Naruto: Eye of the Beholder

by The SOC Puppet

Prologue – Shades of Gray

Summary: AU, with spoilers for manga through Ch. 197. Naruto, now 17, is sent alone behind enemy lines, and what he discovers there will shake a rebuilding Leaf Village to its very core.

Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto or any of the characters in this story, except for originals that may pop up along the way. All jutsus are also not my property, other than the ones I think up.

" " – Speech

Italics – Thoughts

He was tired, but that went without saying. It had been that way for years. Tired of the killing, the lying, the corrupting. Maybe even tired of living.

What good is a Bloodline Ability? What has it been good for but a life of pain, death and lies?

He would gladly have switched places with anyone who had asked for his "powers," had they only been there to witness one young man's daily torment.

In the end, the hatred he poured out upon his life didn't help, any more than it had in countless mornings since the world had changed forever. There were still things to do, missions to accomplish – whether anyone knew about it or not. Discarding his useless thoughts, he strode out into the world, shoulders bowing slightly, as though acknowledging the burden they now carried. It was time to work.

"Naruto! Will you pay attention? This is work time, not daydreaming time!"

The blonde Leaf-nin turned his head from where he'd been looking out the window, wincing as he saw the expression on the Fifth Hokage's face. Tsunade hadn't changed much since coming back to the Leaf, except for letting her outer image age a little. She'd never admit it, and Naruto didn't press her on it, but releasing the seal on her Souzou Saisei (Genesis Reborn) technique against Orochimaru had taken more out of the legendary kunoichi than she'd thought. Tsunade had had to drop her young girl act to keep from burning out, vanity losing to sensibility. Her temper, though… Some things never change.

Naruto couldn't blame the Fifth for getting mad. Daydreaming while being briefed for an S-Rank mission was something he should have been long past doing. It was especially true now that he'd finally made Jounin, at 17, long after the age Kakashi-sensei had done it at.

But as much as he knew it was wrong, he couldn't keep his thoughts from drifting. Geez, trust Sakura to get all nostalgic about that traitor even after five years…

It had taken one sentence to turn Naruto's mental clock back that far, back to a time when he'd been a brash, dense boy only interested in his own glory. When Uchiha Sasuke had still been a Leaf shinobi, beloved by nearly all. It was a time Naruto didn't look back on with fondness.

"I can't believe Sasuke's been gone for five years now, and nobody's heard a thing."

It hadn't been for lack of trying. Naruto himself had joined Shikamaru, Kiba, Neji, and Choji in tracking down his ex-teammate just after his defection, but they had been beaten back by Orochimaru's four guardian shinobi, Neji and Choji nearly dying in the process. In the end, Sasuke had escaped the village without even lifting a finger to aid his exit. Nothing had been the same since.

With the Leaf in turmoil, every able-bodied shinobi had been mustered to carry out the few missions left for them. Genin teams had been reorganized, some due to injury, others because Jounin sensei were needed elsewhere. No mission outside the village had been safe, not even the easy ones Naruto had once hated, as enemy villages began trying to destroy Konoha for good.

Under such circumstances, everyone had had to grow up fast – whether they liked it or not. The difficult missions that Naruto had once begged for, he'd gotten, but with them, he'd had to fight for real. His job now included a lot more violence and death than the hotheaded Leaf-nin had ever imagined. Tsunade's job promised much more of the same, just by its very rank.

"Hey, I got the basics. You want an extraction, pulling one of our eyes and ears out of the fire. No sweat; my team can get the job done. Just give me the location."

He frowned as the Fifth Hokage shook her head, pigtails swishing behind her. This was definitely no ordinary mission. If Tsunade didn't even think his team could accomplish the goal, he wasn't sure he wanted to know what had to be done.

"You're going solo. The risk is too high to have too many people take the mission, and none of your teammates is at your skill level. Were you to get attacked, you'd have to spend time and energy helping them survive. We don't have that kind of leeway right now."

"How fast do you want this done? If they're deep enough behind enemy lines, it could take a while for me to penetrate security and get close enough to find the target."

Tsunade sighed, reaching into the disorderly piles of paper on her desk and pulling out a ragged envelope.

"This has to be done now, Naruto, as fast as you can get there. Normally I'd overlook an erratic report or two, missed deadlines, strange offhand comments. But the agent in question has always been diligent and devoted to the mission that was assigned. To lose control like this may mean the mission's been compromised, or that the agent is starting to lose their sanity. We can't have that happening to someone who's done so much for the Leaf."

Naruto nodded, figuring that agreeing was the best way to keep the Fifth from staying ticked at him.

"I'm on it."

Accepting the mission was the easy part, after all.

By the time Naruto had received all of the necessary materials from Tsunade, including an incredibly corny code phrase and half of a Leaf forehead protector, the sun was already beginning to set. Emerging from the office, he hefted the bag the Fifth had given him and shook his head. The guys are going to kill me for this. I just know it.

Just as the blonde Jounin was getting ready to sneak back home, Fate and Irony gave him a swift kick in the pants.

