Steal My Thunder God

Chapter VII - To Kill a God

The shiver down Naruto's back was involuntary, and his hand flashed out with his father's kunai clasped tightly in its grasp. The steel crossed the path of a far larger blade that tore through the air with a whistle, smashing down with force. The two blades met very briefly, and the sound of metal screeching in protest drowned out the drum-like beats of his heart. He pushed the enemy away with an almighty push, allowing himself a moment to catch his breath, to settle.

I think I've almost missed this...

The Hiraishin was instantaneous, granted, but it was also disorienting to the user, especially to Naruto, who had never used it in battle before. He knew that only his reflexes could truly save him in the split second after he flung himself from place to place, confused as he momentarily was about his place and direction in space. His instincts were well-honed, but they would need training - in some things, his father still far surpassed him. He could not afford to let this fight depend purely on his speed.

"You okay there, kid?" Jiraiya called from somewhere in the distance, likely detecting the slight stumble in Naruto's step, but the boy barely heard it, nor acknowledged it, as he forced a confident, calm expression to appear on his face, though he hardly felt calm. Lying about how he really felt was hardly new to him, and he would not allow his act to slip so quickly, now that he'd taken the plunge. He steeled his nerves, and pressed on.

"You are - foolhardy," he said as he observed the kunoichi in front of him, looking surprisingly fearless before the spectre that the Fourth was to the nation of Iwa. "There are few ways this can end, none of them well. You know that."

The kunoichi sniffed, her eyes narrowed in contempt. Naruto tensed as the enemy kunoichi did the same, her knuckles white around the hilt of her sword. She seethed with rage, her expression betraying a kind of hate that Naruto only remembered from few others - Sasuke among them. It was the same hateful glare that he had seen in the Valley of the End, when he had fought with his ally-turned-enemy with all he had. Was she an avenger then, like him? Out for vengeance - on him? On the identity he had adopted as his own, however troubling that notion was?

"Out of those ways, I choose the one in which you die," the kunoichi snarled, her blade spinning quickly in her hands, the metal gleaming with a curiously wet sheen. Poison? She was quick - quicker than Naruto was with a blade, certainly - and the toxins would no longer be purged by Kurama, which meant he could not afford to be hit. On top of his already tenuous constitution, it could leave him a husk - or truly dead.

In a way, Naruto was glad to test himself against an opponent that proved deadly - it had been a couple of years since his life was truly in danger, and a part of him was missing that kind of excitement...

Without even the slightest warning, her sword cleaved upwards from a strange angle, thrust at Naruto's unprotected throat with a swift movement that would have cleaved through lesser shinobi. He leaned back almost lazily as the sword fell short. Even if he could not match her blade for blade, he could certainly see her coming. No matter his weakness, he was hardly going to fall to anything less than an S-Rank - and he had a lot of experience in beating those shinobi, too.

"I'm sure there is a good reason for your actions, but it is best for you to give up and try another time," he said calmly, though he realized that the words were pointless even as he said them, as her lips twitched in rage, her eyes almost spitting fire. He raised his kunai before him to ward off another sudden assault. "You cannot defeat me this day."

"The Yellow Flash is on the defensive, is he?" The kunoichi observed as she cackled slightly. "So, the stories of your wounds are true - the greatest shinobi that Konoha has produced is reduced to talking his way out of a fight. Such an - embarrassment." She whipped her sword forward again, and Naruto stepped aside as it slid past. "You avoid the blow - but you cannot retaliate without getting cut, can you? These bandages are not only on your face, are they? Must be such a bother, with them restricting your every move. How are you going to use your lauded speed now, your greatest weapon?"

"You believe that my greatest weapon is speed?" Naruto asked strangely and he glanced behind her, to the walls of Konoha. "You're mistaken. Speed has never been my greatest weapon. Nor the Rasengan, for that matter, or the might of the Toads." He smiled knowingly. "You were foolish to fight me here, at the true source of my strength, for the tree has many leaves."

Did I just - quote my dad? Naruto asked himself in slight confusion, wondering why he recognized the words but not the occasion. He could not even recall them from his dreams, the incoherent visions from another life. Still, wherever the thought had come from, that didn't really matter. Just that it did. He smiled slightly in appreciation as he took in his fuming opponent. Your words do work wonders, dad.

"I am the Hokage of Konoha, assassin," Naruto said with more confidence than he thought he had - and after all, wasn't it true? "Just as I protect the inhabitants of my village, they protect me in turn." Now, that - that he meant. "I may be hurt, as is my village, but unless you bring us all to ruin at once, you have failed. If you kill me here, then Konoha will bring you down, and another Hokage will rise. There would be another protector of the village who will carry on the legacy. You cannot win."

"You speak with such confidence, but you betray your weakness," the kunoichi started, but any more words were lost in a sudden clash of blades as twin kunai faced off against a single sharp-edged sword. Two, three times they met with thundering hits that were punctuated by distant explosions. Each time the hits came a little closer to a direct hit, and with poison in play they could very well be the last hit as well. Still, Naruto's counterstrikes intercepted each blow, and he persevered.

I don't need to kill you, after all. I just need to outlast you. And I've got a whole lot of stamina.

Naruto had to admit that getting into a fight really wasn't one of his the brightest ideas, not while he was still recovering from losing Kurama. The enemy seemed overly eager to fight, which was unexpected for an Iwa shinobi, especially for an assassin. The living, breathing, fighting Fourth Hokage should have sent these nin scurrying off as fast as they could handle. Nobody would face an S-Rank shinobi without knowing they could win, and they would certainly not provoke a fight in range of the ANBU defense forces of an entire village. It was stupid - and in his experience, you didn't live long when you made such mistakes.

