Prologue: In Which He Dies
A man who has nothing to die for is not fit to live.
~Martin Luther King, Jr.
Naruto jerked on the chains that held his wrists to the chair he sat in as the door opened. The room consisted of four concrete walls and a door, with barely enough light to see the people who entered through the door. Three were older, proved by one's limp, and one was a ninja Naruto didn't recognize. His struggles didn't do any good, not that he expected them to. He had already seen the chains, and as little as he understood the seals he didn't even recognize decorating the metal, he knew the purpose of sealing something. This was to be his prison.
The one thing he understood was the seal that was plastered in the center of his forehead. Naruto had caught a glimpse of it just before that guy in the mask had pinned it on him. It looked just like the ofudo that Kakashi-sensei carried around sometimes to guard against Kyuubi's chakra leaking out of Naruto. So, Naruto knew he wasn't getting any help from the fox.
Although, considering that Naruto wanted nothing more than to plant Danzo's smug face into the wall and demand some fucking explanation, maybe it was a good thing the fox was caged.
Danzo hung back from the rest of the group, an old man and woman guarded surreptitiously by a ninja who wore dark pants and a light gi along with his hitai-ate and tanto. His light hair was styled in almost the same way as Naruto had seen Yamanaka Inoichi's, but he saved that thought for a time when he knew he would be calmer.
"Uzumaki Naruto." The eldest of the two men was the first to speak, but calmly, as if he weren't facing down an enraged jinchuuriki.
The woman folded her hands into her sleeves and watched silently. Naruto didn't like her already.
"You have demanded our time," Mitokado Homura continued. "I sincerely hope you have something significant to say."
Naruto glared back at the man for a moment. He only knew his name because Kakashi-sensei and Shikamaru had described the old man with spectacles and a long white robe—like he was trying to imitate Sandaime. Naruto almost hated the man for that, but what he and the old woman, Utatane Koharu, were trying to do to Sasuke—that was what had to be stopped.
Naruto sucked all the oxygen he could into his lungs in an effort to calm himself. He was already chained and sealed, and no amount of shouting would change that, he knew. But it was hard to be calm when he was really starting to hate this man.
"What would make you agree to pardon Sasuke?" demanded Naruto.
The old Koharu-baa-baa frowned, wrinkling her brow in a manner that suggested she pulled that face often.
"Uchiha Sasuke is a criminal," she declared. "He is a missing nin—"
"He never acted against Konoha," Naruto interrupted. He had been practicing this part. "He killed Orochimaru. And Itachi. He did you guys a favor."
Even in the darkness, Naruto didn't miss the brief look that Koharu and Homura shared. Although, that was only because he had nowhere else to look. He wasn't entirely sure how much pull these three people had in the governing affairs of Konoha, but Tsunade-baa-chan had said that she'd never get Sasuke back into Konoha without the council's approval. Being Hokage was going to be a pain whenever Naruto eventually got the job.
"Nevertheless," continued Homura with a slight clearing of his throat. "We cannot overlook the fact that he abandoned his village to ally himself with one of our enemies. The very man who killed Sandaime. Or had you forgotten?"
Naruto glowered at the man above him.
"You were a part of the genin team assigned to retrieve Uchiha, weren't you?" Koharu contributed.
Naruto ground his teeth together to keep himself from yelling that he would never forget that mission, any more than he could forget what Orochimaru had done to Sandaime, or how the old man's death had taught him the first lesson about why bonds could be so painful.
"He made a mistake," Naruto finally ground out. "I know that."
A deep breath filled Naruto's lungs with much-needed oxygen. He was beginning to wonder if holding his breath was a good idea.
"So put him on probation. He's still a genin." It was a crazy plan, and Shikamaru hadn't thought it would work. But Naruto needed to make them consider other options. "The Sharingan is an important tool for Konoha."
"Uchiha isn't the problem." Danzo's cool voice finally broke into the argument.
Naruto raised his eyes to meet the man's shadowed gaze.
"The one putting Konoha in danger," Danzo announced, "is you."
Homura and Koharu showed no reaction to Danzo's pronouncement, which made Naruto that much angrier. They couldn't agree with this damned old fool, could they?
"Even now, the leader of Akatsuki is attacking the village," continued the wounded shinobi, "looking for the jinchuuriki of the Kyuubi no Kitsune."
The chains binding Naruto's arms rattled fiercely as he jerked in his place.
"So, why the hell aren't you fighting?!" he shouted. "Isn't this your home, too!"
The two advisors, those who had been Sandaime's teammates, had the decency to look away from Naruto's heated outburst; although the boy couldn't tell if that was an accomplishment or not. Danzo simply continued staring blankly at the jinchuuriki in front of him.
"You pose a threat to this village, Uzumaki Naruto."
Naruto hung his head as his mind raced. Akatsuki was after the bijuu; the only reason the leader would attack Konoha would be to get to him. He couldn't say Danzo was lying about that. If Naruto drew danger to Konoha as long as he was there—
"As long as you live—"
"Set me free, and I'll give you all what you want," Naruto interrupted him suddenly.
He wasn't confident enough in his abilities to think that Danzo's sudden silence meant he was going to agree. But Naruto could only think of this for a solution. As long as he could get Danzo to agree to it, everyone would be saved.
"How exactly do you propose to do that?" demanded Homura as Danzo watched on in silence.
Naruto's eyes snapped brightly in the scant light, making them seem like lights—their own set of stars in the darkness.
"I'd die to protect Konoha," Naruto declared.
Nara Shikamaru did not like to fight. He had announced this to his team when he first made genin just so that their teacher, a tall man who constantly smelled like cigarette smoke, wouldn't expect too much from him. So, Shikamaru was intelligent enough to see the irony in his current situation, running along the roofs of Konoha in a desperate attempt to get to where the fighting was thickest.
His brain was racing at such a pace that Shikamaru could practically feel his neurons firing. Akatsuki had attacked from the south, at the main gate opposite from Hokage Mountain, but now it seemed there were several points of entry where shinobi had reported encountering a man with a scratched through hitai-ate from Amegakure: Pein. There were at least three different bodies, and if the code from Jiraiya-sama had been correctly interpreted none of those bodies were the real Pein.