"Naruto! Where's the Fifth sending us this time?"

Turning around, he caught sight of his team, the valued comrades he had come to treasure for the past five years. People he was proud to have fought beside – and whom he would now be leaving behind on a very risky mission.

On the day Sasuke had betrayed the village, it had looked like Rock Lee would never be a shinobi again. Beaten within an inch of his life by Gaara of the Desert, even Tsunade had been reluctant to try and heal his damaged spine. Thankfully, Lee's spirit and determination had prevailed, pulling him through the Fifth's surgery. His limited talent kept him from becoming more than the Chuunin he was, but Lee could proudly say that he was one of the strongest fighters in the village. For the thick-browed teen and his idol Gai, that was more than enough.

Hyuga Neji was another of the hardened survivors in Naruto's squad, a Chuunin on the verge of getting his own promotion to command. Having killed Kidoumaru, one of Orochimaru's Four Sounds, the branch house Hyuga was saved by the timely arrival of Shizune, the Fifth's apprentice, who healed him enough to get him back to the village for further treatment. After realizing that he really could change his fate, Neji had mellowed slightly, though he still acted aloof from his teammates sometimes. Even so, Naruto had found a friend and comrade in Neji; perhaps even a rival, like Sasuke had once been for him, without the mutual dislike.

Those wondering why Neji was still aloof didn't have to look further than his cousin (and teammate), Hyuga Hinata. No longer the shy Genin she had once been, Naruto's example had led her to break away from a family that no longer wanted her, moving in to live with her sensei, Yuuhi Kurenai. Without the constricting influence of the Hyugas, Hinata had come into her own, blending the Gentle Fist with Kurenai's mastery of genjutsu to form her own fighting style. She'd achieved the freedom Neji so greatly desired, and her personality had blossomed to go with it. It had made her so cheerful she annoyed Neji half the time, but most people agreed that was a welcome change, Naruto among them.

His last teammate was the one who had spoken, and the one Naruto least wanted to see. Not because he hated her, but because he knew he'd never keep his mission a secret from her.

Temari of the Desert looked much the same as she had the first time she'd come to the Leaf, just more mature. Now 20 years old, she was about to reach Jounin as well. Temari and her younger brother, the fearsome Gaara, had come over to the Leaf four years past, just as the wars between the villages had begun. The Sand village, reeling badly from losing its Kazekage and many other shinobi after attacking the Leaf, had no choice but to ask the Leaf to join hands in alliance again. Not as trusting as the Third, Tsunade had required shinobi from both villages to be exchanged, ensuring that both the Leaf and the Sand would not violate the agreement lightly.

Shikamaru, the most intelligent (and therefore least likely to be ambushed) of the younger Leaf-nins, had led Choji, Kiba, and Shino to the Sand, teaming with Kankuro and other Sand-nins. In return, the Leaf had gotten the late Kazekage's other two children, Temari and Gaara, along with several other promising Sand-nins. Most people agreed the trade was more than fair, as long as someone could contain the demon that slept within Gaara. For reasons only she knew, the Fifth Hokage had declared that person to be none other than Uzumaki Naruto.

Having two unfamiliar people move in with him had been no picnic, especially when one of them housed a demon as deadly as the Ninetails. And yet, the longer he lived with Temari and Gaara, the more Naruto began to get used to it, and even – perish the thought – to like it. Of course, helping Gaara to control his urges and thoughts had been a hellish journey, and he still wasn't entirely done. But for the first time in his life, Uzumaki Naruto had something that (just barely) felt like a family.

He had been surprised to see Temari show concern for anyone, after the humiliation she'd heaped on Tenten during the preliminaries. Still, she had stuck around to retrieve Gaara after Naruto had beaten him. When Naruto had had problems keeping the other boy calm, or when Gaara was in pain from Shuukaku trying to regain control, Temari had been there to lend a hand. When he asked her why, on one particularly hard night, the Sand kunoichi began a conversation that had showed each of them a new dimension on the other.

"You know, it's strange seeing you take such an interest in fixing what's wrong with him. I thought everyone in the Sand was scared spitless around Gaara."

Temari shook her head, a brief smile on her face.

"I'm still a little scared of him, but there's something that makes the fear seem trivial."

"Whaddaya mean, trivial? He's no slouch, and I should know. You have some secret technique to whip his ass with?"

"No." The Sand kunoichi looked down at her little brother, the sweat of some fever dream beading his brow. "It's just that he's all I have left in the world, with Kankuro so far away. Without family, I'd have nothing, and I don't know if I could stand that after all that's happened."

When Naruto didn't respond for a long while, Temari had looked over to see what he was doing. She was surprised to see the Leaf-nin with a rare expression on his face – almost sad. For someone as upbeat as Naruto usually was, something had to have been bothering him.

"Did I say something wrong?"

The blonde boy muttered something she couldn't catch, his shoulders hunching inwards. Leaning over, Temari glanced at his face, tilted downwards and looking at the floor.

