Spoilers: Though this fic takes place in an alternate universe, it will incorporate characters and ideas from recent manga, and future manga chapters will probably further influence this as they come out.

THE HERO NEVER DIES

Chapter One: Throw Off the Crown

Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run

There's still time to change the road you're on.

And it makes me wonder.

(Led Zeppelin, Stairway to Heaven)

"What the hell did you do that for? Why – why would you kill them?"

"For you, Uzumaki Naruto. For you, I killed them."

- - -

"I can't say that this," Sarutobi Hiruzen admitted, "is entirely unexpected."

The fourth-most strongly guarded locations in Konoha, Uzumaki Naruto's apartment, was boasting more than a dozen dead shinobi, each bearing a precise, spine-deep slice across their throats. It was strange find such slaughter without kunai and shuriken embedded in the walls, or damage from the aftermath of jutsu. Even the furniture was untouched save for the occasional splattered line of blood.

In the center of the room, a single shinobi garbed in a cloak marked with red clouds cradled a trembling blond boy in his arms. So he was a member of Akatsuki … Clearly, he had gotten stronger, much stronger, since the last time the Hokage had seen him, just over two years ago. It was said that Akatsuki was the group that snatched the two-tailed Jinchuuriki from right under the Raikage's nose. Everyone was keeping two eyes open for more information on them.

"Hokage-sama," Uchiha Itachi greeted in a monotone as his three-tomoe Sharingan spun slowly in the afternoon light.

The child he carried began to moan around the bindings over his mouth, tears leaking out of bloodshot blue eyes. It wasn't only the boy's mouth that was covered in white wrappings – his wrists and ankles were also tightly bound.

Sarutobi sighed, his eyes trained on Itachi's arms and legs. Before this child … no – man – despite his age of 15 years … before a fight such as this, exhaustion swept through him, to the bone. "There is nothing I can do that would make up for my mistake, is there, Itachi-kun?"

"No," the Uchiha agreed. "Sasuke is dead."

The Sandaime nodded as he slid into an offensive stance, his living, adamantine staff Enma humming in anticipation. "Then I am sorry, my young friend … But I will not allow you to take Naruto."

Itachi didn't move. He knew the longer he lingered, the more thoroughly surrounded he would be. And yet, to one of the few men he had ever respected, he felt he owed the honor of explanation. "My hope for you and this pathetic village has ended. I now see that you cannot be entrusted with the power inside of the container. My leader will push this crumbling world into the light of revolution. "

"It was always a shame, Itachi-kun, that the one person you wouldn't entrust the future to was yourself," Sarutobi remarked wryly. "If not for that, you could have been a superb Hokage one day."

A slight, bitter smile flitted across the stoic ninja's face. "Perhaps it runs in my blood," Itachi mused.

Sarutobi frowned. "In any case, this 'crumbling' old man is still more than a match for you. You should know that getting past me is still impossible for someone at your level no matter what tricks you've learned in Akatsuki. Naruto is not leaving ... and you are not leaving alive."

The Hokage's threat didn't seem to make much of an impact. "And you too should know that a real ninja never works alone, Hokage-sama. Naruto-kun is ours."

"Let this brat feel our anger," a deep voice intoned from within the Hokage's staff.

Itachi's Sharingan warned him of Sarutobi moving at an incredible speed for so old a man, his staff swinging with enough force to knock Itachi's head clean off, but his body simply did not have the speed to fully dodge the range of the blow. Instead, he lifted the boy in his arms into the path of the weapon. Instantly, the Hokage's weapon changed course for Itachi's legs.

Before Enma could connect, the bandages around Naruto writhed to life, whipping the staff back with a ridiculous strength, sending the Hokage skidding. Within moments, the bandages multiplied to hundreds of paper whips before separating again into thousands of sheets of paper, whirling around the nuke-nin and the boy, and obscuring them from view like a cocoon.

The Sandaime watched. He had not seen such a jutsu before, and to act without knowing was dangerous. Instead he raised a hand, and Inu's team – currently the most promising in Konoha – broke in through the walls, surrounding the paper maelstrom. Inu's hand was already screaming with a lightning, but he waited for the Sandaime's orders.