As he leaped past the stadium that had once hosted the Chuunin Exams, Shikamaru saw a familiar figure just standing on the flat roof of a large apartment complex in a manner completely unprecedented from Konoha's Number One Hyperactive Surprising Ninja. Shikamaru skidded to an almost-stop then changed his direction abruptly.
"Naruto!" he called as he landed on the building the two Narutos shared.
The figures were identical, which was to be expected with Naruto's Kage Bunshin, right down to their haggard appearance and lack of forehead protector. Naruto's jacket was also strangely missing, leaving him in a pair of dark pants and a faded orange shirt with a red circle on its back, like the patches on the backs of the chuunin vests. He held the thin strip of metal that usually adorned his forehead in one limp hand.
"Naruto, Pein is—"
"Yeah," Naruto interrupted quickly. A turn of his head revealed a bruise across his right cheekbone.
"Were you fighting him?"
"Huh?" Both pairs of blue eyes focused suddenly, sharply, onto Shikamaru. "No. This isn't— Where is Pein now?"
"According to reports, several places," scoffed Shikamaru while his eyes scanned over Konoha. "He has at least three bodies here."
Naruto followed his gaze to where a team of ANBU used a quick succession of ninjutsu to take down a large creature, some kind of combination between a lion and a lizard.
"I only need to get the attention of one of them," Naruto declared firmly.
Shikamaru frowned and looked back and his companion. What was Naruto planning? As if he sensed the other boy's gaze, Naruto turned back to Shikamaru.
"Pein is after the bijuu," he reminded Shikamaru. "He won't attack the village if the jinchuuriki isn't here."
Shikamaru raised his eyebrows at Naruto's determination. He knew what his friend was; it was impossible not to when Akatsuki was after him. And it didn't take a genius to figure out what had happened to the Kyuubi no Kitsune. There were actually very few ways to fight a tailed beast. But Naruto never called attention to his situation. Even when he was fighting Akatsuki, Naruto always maintained that he was protecting his comrades not saving his own skin.
"You want to try to draw him out with Kage Bunshin?" Shikamaru tried to confirm.
Naruto cast a quick glance at his mirror image that had remained silent.
"Something like that," replied the blond.
"Your new jutsu?" Shikamaru really wished he knew what was going through Naruto's mind. He had seen Naruto practicing a new jutsu only once, when he had come across the boy training with a vehemence previously seen only in Uchiha Sasuke. Shikamaru was intelligent enough to see the irony.
Naruto turned to face Shikamaru fully and grinned triumphantly.
"Yeah, I finally figured it out," he announced.
Naruto studied the village again. The strange summoned creature had been subdued, but there were still calls for help in the southern district. Shikamaru was pretty sure that the smoke billowing from the west side of the village was another point of Pein's entry into Konoha. Then, Naruto raised his hands into a simple cross, and his body was enveloped in smoke a moment later. Shikamaru was unsurprised at the sight of three identical Narutos once the smoke died down.
"Take these two with you and find Pein," Naruto suddenly commanded. "Tell whichever body you run into first that I'll be on top of the mountain."
"What are you going to do once he knows you're there?" Shikamaru nearly glared at him and wondered if he should even bother trying to impress upon Naruto the need for a proper strategy.
Naruto just smiled back at the genius.
"Don't worry, Shikamaru." He raised both hands and tied the hitai-ate across his brow once again. "It's not exactly one of your plans, but it's going to work. I never go back on my word. That's my nindo."
Shikamaru believed that. And somehow, he also believed that Naruto had a plan. After all, it had been Naruto who defeated Kazuku of the Akatsuki. Shikamaru nodded and turned away, sprinting once again for the west gate, where the report of attack had originated. He saw the two clones flanking him on either side from the corner of his eye. Even as mere forms of chakra, Naruto seemed determine to make sure Shikamaru reached his destination.
Shikamaru frowned in the direction of Naruto's back and hoped, somewhat futilely, that his friend wasn't about to do something stupidly reckless. It wasn't only that Naruto made Shikamaru want to walk with him, the way the younger Nara had told his father. Naruto made people want to follow him.
The cry came up from the streets of Konoha amidst the confusion and chaos. Despite the people of Konoha not knowing who was attacking or where or why, one thing remained clear: Get away from the giant centipede.
The creature barreled down the narrow streets of the village, tearing up sections of the buildings that lined the road as it chased down the mob of people in front of it. A young girl, no more than five years old, suddenly tripped over a small divot in the hard, packed-dirt streets and skidded forward on her knees.
"Tami!" an older woman called desperately. The beast was almost upon the girl.
Suddenly, the crowd heard a cry of outrage above the roaring of the summoned animal and the frightened cries of the people surrounding them. A young woman leaped into the path of the centipede with her fist cocked close to her ear.
"Bastard!" Haruno Sakura yelled. She swung her fist in a wide right hook that landed directly in the creature's torso—as much as a centipede could have a torso.
But at least it succeeded in stopping the giant insect in its tracks.
Sakura gave the centipede a cursory glance to confirm that it wasn't moving then turned to face the crowd.
"Are you all right?" she asked the girl gently.
Sakura heard someone in the crowd marvel at the strength contained in a single punch, but she ignored any reference to her "brutish strength." There were certain specific advantages to being the apprentice of Tsunade-sama. Smiling reassuringly at the girl, Sakura held a glowing green hand over the child's skinned knee. Luckily, the girl's wound wasn't deep, only a bit dirty from the road.
Sakura looked up to see a man of medium height with a scar across the bridge of his nose as the only defining feature in his face.
"Iruka-sensei!" She breathed a slight sigh of relief. As strong as she knew she was, there was something about her former teachers that always put Sakura more at ease. It was hard to feel panicked in the presence of a man who had patched up her knee when she herself had fallen to the ground.
"Are you all right?" Iruka demanded.
Sakura nodded, not entirely sure if Iruka was referring to his former student or the girl who was racing into her mother's arms.
"Fine," she answered for the both of them. "But where did that thing come from?"
"It's Akatsuki," said Iruka heavily. "They're attacking the village."