"What did you say?"

"…I said at least you have a family."

It hadn't really dawned on the Sand kunoichi that Naruto had no family until that moment. Suddenly a lot more things stood out about his house – the fact that it hadn't looked very lived in, the absence of any pictures, and just a generally empty feeling. A rather uncomfortable question came to mind. Perhaps this was a sore point because of what she and Gaara represented?

"…Did they die when my village attacked?"

"Nah." Naruto waved off Temari's hesitant query, his head still down. "They've been dead since I was a baby. I've never known them, and nobody can even remember who they were. Even if they did know, it's not like they'd tell me."

Looking up at Gaara laying there asleep, the spiky-haired boy sighed.

"Back when I first met Gaara, I thought I had it easy compared to him, 'cause I at least had some people who cared about me. Guess in the end, he's the one who's got it good."

Temari had shrugged, thinking back to how stormy her relationship with Gaara and Kankuro had once been.

"Having family's no great shakes, either. You can have your fair share of blowups even if you're supposed to love one another. There were some siblings I knew in the Sand Village who had an argument and didn't even speak to each other for a year. Why would you want to get entangled like that?"

Naruto shook his head, a hint of a smile on his face.

"For someone who supposedly takes family seriously, you sure miss a lot of stuff."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Sure, you're gonna have arguments with somebody you love once in a while. I mean, Iruka-sensei and I get along fine, and we still yell at each other pretty often over dumb stuff. But when push comes ta shove, I'm pretty sure I'd fight alongside him, and he'd do the same for me. It's the same for you and Gaara, ain't it? When I beat him down, didn't you and Kankuro come back for him? The good and the bad are a package deal, if you're lucky enough to have a family."

"Wait a minute," she had said, looking at Naruto quizzically. "Doesn't Iruka count as family to you?"

Naruto shrugged.

"Did for a while, but I realized he has to look out for all his students too. These days we barely even have the time to say hello to each other, he's so busy. We care about each other, but I'd say we're just really good friends. Maybe he feels differently, I dunno. But the way things are, I don't really think that's like a family relationship."

For someone who usually made impulsive decisions about everything, Naruto appeared surprisingly finicky about his opinion on families. At least that was how it had seemed to Temari.

"So what would a family be like to you?"

Once again, Naruto paused. This time his face lit up like a fireplace, going bright red, and he went back to mumbling again. The Sand kunoichi sighed.

"Oh, just say it. It's not like I'm going to bite your head off."

"Something like this, how the three of us are right now, livin' here. That's the kind of thing I always wondered about, what it'd be like."

It was a simple statement, but it had made a lot of things click into place. Like why Naruto was always so hyper, ready to try and prove himself. The boy probably figured that would get him noticed, taken in by some sympathetic figure. He wasn't loud for the sake of being loud, or brash because he was a jerk (although he could have fooled Temari sometimes). It was more to help him find somewhere he belonged, where he didn't have to be a hero to be welcomed and cared about. Where he really could take it for granted that someone would support him, and encourage him, just for what he was. Having lacked that for so long, it was no wonder Naruto would only consider people living together to be a real family.

Temari didn't have much experience with emotional stuff, even with what had been happening with Gaara. What she did know was that she now admired the Leaf-nin quite a bit more than she had at the beginning of their conversation. For all of the things that Gaara had lacked as a child, he had still had some advantages. He had known that something of his mother's soul still stayed with him, in the form of the sand that protected him. And more importantly, he'd had siblings. Even if they hadn't loved him, at least they had been there to fight by his side.

Naruto had had none of that, nothing to protect him from the hatred and the wounds, whether physical or emotional. In fact, from what she had heard, Naruto's standing in the Leaf had been almost as bad as Gaara's in the Sand. For someone under those circumstances to turn out like Naruto, still capable of caring for others, and willing to try and heal an old enemy, was nothing short of a miracle. The Leaf doesn't know what a treasure it has. If they did, they'd all worship him for not destroying them all after what they put him through.

Temari of the Desert was not one to worship anyone, but she had a better idea in mind for the blonde boy anyway.

"You know," she began, looking over at Naruto, "other than Kankuro, Baki-sensei and I, you're one of the few people who's ever been interested in Gaara for reasons other than killing him or beating him at something. And I know you're the only one besides the Hokage who cares enough to try and give him back control of his life."

Naruto looked confused, trying to figure out what she was getting at.

"So what're you trying to say?"

Better to keep things simple, she had figured, and work from there.

"Being able to understand Gaara and do all this for him practically makes you like family to me, and I think even if he doesn't say it, Gaara probably feels something like that too. With Kankuro half the world away, I think a replacement brother would be nice to have."

Naruto snorted, but Temari could see the thanks in his eyes.

"Replacement, huh? What, I'm not the complete package you're looking for?"

"No," she had grinned, "you lack a certain something. Maybe if we got you a puppet, it would be perfect."

"If that's the case," he groused, "I think I'll stay a replacement."

