Prepping for surgery, so I wanted to get a double update out. This, and another story.

Now then, first things first. This request story is a direct result of last night's episode. There's your warning...

Clearly, this takes places AFTER the Fall of Beacon but beyond that? I'm not saying anything. There. You've been warned again.

Ready for a hard-hitting story that makes you question right and wrong? A tale where the truth isn't simply black and white, but gray? A chapter that makes you feel something? I'm doing this to prove a point, to both stick it to the trolls/death threats and show that I'm still open to new ideas. Well, that and I just can't say no to a posthumous request. Guess that makes me a bit of a softie.

Going for a rare pairing here, but that depends on the votes, I suppose. Let me know in your reviews!

As ever, I own no references, themes or memes. Not a one!

So now, I proudly present...something new.

"Salutations! Did you have a nice nap?"


"Yes! You were asleep for a very long time! We thought you'd never wake up!"

"Where am I? What year is it?"

"You are in Atlas, friend!"

...what's an Atlas?"


Hearts of Steel

We've made a remarkable discovery!

Well, I suppose you could say the SDC made said discovery. It was their mine, after all, and their workers that uncovered this. Ah, but I digress! This is the scientific find of the century! A young man frozen in the ice! Not only that, but buried beside the bones of a great beast! All of Atlas is buzzing about this. Can you believe it? I certainly can't.

I've been asked to have a look at him and initial tests have proven promising. He's thousands of years old!

Who could he be? What secrets might he hold? Why Fascinating. Utterly fascinating.

This...this discovery will change all of Remnant. For the better, I hope.

Its already given me some ideas in regards to repairing Penny.

Hmm. In any case...Glory To Atlas.


That young man is our property. Schnee property!

It was the SCHNEE Dust Company that found this young man and the bones of that beast. MY resources that dug him up, and MY FAMILY that should reap the rewards. Any discoveries made should benefit our family first, Atlas second, and the rest of the kingdoms third. In that order! What do I care if he's alive or dead?! Dissect him, cut him up, and see what he's made off. If they won't...well!

Hrmmph. Perhaps my daughters may be useful for something after all...

The wealth of Atlas is my wealth, after all.

Glory To Atlas.


A medical marvel has fallen into our lap.

This boy is...I don't even know how to describe him. Magic? I never believed in it. But seeing this...

While he has yet to wake, his body -what remains of it- heals at a prodigious rate. Tissue samples have been taken. Tests were conducted. His blood alone heals others. Actually heals them! It actively restores cells and promotes cellular regeneration on a level we've never seen. The medical applications alone are staggering. He could be the cure for...so many things.

The bones of the beast he was found has proven another mystery. are harder than any metal we can produce. They're virtually indestructible. Judging by the skull, we think it might have been a fox.

How does such a creature grow so large?

Its been weeks now. He still hasn't woken, but I'm determined to see him treated ethically if nothing else. Polendia has requested that we reactivate Project STEELHEART. I've authorized it. With luck, these implants ought to reinforce his organs and help him recover before he wakes. If he wakes. He was badly wounded when we found him, and some parts of him simply cannot be recovered.

Is it wrong that a small part of me pities him?

He's been asleep for a terribly long time now; whoever he was, whoever he has been, wherever he hails from...its probably long gone. I suspect that when he does wake, he will be frightened. Confused. Possibly even angry with us. But we cannot let him die. Not when it is within our power to save him. We must.

We can save him. We can rebuild him. We have the technology.

What would you think of him, Ozpin? I wish you were here, old friend.

Sentiment aside, Atlas needs this young man. He could be the key to everything. Perhaps even destroying Salem once and for all.




He's begun to show signs of life now.

I've tasked the Ace Ops with watching him around the clock; while we have every reason to believe him harmless, forewarned is forearmed as they say. For all we know he may not speak our language. Regardless, we'll be taking him off the breathing tube tomorrow; from there we'll see if he's able to sustain himself. If not, the tube goes back in. I do hope he wakes up. He's attracted a lot of attention, and not all of it good. We cannot keep this under wraps forever.

Sooner or later, the enemy will take note of him.

May he wake before that day.

Glory To Atlas.


"Please, wake up."