"What!" Sakura shot to her feet. "Naruto! Where's Naruto?"
Shikamaru had disappeared from the codebreakers when the first shakings began, and Ino had rushed off to find her father. Sakura still didn't know where Naruto was, and he was the one in the most danger.
"It's all right, Sakura." Iruka rested one hand on her shoulder. "Naruto won't be captured. No one in Konoha would allow it. And he has dedicated friends to help him."
Sakura bit her lip and nodded. Naruto had a way of drawing people to him. All of the genin he had graduated with were now considered his friends, and even some of the older jounin had seen his determination and skill. He had defeated one of the Akatsuki on his own and helped fight against several others. Naruto had even kept the promise everyone else expected him to give up on.
Naruto had brought Sasuke back to Konoha.
Kakashi tried to remember a time—no more than three minutes ago—when he could say breathing came naturally instead of having to concentrate on every inhalation so that it wouldn't pierce his chest like a kunai. The debris around him pinned his arms to his sides, his left arm jutted out at an awkward angle. If he let himself think about it, he could easily catalogue his cracked—probably broken—ribs and the long scrape down his left forearm.
Still, Kakashi found he could breath a bit easier when Chouza and his son pounded the enemy into the ground.
"You okay, Kakashi?" Chouza asked without taking his eyes from the pale man with light red hair in front of him.
Kakashi shifted his right shoulder to move some of the debris that had him pinned. Freeing first one arm then the other, he carefully extracted himself from the dilapidated remnants of the building, refusing to consider that he was actually feeling tired. He had already performed Chidori and Raikiri, plus that Lightning Clone in order to give the Akimichi the opportunity to use their Bubun Baika no Jutsu.
"I'm down to about half my chakra," Kakashi answered honestly.
"So that's Pein?" Chouji asked, his eyes narrowing at the enemy.
Kakashi felt no need to confirm—the dark cloak with red clouds pretty much gave the answer away, anyway. But the reinforcements gathered around the destroyed area were listening closely. Chouza tensed and raised one hand.
"Now!" His voice boomed from deep within his gut.
Five ninja, an Akimichi among them as well as a retired ANBU that Kakashi recognized, all prepared their attacks. Kakashi kept his borrowed left eye fixed on Pein, expecting the same reaction as before. Beneath the yells and the chaos, he barely heard Pein's whispered attack.
Kakashi felt himself being pushed back by something invisible, like a block of wind had decided he would advance no further. As he sailed through the air, Kakashi grabbed a kunai from his pouch, his fingers trailing over it to make sure it was the one he wanted. Still flying backwards, Kakashi flung the kunai at Pein and felt a sharp stab of vindication when Pein dodged the kunai. The blade whizzed by his face, and the smoke bomb attacked to the handle sizzled and exploded.
It was worth the crash into the wall to get the insight into this strange power. Kakashi felt a large hand drag him back to sit up, his back braced against a concrete section of wall between him and his comrades and Pein.
"What the hell was that!" yelled Chouji.
"That's Pein's power," Kakashi replied.
His eye scanned his surroundings to locate the rest of the shinobi that had been pushed back by Pein's unusual ability. He spotted two of them on the ground beyond his hiding place, groaning but otherwise alive. Kakashi glanced to Chouji then met the eyes of the older Akimichi on his other side.
"Somehow, he's able to pull and push attacks from his center," Kakashi explained, "both physical and ninjutsu, as if he controls gravity and repulsion forces. But he doesn't seem to be able to use them in quick succession."
His kunai had proved that. Pein had been forced to dodge the smoke bomb after he used that Shinra Tensei to avoid the other shinobi attacks. It was a pity Kakashi hadn't had any more deadly tags available, but at least the smoke bomb had given him what he needed to know.
"There's an interval before he can use that power again." Kakashi shifted his weight to his knees, a plan already forming in his mind. "It's short, but that's our window."
Chouza nodded once. Kakashi had outranked the man for years as ANBU, and it was easy to fall into old roles. But a sharp cry stopped Kakashi from saying anything further.
The three Konoha ninja turned as one to see Chouji's first, and best, friend making his way over the scattered pieces of construction now blocking the streets.
"Shikamaru," Chouji greeted the young man.
Kakashi's mind was already flitting over possibilities, ways he could incorporate Shikamaru into the next attack on Pein. Or maybe Shikamaru himself would have some new information based on the autopsy Shizune was supposed to be performing or the codebreakers' discovery. Shikamaru just knelt down in front of the trio and looked directly at Kakashi.
"You guys might want to wait on whatever plan you got," Shikamaru suggested calmly, though his face was nowhere near the uncaring glamour Kakashi was used to. "The wild card just arrived."
Kakashi frowned at the genius. Shikamaru didn't look worried, which factored in their favor. But what was the—
"Oi, bastard!" a familiar voice demanded attention the way only Naruto could.
Both of Kakashi's eyes snapped open, neglecting the sudden shift in perception and the drain of his already limited chakra stores. But he could clearly see Naruto standing on top of the wall of what had once been a candy store. The young man wasn't dressed for battle at all, with his shorts and a plain shirt. But his fists were planted firmly on his hips as he gazed down at the battlefield with a cocky grin.
"Aren't you looking for someone?" Naruto demanded, obviously not bothered that Pein was gazing steadily back up at him.
"Naruto!" Chouji called worriedly.
"What is he thinking?" growled Chouza.
Kakashi nearly agreed with the man aloud but for the fact that forcing the enemy's attention on him instead of his allies was something that Uzumaki Naruto would have no problem doing. He knew that Akatsuki was after him, and he had been determined to defeat the rogue group himself ever since Asuma's death. But Shikamaru's face was perfectly calm in the face of Naruto's foolish act.
"I wouldn't worry about him," muttered the young Nara. "He says he has a plan."
Naruto's plan apparently consisted of shouting insults down at Akatsuki's leader to keep him occupied. Kakashi wasn't sure if Naruto knew he was keeping Pein's focus on him or if his most exuberant student was simply being as annoying as people labeled him. Kakashi forced the thought from his mind. He needed to take advantage of the distraction while he could.