If that logic held true, and he believed it did, then why were these shinobi still here, still fighting? What was the point?

The enemy neatly evaded Naruto's counter to her latest direct assault, and swung her blade in a complex movement, which was fast enough that Naruto lost track of it entirely. Still, when she came in for the kill, there was a three-pronged kunai in the way. Naruto stared at his hand with some surprise, since he had never practiced that movement, nor had he seen the enemy attack coming in time - and yet he'd stopped it out of sheer instinct. Again, his body had moved on its own - echoes from his father's fighting style showing through even when he didn't mean to do so. I've got to get a handle on this, and soon...

"So slow - so weak, and yet you persist. But, you fight without spirit," the kunoichi said slowly, her eyes narrowed dangerously. "Why do you draw this out, Hokage? Surely I have not stretched you to your abilities?"

Naruto shrugged. "There's no point. Konoha's ANBU will be here in a couple of seconds, and you're just going to get yourself killed by staying." He offered it in a fairly pleasant tone, hoping that she would not realize just how screwed he'd be if she really pressed her advantage right then. He'd have to rely on Senjutsu if it got too dangerous, and he could not afford to show such prowess to anyone who might be watching, as his father had never learned that skill.

"Coward." The kunoichi spat on the ground viciously, which would have been hardly notable, if not for the fact that the spit was pure lava, melting through a good chunk of the pavement. "Face me with your all - or shut up and die!" she screamed with unconcealed loathing, her sword gleaming with chakra. "I'll kill you in half the time it takes those fools to reach us!"

Her sword flashed with light, and a stray reflection flashed into Naruto's eyes - it had to have been on purpose - right before her blade swept into a short arch towards his left side, which he had momentarily kept wide open.

Naruto parried instinctively with a kunai, letting his reflexes do their work, blocking strikes before he had consciously expected them; training for years with hundreds of shadow-clones paid off. Even without properly seeing the blade, he circumvented its path and stepped closer to her, far more capable of using the close distance with his kunai than she with her large and bulky sword.

However, she had a backup plan for his close range - a rather unexpected spit of searing hot lava poured from her lips, an improvised stream almost catching Naruto in the face, but for a quick dodge to the side. She's more dangerous than she looks...

Kurotsuchi's mother - she had to be with that temper and her display of the Youton element - pressed forward in response to Naruto's sidestep, joining him in closer combat again. She flung herself along each and every strike, destroying Naruto's hope for an advantage up close. She pressed her left palm at the blunt edge of the blade and pushed in even closer, before suddenly stabbing upwards with a force that otherwise would have been impossible, diverting the two three-pronged kunai with ease.

The one in his left hand slipped, and spun high up into the air, his opponent moving in to make use of the short opportunity before he could even blink. Naruto had to give her credit for the attempt; with his injuries it seemed that she actually had a chance of scoring a glancing hit, and that could be enough to settle matters. Still, she wasn't as good as she believed she was, and that overconfidence would cost her.

His hand was in the way almost instantly, chakra bursting alight in his palm even as the steel approached - and then it was wrenched aside, whirling away even as its wielder struggled to keep up with it. Rasengan!

A huge explosion smashed a nearby building and showered Naruto with rocks and other debri, which told him enough about the other fight, the one he had barely considered. Jiraiya was clearly on the defensive at the moment, which was pretty impressive considering the kind of power he could sling around if he wanted to - even something like fifteen years in the past. His opponent was attacking with determination and without a care about his own safety, slinging out explosion after explosion without a care. It had to mean that the man had control of the Bakuton release, which was tough to counter by any shinobi - but this was Jiraiya. Naruto was hardly worried.

The distraction of the explosion was a perfect opportunity for him, and Naruto snatched up his kunai before it reached the ground, effortlessly slipping back into a defensive posture, as if it had all been a calculated maneuver to wreck her sword.

"Well, sensei, do you need any help with that one?" Naruto yelled cheekily, adjusting his grip on his twin kunai, and it earned him another rage-filled cry from his own opponent. "This one's pretty lacklustre, truth be told."

"Shut up, kid," Jiraiya bellowed back, narrowly avoiding an explosion that singed his back as he jumped away. "I'm not seeing you do any better against your own!"

Naruto laughed softly at the Sannin's affronted expression, pushing his opponent to the very limits of frustration as she returned to the fight, her sword a little warped by the impact of his Rasengan. She swung the twisted blade towards him from above; it was a strangely flawed move; did she make a mistake out of desperation, or was it some kind of feint? No - it was a trick. It had to be.

However much the kunoichi was trying to do him in, though, Naruto honestly didn't really want to kill her in return. Considering who she probably was, it would mean even more strained relations with Iwa, and it could erase Kurotsuchi from time to boot. No, it couldn't - wasn't she a year older than he was? Still, Kurotsuchi was something of a friend, and he couldn't, in good conscience, simply dispose of her mother.

Instead of counterattacking and placing himself into the hidden trap that she was undoubtedly keeping open for him, Naruto stepped into the strike easily, crossing his two kunai to catch the blade between the prongs. "Give up," he offered once more as steel rang against steel, her sword letting out a painful creek.

"No. It is you who should die." She spat another glob of lava at him with a growl of frustration, far hotter than before and sizzling in the air. Naruto dove downwards, pulling the woman's sword along in his roll. It came dangerously close to his ear, but it missed, and the raging inferno failed to even touch him. Her sword clattered to the ground and Naruto twisted around, throwing it away with force, and it wheeled out of sight.