"Prioritize retrieving Naruto alive over capturing the enemy," Sarutobi barked out. "I will not lose him."

Inu's head slightly inclined. He understood.

Faster than most people could see, he streaked towards the angry paper storm, vice-captain Kame doing the same from the opposite side. Between Inu, Kame and the Hokage, there would be no escape no matter how gifted Uchiha Itachi was as a ninja.

The elite pair had not gone three strides when the paper chrysalis exploded outwards in a hellish dome of black flames that vaporized all it touched immediately: the floor, the walls, the ceiling, the bodies.

Itachi emerged from the wreckage like a dark angel, paper wings beating on his back, cloak and hair fluttering in the wind as he rose through the blasted out roof. Naruto was clutching on to his kidnapper's neck in terror. Using his now free arm, Itachi used shot off just one handful of shuriken to deflect scores of weapons launched at him, using near-impossible trajectories far too complex for any other living person else to calculate in an instant, ricocheting his attacker's far greater numbers and might against themselves. Even in his fury, Sarutobi marveled at how truly impeccable a shinobi Itachi really would probably not be another shinobi of his caliber for many years to come.

The Sandaime Hokage vaulted himself up with his bo staff, unleashing a quick wind jutsu to deflect the redirected kunai and shuriken, all the while blurring through one-handed seals. As he rose into the air, a rain of razor-sharp, paper feathers detached from Itachi's wings and whistled as they sped towards the Hokage. Sarutobi didn't hesitate as he reached the apex of his jump and blew out a white-hot Katon: Karyuu Endan. At this point, Naruto would be better off dead.

The paper weapons dissolved into ash, raining down on his aged face. But as the flames cleared, they revealed nothing more than a cloudless blue sky. The Hokage could still sense Naruto's chakra, but only just barely, and his senses lied as to where he really was. Itachi's had completely disappeared, but there was a faintly blue presence that put him in mind of the paper wings.

"Shit," the Hokage cursed, eyes blazing. "Inu, organize a team to stop them before they reach the border. Bring a Hyuuga – Itachi's masking their presence with at least a 32-layer genjutsu. He has at least one partner with him right now, someone with an uncanny knack for manipulating paper, and we don't want him to meet up with any others. Tonakai, alert the council and clan heads that there is to be an emergency meeting immediately."

The two masked ANBU nodded, and then disappeared in a flurry of leaves.

"What a fucking mess," Sarutobi muttered.

"Indeed," said Enma. "You're getting sloppy, old friend."

- - -

The pair of nuke-nin and the Kyuubi kid made camp about in about 10 kilometers into Kusa no Kuni - though perhaps camp wasn't the right word for the relative extravagance that was conjured.

The woman called Konan quickly built a comfortable abode by directing huge, multicolored sheets of paper as though they were but decks of cards. Though it crinkled slightly when one walked, it was surprisingly strong and wondrously elegant. Paper so thin it was translucent made up the windows, and the walls were a pale blue, and as thick as wooden planks, though much smoother to the touch.

She slid the door open and pulled Naruto into her creation, leaving Itachi to ward the location with genjutsu. Inside, it was sparsely furnished. There was a round table with three stools, and at the centerpiece was a slender vase of origami flowers that matched the one in her hair. Though Naruto had personal doubts as to how soft the three beds could be, they too looked inviting. They were each tailored to the sleeper as well: Konan's was indigo in color and the largest, Itachi's was black, and Naruto's, in the center, was a brilliant shade of orange. Chandeliers of paper cranes hung from the ceiling in several places. Naruto noted that there was no stove or bathroom, but then, this was a paper house.

"I don't get a chance to make something on such a large scale at home," she confessed to the wide-eyed boy who had been quiet and shaken for most of the journey, but seemed to be recovering his bearings. Naruto found Konan to be beautiful despite the ugly metal piercing through her lower lip, and her voice was no different: cool and smooth, like running water. It was hard to believe she was partnered with a psychopath like Itachi.

