Naruto woke screaming. He choked it off as best he could, rolled onto his side and panted through his teeth. That… What the hell was that? He'd been on that bridge, dagger drawn, flame palmed. Across the way, an open portcullis. There were hollows in armor on the bridge. Not many, five or six. Some with crossbows, others with spears and shields. But they hadn't noticed him yet.
Then a roar echoed from far above. A shadow fell over him. He didn't have time to look up. Fire crashed down over him like a tsunami, hurled him like a child's toy. He couldn't remember how long it had lasted. Seconds. Minutes. Only that when it finally, mercifully ended, he pushed himself up on his knees. And with what strength he had left drew his knife across his throat.
He still shook, cold sweat beading on his brow. God the pain. Anything to end that pain. He didn't know he could hurt like that, that it was even possible. Water. He needed water. He rose and stumbled to his sink. The tatters of his leather armor slid from his shoulders, the warped chainmail beneath hanging on by just a few links.
He slurped from a chipped mug. How long had he been there this time. Three days. Laurentius taught him what he could, the basics, the foundation. Naruto had thought himself ready. Hah, ready.
Naruto chuckled to himself, feeling his hands jitter. What a god forsaken place Lordran was.
He laughed louder still. The shadow of Lord Gwyn drew honorable men to those walls, only to run them through when their backs were turned. When they dared to rest their shields. What sort of Lord was he? Pathetic.
Naruto cackled, tossed his shoulders back and lost himself. He was still alive. He would be back. He came to a realization then.
The first: Konoha was his home. He had forgotten, after so much time in that other world. He was training to be a ninja, here, wasn't he? To what ends? Defend his village. Defend himself. He'd had a purpose, once. Something that started a fire in his gut and drove him to the academy and held him there, even when he was confused or struggling or angry.
But now… Was it just a job. Was it money, power, curiosity. He knew in the other world. His occupation was staying the hell alive. He could do that, he had been doing that - admittedly with varying degrees of success. But Konoha… Naruto realized that he needed to decide which world he was living for. Soon. Eventually. For now… Work with his Pyromancy. His footwork, speed, swordplay. Maybe the academy would faceturn into usefulness in the near future - though he doubted it.
As for the immediate present. Naruto rested his mug on the counter and turned to a window. It was still dark, but soon the sun would rise, shops would open.
And he would eat food.
They'd had a bowl waiting. Well, more likely a pot waiting. Did they make in batches? He wasn't sure. Still, the man called to him and he felt obligated to walk in, part the sheets of fabric and take a seat on one of the six stools before the bar. Naruto remembered bits and pieces. He used to eat there all the time. Literally every day for some reason. He glanced up from his bowl at the man behind the bar, whom was eyeing him with a 'well?' sort of expression.
"It's been days. I thought you'd try to drown yourself in it." The man said, wiping a sheen of sweat from his forehead with a rag. He leaned onto his elbows, drawing eye to eye. There was a bit of concern there, Naruto could tell. Behind the smile. "Naruto," he chuckled, "you haven't forgotten about us have you? You promised that even after you became a ninja you'd still stop by to chat."
Before Naruto could reply a voice called from behind the counter. "Did I hear Naruto?" A young woman in an apron bounded out, took one look at their customer, and all but ran around to pull him up in a hug and shake him. Naruto admittedly tried to gut her in his surprise, and was at the moment fortunate that his knife was in dire need of repair and currently hidden beneath his mattress.
She pulled back to arm length and eyed him, a lock of brown hair slipping from her bandana and falling in front of her eyes. Immediately it came back to him. Ichiraku Ramen, the only restaurant willing to serve him with a smile. Shit what was her name. Sakura?
"And just what have you been up to that's so important you couldn't stop by to say hello, huh?"
Naruto near took offense at her tone. It was sort of… patronizing. Like she was scolding a child and didn't want to come off as too harsh. Still she seemed genuine, and that softened the blow. Iruka? No, her name definitely wasn't Iruka.
Her eyes narrowed without any real anger. "Well?"
Uh. "Ninja things?"
She made a phlegmy sort of noise and hugged him again. "You know how long I've gone without hugging you? Like three days. That's forever. Literally years. Literally."