"Now, that was a bad decision," Naruto said calmly, still crouched after his impromptu roll, his stomach protesting even as he could feel blood seep into his bandages. From the corner of his eye, he finally saw ANBU rushing to his aid, drawing their swords even as they spotted him - another reason for a short pause in her assault.

When this is over, I'm going to lecture you all over the delay until your ears fall off.

"You believe yourself very clever, do you?" the kunoichi asked, drawing a simple kunai to substitute for her lost blade. "You changed your fighting style just to play with me, I take it? You must have known I was coming, then. Your spies must be very - efficient."

"Hmm. I am well-informed," Naruto replied guardedly. "Are you finally giving up, then? This is becoming tiresome, and you will hardly outlast the village." He motioned for the nearest ANBU to snatch the kunoichi's sword from the ground. Just as he went to do so, however, the Iwa kunoichi took a deep breath and released a wave of lava once again, straight upwards. Naruto caught on quickly, realizing that she was trying to catch the two of them in a huge dome of superheated liquid, not so different from Haku and her Ice-mirrors.

"That won't help you," Naruto said as he flung one of his kunai directly at her. She dodged with an elegant display of skill, without even a pause, but she didn't seem to realize that the blade kept going, crossing easily past the edge of her dome. She was good - even while using a technique, she could evade the kunai with ease, and likely would have a way of countering a Hiraishin assault as well - she had been preparing to fight the Yellow Flash one-on-one, as she implied. Her increasing cloud of liquid rock expanded outward, and Naruto slowly raised himself from his crouch, his aching stomach pushed to the side of his thoughts.

Her intention, then, was to fight Minato - wounded or not - and to kill him if possible - which was quite a goal. It was also very troubling, since assassinations were hardly meant to be fights like this, flinging jutsus and kunai around. Cutting his throat in his sleep, that would have been a proper assassination. There was only really one conclusion that he could draw - he was wrong about their purpose here. These two shinobi were not meant to kill him while he was down.

Heat crashed into Naruto like a wave, and sweat and blood made his bandages stick to his body, slowing him ever more. The dome hovered in the air just above them - cutting them from the outside interference, as far as she knew. He could use that. He grinned mischievously as he placed his hands into a very familiar seal.

I'll find out what your purpose is - one way or another.

Unbidden, a memory asserted itself, an echo of something he had never done.

Jounin Namikaze Minato napped on a small cart of hay, drawn along by a single mule that was braying in protest against the heat of the late afternoon in mid-August. He wore a casual civilian disguise, consisting of some old work clothes from a farm, littered with splodges of dirt and sweat, as well as a straw hat that he'd found a few dozen miles back, decorating a scarecrow. He had two of his special kunai hidden inside the hay, and a stray seal or two placed discreetly at strategic locations in the vicinity. There was no reason not to be prepared, after all.

Sighing as he realized how much he stank, and how much the sun was burning down on his arms, Minato ushered the mule off to the side of the path. A huge arch of stone crossed over the path, giving him some much-needed shade, and he wondered momentarily how it had gotten here, in the middle of nowhere - a jutsu, perhaps. Not a single tree grew, and if not for the grass and stray bushes, the entire area might well have been a desert. At least it's not raining...

Just as he was about to take a brief nap, he paused - someone approached. He glanced up with narrowed eyes, before he allowed himself to slouch, his posture unhealthy and a little oafish, which would fit his disguise. He leaned against the hay, his expression as sleepy as he could manage it.

"Hey,' someone shouted loudly from a little along the path, and as he approached, the huge man seemed to grow ever more, towering above the cart as he came alongside. He nodded appreciatively. "Hmmm. We might need to make use of your cart."

Minato raised himself upwards, yawning, hand travelling to check the reins at the same time as he acted like he was trying to reorient himself. His confusion clearly came across, as the huge man snarled in disgust - or perhaps amusement. The man wore an Iwa headband, and nearby, there stood a few more shinobi, each of them agitated, judging by their expressions. Minato was quickly flanked from the sides by two academy-age boys and a slightly older Kunoichi armed with a sword, carrying a large red-tinted scroll on her back.

A savvy civilian would have instantly recognised this composition as a genin team with their jounin teacher from Iwa, and let them go on their way without comment. However, Minato knew that they only looked like that, since he knew exactly who he was facing. The red scroll was indication enough - this was precisely the team he had hoped to run into when he came out here on his little impromptu spying mission.

"You want my cart? You're gonna have to pay for it," Minato said slowly as he looked at the group incredulously. "The ol' girl goes separately, you know?" He gave off a look of a laid back and slightly confused civilian - and they seemed to be buying it so far. He smiled slightly. "You got a good offer, you rich folk? You're from the hidden villages, aren't you?"

"You bumbling fool," the kunoichi declared angrily, staring accusingly at Minato, as if it was his fault that she was tired and bitter. "There's a war going on out here, and you're sleeping in the middle of the damn road! We're trying to keep Konoha at bay for your damned benefit, so you need to let us take that cart. The Land of Stone needs it now."

Minato swung his legs over the side of the cart, and landed lightly into the dust of the road. He shook one, as if having cramps. "Well, if you put it like tha' - I guess you can have it. Not like it's worth much, and the mule's gone deaf so it probably won't respond much unless you poke 'er some."

"Kurome," the largest man chided the woman lightly. "He's not an enemy shinobi, you don't have to be so belligerent. In fact -" He suddenly froze as he looked at Minato, doing a double-take as he swallowed. His eyes sparked with recognition, and a sort of fevered enthusiasm. "What do you know... You look exactly like this new Jounin in the bingo books." He nodded, drawing out a kunai. "Yes - the spitting image of Konoha's Yellow Flash."