Neither of them would have guessed that something as simple as a conversation would have led to so much, but it had. Naruto was still closer to Temari, but he and Gaara had come to something of an understanding – neither would try to kill the other, and they'd build from that. For two people with such savage darkness hidden within them, such an arrangement was monumental in itself, and it had somehow held up – and grown – for four years. The two "demon children" might not have been bosom buddies, but they understood and respected each other as well as blood brothers.

Naruto fully enjoyed his new "family life," and leaving it behind to save some nameless spy didn't please him. Seeing the look on his face, Temari frowned, reading his expression easily after living with him so long.

"Don't tell me it's another punitive raid, Naruto. That's the only time your face ever looks this sour after a briefing."

He crossed his arms, as if to defend himself from the stares of the team.

"Compared to this, I wish it was a raid. She's sending me on some solo mission to retrieve a deep-cover informant. Wouldn't even give me a name; all I got was a location to search, and some stupid code phrase to flush the spy out with."

"It should be okay," Hinata ventured helpfully. "I mean, if she's confident enough sending you out alone that far behind enemy lines, it can't be something she thinks is dangerous or complicated."

Ever ready to get in a dig at his cousin (serious or not), Neji shot the theory down.

"Maybe true for a civilian extraction, but this is an agent extraction, someone who is undercover and will have to fight their way out, rather than just sneak out. The Fifth has seen enough of our mission reports to know we are more effective fighting together than separately, no matter how strong one of us alone is. That she would only send Naruto means the risk factor is too high to put five people in the line of fire."

Lee frowned, disliking what he heard.

"So you're saying this is a suicide run?"

"Even if it is not a suicide run," Neji said with a rueful shake of his head, "it cannot be a great deal easier than one."

Naruto snarled a curse under his breath at the unfairness of it all.

"Like it or not, suicidal or not, I gotta do it. In the meantime, Tsunade's got a job for the rest of you to handle, probably along with Gaara's squad, so head on in there and get the scoop. I gotta pack my stuff anyhow."

They obeyed reluctantly, heading for the Fifth Hokage's office, all except for Temari, who hung back for a moment, seeing the frustration on Naruto's face deepen. Pulling him aside, she asked a whispered question.

"Are you planning to tell Sakura about this?"

"I don't see how I can avoid it. I owe her more than just a goodbye note."

"Fair enough. Need any moral support?"

"No," he muttered, shaking his head. "Probably best to get things over with and go before I start having second thoughts. You better get in there and hear the briefing."

Hearing the resolve in his voice, Temari nodded and turned to go, uttering one last phrase over her shoulder.

"Good luck, Naruto."

The blonde Jounin nodded his thanks, striding down the path to the village below.

"Something tells me I'm going to need a lot more than luck to get back here in one piece."

Or, for that matter, to get away from Sakura in one piece.

Naruto eventually found the pink-haired girl in her usual training area, along with her teammates and commander. In true Leaf tradition, when new ninja teams had been formed after the Leaf-Sand alliance, the weakest had been paired with the strongest. Even so, it had come as a shock to everyone when the final team was revealed, especially because of its commander's identity.

Gaara of the Desert no longer sported dark rings of fatigue around his eyes as he had when he was a boy, but he would probably never lose the faint aura of menace that surrounded him. Though he now wore the uniform of the Leaf Village, he still bore his trademark sash with the Sand forehead protector, and the gourd made of sand on his back. It was a testament to how far the red-haired Jounin had come in four years that the sight of that yellowish gourd no longer made Leaf shinobi dive for cover.

Ironically enough, Uzumaki Naruto had not gotten the Leaf Village's recognition, which he so desired, by becoming Hokage or accomplishing some heroic feat on the battlefield. Taking on the task of making Gaara into something resembling a normal human had done the trick.

In the tradition of scared victims of violence everywhere, the mere fact that Naruto could talk to Gaara normally and not come away dead or maimed meant he was one tough customer in the eyes of the younger Leaf shinobi. To the older generation, Naruto's willingness to overlook their treatment of him and take on the impossible task of taming the Sand shinobi had broken down the resistance of all but the bitterest ninjas. If the hyperactive ninja could show such compassion for a former enemy, he could not possibly have been affected by the Nine-Tailed Demon Fox.

Of course, having a perverted Sennin repeating that theory constantly and threatening naysayers with violence had helped speed the acceptance process up a bit too.

As he approached, Naruto nodded a greeting to his Jounin counterpart, impassively watching his subordinates spar. Gaara had lost most of his bloodthirstiness, but it had been replaced by a restrained personality so strict his team was constantly comparing him to Ibiki.

Most didn't understand it, but Naruto knew what drove his younger housemate. The only thing that kept back Shuukaku's vicious urges was willpower. Naruto had a seal to help hold the Ninetails back, but Gaara's only weapon was his iron will. All he could do was restrain himself, as much as humanly possible. It was a struggle the Sand shinobi would likely face for the rest of his life.

Nodding towards Sakura, Naruto ventured a brief question.