"He needs to know about Pein's power," Kakashi interjected. He didn't know if it was wise, this faith he had in his student. Pein was in a different class even from Kazuku.
The voice, while easily recognized, was enough of a surprise to make Kakashi look over his shoulder, past Chouza to the blond boy crouching down to join in the impromptu field rally.
"Naruto?" Chouji questioned.
The blond just grinned and held up his hands in the sign that always precluded his most utilized jutsu.
"Two places at once," the clone explained then gestured carelessly to the bright boy on top of the wall. "Even that one's not real. Now we just gotta find the rest of Pein's bodies."
"Naruto, listen . . ." Kakashi seized the opportunity to repeat what he had found about Pein's power. When Naruto's face fell into a confused frown, Kakashi revamped the explanation with examples of whirlpools and windstorms and thought nothing of it.
"Okay." Naruto's clone nodded formally. "Got it."
"Tell him not to do anything too troublesome," Shikamaru interjected suddenly.
The clone looked at Shikamaru, eyes widened in surprise for a moment, and then grinned.
"Nah," he answered. "That's your department, Nara."
The figure raised his hands again into the cross seal and disappeared with a faint whisper. Chouji was the first to pop his head over the barrier to see what was going on. The bright figure on the wall was still smiling when Pein stretched out one hand as if to call the boy to him. Kakashi's Sharingan eye watched the body sail through the air and land with Pein's hand clutched around its throat. The clone's lips moved softly, but Kakashi couldn't discern what was said. He only saw the clone dispel and Pein's ringed eyes glance up to Hokage Mountain. Then, without a word, Pein took off in a burst of chakra, flitting over the battered landscape in pursuit of his target.
"Will he be all right?" Chouza asked in the wake of Pein's retreat.
"Naruto lives up to Konoha's Most Surprising Ninja," replied Kakashi. "You should believe in him."
"He said he completed his latest jutsu," admitted Shikamaru. "He's not going in unprepared."
"He won't be going in alone, either," Chouji growled in agreement.
Kakashi nodded, pushing himself to his feet.
"All right. We'll provide the back-up for Naruto. Shikamaru, you—"
Kakashi cut himself off as a slow clicking sound rose up from the barren and cracked ground in front of him. Kakashi's eyes widened as the thick body of Pein that had previously been in a crater thanks to the Akimichi techniques slowly rose to its feet. It unfurled its fake limbs and scorpion-like tail as the wide, blank eyes stared at the four Konoha nin frozen in the midst of their planning.
"Ah, hell," Chouji muttered.
His guards, being ANBU, had been called away to deal with more important matters than looking after a wayward prisoner, especially when their charge was so chakra-deprived that he couldn't even use his own eyes.
However, their absence did make it easy for Sasuke to climb out the window of his assigned hospital room, where he had spent the past week, to perch on the roof of the hospital and try to determine what was going on.
The chaos and cries of applied chakra could only mean a battle, but Sasuke couldn't pinpoint the enemy. Granted, studying his surroundings would have been much easier with his nefarious bloodline, but the dark marks at his temples cut off any idea of the sort. Deeming him to be dangerous, Tsunade had applied seals on Sasuke's temples that halted all but the barest minimum of chakra flow to his eyes. Enough for his nerves and blood vessels to remain functioning but not nearly enough to activate the Sharingan.
But even without the Sharingan, it was nearly impossible to miss the orange blur currently streaking across the rooftops of Konoha. Sasuke could only stare as Naruto's head swiveled, gathering information even as he bolted for whatever his target was. Naruto faced almost fully forward before his head snapped back around and pinned Sasuke with a demanding gaze.
"Sasuke!" Naruto landed in front of him more exuberantly than gracefully. "What are you doing? They let you out of the hospital?"
"Shut up," Sasuke growled, more because he didn't want to hear Naruto's assumptions than anything.
Sasuke cast his dark eyes across the village once more.
"What's going on?" he demanded, seeing the chaos around him.
"Pein's attacking," Naruto answered shortly.
Sasuke let his eyes turn to his friend standing beside him. Naruto's eyes were fixed firmly on his village. His eyebrows just beneath his hitai-ate furrowed together in an expression that was more worry than the puzzlement Sasuke remembered being a part of Naruto. Suddenly, Naruto focused singularly onto the mountain behind the Hokage Tower. Even without the Sharingan, Sasuke saw the boy's muscles tense and knees bend in preparation to jump. Without quite having a plan, Sasuke's hand shot out and grabbed Naruto's arm.
"What are you doing?" He glared at Naruto the way he used to when he was thirteen. Funny how easy it was to fall into old patterns.
Naruto glared right back.
"Let go, teme!"
He tried to pull his arm away, but Sasuke refused to let go. He wasn't that weak.
"I have to get him out of Konoha."
Naruto's eyes weren't as angry now, but they still reminded Sasuke strangely of his own Chidori. Sasuke realized then that he meant to fight against Pein.
"How?" Sasuke shot back. "You think you're going to convince him to leave? You won't be able to beat him."
"How do you know?" Naruto cried, indignant. "You have no idea what I can do now, Sasuke. You never stuck around long enough to find out."
Sasuke wouldn't admit that Naruto had a point; he had no reason to stay before. Naruto had just been an annoyance—but no, that wasn't true anymore. Sasuke didn't have anything left, except what Naruto had offered him: a brother.
Naruto ground his teeth together, and Sasuke could hear the crack of his companion's teeth, despite the loud cries coming from the village.
"He's after the bijuu," Naruto explained shortly. "He'll follow me out."
Naruto was planning to act as bait? Did the dobe even have a proper plan?
"And then what?" Sasuke asked leadingly. "You're not strong enough to defeat him."
Naruto's smile showed no teeth; it was as if Naruto thought he had some great secret.
"Don't you know, Sasuke?" His muscles relaxed under Sasuke's grip. "People are only at their strongest when they have something to protect. You'll understand that when it's your turn to protect something."
Naruto was staring straight at Sasuke now, and the Uchiha found he didn't want to look away.
"You once said I didn't know what it was like to lose a family," accused Naruto. "I know now."