As though he was called by the evil thoughts Naruto was having about him, Itachi glided into the room like a wraith and wasted no time in being a general creep. He pinched Naruto's chin in between his fingers and tilted his head up so he could get a better look at the scrawny eight year old. Naruto, naturally, didn't take being inspected like a vegetable at a supermarket so well.

Itachi stared at his finger in bemusement. The brat had bitten him.

"Jiji will definitely come and save me, and then you'll be sorry!" Naruto boasted confidently, the anger that had hidden away from Konan's gentle gaze finally coming out. But in his heart, he wondered if he was really that important to Konoha. He wondered if he even really wanted to go back. Being taken was terrifying and exciting – it made him feel … wanted. For you, Itachi had said. He had never heard those words before. Didn't he always hope, in the back of his mind, that he was precious to someone?

Almost a minute after Naruto's declaration, Itachi stopped observing the saliva-coated digit and backhanded the boy with an almost clinical detachment, sending him sprawling into the floor, which crumpled a bit, but held firm.

"No more biting," Itachi ordered.

Naruto had tears in his eyes as he rubbed his cheek, but he was smirking. He was definitely the sort of person it felt good to smack around. "Afraid I'll mess up your manicure?"

"Yes," Itachi agreed.

Konan chose that moment to break up the two. "Why would you want to go back to such a place?" she asked. "You felt lonely there, didn't you?"

She and Itachi had observed the Kyuubi no Kitsune's container for two days before making their move, studying his disposition and laying the foundations for their escape genjutsu.

Naruto raised his eyebrows in surprise that someone was asking such a question, as though they cared about how he felt. Only the Sandaime had ever shown affection towards him, but even he never outright asked about what he chose not to see. "Of course I was kinda lonely," Naruto said quietly. "But Konoha is my home, and you don't give up on your home because of a little pain. One day ... one day, I know the village will see who I really am. I'll prove it to them, and it'll be the best day ever."

"Foolish," Itachi commented. "Truly foolish of you to believe that you can force people to change who they intrinsically are. Those disgusting people will never perceive you to be anything more than an eyesore at best, and a monster at worse."

"Shut up about them!" Naruto yelled. "I won't force 'em to change! They're good guys! I can see it - that they really love their families and friends. They are fine already ... that's why I want them to be like that to me so badly."

"But you don't even know why they hate you," Konan reasoned.

Naruto blinked. "Do you know why, nee-chan?"

"I do," she said. "It is because people fear power … Your power."

Naruto laughed hollowly."Yeah right – I'm the dead last in my class ... I only know one jutsu, and I fail all the tests. Everyone knows how dumb -"

"That's because you can barely read or write," Itachi interrupted with something that was almost awe. He was unused to being around anyone less than a genius, and it was difficult to fathom that a shinobi-in-training in the greatest of the five elemental countries was near-illiterate.

Naruto bristled, flushing red all over. "Liar!" he declared,looking at everything but Konan and Itachi in embarrassment."I'm great ... no, awesome at reading and writing! I could do it all day if I wanted too!"

Konan's voice was soft as she said, "They are afraid to teach you in Konoha, because you contain the power to destroy it. You are the living prison of the Kyuubi no Kitsune."

Bright blue eyes widened, and his hand clutched at his t-shirt, right over where is heart was, twisting the cloth unconsciously. "W-what?"

"The Yondaime Hokage sealed the strongest of the Bijuu into you on the day you were born," Itachi explained blandly. "Surely even you learned of the demon fox's attack. The Yondaime knew that a near-infinite source of chakra could never be killed. But it could be sealed … and to save his village, he sacrificed his life … and yours."

"So … I'm the Kyuubi?" Naruto asked hysterically. "That's stupid! I don't want to hurt anyone! How could I have killed all those people? "

"You're hardly the Kyuubi," Itachi sniffed. "You are merely its prison. Ironic considering the strength gap, but reality nonetheless. However, with training, you could access the Kyuubi's enormous and highly potent chakra, giving you potential to be one of the strongest people of all time."