Kurome frowned in confusion. "Who?"

Minato sighed. His impressive combat achievements were proving to be a slight disadvantage, exactly as Jiraiya had predicted, due to the latest Bingo books. Iwa was starting to recognize him. Of course, getting recognised only served as an additional benefit for Konoha. Iwa would have to waste resources trying find a single infiltrator in the region, and by the time they would be sure he was not near, he would be in another part of the country entirely. To top it all off, he could always jump back to one of the seals he had left behind. This advantage of the Hiraishin was the main reason he was even chosen to perform this mission.

He stood up straighter, and the two academy-age brats took a step back. Konoha's intelligence had them pegged at Chuunin, so it had to be a false veneer. He spread his arms as the Iwa shinobi hurried to take out their weapons. "So, you got me. Yes, I am Namikaze Minato. Now, we still can settle this peacefully. There's no need to fight. We don't have to do this."

"There's no reason to fight?!" The large man spat, sneering. "You killed fifteen Iwa shinobi just last month, and you expect to simply walk away from such a slaughter without repercussions?" He shook his head. "No - you will pay for that."

"Look - I'm just suggesting an exchange," Minato cautioned with a small smile. "You give back the scrolls you stole from Konoha, and that'll be it. I'll even let you keep the cart. That's all I need, you know. I know you just need the cart to help a few injured back home - I can grant you that much."

The huge shinobi sneered. "You would use our lack of transportation as a bargaining chip, when we could just as well take it after you're dead? Are you stupid?"

Minato shrugged. "I don't care about you for this mission, just the scrolls you stole. I'll let you get home to your families, and hopefully we won't ever meet on the true battlefield." It wasn't entirely true, but who would reveal such things in times of war? "So, will you take the road I offer you, or do you want to make this regrettably painful?"

Kurome laughed out loud, pointing at Minato with her sword. "Those are brave words for an outmatched and outclassed person. You are one - we are four. Even if you have earned yourself a silly name already, you cannot take us all out. Now, be a good Konoha shinobi and die quickly."

"I'd rather not," Minato said and disappeared.

After a short pause, the Iwa shinobi warily moved into a looser formation to start a search for him, and to check his 'transport' for traps. Just as his kunai were found, Minato caught a moment of opportunity. The large man literally never saw just what hit him, before collapsing on the ground, bleeding. It was not much of a fight after that, in truth - a quick stab, a Rasengan, a couple well-placed kicks.

Minato left for home with his scroll, leaving three corpses behind - the Hiraishin served as his transport. The mule-drawn cart trudged onward on its own to the next village, an unconscious messenger lying in the straw.

A little mercy goes a long way to silence regrets.

So that is why... Naruto frowned, eyes narrowed. "Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!" he announced as he summoned forth a handful of clones. Under the heated dome, the squad of clones quickly surrounded his opponent from all sides. She would have likely jumped straight into a close quarters fight, but Naruto spoke up.

"You're Kurome of Iwa," he said, unsure of his own words. "I remember now."

The woman snarled hatefully. "It is so easy to forget those whose lives you ruin, is it?!" she snapped. "I hate you! The careless bastard that has everything handed to him on a golden platter, even the position of Hokage. You have killed more men that you can count, and you never cared about anyone that you have killed. Yet, you remember my name? Why? Because I'm one that you decided to let live, just to torture me?"

Naruto hesitated in his reply, sweat running down his back. The heat was getting worse. Was it a plan to slowly cook him alive? She did, in fact, look a lot more comfortable in the environment than he was. "It was war. We do terrible things in war - I have done my fair share." He thought back to his own war, and swallowed thickly as he remembered how many had fallen. "Neither of us are blameless."

"You slaughtered my whole team, and left me for dead!" Kurome shouted at him, the heat spiking up with her anger. "Tell me, you smug bastard, did you know that I was the daughter of the Tsuchikage the whole time? Did you leave me alive as a personal insult, or did you make a mistake when you stabbed me in the ribs, missing my vital organs?"

Naruto blanched a little as he shook his head. He knew - remembered, even - how his father had been dispatching enemy shinobi with ease, but he had never given thought to just how much of a terror it must have been for the enemy, nor just how much blood was staining his father's hands. His father had spared this woman not because of her family, but because she was the only one that had a chance of making it back home alive, after that fight was finally over.

"Of course, the Yellow Flash makes no mistakes, does he?" Kurome asked slowly. "Does he?"

It was no wonder she wanted his father dead, even at a high cost to herself or the fickle peace. That must have been why her forehead protector was proudly on display, too. Iwa must have plotted to claim the kill, even if Minato would have proven to be a comatose patient in the hospital. He had no doubt that Kurome had personally convinced the Tsuchikage to go along with it, to allow her this moment of revenge.

"There's no need to fight. We don't have to do this," Naruto tried, and the words felt weirdly like an echo.

Kurome roared in rage and dashed forward, and at the same time, drops of lava started falling down - searing hot and dangerous, they cut the freedom of movement, while they did nothing to harm their creator. Naruto's clones moved to intercept, evading the flaming rain, pushing the more dangerous drops away with a careful use of wind chakra, though it seemed only to increase the heat. A furious clash in Taijutsu proved that Kurome was annoyingly fast even without her sword - and that Naruto was not going to match her that way either, not until he was fully back to normal.

