall, from a small white cat. It washed its whiskers, stretched then looked down at Naruto from its perch. "Then we will be watching you as you play, Uzumaki Naruto. We will be watching you closely. I must say, I do hope that we can be friends in this. Despite what you seem to think, I am on your side - the side of the players. This reality of mine has been designed to make the most of mankind's potential."

"I don't have a clue what you're talking about, but we are in no way going to be friends." Naruto strode on past the cat and he felt the Server's gaze follow him down the street. He had had enough long ago. "I don't make friends with elevators."

"That may be so," the Server called after him, her tone amused. "But if there is anything you would like to know, feel free to ask. There is always a face in the crowd, and I am always there."

Naruto raised his hand, stuck up his middle finger and directed it over his shoulder.

He walked on down the street. He could feel the cat staring after him. He kept his breathing even, kept his pace collected, until he reached the junction and turned into an alley. Only then did he break into a run.

He didn't stop running, and, although it frustrated him when he realised exactly where he was running to, he didn't stop until he was there - standing outside the door of a flat, heaving for breath.

The doormat inside was decorated with a printed black font:

"WELCOME HOME, NARUTO."


A/N; ELE: After hours of hard work, the chapter is finally finished! And I can assure you it's all down to the flawless work of my co-writer Zenthisoror. Her genius truly blooms in these sorts of creative environments, so check her out whilst you're here.

Of all the projects I've worked on so far, this is by far the most fun (and complex. Beware!), so forgive me if this one gets a bit more focus, and just let me indulge myself for a while, okay? ;)

ZEN: Hello there! Zen speaking. It is a pleasure and a privilege to be collaborating with the talented AlmostElectric, and we've had immense fun creating and plotting this world together. It began with Naruto logging into a game and spiralled very much out of control from there.

What kind of feel are we going for? Well, Electric likes Persona 4 and I rather like Ergo Proxy, and we both wanted to try our hand at a high school story that wasn't just a high school story. It is rather complicated - lots of layers, very ambitious, and definitely a challenge - so it will be lovely to know what you make of it. Thank you for reading Final Story! Best, Zen :D