"So, how's she coming along these days?"

The red-haired Jounin shrugged, as he usually did when asked for an opinion.

"She is...blossoming."

Naruto blinked, before grinning at another sign that Gaara was still improving.

"I'll give you a 7 for humor, but a 5 for timing."

"Only a 5? I will have to practice."

"Nah." the blonde Jounin waved a hand. "It's all about being spontaneous. If humor could be scripted all the time, everyone would be a comedian. Just the fact that you can let yourself joke about things ought to be plenty reassuring to those old ladies who you keep giving heart attacks to on the street."

Gaara snorted, his contempt for the faint-hearted still intact.

"I have pledged my loyalty to the alliance, and I think of many people in this village as friends, trusted comrades. Anyone foolish enough to doubt my integrity now is not worth my attention."

"Sounds fair. You done with them, or are they doomed to keep waiting for your approval?"

Sensing Naruto's desire to speak with Sakura, Gaara inclined his head toward his fellow Jounin. The blonde shinobi did not interfere in the matters of others without good reason, as he knew full well.

"If they are not ready to fight with all their power and skill at this stage of their careers, they will never be ready. Overtraining is a waste of all our time."

Turning to his team, he barked an order, not taking any more time than he had to in order to get the attention of his three Chuunin.

"Enough! Today's sparring has gone well. You are dismissed until we receive our next mission."

Naruto considered each of them in turn as he watched them come to attention, but his eyes inevitably turned back to one Chuunin alone.

When Haruno Sakura had wound up on the same team as Gaara, Ikegata Tenten and Yamanaka Ino, popular belief had it that her career as a Leaf kunoichi was finished. With a half-crazed demon child as her commander, and two other kunoichi of average talent as teammates, it had been "obvious" that the four-ninja team would accomplish nothing. Those ignorant enough to assume so much hadn't reckoned on how much Gaara would eventually change, and what it would mean for a girl known more for her brains than her brawn.

Never one to accept weakness, Gaara had turned his frustration at not progressing faster in gaining control over himself onto the three Genin he commanded, demanding that each find something about themselves to improve. Especially the pink-haired girl. When weight training failed, Sakura had switched to genjutsu, and the study of illusions. While she did show talent, Hinata's swifter progress under Kurenai had discouraged her from continuing. Ultimately, it had not been anyone in the Leaf who discovered Sakura's true talent, but a Sand shinobi – Temari. Living with Naruto, she had found it difficult to escape his daily comments about how frustrated his former crush was. One evening, the blonde kunoichi had finally had enough.

"Has it never occurred to anyone in your village that Sakura might simply be suited to be something other than a Leaf-style shinobi?"

When he had asked what his surrogate sister meant, Temari drew him a diagram of the five basic elements of ninjutsu: Wood, Lightning, Earth, Fire and Wind.

"Your village is of the Fire Country, and your leader is the Fire Shadow – Hokage. Gaara and I, on the other hand, hail from the Wind Country, and our father/leader was the Wind Shadow – Kazekage. Each village has its own strengths and special traditions. Your village has a lot of jutsu where things either blow up or burn down. Mine concentrates on using air and wind to do our damage. That's a stylistic and elemental difference. If you could find someone who knew jutsu of other villages and could show Sakura, she might yet find out what she is really capable of."

As it turned out, the pink-haired girl hadn't had to go very far after all. On her very first lesson in a basic Wind Element jutsu, Sakura had produced a gust of air so strong it had knocked branches off every tree within a hundred meters. Encouraged by such a wonderful first experience, Sakura had thrown herself completely into the study of Wind and Air, training with all of the transferred Sand-nins, and Temari in particular, since she was the oldest and most experienced.

All that training had had another added benefit – bringing Naruto and Sakura into close contact for the first time in two years. The spiky-haired boy had returned from fighting the Four Sounds bruised, beaten, and humiliated – not by failure to beat the Sound shinobi, but failure to keep the brash, spur-of-the-moment promise he'd made to Sakura. He had not brought Uchiha Sasuke back. For that failure alone, Naruto had found it impossible to look his former crush in the eye, throwing himself into training to escape from his shame. Over time he had even found his former interest in her beginning to fade. But with Sakura having to come over to meet her new sensei, he had no choice but to face the pink-haired girl again. Surprisingly, the blonde boy had found Sakura to be far more receptive to him than before.

It had been apparent to everyone but Naruto that as he had begun to grow up, his looks were changing as well. The hyperactive ninja, only concerned with his combat skills, took no notice of the fact that gaining the respect of the Leaf Village had also meant girls were beginning to look at him with interest and not scorn, especially when he had gotten lazy and let his hair grow out. That being the case, he had been stunned when Sakura approached him after one session with Temari and hesitantly asked if he wanted to get dinner at Ichiraku. Too busy pondering the idea, Naruto missed his surrogate Sand sister walking by with a grin on her face.