Naruto's breath heaved in and out of his small chest. "But … if I'm not the Kyuubi … why did no one like me? Didn't I help them?"

"You remind them of that which took so much from them – their friends and family and beloved Hokage," Itachi said. "And they know how great the power you hold is … they are terrified of anyone having such a power that would wholly eclipse anything they are capable of. You see, there is no way to change their feelings towards you other than to lose the Kyuubi, and to do that would cause massive destruction and your own death."

So Konoha would never accept him. The thought made it feel like his insides were shattering into a million shards of pain. "Then why don't you hate me too?" he accused almost bitterly.

"Because we are not afraid of change," Konan said in steady voice. "Instead, we embrace it. If you chose to work with us and not against us, we will make you stronger than you can imagine. No one would dare pass their eyes over you again. Isn't that what you always dreamed of?"

"I … Maybe it wouldn't be so bad to trust you ... but Konoha is what I want to be strong for. How can I do that if I'm not there?"

"Why did you keep choosing Konoha to give your strength to?" Konan pressed. "Surely you now understand they don't deserve it."

Naruto answered as though it were obvious. "They're the only people I know."

"But now you know us," Konan said with a secret sort of smile.

Naruto didn't know what to say to that. Despite the emptiness inside at learning the truth of what he was, he felt very warm, and he was sure his face was bright red.

Konan laid a hand tenderly on Naruto's shoulder. "Naruto … though you may not believe it, we want a better world. We want you to help us make a better world – one where people are more than tools for the strong. That is my dream ... one I would do anything to achieve."

Naruto's mouth twisted into a slight frown, but he didn't say anything else. Not only did they make sense, but ... though he wanted to go back to Konoha, he knew that if he was taken back, he would miss Konan and even Itachi. It felt good to talk with people, instead of at them. It felt good to be looked at.

When they sat down to eat a dinner of onigiri and dried fruits, Naruto wondered if this was what a family was like.

- - -

Naruto was awakened by Itachi tearing him out of bed and hissing at him to get down.

Before he could whine a word of complaint, everything went to hell.

The southern wall and the ceiling of the paper house exploded into flame as strategically placed exploding tags detonated. Watching from where he had ducked down on the floor, Naruto could only whimper at the sight of Konan's beautiful house igniting, destroying the flocks of paper birds and reducing the bed she had made just for him into ash.

"How many?" Konan asked, sheets of paper flying out from her sleeves.

"Four," Itachi warned tersely. "One is exceptionally strong. Take the one coming from above."

Konan manipulated her paper into an umbrella above them, cloaking them just in time to stop the barrage of weapons that rained down. The paper rippled as a human landed on it. The umbrella inverted instantly, ensnaring and smothering the ANBU like a Venus Fly Trap.

Itachi formed two clones, one veering off to the south, the other to the north. The original unsheathed a ninjato from within his robes and slammed it through the paper floor into the ground, earning a muffled grunt of pain. He had missed the hidden shinobi's chest and instead skewered his arm. Itachi frowned. His opponent was good.

He grabbed Naruto and back flipped to get out of the way as the Earth coursed with a Raiton jutsu, and a dog masked ANBU emerged from the ground, clutching at his wounded arm.

"Kakashi-san," the Uchiha said. "Retreat if you value your life."

"Tough words for one outnumbered and out-powered, Itachi," the ANBU drawled lazily."You always were pretty cool, for a kid."

"Is that so."

It was then that Kakashi realized exactly how much faster at seals Itachi was. With his good hand, he flung a kunai at the Uchiha to disrupt him, but it flew right through him, almost as though -

"Damn it," Kakashi growled.

Genjutsu. One strong enough to fool even his Sharingan and his chakra protected ANBU mask.

He began to break out of it, hoping there weren't as many layers as he knew there would be. "K-"

He paused as he looked down ... at the sword protruding from his belly.

"I'm told that a wound in the stomach such as this one results in a drawn-out, excruciatingly painful death," Itachi commented as though he were talking about the weather.