No it most certainly wasn't. He was about to correct her hyperbole when she pulled back again and plopped him back in his seat. Then spun him to face his bowl of ramen. "Well. Eat up. I'll finish up in back and we'll talk. Oh such talking will we do."
She vanished behind the counter. The man turned back to his work. Naruto looked down to the bowl. Steaming broth. Things. It smelled like salt. But it was calming. The stall was calming. Quiet. There were no other customers yet. The chef had a gentle look on his face, motions smooth and measured. It felt private, secure. He felt… safe. Truly safe for the first time in what seemed weeks. It put him on edge.
You know I could kill you, Naruto almost said. He wanted to say. It was almost a compulsion, anything to get that complacent expression off the chef's face. That expression was the end of people. But he didn't say it. So many people in this village could kill you, me. We would fall not knowing what we'd done. Who they were. Not knowing why.
Likely the man already knew, had made peace with it. The girl, well. Maybe she didn't like to think about it. Maybe it never occurred to her. Still they went about their lives, earning what living they could by the sweat of their brow. Knowing, not knowing, that one moment it could end. Abruptly. At the whim of some killer they'd never known or met, and they would be powerless to stop it.
It frightened him. Deeply. Was that why he'd decided to be a ninja? What a stupid reason. What a stupid, immature reason. Did he want to be a hero? A villain? A knight in shining armor? Nothing made sense.
Naruto didn't notice the chef glance up now and then in concern, as expressions drifted over Naruto's face, darkened, twisted. Finally Naruto dug into his meal. It was only lukewarm, too salty. Not enough green onions. The noodles were a bit rubbery, and he hadn't used chopsticks in so long that he spilled on himself more often than not. All in all it was the best damn thing he'd had in weeks.
The girl returned from the back room, let her hair down as she sat beside him. She talked and he listened, for the most part. She was too fast, too energetic. He couldn't keep up anymore, didn't have the mannerisms. She plowed right through his quiet reserve, the polite pauses he left for interruption. He felt like he was caught in a whirlwind.
And the way she laughed, smiled. The way her eyes crinkled. She was so open he found himself daring to drop his guard. Ayame. Her name was Ayame. And the chef, his name was Teuchi. They were good people. And Naruto found himself thinking more than once;
He wouldn't mind protecting them.
Naruto left for the academy some time later, when Ayame finally let him end the conversation politely. He was late. Hours late, but Iruka didn't make an issue of it for some reason. A few students here and there said something, a complaint from a boy with a dog on his head. A girl with pink hair joked, a few laughed, Iruka quieted them. All in all it felt odd being the mature one.
He took his seat, got a feel for what they were covering. More on bordering nations, politics and the like. Things of no interest to him. Still he aimed to make the most of his time in Konoha. As he sat he felt for his flame, and attempted one of the body pyromancies Laurentius had instructed him in. Imaginatively called Iron Flesh, the purpose was largely self-explanatory. The methods on the other hand were not, it had taken him hours of constant trial and error to finally succeed. "Actualize your inner self," Laurentius had said. What stupidly simple advice.
And the results had been astounding. He turned silver. His dagger drew sparks on his skin when he gave an experimental cut. Fire washed over him like glorified hot air, something Laurentius hadn't been keen on demonstrating. Downside was he felt like he'd swallowed a boulder. Like there were five hims standing on his shoulders. He could heave himself along at a brisk jog, jump about as high as Laurentius himself. He could move his arms like no tomorrow but he was leaping nowhere.
An interesting side effect of the increased mass was his ability to grab a hollow by the sword hand and smash it on a wall without bowling himself over. It would break close combat. That much was immediately clear. Still, he liked his agility, and couldn't very well go trudging around weighing five Narutos permanently. That got him thinking about his - at times crippling - lack of a shield.
It was with this in mind that Naruto attempted to turn his right arm to iron, and barring that at least reduce the crucial seconds it took to complete the Pyromancy. The thought of blocking a sword with his bare forearm made him slightly giddy.
He placed his hand beneath his desk as Iruka drew in the last of a map on the chalkboard and carried on lecturing. Naruto's fingers grew heavy, dull silver inching down his hand and vanishing into the sleeve of his jumpsuit. Then Iruka snapped at Kiba about something and his concentration slipped. His chair gave an ominous groan and Naruto quickly killed the technique.