Since that day, the hyperactive ninja had slowly been getting used to the idea that he was the one being chased this time, and not Sakura. It had been rather fun, to tell the truth, experiencing a little of what Sasuke had once enjoyed. And yet, as good as it felt, Naruto had been very wary of what their relationship was founded on. Was she just settling for him because Sasuke had rejected her? Was she only interested in him because he was "cool" now, and not for what he was inside? For a time, Naruto had wondered if all that emotional hand-wringing was turning him into the girl of the relationship. Temari had finally snapped him out of that funk by pointing out the obvious.

"You do realize why she likes you, right?"

"Not really," he had shrugged. "I don't look like Sasuke and I don't act like an arrogant jackass. Can't understand why she changed her mind about me so fast."

The blonde kunoichi sighed, shaking her head.

"Ever consider that she likes you because you're not Sasuke?"

"That's not real encouraging."


Naruto threw his hands up in exasperation.

"Ya make it sound like I'm some kind of backup boyfriend for her or something! She settles for me because I'm the only one who showed real interest in her before Sasuke left!"

Temari clapped a hand to her forehead, marveling at how someone so confident and smart on the battlefield could be so dumb emotionally.

"Sakura might be getting stronger physically, but inside she's still pretty much the same girl she always was."

That caught Naruto's interest.

"Whaddaya mean?"

"Well," Temari began, "let me ask you a question. Why do you think people get themselves into relationships, start families, and all that?"

"Beats me. They think the other person's hot, so they want to get it on?"

"I don't know if it's that simple, but that's part of it. What I'm getting at is that everyone wants to be loved by someone, or something. That's why people date each other, marry each other, or sometimes get pets instead. You and Sakura are no different."

Ever the macho type, Naruto went bright red at the mere mention of the "L-word." Temari grinned.

"There's more than one type of love, Naruto. When you say you want the village to recognize you, what is that but wanting their love and admiration? It's just that it's different from romance, so you don't think of it the same way.

"Sakura could have gone to other people after Sasuke left. Lee falls all over himself whenever she's around, and some of my friends from the Sand would date her in a heartbeat. But she didn't do that – she chose you. If you don't give her a chance to show you how she feels now, then how will you be any different from the way Sakura used to be?"

Encouraged to give things a shot, Naruto had done just that, and so far had no regrets. Sakura might not drape herself all over him as she had tried with Sasuke, but given how that relationship had turned out, it was probably just as well.

"So what's so important you have to go it alone?"

Still trying to figure out what to tell his girlfriend, Naruto's mind shut down completely when Sakura beat him to the punch.

"How did you know I'm going on a solo mission?"

"Honestly, Naruto," she smiled, "you'd stink at playing cards. Your face gives everything away.

"First, everyone in the village already knows you were called in alone to see the Fifth – since you never take a briefing without your team unless she orders you not to bring them, they weren't going to be involved. Second, you left her office alone, which means you didn't get paired with someone from another team like Gaara or one of the older Jounin. To top it all off, you look like you swallowed a lemon. All that adds up to a solo mission risky enough that you came to try to say goodbye without making me a promise to come back."

Caught red-handed, the blonde Jounin could do little but stammer. Sakura stopped his babbling, placing a finger on his lips.

"Just answer me this, Naruto. You know what you're capable of better than anyone in the village, even me. Can you do what Tsunade asked of you?"

He pondered the question, looking at the steely resolve in the pink-haired girl's eyes, and found strength of his own. Forget settling, forget Sasuke. Uzumaki Naruto finally had everything he had ever wanted out of life. Nobody – not a spy, an enemy, or even Sasuke – would take that from him without a fight. And when it came to fights, Naruto did not lose. Not anymore.

"Yeah. I can do this."

"Then that's all I need to know. Now go and get to work, all right? Tsunade's going to have your head if she sees you wasting time on little old me while your mission's not complete."

There was one thought in Uzumaki Naruto's mind as he turned to go, preparing to leave the village and his life behind for Tsunade's mission.

I don't care who the hell this spy is, but they BETTER be worth it!

The same thought came unbidden to Naruto as he approached the coordinates Tsunade had given him. Or, to be more accurate, while the Leaf Jounin was dodging shuriken on the way to the target. You better be worth it, or else I'm gonna kill you myself! Still, the constant attacks he'd experienced as he got closer to his goal had given him time to practice his rusty defensive skills. Given the all-out aggression the Ninetailed Demon Fox within him always lusted for, it was a wonder Naruto even knew how to defend himself, rather than attack something. He and Gaara always made sure to force each other to practice defense, simply because they were the only two shinobi in the village who absolutely had to be reminded of such an instinct.

But just defending himself was no solution, especially as the attacks continued to build. Beat 'em down now, less to fight on the way in AND the way out.

"Look, we can jump around all day long and chuck stuff at each other, but why don't we just get down to business? Save everyone some time!"

His request was answered when four shinobi leapt down from the trees, none with a forehead protector or distinct uniform. That alone aroused Naruto's suspicions. Any of the villages trying to fight us and the Sand would do it honorably, out in the open, to get the credit; that much I can say for 'em. These guys DON'T want to be known.