He kicked Kakashi away, tearing a groan out along with his ninjato, just in time to duck a flying kick that would have broken his neck if it had connected.

This attacker, donning a tortoise mask, was unfamiliar to Itachi, though he knew from the clone that dispelled half a minute earlier that this ANBU was fast. As his real body fought him, he deduced via bruising hits to his arms and legs that the ANBU excelled in taijutsu. He was quick enough to prevent Itachi from forming any seals, which was highly annoying, though not enough of a threat for him to waste chakra by using a Mangekyou technique. He would just have to wait for an opening.

"Konan," Itachi called out to his partner, who was holding onto Naruto's arm as her eyes darted around almost fearfully, looking for the fourth member of the ANBU retrieval team. Had Itachi's other clone still not found him? "I'll catch up later."

Konan nodded, swooping Naruto up into her arms and darting into the trees.

"Just let me go back, nee-chan," Naruto pleaded as he recognized the panic in Konan's eyes. "I don't want you to get hurt!"

"Keeping you safe is more important," Konan replied a little breathlessly as she leapt as fast as she could from tree to tree. "Itachi can handle -"

She was cut off as a single finger brushed against her shoulder blade, sending a spasm through her body so intense that it caused her to plummet to the ground. She barely managed to turn herself to protect Naruto from the fall with her own body, crashing painfully on her back.

"Leave her alone!" Naruto cried, scrambling off to stand before her, blocking her from the shinobi that gracefully landed before them.

Unlike the ANBU, the ninja that had disabled Konan with one touch wasn't wearing a mask. He had black hair that was longer than Itachi's, and strange, milky-white eyes.

Despite the fact that her left side wouldn't obey her, Konan pulled herself to her feet from behind Naruto. "Hyuuga ... Hiashi," she spat out through bloody lips, defiant in spite of her despair. "Didn't think the Hokage had the pull to send you back out on missions."

"It was a personal request of mine," the leader of Konoha's strongest clan responded coldly.

"Please," Naruto begged, "I'll come back to Konoha. Just leave her alone! I promise, she's not a bad person!"

He started to run out towards the stone-faced Hyuuga, but was stopped by a warm hand grasping his own tightly. "Naruto," Konan whispered, "I will protect you. I promise."

"Konoha has agreed that letting that child live poses too much of a risk," the Hyuuga explained, almost in pity. "Do send my apologies to your father in the afterlife, boy."

Faster than even Itachi could move, Hiashi was in striking distance. One chakra-coated finger descended upon Naruto's forehead. The last rational thought Naruto had been to hope that Konan got away. That, however, wasn't to be.

At the last moment, Konan leapt backwards and used a Kawarimi - switching Naruto's body for her own. Hiashi's finger landed in the center of blue-haired kunoichi's forehead.

For Naruto, it was as though everything else in the world fell out of existence. All that was left was the sight of Konan crumpling to the ground. She was dead.

Hiashi didn't hesitate as he stepped over her corpse. Instead, he drove a Jyuuken strike into the Kyuubi container's chest, intent on destroying his cardiac muscles. But as his hand struck true, he felt pain lance along his arm. He pulled back, arm already blistering. Red, vile chakra poured out of the boy who was still standing, eyes slit like a demon's.

"I'LL KILL YOU," a voice layered with something unnaturally evil promised, though the body itself was swaying unsteadily from side to side, as though it were unaccustomed to walking on two legs. The boy fell onto clawed hands, and a chakra tail formed behind him. It didn't advance upon Hiashi - on the contrary it seems to be in too much pain to move very much.

Hiashi's brow furrowed. He wouldn't be able to destroy the container with the Jyuuken without taking considerable damage, and he didn't want to be in that sort of state when the last of the Uchiha caught up to him. As it was, he wouldn't be able to channel chakra in his left hand for at least a day. He tested the Jinchuurki's defense against long distance attacks by throwing several shuriken that were quickly slapped away by the chakra tail that seemed to have a life of its own.

Hiashi was not a heartless man, but now he truly knew that Kyuubi container had to be put down. If the death of a criminal could invoke such a reaction, the child would never be controllable.