No, it wasn't that precisely, Naruto realized. It was the heat that was making him sluggish, a measured decision on her part. With winds there to keep the air moving, the heat was wearing him out before he realized it. She's actually really good...

As Naruto considered his options, Kurome managed to dispel two clones - one with a painful kick to the ribs, and the other with a stab of her kunai at the stomach, just as the clone was evading a lava drop from above. Each of his clones moved difficulty, favouring their right side - it seemed that the truth about his condition was out, and Kurome was hurrying to press her assault, trying to target his injuries. Naruto had to twist painfully out of the way of a thrown kunai, and one of the clones miscalculated the distance, evaporating in a cloud of smoke as he touched the smouldering wall of fire and lava.

The kunoichi wasn't doing much better than Naruto was, admittedly; her furious assault against a numerically superior foe left her with bruises and cuts all across her arms and chest. With the fight heating up literally and figuratively, Naruto decided he had to finish everything soon. It was either that, or finding a way to remove the dome entirely, which was not looking terribly plausible right now.

Hiraishin seemed like an obvious choice for an escape route, but Naruto didn't want to give his opponent any freedom of movement, and jumping outside would leave her hidden from everyone's eyes, even if for a few seconds. Konoha really didn't need a full blown eruption of a volcano inside the village walls - and this opponent was exactly as crazy of a person to use some spectacularly suicidal Jutsu to finish the day when her last shot at her prize was taken from her.

Kurome faltered, and she failed to block Naruto's kick from below, falling backwards from the blow. Before her back even touched the pavement, she fell back to her kekkei genkai once again. This time, a trio of clones matched the wave of lava with a blast of their wind jutsu, swatting the superheated liquid to the side, into the dome. In raw chakra capacity, Naruto knew he still overpowered her by a huge margin - even without Kurama's presence.

"It is over," Naruto pointed out, completely serious. "It has been a good fight, but I'm going to finish it."

Kurome cursed quietly and started through a complex array of hand seals. Clones jumped into action, sending several quick, weak Suiton: Teppoudama attacks at Kurome, and as she evaded the water, it crashed into the side of the dome with a loud hiss, releasing a cloud of heated steam that distracted her just enough for yet another clone to latch onto her leg. Gotcha!

Prioritising her jutsu over her own safety, Kurome carried on, but another pair of clones grabbed onto her in an improvised tackle, one jumping on her back like a backpack and pulling her hands backwards, legs weaving around her waist. Another simply hugged her from the front, getting in her way. She was immobilized - and she yelled in frustration as she attempted to force the clones away.

Naruto called forth a Rasengan and pushed forward - he wasn't entirely sure of the jutsu she was trying to use, but he didn't want to let her finish, just in case it was something terrible. With desperation shining on Kurome's face, he expected it to be a last resort type of a deal, and letting enemy shinobi hit him with one of these would be a bad idea.

As she struggled to get out the grasp of his clones, Naruto hit the whole bunch at the same time. The Rasengan bit into his own clone, went through the tiny wisps of smoke and crashed right into the middle of Kurome's chest. It was a perfect hit, propelling the kunoichi towards the side of her dome, crashing right through the hardened and hissing fresh rock. Just as he had planned. She flopped once, twice, across the floor before she came to a stop. The second she did, Naruto dispelled his remaining three clones and used the Hiraishin - a good choice, because the very next second the whole lava dome collapsed onto the ground, the chakra that maintained it suddenly gone.

I actually did it! Naruto smiled as he glanced around the ruins of the nearby street, darkened clouds of steam obscuring the buildings and the village wall. Even with all the steam, Naruto revelled in the coolness of the night - the sudden shift in temperature even had him going dizzy for a spell. His white cloak - surprisingly unharmed, fluttered lightly behind him. Naruto, however, only had eyes for a half-burned kunoichi that he had at last taken down.

He leaned towards her curiously - had he gone overboard? She groaned a little, but did not move, her chakra spent. The fading steam revealed nearby figures of ANBU staring at him. "It's over," he announced for their benefit. "She's done."

There were no more sounds of battles being fought, and that meant that the other shinobi was also taken care off. Jiraiya had finished him off at some point, he reckoned. Good.

"Like... hell it's done," Kurome whispered suddenly as her eyes opened, a painful smirk forming on her lips. She continued in a quiet whisper, so quiet that Naruto had to lean even closer, her lips almost touching his ear - if he did not know she was utterly spent, he'd never have dared it. "You might have beaten me, Yellow Flash... but your village will burn."

Naruto narrowed his eyes. "What did you do?"

She twitched, a shudder travelling throughout all of her body, teeth clattering in a painful spasm. "You might have escaped your fate, but everyone else will be gone - including your spawn."

His spawn - Naruto jerked up, eyes wide. They're going after the other Naruto! There was a strong, but extremely short chakra spike in the direction of the Hospital complex and Naruto turned in that direction, his knuckles turning white around his kunai as panic and hatred fought for his attention. They're going for the other me!

"Hey, kid - " Jiraiya said, but in that instant the boy's eyes seemed to erupt with a kind of ferocity that took his breath away in response to whatever the woman whispered to him. Then he was gone with a rush of air, disappearing with his Hiraishin.

Well, that was rude.

"Jiraiya-sama!" one of the ANBU said urgently, and he turned slightly.

"Huh? Oh, right - you can take these fools in. Though, you'll need a bucket for my guy. You'll find him - strewn across a few buildings." He looked around with distaste, considering the inevitability of fighting a Bakuton user, and him using a suicide jutsu that just had to involve blowing himself up. "...By the way, you took your sweet time to get here."