The rest of the class dragged its feet. Naruto made good progress. The disturbances that popped up now and then couldn't quite stand in for the unpredictable adrenaline-laced nature of real combat, but it was a fine alternative for ironing out the kinks. Occasionally he looked up as a student spoke, saw if he could remember their name, things about them. No, as it turned out, not really. He finally matched Laurentius to the timid white-eyed girl in the second row. So… silver lining, he supposed.
Iruka asked him to hang back when class ended. Naruto no longer rushed to leave, so remained sitting. He had time. He waited patiently as the class filtered out, working with the few precious seconds he had left to flash his arm to iron and back as fast as he could. Then the last student left, a boy with sunglasses, and Naruto approached Iruka's desk.
Iruka opened his mouth, seemed to mull something over, then sighed. "Is everything alright, Naruto?"
Actually yes. He'd managed to just turn just his arm iron successfully the past fifteen or so attempts. Now all he had to work on was the speed – hopefully with a few more hours of polish he could react at a moment's notice, as he might with a shield. "I have no complaints." Naruto said, simply.
Iruka looked almost disappointed. He seemed to gather resolve for a moment and carried on. "I… You haven't been quite yourself lately. I was hoping, maybe you'd just… grown out of it. But. I. I noticed you're not paying attention in class, Naruto. You're not speaking up. You're not… doing anything. I'm worried that…"
What in the various hells was the man talking about, Naruto wondered. He was himself, as he'd always been. Of course he would stop with that pranking, shouting nonsense; it was doing him no favors. Of course he would focus on more important things, what good would politicking do him? What good would knowing dates and names do him? Cover threats, cover techniques. His dagger was indisposed at the moment, cover hand-to-hand. Cover something he could use.
"I have not given up, if that is what you are implying." Naruto replied diplomatically. "I have simply decided to focus on more… practical aspects."
"Practical? You were staring at your desk the entire session." Iruka still had that disappointed tone that grated on Naruto's every nerve. "I'm not saying this because I'm upset - or to teach you a lesson or vent or some silly reason – graduation is in two days, Naruto. I just…" Iruka slouched back into his chair. "Is there anything I can do? To help? Is there anything you want to tell me?"
Naruto blinked. "Graduation?"
"Yes, graduation." Iruka visibly reined in his frustration. "Naruto… You can't. This might be the last time you can try. I want to help you. I really do. If you need my help, you have it. Do you understand?"
It was not that complicated. "Yes." A moment passed, one with an odd feel to it as Naruto expected Iruka to say something, and Iruka likely hoped he would say something. Another moment passed, and Naruto felt it safe to politely excuse himself.
"Good day, Iruka."
Iruka didn't stop him as he left, and Naruto found himself walking along the dirt, houses and shops all around him. He looked up at the mountain behind the village and felt himself drawn there. As he leaped closer, he remembered how he'd always gone there before, above the second Hokage's head, to rest his mind and watch the stars.
The sun was still out now, early in the afternoon as it was. Still he wouldn't mind passing an hour or two away from civilization. He stepped out to the face of the cliff and sat, feet dangling over the edge. Konoha stretched out below him, the walls circling it. Beyond that, the thick forests that gave Konoha its name seemed to cover the entirety of the world; when the breeze swayed them it seemed as though Konoha were afloat in an ocean of vibrant green.
It reminded him of Lordran. Sort of. Konoha was… No, actually they seemed to both pose their own dangers. He was sheltered here, at the moment. Likely not for much longer. There had already been three wars, there would be a fourth. It was inevitable. Then there was his career as a Ninja. Sadly he had only preconceptions, propaganda. More likely it was dirty. He would see, assuming he passed. What had the tests been? Simple, as he thought on it. Pathetically simple, now that he bothered to work. He would pass. He would see.
Naruto fell back, resting his head in the grass. He felt he'd earned a moment of rest. He focused on the wind between his toes, ruffling his hair. Focused on the sun on his face. He drifted away and soon he lost himself. An image of Solaire rose in his mind. Looking for your own sun? Well… he could see the appeal in that.