One of his attackers stepped forward, his voice a flat monotone.

"The strong pass; the weak perish."

Naruto laughed, and the darkness within him joined in for once, hungering to punish the insolence of a mere human's challenge.

"What else is new? But you call four on one a real test of strength?"

The enemy speaker shook his head flatly.

"The weaker are led by their betters. I determine your fate alone."

"Hey, enough with the speeches," Naruto snorted, his features becoming more feral as the Ninetails lent him its strength, the demon's howl of rage and bloodlust echoing in his mind. "Don't sing it -

"Just bring it!"

The enemy leader made as if to leap forward and fight, but he was forced to leap back instead. The cause was a wall of lambent red chakra that burst into being around Naruto, leaping and flickering like a fire, before it subsided back into the Leaf-nin's body. Naruto laughed, his mocking voice echoing through the clearing.

"Oh, come on. What happened to 'the strong?' Wussing out already?"

His opponent's response was a series of hand seals, and the crackling of electricity.

"Lightning Element: Kyuuden no Jutsu (Ball Lightning no Jutsu)!"

The electricity coalesced in the shinobi's hands, and a ball of shaped energy shot out at Naruto, homing in on him even as he dodged. The Leaf-nin snarled a curse, recognizing one of the few techniques he hated to face. That stuff homes in on the target's bio-electric field. Couldn't escape it if I tried. If that's the case, then better just intercept it!

His enemy's eyes narrowed as chakra sprung up around Naruto, without a hand seal, swirling about him with the force of a small tornado.

"Rasengan, Ni no Kata (Spiral Bullet, Second Stance). Rasen Heki (Spiral Wall)."

The ball lightning tracked his every movement, mindlessly drawing closer, but when it impacted the wall, all that could be heard was the crackling of electricity as it discharged its energy harmlessly, a web of sparks spreading over the surface of Naruto's chakra wall. Letting the Spiral Wall disperse, Naruto fixed his opponent with a glare.

"Keep it coming, punk. Show me what you think makes you so strong."

Again the unknown shinobi threw his hands into action, seals appearing and changing feverishly, another technique speeding towards completion.

"Lightning Element: Ten no Yari (Heaven's Spear)!"

Okay, this is just getting cartoonish.

Naruto could be excused that thought as he watched bolts of lightning streak toward him from his opponent's outstretched hand. Not as smart as the ball lightning, it came in a straight line, but this technique apparently let his opponent cast as many bolts as his chakra would allow. Sooner or later he would run out of space to dodge, and be in for a nasty shock (literally).

Enough defensive practice! You're toast!

A phrase he had been saying since childhood again sprang to his lips, practically flowing off the tongue.

"Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!"

Instantly, four more versions of Naruto sprung into the clearing, all rushing at the enemy shinobi. Before the lightning-wielding ninja could target them with his attacks, Naruto was already directing them to leap forward and attack. With four targets and only one hand to fire with, his enemy had no choice but to try and fire at the closest clone, banking on eliminating it and dodging the rest.

"Nice try, but they weren't really aiming for you, buddy. Just getting into position, like good little extendable pieces of chakra."

The Leaf-nin's opponent looked up to see his target spin in mid-air as his last bolt of lightning streaked past, form liquefying as the other three clones did the same, becoming mere swirls of color above him, merging to form a tightly spinning sphere of chakra, rotating so furiously that each revolution could be heard, vibrations shaking the ground.

"Chuck as many sparks around as you want, and you'll never be close to real strength. Let me show you why. Rasengan, San no Kata: Rasen Haimetsu (Spiral Bullet, Third Stance: Spiral Ruination)."

Immediately, the chakra sphere was no longer round, nor spherical. Instead it resembled nothing so much as it did a mishmash of blades, edges and spikes protruding everywhere.

"So long, pal. Wish I could say it was nice knowing you."

His chakra sphere burst apart, blades slashing at his opponent from all angles, moving in all directions at once, as Naruto's original Rasengan practice had trained him to do. Thin lines appeared all over the enemy shinobi's body, a thousand cuts unfolding like the bloom of a deadly flower. In seconds, the clearing was showered with a crimson rain, blood flowing from each cut. None of them alone would have felled a man, but together the blood loss proved fatal.

"Only an idiot boasts of strength before the fight's joined. A fool deserves a fool's death – a thousand paper cuts."

Turning to check on his other three assailants, Naruto was not surprised to see each of them now holding an unsheathed dagger in their hands.

"So when the leader falls, it's anything goes? I can live with that. Come on!"

Expecting to be the target of a three-on-one rush, Naruto's eyes narrowed when all three of his potential foes began to speak in unison, in the same monotone as their leader.

"The Cause is great. The Cause demands strength. Those without strength are nothing. Those who are nothing may not serve. That is the Law."

The blonde Jounin's jaw dropped as each of the three enemy shinobi plunged their daggers into their own hearts, slumping to the ground without another word.