"Our apologies. After the Kyuubi's attack -"

"I know, I know - I shouldn't complain." Jiraiya sighed. "We'd better get things back up and running soon, because if this keeps happening, we're gonna lose people. People who we can't afford to miss." He nodded to himself, staring after the direction that the boy had gone - the boy that he had convinced to take on Minato's role.

The last heated slab of lava fell harmlessly on the ground, and Jiraiya crouched at the woman's side to feel her pulse; weak and irregular, but she might yet pull through. He lingered there for good half a minute, then flexed his fingers and retracted the hand.

On his very first day - no, hour - Naruto had defeated someone that had to be an A-rank kunoichi, the daughter of the Tsuchikage - and doubtlessly convinced the ANBU that the rumours about his frailty were inaccurate at best. This meant that this newly arrived Naruto would be expected to take on his role as commander a lot sooner than Jiraiya had intended. When would he have a chance to train the boy, if he flew into things without a proper plan?

The plan was insane, really. Jiraiya knew it was. But he also knew that he had to trust his newfound student, this protégé he had never trained, that he had never even met. He knew that the boy was not lying, that he had spoken the truth from the very beginning. Clear as day, the Summoning Scroll that was entrusted to his keeping had changed in front of his very eyes on the day of the attack. A new name had joined the list, blood bubbling up from within the paper in the shape of a name. Uzumaki Naruto. The only person who could have let the boy sign that scroll - was him.

Beyond the silliness and the slightly dimwitted act that Naruto sometimes seemed to prefer, there was someone else - someone more. There was a deadly serious side that could be glimpsed in his eyes, eyes that he had only seen in the face of his own mentor, and in that of his student. He had seen it when they considered the fate of the whole village, forgetting even the slightest consideration of their own safety. He might not have been Hokage yet, but Jiraiya could see that this boy had everything he needed to make the role his own. To work for the village, just as the village would work for him.

Perhaps, in time, the ruse could be destroyed. Minato's death could be faked - just as his survival had been - and he could be put to a final rest. The Hokage's mysterious student would have to make appearances, perhaps as a family member even, so that Naruto could one day take over the seat under his own name. Not soon, and perhaps never - but sacrifices had to be made, and it was a shinobi's nature to endure. Even if it would be under a false name, Jiraiya was sure that this Naruto could take it - because he had those eyes, the ones that Jiraiya had never truly possessed, however much he cared for the village.

He had that lauded, cursed, Will of Fire.

Godspeed, boy. Godspeed.

In the distance, a flash of light lit up the night sky.

Slowly pacing the length of the hospital's corridors, Orochimaru considered the situation of the village with curiosity, and a tinge of surprise. The stories of the Kyuubi's attack had been as interesting as they were gruesome, and he had seen some of the damage with his own eyes. The lower parts of the hospital were filled to overflowing, which was no surprise, but these upper rooms had been emptied due to security concerns. Right now, however, that was a liability.

The beast - Orochimaru kept returning to that creature, and the terrible nature of it. He knew of the Bijuu, and he also knew that they could not be killed, not truly. Certainly not by a simple man, however powerful he might be; only the First Hokage could lay claim to such might, or the Sage of the Six Paths himself. The Fourth Hokage, however great his prowess in battle, had not yet reached those remarkable heights. He would likely even agree with that assessment.

If Minato had not killed it, then the obvious conclusion was that he had sealed it, as had been done so often in the past of the villages, ever since the days of the clan wars. But the Nine-Tails could never be trapped in an inanimate object, as the lesser demons could, its power was far too vast for that. Which left only one possibility.

A Jinchuuriki.

The disturbing notion became ever more likely as Orochimaru considered the disturbing chakra that still clung to many parts of the village, slowly evaporating into nothingness. The Kyuubi's stench still hung over the destroyed forests, the great new clearing where the beast had last been seen - where it had to have been sealed away. Minato himself was covered in it, utterly run through with it, though he seemed to handle the side-effects with barely a grimace. He had lived through the worst of it - and it had marked him.

Had the Fourth sealed the creature within himself? Had he taken the power of a mighty demon, and locked it within his own chakra system? Could his body be fighting the changes, thereby explaining his weakness... Perhaps that was the reason he had such degenerate chakra in his system. Maybe, but it felt like the chakra was fading, just as it was in the village, and it would surely have stayed stronger nearest to the creature's holding place.

The Bijuu's escape, of course, was another problem entirely. Orochimaru had been briefly interested in the power of the Kyuubi, some years before. As far as he had learned from Jiraiya at the time, Uzumaki Kushina's seal had been as stable as was possible. What had caused the release of such power, so carefully locked away?

These questions, of course, would have to wait until matters calmed down, though there would surely be many interesting avenues of study in the wake of this tragedy. Certainly there would be vulnerable subjects available to him. Ones that would not be missed. That matter would have to be considered at a later time, because unlike his sentimental teacher, Minato could be terribly cruel if he wished to be.

In fact, Orochimaru had to admit that he was mildly surprised at Minato's courteous greeting, given that he had frequently been looked at with clear worry or suspicion by those same eyes. Those emotions were still there, of course - he would expect no less from the Hokage, but there had been a veneer of cautious optimism; perhaps it had in fact been genuine. It was - interesting.

Given only very simple orders, Orochimaru used the chance to take another look at the Hospital that he had left behind years ago, when his experiments had run their course, and there was no more to do there without arousing suspicion. With his summons taking care of the possible routes into the hospital, Orochimaru himself chose to take a stroll inside, perhaps foolishly hoping to gather some clues as to the events of the past few days. Of course, setting up a trap at the former Hokage's location to catch assassins would prove a valuable opportunity for investigation.