It was waiting for Naruto when he arrived at the bridge.
A dragon. A real, breathing dragon. He couldn't help but gape across the bridge at the great thing, perched on the portcullis wall. It was a nasty looking beast, all red scales and spikes. And it had a clear path at him with no obstructions. It could probably see him now - partially hidden as he was, but still it just sat there, rumbling.
The only possibility for passing it without a battle was what looked like a staircase leading beneath the bridge about halfway across. It would see him coming the moment he stepped out from inside the tower. He had repaired his armor as best he could, though charred and held together by wire as it was it wouldn't prove much of a defense.
Naruto sat back on the stairs behind him and calmed himself. Then he took a deep breath, formed the necessary seal and created a bunshin. It was only three quarters dead this time; the hair was even the right color. Mostly. If he squinted.
It walked out, out of his field of view. He dared to look after it a few moments later. It was a quarter of the way down the bridge. The dragon was eyeing it but strangely not acting. Instead it seemed to coil down onto the wall tighter. His bunshin stumbled along further still. It passed the stairs. It was then, the moment its foot touched down that it vanished in a plume of fire. Shit it was still burning… like napalm.
Still, it had made it that far. Naruto sent out another bunshin, peered out after it. Again, as it passed the stairs it immediately and ruthlessly dispelled. Would it just let him go? Naruto steeled his nerves and stepped out of the battlement tower, out onto the bridge. He felt for his flame and cast Iron Flesh, whatever good it would do him.
His boots were too damn loud. Every step echoed and it seemed to rear back and inhale just a bit more, waiting for him to do something stupid. It felt like an eternity. By the time he reached the stairs, relieved that they were indeed stairs, his heart was pounding so hard he was having trouble breathing. It would just let him sneak beneath it? Did it even know? Naruto looked at the dragon as he descended. It wasn't even looking at him anymore.
He ended up beneath the bridge, on a stone walkway littered with support struts. He weaved through them, reached the wall. Then he climbed up, using what few stones that protruded as handholds, and pushed himself up onto the bridge, the dragon's massive head hovering above him. He snuck in past the open portcullis, glad to put the dragon behind him for the moment, and continued on.
The path led up. Soon a soldier blocked his path. Naruto was unarmed, his dagger still chipped and warped beyond usefulness. Had he been able to get hold of a kunai he would have slept with it sheathed. Further, there were no places to slink along unnoticed, no pillars to cover behind, and with that dragon behind him he didn't dare take to the wall - the phantom pain shook him for a moment and he quickly put the memory behind him. Still, he could handle himself against simple soldiers. There was no point in misdirection, nothing to gain by skirting the threat.
The soldier charged. Naruto caught the sword in his hand, broke its grip with his other. Then he took the sword, kicked its shield aside and ran it through.
Further up the path widened. Hollow soldiers littered the place. To the right a staircase led up to a series of bridges that hovered over the path, the few archers positioned there drew up their crossbows as they saw him. To the left, a high stone wall. Further up, the path led to an entrance to what looked like a church, a bell tower rose from the back of it.
Arrows tinked off his collarbone and neck. Swords chipped on his arms, slid off his gut, some outright shattered on impact. Naruto dealt only deathblows in response. As the hollows staggered off balance from their rebuked strikes, swift, accurate slashes flew just beneath the chin guards of their helmets.
As the archers reloaded their crossbows, Naruto lifted his hand and smashed them off their perch with heavy jets of flame. One flew in half, the unprotected waist all but vanishing. Another sailed over the far wall trailing smoke. The others pulled daggers and dropped from their perch to charge him. Basic combustion hurled them back as though by a sledgehammer. One took a blast to the chest so severe it flew apart.
As he drew closer to the entrance to the church, one hollow that had been hanging back exerted the most intellect Naruto had ever seen from their kind. It retreated up further, and pulled a lever. Naruto wasn't quite sure of the purpose until a portcullis fell from an arch that he had assumed to be simply aesthetic.