He sliced a finger open with a kunai and withdrew a scroll from his robes, spreading a long line of blood across the parchment and unsealed a white sai, leaving its twin in the scroll. He grabbed it with his right hand and pumped chakra into it, making it glow brightly.

He flew to the container in a burst of speed, dodging the furiously swinging tail and jabbing the sai above the boy's brow, blasting him with a burst of chakra that knocked the Jinchuuriki back, disrupting the flow of the demon's power.

Indeed, the red chakra dissipated before Hiashi's all-seeing eyes. He drew out a length of wire to sever the boy's head off to be sure. Naruto's eyes faded from red to blue as he watched Hiashi approach.

The Hyuuga was stopped as Itachi appeared, crouched at the Naruto's side with a Shunshin of whirling leaves.

"A team of Kusa shinobi are a minute away from finding a corpse and two wounded Konoha shinobi within their borders, violating your tenuous treaty," he informed the Hyuuga.

"Clever," was all the Hyuuga said before disappearing in his own Shunshin.

Itachi stood up, his eyes scanning the area methodically. "Naruto-kun, we are leaving."

The boy wasn't listening as he walked brokenly over to Konan's boy. "Nee-chan …" Naruto sobbed, huddled over her body, afraid to touch her lest she disappear completely. "Wake up, please!"

Itachi said, "It was her choice to give her life for yours."

"I don't want it!" Naruto cried desperately. "I wish she'd never met me! Then she'd still be here and -"

Itachi covered Naruto's mouth with a hand, slamming him against a tree. Snot and tears dribbled onto his alabaster skin, though he seemed not to notice. "Don't spit on her sacrifice. If you felt anything at all for her, you would know that the only way to honor her is to become strong enough to protect, instead of crying at your own weakness."

Itachi removed his hand, and though Naruto was shuddering, he kept silent. Naruto nodded slowly, holding his hands to his eyes to stop the flow of tears.

After observing that Naruto's tears had stopped, Itachi inspected Konan's body, retrieving the paper flower she wore in her hair and the ring on her hand. He pocketed the ring, and wordlessly handed the flower to Naruto.

Naruto tucked it into his pocket as he watched Itachi cremate Konan with a blue-flamed fire jutsu. Nothing was left of the woman who had given her life for his save scorched earth and ashes in the wind.

"We're leaving," Itachi said, in an unexpectedly sympathetic tone. He bent down, and Naruto wrapped his arms around Itachi's neck from behind. Itachi hooked his arms under the boy's knees, making sure he was secured tightly.

Naruto whispered a promise in Itachi's ear as they ran in the darkness. "I will become strong."

- - -

"Everything seems to have gone as planned."

"Yes. Lonely people … are the easiest to control."

- - -

End Notes: In case you didn't know, the ANBU Inu (Dog) was Hatake Kakashi, and Kame (Tortoise) was Maito Gai. Though I'm not sure it really matters, Tonakai (Reindeer) was Nara Shikaku.

On a side note, I never have understood how Amaterasu can be "hotter that the sun" but not instantly fry whatever it touches. Seriously, how it could be on Karin's back for longer than a millisecond without instantly barbequing her? In my universe, Amaterasu isn't an almost fatal jutsu. If it touches you, it will burn you to a crisp before you can begin to think you're feeling a little warm.

Writing scenes with Enma is almost too hard for me. Every time I typed out "the Hokage's powerful rod" or "the diamond-hard staff" I burst out laughing. I admit to having the maturity of a seven year old boy.

I wonder if my having Hiashi using a weapon is anti-Hyuuga? I just feel their movements and abilities to see chakra could only be enhanced by weaponry, and it would allow them to have a longer reach and leave them less vulnerable. I mean, their defence with Kaiten is pretty much perfect, but you can't really say the same regarding the offensive abilities.

More will be explained later on concerning why Akatsuki no longer wants to extract the Bijuu (and no, it's not a sudden bout of kindness).

Please review and leave comments and critiques. I don't have a beta, so if you're interested in helping me out, please leave me a PM.