Sasuke said nothing to acknowledge what he had once said. He truly thought Naruto hadn't known anything about family. But he knew that the Sannin Jiraiya was dead, killed by this same Pein.
"So, now you're after vengeance?" The reversal struck a harsh chord of dissonance somewhere in Sasuke.
"No." Naruto's face was suddenly serious. "I'm going to make sure he doesn't take any more of my family away. Including my brother."
The fact that Naruto called him a brother wasn't surprising to Sasuke. He had heard it three years ago. He was more surprised that Naruto still believed it. Sasuke released his retaining hold on his friend's arm. Suddenly, Naruto smiled widely, showing off a row of teeth that made his face seem young. The sight renewed Sasuke's annoyance at the simple plan—if it could be called that.
"What if he captures you?" demanded Sasuke. Even he knew what Akatsuki was after.
"He won't capture me," Naruto stated.
He raised both hands in a cross in front of his chest and suddenly there were two identical figures of the jinchuuriki on the roof in front of Sasuke. Both were grinning inanely.
"He won't even catch me."
One of the figures dug into his pockets and brought out a small white ball, like a pill. Tossing it to his double, Naruto tensed again before he jumped off the hospital roof. The second Naruto popped the pill into his mouth and followed his clone. Sasuke watched both figures leap off the roof and continue running for the Hokage Tower to the north. His eyes narrowed. The fool would probably get himself in trouble if he went on his own. Ignoring the restrictions—both verbal and physical—that had been placed on him, Sasuke focused all his chakra to his feet. Just before he took off, a dark figure in a white mask landed on the roof beside him, just where Naruto had been a moment ago.
"Uchiha Sasuke," the ANBU addressed him coldly, "you have been ordered to remain in the hospital for the duration of the attack."
Sasuke stared at the masked shinobi with ice in his dark eyes.
"Stop me," he challenged, and took off with a leap that propelled him to the next building, following Naruto.
Naruto flew over the trees on the raised ground overlooking Konoha and glanced over his shoulder. Pein, the one with light red hair that looked orange in direct sunlight, was still following him, although he was kind of slowed down by the trail of clones Naruto was leaving behind. Naruto saw two clones dissapate slowly in front of Pein. They weren't lasting long at this rate.
As the smoke from the dispelled clones slowly faded into the air, Pein remained where he was, just staring at his prey. Naruto dug his heels into the ground to stop himself and turned to face Pein. He could still see the dust billowing from Konoha behind Pein, but the man's attention was focused only on Naruto.
"Uzumaki Naruto," Pein called. "You will be captured."
"Nope," Naruto responded. "Don't think so."
Naruto pasted on a wide grin that crinkled his eyes. He kept watching his enemy through the slits that his eyes made, but Pein never advanced. He raised his hands and held his arms carefully out from his body, as if presenting himself as a target.
"I killed Jiraiya when he invaded my territory in Ame," Pein persisted. "Do you not wish to kill me as well?"
That wiped the smile off Naruto's face quite successfully.
"Hell, yeah." He shot Pein a hot glare that burned cold in his light eyes. "But that won't help the people I care about. Jiraiya wanted people to understand each other. If we can't, then at least I can stop you from attacking Konoha."
"Then, you wish to protect them?" the leader of Akatsuki confirmed. "That is a wish I understand."
Naruto couldn't find a response to that. He had known that he wanted to protect his precious people since he was twelve years old and his teacher declared he was a proud member of Konohagakure. But someone like Pein, how could he understand?
"Your friends killed someone precious to me as well," began Pein. "Konoha nin attacked my home during the Third Secret War. The justice I wish to mete out to Konoha is the same justice you wish to mete out to me: The justice that derives from hating the ones who took from us."
Naruto gritted his teeth together and swallowed back all the words he wanted to say, mostly curses, instead of spitting them from his mouth.
"And yet you share Jiraiya's wish for peace," noted Pein. "How would you suggest we rid ourselves of such hatred?"
Naruto only hung his head low until his chin touched his chest as he shook his head despondently.
"You do not have an answer," the leader of Akatsuki concluded at Naruto's continued silence.
Naruto sensed more than saw that Pein was through talking. He had to work fast if this was going to work. He was already a little surprised that Pein hadn't caught on yet. Maybe the nuke-nin was too focused on the jinchuuriki himself to notice what Naruto had left behind. Now he just needed to get the timing right. Naruto raised his hands and created two more clones as a barrier between him and Pein. Then he bit through the skin on his thumb and slammed his palm on the ground.
"Kuchiyose no Jutsu!"
A wizened old toad appeared at Naruto's feet in the puff of smoke that resulted.
"Get ready, Pa!" Naruto commanded.
"Ya better know what yer doin'!" called back Fukusaku.
Naruto only fixed his eyes on his enemy as his clones rushed at Pein. Pein barely looked at either of them as he extended both his hands and exerted his strange power again, pulling the clones towards himself from either side. This was the power Kakashi-sensei had explained: an ability to push or pull things from his center. A large black spear appeared in either of Pein's hands and skewered the figures flying towards him. Naruto nodded towards Fukusaku. That was his cue.
As the smoke cleared from around Pein, he could see the jinchuuriki standing before him. The boy was calm and rested his fists on his hips as the sun glinted off the wide strip of metal across his forehead. The Kyuubi no jinchuuriki was becoming problematic. Pein's Rinnegan eyes stared at his prey, determined not to frown at the puzzle he saw through his dead friend's eyes. He tilted his head slightly and tried to see, tried to remember, why this boy was different from what he expected. But then, thoughts disappeared and there was only the goal. Neither of them were moving, but Pein didn't think to wonder about Uzumaki's strategy. Even a demon could not fight a god, and Itachi had reported that Uzumaki Naruto had very little control over Kyuubi.
Pein wondered if the boy realized that this distraction he had demanded—to chase him over the mountain that overlooked the Village Hidden in the Leaves—had no effect on the village he was leaving behind. The remaining paths were still within Konoha and, despite the persistence of the Leaf nin, still making quite a mess of the village. It would have been helpful had one of the other paths been able to converge on his location to help with the jinchuuriki, but the Asura Path was currently engaging a man Pein recognized as Hatake Kakashi. That one could be problematic. The Animal Path's summons were systematically being taken down by the shinobi of Konoha, and any attempt to intimidate the citizens by the Naraka Path was thwarted by the summons of Godaime Hokage, who was doing a very fine job of keeping her citizens alive.