Quite spontaneously, Orochimaru halted as he heard something off - a muffled step, a stifled breath. A hidden presence, its chakra barely any more than a whisper - but it was there, and the Snake-Sannin smiled thinly as a viper trailed down his arm, its dark undulations scarcely visible in the shadows.

There were two of them, spread out on different ends of the long hallway. They were evidently confident that they could evade detection, and were doing an admirable job of it - certainly it was unlikely that regular ANBU would have found such minor signatures. But he was no ANBU.

Without a sound, Orochimaru slipped closer, his form melting into the shadows without even the slightest handsign, his serpent summons spreading themselves around the hall, lying in wait. He did not have to wait long for the first blow.

To his immense disappointment, Orochimaru had managed to take the first nin by complete surprise - the man didn't even put up a fight. His viper summon's venomous teeth embedded themselves solidly into the man's oesophagus, cutting off his air supply and his ability to cry for help - before the potent venom ruptured half a dozen vital arteries within half a second, and his eyes rolled up. The man was dead before he could even teeter over, and Orochimaru easily caught the body.

Utterly worthless, this one. I do not need to preserve him.

However boring the shinobi was, the contents of his pouch were much less so. The entire thing was filled with explosive tags. That fact in itself wouldn't have been of any importance, but it appeared that these tags were of a new design, and a volatile one. The Iwa Explosion Corps had clearly not stagnated after the war ended. That was impressive - and it was helpful to get a general idea of their readiness for future activities in that country.

Quickly sealing up the bag and swallowing the small scroll for later study, Orochimaru continued forward towards his next target, his new prey, and his narrow pupils shone with all the excitement of a snake posed for a final strike. There were tags littered in his path, like those in the bag he had taken. All of them inactive, thankfully.

Right that moment, the second nin glanced up - and froze. Whether or not he had sensed the new chakra of Orochimaru or his summons, or had detected the demise of his fellow - it made no difference. Perhaps Orochimaru had allowed a drop of Killing Intent to slip by him - it would not be the first time.

The Iwa nin didn't run, nor did he hide. Instead, he spiked his chakra for the briefest of moments with a satisfied smile, and around Orochimaru all the tags lit up, gleaming clearly on the walls as the first flickers of their detonation appeared on their rim. They were the slow-burn type - which meant trouble.

Orochimaru barely had time to grimly note that though he could escape unharmed, the village had just lost at least half of the hospital if not more, and hundreds would die in the next few seconds. As he considered this terrible reality, the enemy charged him head-first - suicidal. He intended on taking one of the Sannin with him, no doubt, into the next world.

"Fool." Orochimaru slammed the man into a wall with only the slightest effort, breaking the man's arm, and with a quick push he planted a couple of the man's own tags onto his chest. "Disarm all of them, and I won't kill you in a most unpleasant way." he offered pleasantly. "Your choice."

Reluctantly, the man raised his hands, and the tags flickered.

Naruto hardly remembered when his thoughts had raced as much as this. Kurome had been a dangerous opponent, but her words had bit down deep, causing a terrible fear inside of him. Your spawn, she had said - Iwa had found out about the little Naruto, somehow. Perhaps they even knew he was a jinchuuriki. The entire fight outside, it was all - a distraction.

The enemy had specifically picked out Jiraiya and started a fight, hoping to either draw the Fourth out, or find proof of his death. They had no chance in long term, not against the full might of Konoha, but they could keep their chosen enemy busy, content in the knowledge that their sacrifice would allow the mission to succeed.

Kurome had barely even finished her last words, when Naruto sought for the connection to his Hiraishin seal in the hospital. Without the power of the bijuu to bolster his chakra reserves, Naruto was not sure that the amount he poured into the technique would give him any extra time to spare, but he did choose to throw as much as he could spare into the move, just in case.

The disorienting sensation started the second he pulled himself to the seal. Had he won half a second? Two? He couldn't allow a mistake - he had to find the enemy quickly, hopefully before their plan was a success. I can still sense little Naruto... Thank heaven for that!

The doors to the children ward were closed as Naruto appeared besides them, and Namiashi Raidou, one of the Hokage's personal bodyguards guarding the little Naruto, was slowly bleeding from a head wound, lying unconscious on the floor. He will have to live with another scar...

There was the heady feeling of chakra being used nearby, doubtlessly the chakra spike he had felt a moment earlier. He had only gained about half a second, then, if that. If Naruto had any more time, he would have cursed - he had wasted too much chakra, and he still didn't know what the danger was.

Then - he saw an explosive tag. There were more - tens of them, along the whole corridor. They were already activated. Naruto grasped onto the scraps of Natural Energy he could gather, out of pure panic - he had to know just where everything was. It wasn't a full on Sage Mode in such a short time, just a taste for the natural energy to act as an impromptu sensor. There. For the briefest of moments, Naruto saw everything.

Namiashi Raidou was stable. One intruder was dead. Another was fighting a desperate battle just a few turns away - with none other than Orochimaru. Probably an earth clone. There were fifty seven lit explosive tags scattered in the vicinity, all of them activated. The little Naruto was crying. All of the other orphans were wide awake. He needed help - a lot of help. Before the pulse faded out, Naruto had his hands in a clone seal, determination clear in his voice as he barked out: "Tajuu Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!"

He had expected more clones than he could fill in the corridor, so he was surprised to note there was barely more than a hundred. Still, it would have to be enough. He felt his legs twitch under the strain - he was overdoing it entirely too much for his already weak body. He'd have to deal with it later. The clones knew what to do, and just where exactly the exploding tags were. Now, it was but a matter of time and pure speed.