"What the HELL just happened here!?"

"What happens to any pawn in a chess game. They were sacrificed to benefit the greater Cause."

Turning around, Naruto laid eyes on two men, each wearing a flowing robe decorated with clouds. These shinobi had forehead protectors, but the village insignia on each bore long scratches in the middle, plainly obliterating any allegiance to their former homes. The Leaf-nin's blood went cold, the bravado and adrenalin of his just-finished fight fading as he recognized who he faced. Two men he had met only once, but who had burned their images into his memory forever - Hoshigaki Kisame and Uchiha Itachi. Akatsuki? Who the hell would be crazy enough to try and infiltrate this bunch of maniacs?

More importantly, what was he supposed to do to get past these two? Kisame's great sword, the Samehada (Sharkskin), was easy enough to avoid physically, but it ate chakra – literally. Naruto could no more try to use the Ninetails' energy against the fish-faced shinobi than he could use his own, and without chakra even Rock Lee would have had an easy time beating him up. What to do, then? Delay the bastards. Make 'em talk or something.

"Whaddaya mean, pawns? I thought you Akatsuki bastards worked in small cells, teams of two S-class criminals apiece, nine shinobi in all. Still need patsies to do yer dirty work?"

"You heard what the first guy said," Kisame grinned. "The weaker are led by their betters. When the time comes for the Cause to move, there will be many more than nine to aid in accomplishing its goal. Too bad we can't trust them with more knowledge than just mindless questing for strength. Then again, we only need the strong ones anyway."

Naruto got the impression the ex-Mist shinobi would gladly have said more before attacking, but before he could open his mouth again, Itachi's voice interceded, barely louder than a whisper.

"Enough talk. You speak of things even those in the lower ranks cannot know. It is no different for those not in the Cause. Let us merely speak of what must be done."

A thought came, unbidden, to Naruto's mind as he heard Itachi speak. Why was Kisame being so friendly? He knew Naruto was an enemy, and that he would never join another cause. Was it possible that the fish-faced shinobi was the very spy he had come to reach? Trying the code phrase might be worth a shot. In fact, given how difficult it would be to get past these two, it might well be his only shot.

"Typical Uchiha. All you wanna do is get down to the fighting and the testing of skill. It's just like they say back in the Leaf. When the tree falls…"

Itachi sniffed, dismissing the blonde Jounin's words as he drew forth a kunai from beneath his robe.

"Quoting proverbs will not help you fight."

It was Kisame's turn to look confused, glancing over at his erstwhile partner.

"The hell are you two talking about? What's the deal with trees?"

"He is quoting the beginning of a Leaf proverb. It says that all beings revert to their baser nature when confronted with crisis. Animals flee, and humans fight.

"But you overlook a point about we shinobi, and thus you are incorrect."

Still thinking of a battle plan, Naruto was only too happy to keep the conversation going.

"Izzat so? Then tell me what I missed."

"We are not mere humans. Shinobi are driven by a higher impulse, the goals we set for ourselves, and the goals that are given to us. We have missions, the duties that are given to us to prove we are the only ones who are even capable of such things. Shinobi do not react blindly to crisis. We are always focused. We are always trying to accomplish our missions."

That much was true. A plan had crystallized in Naruto's mind, his body tensing as it readied to fight, his will holding the Ninetails' rage in check. If we gotta rumble, might as well do it now!

"Yeah, I get it. You gotta stop me, and I gotta pass. So let's see who can accomplish their mission!"

"I could not agree more," Itachi said, raising the kunai into an attack position. "Missions are meant to be completed, after all."

Let him make the first move, and then I can gauge whether I'm far enough from Kisame to counter with chakra!

Itachi took a single step forward as Kisame reached back for his blade, both hands going to draw the wrapped sword forth. Just as Naruto began to draw forth a kunai of his own, the former Uchiha prodigy swung into action in a blur of motion – and plunged his kunai into Kisame's chest. Naruto's expression collapsed into utter confusion – matched by the shock in the ex-Mist-nin's eyes, going duller by the second.

"What the hell…Itachi…you…"

"When the tree falls, the monkeys run."

Naruto's eyes shot wide open, the other man's words echoing what Tsunade had repeated to him a few days past. The catch phrase!? Then HE'S…?

The man whom everyone believed to be a missing-nin, an S-class criminal and murderer turned around, removing his robe and the mutilated forehead protector – to reveal another forehead protector underneath. Half of a forehead protector, its Leaf symbol whole and undamaged.

"…Mission accomplished."


No, this story does not mean I'm giving up on Bloodlines. It means that while you wait for a Bloodlines update, you can read the newest chapter of this story. *wink*

Like my profile says, I get ideas all the time, and this one was too good not to try and write on while I got over the flu and writer's block with Bloodlines. This is most definitely NOT going to be a one-shot, so stay tuned.

Fans of weird pairings, or SasuNaru, or SasuSaku, well…what can I say? *shrug* You've got plenty of other options out there. The rest of you? Read on, and enjoy.