Pein would be impressed by their abilities if these people weren't standing in the way of his goal. The Uchiha with only one eye was taking care of the Hachibi; Pein's responsibility was the Kyuubi, a boy who looked more of a youth than he had been warned of. The shadow surrounded Pein for a moment as he stood on the high ground to the north of Konohagakure. The village was about a kilometer behind him, but his prey was directly in front.
Now, there was only the boy standing before Pein. He suspected it would not be very difficult to incapacitate the jinchuuriki without killing it. Then he needed to keep it subdued until he could transport the human sacrifice to the cave. With so few members of Akatsuki left, the boy would need to be present for the extraction. All the other Paths would have to participate as well, but it was necessary for Pein's goal.
"There is no other way," Pein stated, just so that Uzumaki would know what was to come. "You have been a sacrifice since the day you were born."
The words were meant to rile the boy, but Uzumaki only clenched a fist tightly by his side.
"You want a sacrifice?" Uzumaki demanded. "Fine."
Uzumaki darted forward with his fist cocked back. Pein lifted one hand and held out his palm to the boy. At a single command, Uzumaki's heels lifted off the ground, but the boy's face was determined as opposed to panicked. He brought his hands together and shouted into the wind caused by Pein's special ability.
"Kage Bunshin no Jutsu."
The clone that appeared between Uzumaki and Pein was an annoyance at worst. Pein held a sharpened chakra sensor in his right hand steadily and waited for the impact. The cloud of smoke he had expected, but the extended arm with a kunai pointed at his face was a blatant attack that Pein hadn't foreseen. He was too early for his Banshou Tenin, so he jerked to the left, swinging his extended arm in a wide arc as he did.
A slight resistance against the black weapon in his hand told Pein that he had found his target. He felt the kunai graze his ear as it sailed past his head, and he twisted further to one side, ending with his feet planted firmly in the dry ground of the plateau. Pein looked to his left to find his target again. Uzumaki gritted his teeth together as he wrapped one arm around his stomach. A dark stain spread from under his arm, coating the belly of the thin shirt he wore. A wound like that would be debilitating if it continued to bleed, which only worked in Pein's favor.
"You still continue to fight," Pein noted, "when your goal is the same as Akatsuki's."
"It's not the same!" Uzumaki cried.
"We both desire peace."
In a part of his mind that wasn't entirely his, Pein felt the presence of the other Paths leave Konoha. They were no longer needed in the village.
"That is why I need the power of Kyuubi." Pein watched Uzumaki falter on his feet once then struggle to rise again. "When everyone experiences that pain, the fear of such power will bring peace to the world."
"That's not peace," growled Uzumaki. "That's just a lie. Peace isn't when people are too scared to fight against you. Jiraiya thought there could be a world where people understood each other."
"And how would you suggest this come about?"
There was no answer forthcoming. In truth, he hadn't expected one from the boy. His own answer would end the wars in the world, if only because no one would have the power to stand against the bijuu. If it required sacrifice on his part, if it required becoming a tyrant—even a god—he would do it. And his best friend would see a world of peace through Nagato's eyes.
The voice was a new one to the fight, and convinced Pein to turn his head to his left to take in the new sight. A dark boy, about the same age as the jinchuuriki he was currently pursuing, glared at the ongoing battle as he raced toward the standoff.
"Sasuke-teme!" Uzumaki shouted back angrily. The effort made him double over as both arms encircled his torso.
"A distraction," Pein decided.
He held out one hand to the newcomer as if he would stop the boy in his tracks.
He saw the dark eyes widen as his own force drew the boy faster than he wanted, than he even knew was possible. Pein allowed a chakra sensor slip from his sleeve to point at the boy. He would know his impending death and be helpless to stop it.
"Let him go!"
Uzumaki started running faster than he should have been able to with such a wound. He didn't stop even when he got caught up in Pein's force of attraction; he only fixed his eyes on Pein's weapon and flipped a short kunai in his hand. As both boys flew towards Pein, Uzumaki suddenly was on a collision course with his comrade. Then, the dark boy collided with Uzumaki's side.
"What are you doing?" the dark one demanded with what little breath he managed to steal from Pein's vacuum.
Uzumaki dug his kunai into the ground instead of responding. His hands were free of his belly, and more than blood was escaping from the large slice through his abdomen. Uzumaki wrapped one blood-stained arm around his friend's body and cried out as opposing forces dragged his body in either direction. Pein was still trying to draw his prey in, and Uzumaki's kunai was not a solid enough anchor to keep him in one place.
Pein watched the duo struggle for a moment before Uzumaki looked at Pein and released the kunai. Pein would be able to pin down the extra and take care of his target. Then, suddenly, Uzumaki turned. Pein couldn't even see what the boy had used as leverage, but suddenly Uzumaki had his back to Pein, impaled on the black chakra sensor through his chest. The cloth around the boy's head loosened and fell free, the metal glinting briefly in the sunlight.
The shock on the dark boy's face—the one actually facing the leader of Akatsuki—held none of the pain of an injury. Uzumaki had taken the hit for his friend. Did he think that his death would also keep the bijuu away from Akatsuki? A jinchuuriki was not so easily disposed of, even by Akatsuki. Pein withdrew the spear in Uzumaki's chest and reached a free hand for the body, already bleeding from the hole just created in his chest.
Then, a shiruken passed through the corner of Pein's vision. He jerked to one side to avoid it. If he used his Shinra Tensei, he could end up causing more damage to the vessel of Kyuubi than he wanted. A team of Konoha ninja had appeared on the battlefield. This was growing annoying, and there was something else. Something he could feel wasn't right. Casting one last glance at the fallen Uzumaki, Pein shifted his attention onto the ANBU forces rallying against him.
Sasuke felt his eyes burn and deliberately ignored it. He decided not to think about the way he could see every wound on Naruto's body in detail as the boy fell. He hardly noticed the pale man, studded in every available patch of skin, leap backwards to avoid an onslaught of kunai from the ANBU now on the scene. Sasuke only saw Naruto on the ground. Bleeding.