Naruto sent a couple of clones to guard his little self, and found himself in a desperate race too; there were a couple of notes that wouldn't be reached without risking a clone popping, and that would waste precious time. A clone was clearing him a way right through three different hospital wards, past confused patients, crashing through reinforced wood wall with a liberal use of Rasengan. They probably recognized their Hokage, but he was gone before they could react.

As he scooted around the corner, Naruto grabbed one of the precariously placed explosive tags, and his hands were seared by half a dozen flash tags that went off right next to his fingers. He was sure that all his clones were gathering their own tags, and now they all had to get rid of them - and quickly.

Orochimaru hissed as the enemy shinobi raised his fingers, and a burst of chakra flared on the end of them - and dozens more tags burst alight with renewed fire, ready to explode. The man smiled dementedly - then his eyes widened.

Suddenly, there were men rushing around them - dozens of identical men with bright blond hair and long white cloaks, each of them rushing in and away before they could even fully process the swift movement. One of them, even darted between them and snatched the explosive notes on Iwa nin's stomach before bursting away.

All the commotion took a matter of seconds, but the last Minato past them had his gaze linger, and Orochimaru could only stare at the man - with those whisker-marks and a half-bandaged face, the Fourth still managed to look menacing, his eyes more hateful than he could ever remembering seeing them, except in the war.

With his usefulness spent, Orochimaru broke the neck of the Iwa nin, dropping him on the ground without a second glance. The horde of clones had come from the direction of the children's ward. Why there, when there was certainly no easy entrance to that part of the building, given how deeply entrenched it was. Hiraishin, perhaps? But why there?

As overhead explosions shook the building, Orochimaru calmly strolled past an injured Namiashi Raidou. Posted not to guard the Hokage, but rather all the little children, which was just odd. He pushed open the door to see four of Minato's clones, seeming more distressed than he had ever seen the Fourth in his whole life, carefully tending to a whole bunch of crying children.

There was a single one of them that made Orochimaru stop and marvel, however. One of the clones held a child tightly to his chest, whispering something into the bundle's ears. A child with a thin layer of very familiar hair, and on each cheek, there were three whisker-marks.

Naruto used Shunshin no Jutsu to dash past Orochimaru, who held a bloody Iwa nin at his throat. He silently cursed the fact that a Hiraishin with clones running about was still out his reach. He created yet another clone as he crashed right out of one of the upper floor windows. The clone appeared crouched on the real Naruto's shoulders, and snatched the explosive tag, jumping upwards with all his strength as the real him plummeted towards the ground. Around him, dozens of clones launched themselves upwards as well, streams of fire following them as their tags ignited fully.

Naruto slid just past the nearest wall, uncontrollably flailing around for a shortest of moments, before barely managing to latch on with chakra to push off just afterwards, trying to balance himself. The first explosion sounded before he even touched the ground. The light of that explosion didn't blind him. The next fifty-six simultaneous flashes did. Then, there was the thudding shockwave immediately afterwards, which pushed him off the wall entirely.

Naruto, instead of landing properly, slid awkwardly on the uneven pavement, fumbled a step and crashed painfully into something wooden - must have been a tree, since he heard it cracking and crashing onto the ground. His stitches tore open from the impact and Naruto groaned in pain. He could taste blood in his mouth, already. "That can't be good," he mumbled quietly. "Ow."

He didn't know how long he just lingered there, hanging from a tree; a couple of seconds, maybe longer. Naruto tore open his aching eyes, but all he saw was a strangely colorful swirl - and to top it off, he was half-deaf, with the weak sounds of a village-wide alert pushing through, sounding garbled and far away. Somehow, Naruto managed to rub at his eyes, and the world slowly shook back into focus. He was now lying right next to the fallen tree, somewhere along one of the pathways towards the hospital - and the hospital itself was still standing, even if the roof seemed to be smoking.

Naruto tried to get up, and though his body protested, he still managed to step onto the ground, his knees weak. He took a shambling step forward. Tripped. Fell. To his shock, someone was there to catch him. A child. A young, dark-haired kid, probably one who hadn't even dreamt about the academy yet. He was unusually strong, supporting a grown man - even though he lacked height to do it properly - and totally quiet. Naruto met his intrigued eyes, and found a surprisingly mature gaze looking back.

He chuckled despite himself, coughing up something that tasted like rotten eggs and blood. "You shouldn't be here. It's dangerous," he chided weakly, becoming eerily aware that there were other civilians surrounding them now, some of them talking worriedly amongst themselves. "I think there's still one enemy-" Naruto's sentence trailed off as he realized what he was seeing - as he recognized the boy that was holding at his side.

He knew just where he had seen these eyes, even if they were not the dangerous blood-red that he remembered.

"Uchiha... Itachi?"


As always, Roarian was a huge help to make this chapter happen. In fact, he helped rewrite both Orochimaru scenes, and basically wrote the Jiraya one himself. So, the usual, "more than 33% is his" thing. Roarian - keep being awesome.

On that note, as you are reading this, Roarian should have updated the story he is writing himself - The Leaf's Naruto. It can be found via his (Morta's Priest) profile, or through my favourites, or by those who know what to do with a story id number - 8264234.

I cannot confirm nor deny that the endings of the chapters are in some way, similar, nor that it is not a coincidence.

Also, in similar rumor filled vein, I heard that I own a whole channel 'Nauro'. Curious. Never heard about it getting screen time.