Naruto approached it as the final soldier fell. The thing just looked at him, through the mesh of the gate. With those sunken in empty sockets that passed for eyes. It had been a person once, he knew. A soldier branded by the darksign and driven mad. But that meant nothing to him. It did once, but Madoc had been his one and only lesson, he would be sure of that. Sympathy and understanding got him nothing. There was no cure for them. No bargaining. The bodies littered along his path would rise again soon. All he could do was kill them, again, and again, and again. He was doing them a favor.
The hollow watched through the squares of the gate, unmoving. Sword and shield in hand. Naruto stuck his hand through the thick iron bars and blew the hollow apart. It would not be hindering him for quite some time. Naruto let Iron Flesh fade long enough to jump the gate and enter the church.
The few hollows inside closed at he entered; these ones wore full armor, thick plates covered their vitals and joints, but otherwise left the skin bare for mobility. Tattered red capes fell down their backs and fluttered as they charged. They had skill with the rapiers they carried, too. The first he swung at expertly parried his slash, sending his blade spinning out of his hand, and would have run him through – had the somewhat flimsy rapier not all but collapsed into his chest. When he brought out his flame, splitting his concentration to keep iron flesh active, they hid behind their angular shields.
It didn't do them much good against someone of his capacity. He poured flame over them until the metal glowed orange, and continued further into the church. Through a doorway he came into the main hall. There was no second floor above him anymore, only a high arched ceiling. A row of pews on either side of him. The statue of some god or deity stood ahead, looming over a white marble pedestal.
And there, before the pedestal, was a knight in a gigantic suit of black armor. It stood at least eight feet tall, more than twice his height. In one hand, a massive greatshield. In the other, a flanged mace about as long as he was tall.
Naruto was at an impasse. Clearly this was a foe to cut from behind. Already he saw what he needed to do - draw it outside, distract it with a bunshin, strike from above, stab straight down through the collar - in armor that thick it probably couldn't even look up.
But then another thought struck him - yes, whatever amount of good iron flesh would do against blunt force trauma of that magnitude, he wasn't particularly eager to find out - at the same time, he had very little to lose other than a few moments of terrible pain, and so much to gain in testing his limits. He thought fast as it closed and found that there wasn't much to consider.
Naruto squared his jaw, steeled his will and readied for the blow as the armored giant reared back and swung.
It came down on his left shoulder like a meteor. It hurt. Quite a bit. The sound sent his ears ringing. It even almost knocked him over, sent him stumbling to the side before he corrected his footing. The armored giant was put off balance as well, likely having expected him to explode in a cloud of meat. The mace was dented as it drew back.
The next swing came low and fast, smashed into his ribs with a sound like a dropped frying pan. Again the pain, but beneath that was boiling elation. He was… fine? Sure it hurt, it stumbled him, it near deafened him, but he was uninjured. Nothing felt broken. Not even bruised.
Naruto palmed his flame and closed with intent to end it. The giant tried to bash him back with its shield, but Naruto turned his shoulder and met it head on, his mass giving him even footing. A crack split along the shield at the center of impact. He must have looked insane, Naruto thought. A twelve year old child going head to head with an eight foot knight.
He reached around the shield and a jet of fire exploded from his palm into the chest of the giant's armor. The force knocked it back into a pew, but it wasn't injured. Naruto closed as fast as he could while it was unbalanced, aiming to pour fire straight down its visor. As he emerged from shadows of the second floor overhead, into the open air of the main hall, a profane chanting caught his ears. It came from above, the second floor. He had enough speed to turn and watch a bolt of blue light explode in his gut.
It knocked him to his knees, the sheer pain of the thing. Another bolt caught him on his shoulder and he cried out. Iron flesh faded in his pain. He had time to look up, at the trident-wielding hollow on the balcony of the second floor, and get a good look at its armor, before a mace crashed down on his skull.
Naruto woke with a gasp, and worked himself up into a sit with his elbows. He'd gotten cocky, forgotten his surroundings. Again. Well, he would learn. He had time.
He was alive.
He would be back.
But for now, Naruto stood. He had the academy soon. Shower, eat, dress. One more day until graduation, he remembered.
Well... it would be an experience.
an: r&r, etc. criticism is always welcome. a note: konoha will become more involved as the plot starts to happen. (soonish).
an: 1/20/12: per some advice, minor edits to characterization/tone/ninjathink