"Naruto," Sasuke called again.
The thought flitted through his mind that he should have been shouting out insults. At least his friend would have responded to those. But then he was already kneeling beside the boy laying in bright colors; red mixing with orange, staining the fabric of his shirt darker than it should have been.
"Ow," breathed Naruto softly. "This is gonna hurt."
"Stay still, dobe," Sasuke commanded when Naruto started reaching out and clawing his way into the ground with his right hand, as if he were going to pull himself along in his damaged state.
He had done that once before, Sasuke remembered. Pulling himself along the ground towards an enemy who had threatened his team, and only giving up when Sasuke had told him that Sakura was fine. Sasuke quickly took in his surroundings. The ANBU were still beating back Pein—or getting beat back themselves, the whole thing was so destructive and covered so much ground that Sasuke wasn't entirely sure who was winning. But among the ANBU, there were no white aprons that signified iryou-nin. Tsunade was still at the Hokage Tower, trying to protect her village while one of her greatest citizens was dying next to Sasuke.
"Sasuke," Naruto muttered.
Sasuke looked back to where Naruto's tongue slipped through his cracked lips to spit out a dribble of blood that trickled pathetically down his chin. He felt Naruto's hand come up to press into his chest. But he wasn't pushing Sasuke away, or grabbing his shirt to pull him closer. It was like something was weighing on Sasuke, pressing on his heart or his lungs. Naruto's mouth turned up into something like a smile as his lips tried to form words. Hardly recognizing his own movements, Sasuke leaned closer until his forehead hovered over Naruto's.
"Now it's your turn."
Sasuke blinked once, only once. But it was enough time for Naruto's bright, snapping eyes to drift closed. The pressure disappeared from Sasuke's chest, and he felt something drop into his lap.
"Naruto." Sasuke was suddenly panicked. Naruto wasn't supposed to sleep; it was bad if he slept before the med-nin could get to him. "Dobe, open your eyes. Naruto!"
The voice was almost hard to place without the abject hero-worship that had always labeled him as "Sasuke-kun." But Sasuke recognized it a moment before he saw the cropped pink head of hair bounding over to him. Sasuke didn't move as Sakura practically skidded the remainder of the distance to Naruto on her knees and immediately tore his shirt open to see the deep, dark wound across his abdomen
"He's bleeding out." Sakura's pale hands closed over the sliced skin, trying to force the flesh to knit itself back together.
But there was another wound on Naruto's chest, an almost perfect hole near his heart. Sasuke shivered in remembrance then forcibly shoved all feeling to the pit of his stomach and buried it under the sinking lead weight already there.
"No!" Sakura suddenly cried out, her eyes wide.
Her hands shifted from the sluggishly bleeding wound on Naruto's stomach to the hole over his chest. Sakura pressed her palms over the wound as if she would fill it in with chakra alone.
"No, no, no, no." She couldn't stop repeating herself.
"Stop it," Sasuke murmured.
He had seen enough in Orochimaru's base, even earlier, to know. Naruto's face was slack, his eyes closed, and his body was slowly losing its warmth. But Sakura kept her glowing hands on Naruto's chest even as her eyes watered desperately.
"Stop it, Sakura!" Sasuke grabbed the hand resting on Naruto's chest and glared at Sakura. "He's dead."
"No," Sakura sobbed. "He isn't. He kept his promise. He can't die."
Sasuke didn't know what promise she was talking about, but Sakura's increasingly soggy face was growing painful to see. Sasuke's eyes dropped to his lap, expecting to see Naruto's limp hand. But the tan hand of his friend lay on the crimson-stained ground by Sasuke's knee. On his lap lay a band of metal embedded in a black bandanna. In the center of the metal was Konoha's symbol, a swirled leaf marred with four bloody fingerprints.
It was sunny on the day of the funeral. Some of the mourners remembered saying goodbye to the Sandaime in the pouring rain and thought the weather should fashion itself into something more like that, something more appropriate. Instead, the sun mocked the funeral-goers, like Uzumaki Naruto was smiling in the sky above them, grinning still in the wide, happy way only he could.
Most of the people gathered at the memorial field of the desperately green village were crying. Honestly, by now, most of them knew that it would be a disgrace not to cry. Sarutobi Konohamaru stood in the front lines and bawled, tears running down his cheeks and a combination of snot and salty water streaming from his nose and making a general mess of his face. He didn't seem to notice even as he hid his eyes in the crook of his arm. Everyone around him tried desperately to ignore his display except for Moegi, who used the long scarf around Konohamaru's neck in an attempt to mop up his face while her own was stained with tears as well.
Naruto's comrades made up the front lines of the crowd, and no one dared begrudge them their place. Hyuuga Hinata bit her lip while she wept silently, no catch of breath to signal the start of her sobs. Inuzuka Kiba lifted one hand to place on her shoulder but then fisted hard. His knuckles turned as white as her eyes as a gasp of "Naruto-kun" escaped her bruised lips. The fang-marked boy pressed his teeth together in a silent growl and turned his face away as people pretended not to see the wetness in his eyes.
They had buried Naruto quickly, unable to hide the hole in his chest or his sliced stomach after death. But the white carnation, still clutched in the hands of a girl on the brink of being a young woman, was the only bright color in the crowd other than Haruno Sakura's cherry blossom hair. She approached the memorial cautiously, as though her feet were made of lead, and gently laid her flower on top of the white carpet that already covered the stone. Then she returned to the crowd and began to sob loudly. No one stopped her.
No words were spoken at his funeral. No one could find something appropriate to say. Even Tsunade, dressed in the robes she never wore and holding the treasured hat in one hand, overlooked the proceedings with a somber gaze. Beyond the young adults dressed in black, those of a single generation raised to defend and protect their home, stood the adults who had overseen their training and learning. Maito Gai watched his students their friends in front of him as silent tears tracked down his cheeks at the loss of life. Yuuhi Kurenai stood beside him as she rubbed her hand over her swollen belly and kept her eyes fixed firmly on the memorial stone where so many names had already been carved. Too many names.
At the back of the large crowd, Uchiha Sasuke stood as if he were made of stone. He was only allowed at the ceremony because of his actions during the attack and because his guards had requested that he be allowed to attend. It helped that Hatake Kakashi, who was nearly fully healed from his bout of chakra depletion, had agreed to watch the failed Sharingan holder. Sasuke didn't seem interested in staring at the cold memorial or the funeral service in front of him. His dark eyes wondered instead to the forest that surrounded the field, his gaze focusing on nothing in particular.
Suddenly, Sasuke snapped his head to his left, staring at a tree at the edge of the training grounds where he had first been proclaimed a part of a team. Ignoring the strange—and even hateful—stares from those around him, Sasuke darted to his goal furiously and forced his mind not to think of what an idiot he was currently being. He was at Naruto's damn funeral. It was impossible.
Sasuke paused next to the tree where he had glimpsed the briefest hint of movement and scanned the area desperately with eyes peeled wide open, black designs swirling menacingly within his red irises. Kakashi was beside him before he even decided what he was looking for.
"Something wrong?" demanded Kakashi. The lilt that had always been present in his voice ever since he had become a teacher to a trio of messed-up twelve-year-olds was missing.
"I thought I saw . . ." Sasuke looked around intently, searching for something unseen. "Something."
Kakashi raised a hand to the band of metal across his brow and gazed around with both eyes exposed for once.
"It was nothing," announced Sasuke sullenly before Kakashi could finish his scanning.
Kakashi only hummed thoughtfully and cast a glance back to the crowd gathered to remember one of their own.
"His name is on the memorial now," Kakashi noted. "He said he wanted to be listed with Konoha's greatest heroes."
"I remember," Sasuke said, being very, very sure that nothing in his voice implied that he did anything more than recall facts that had taken place years ago.
"I suppose he finally accomplished his dream."
"That idiot," snapped Sasuke. "He never even made it above genin. He couldn't have made Hokage, even if he tried his hardest."
"That's not it," the silver-headed man replied calmly. "The reason he wanted to be Hokage in the first place was so that everyone would have to acknowledge him."
Sasuke fell silent and glanced over the crowd of people gathered underneath the sun on the grassy field, all acknowledging that the boy who had died had also lived for his village, his people. Sasuke slipped his hands quietly into his pockets. His right hand found the cool metal plate in his pocket, and his fingers traced over the symbol in the center. He hadn't given up Naruto's hitai-ate since it had been pressed into his chest insistently a week ago.
The symbol he kept hidden in his pocket had once stood for everything he thought he had forsaken. Now, it was the only thing that tied him to what had been his home. He still didn't understand. What drove other people to sacrifice so much? He thought he had known once, back when he still cared enough to want another person to live, even if it meant his life. But now the only one who could give him his answer was gone, with only the words of a ghost to reflect on.
"You'll understand when it's your turn to protect something."
From a favored place on the side of a mountain, a boy gazed silently at the funeral. He was too far away to see their faces now, but he had almost gotten caught behind that tree and he couldn't afford that yet. A small amphibian sat on a rock next to the boy's feet.
"You sure about this, kid?" demanded the brightly colored toad. "It won't be easy to explain."
Far from being shocked at the talking animal, the bright-eyed boy simply kept his eyes on the village that stretched out before him.
"I'm sure," he stated firmly. "I have to."
The toad gazed at his new pupil with narrow eyes, studying the boy who stood rigidly against the wind, his back straight and his stance firm. The toad didn't remark how much the boy looked like his predecessors at that moment. There would be time enough for that once he was stronger.
"We have to go before they know—"
"Yeah," the young man interrupted. "I know."
"All right." The toad nodded once, taking the boy's determination in stride. It was his best feature, after all. "I'll see you on the mountain."
So saying, the toad suddenly disappeared in a cloud of smoke, leaving the boy alone. Bare-faced and looking only his scant sixteen years, the boy squinted his eyes and imagined he could still see the people even from his great distance. He slowly turned his head to survey the entire village and its people then closed his eyes to burn them into his memory. It was for them that he was doing this. He felt a sharp tug on the center of his body, and the boy disappeared in a puff of smoke that quickly disappeared into the breeze.
A/N: My ambition is going to be the death of me. I started in on the Naruto fanfiction community with Doomed to Repeat, but unfortunately my brain betrayed me, and it has been left perpetually unfinished. It doesn't help that I didn't have it well-planned out before I even started. So now I have an entirely new story with a goal of updating once a month with around 10K words per chapter (yeah, ambitious). But I also have a beta reader in Rawrmander, so we'll hope that can keep me accountable.
I'm trying to keep this story as grounded in reality as I can—given that the reality is a world entirely compromised of ninja, power-hungry-world-dominating bad guys, and eyes that are such unusual colors that they would probably be declared a disease if someone here saw them. That said, this story takes a different path from Kishimoto's beginning at chapter 394 ("The Victory of Sasuke"), directly after the battle between Sasuke and Itachi. However, information straight through the most current manga chapters has been taken into account, so there will be spoilers throughout (including but not limited to: Madara's master plan, the Uchiha massacre, and Naruto's lineage). Divergence and reasoning behind it will be explained at a later date (as well as the "Pein killed Naruto" part), but until then, I force you to read to find out. Ha, devious me.
Phrases you should probably know:
Banshou Tenin – All Creation Attraction; God Realm Pein's special ability where he draws objects in towards himself.
Bubun Baika no Jutsu – Partial Multi-Sized Technique; an Akimichi specialty in which one portion of the body grows in size, usually the arm and hand so as to deliver more powerful blows.
Chidori – Thousand Birds; a current of lightning that encases the user's hand and is able to cut through pretty near anything.
Kage Bunshin – Shadow Clone (although if you don't know this one, I am disappointed in the Naruto fans).
ofudo –seal, in colloquial terms.
Raikiri – Lightning Blade; basically the same idea as Chidori. It's listed as an S-ranked jutsu in the Naruto databook, whereas Chidori is an A-rank.
Shinra Tensei – Divine Judgment; another of God Realm Pein's abilities, this time pushing objects away from himself.