Naruto didn't want to; after so many years spent in silent slumber, the pain that came with breathing -let alone opening his eyes!- was almost too much to bear. Like a thousand tiny needless stabbing at his retina, so too did he flinch away from them. Of course he did. Only a lunatic stared into a bright like without blinking.

"Please, wake up." An unfamiliar voice nudged at him anew. "Open your eyes, if you are able."

He squinted against it and groaned. His throat felt dry. Scratchy. As if he hadn't had any water in months. Impossible. He'd just been...where had he been, anyway? When he reached for it the memory slipped through his fingers like a slipper eel, leaving him grasping a nothing.

"You have to get up." the voice prodded at him again. "They are coming for you. If you remain here, you will be killed."

His limbs felt heavy, as if they were weighed down by some impossible force.

"Please!" it begged! "I do not wish for you to die! Wake up."

Die? A small, distant part of him stirred. Some semblance of self emerged from the void. No. He didn't want to die. Dying was bad, right? He wanted to live. But his body was slow. Sluggish. When he tried to breathe, he found himself gagging. Retching for air. Distantly, he heard voices.

"He's waking up!"

Well, of course he was!

"More sedatives! Damnit! Keep him under!"

A fresh wave of nauseating dizziness hit the whiskered warrior, driving him back under. He would have succumbed, were it not for gentle presence in the back of his mind buoying him. Something reached deep inside him and lifted him back up even as his mind threatened to spiral back down again. They were trying to keep him asleep? Why? An ember of anger ignited in his chest as he fought back. Fury lent him strength and he thrashed his way out of the cotton-swaddled haze they were trying to trap him in.

"They're not working!" a note of panic now. "We've given him enough to drop a goliath!"

The beginnings of a snarl built in the back of his throat.

Panic warped into sickly fear. "What do we do?!"

In desperation, Naruto flung out a call to an old friend. "Kurama? A little help?!

Silence reigned supreme and the blond balked. No. No, no, no. No! He couldn't be gone. He just couldn't. Some remnant of his was still there, but of his old friend he heard -felt!- absolutely nothing. Nothing at all. Not a thing. His absence left a profound heart-cracking sadness in its place. Kurama couldn't be dead. He was invincible. Eternal. Immortal. And yet the truth stared him in the face.

His fingers began to twitch.

"Just kill him already!" someone snarled. "We're not getting paid enough for this kinda heat!"

Rage ignited deep within his chest, lending his eyes an otherwordly glow. It burned through him in a rush of heat, pushing the last of the drugs from his veins. A clawed hand broke its restraints and flailed wildly. It found purchase. Flesh. Someone screamed against the palm of his hand. Maybe he should've felt guilty about that. He didn't. Hand became fist as he squeezed. Something crumpled in his grasp, spattering his whiskered visage in strange wetness. He didn't know what it was. Didn't care.

Because he still couldn't see.

Someone screamed nearby. Close. Too close.

"There is a tube in your mouth." the voice informed him as his lungs began to spasm. "Remove it or you will suffocate. I will guide you. Reach up to your right and pull. Now!"

Naruto did as he'd been bade and found purchase once more. Then he yanked. Hard.

There was pain, and then there was pain.

Red-hot agony seared through the jinchuuriki's chest to burn his world black. He coughed harshly against it, expelling blood as he tore himself free and tumbled off the table. By the sage. The pain. His healing factor was quick to throw itself into overdrive, but it did nothing to numb the pain searing through his throat. He coughed again, expelling a lungful of of viscera. Those damn voices were shouting at him now; he could scarcely hear them for the ringing in his ears.

Something slammed into his back. It felt like a knife. It grated off something sharp. His head snapped up.

A whimper echoed behind him. "What is he...?!"

"On your left!"

Yet again he trusted in the voice and spun, sweeping his legs. Someone yelped. A body crashed to the floor. He followed the sound and pounced on it, colliding with something. The knife skittered off his back again, and he hastily summoned a Rasengan to his palm and smashed it forward. His attacker screamed. Something spattered his face again and hands grasping at his back fell slack. He stepped back and a wet thud echoed somewhere him. Naruto ignored it and stumbled upright, flailing blindly.

"Die, you damn human!" someone snarled. "Die!"

Three quick impacts slammed into Naruto's back, nearly causing his legs to buckle. A gasp tore from him, stealing his breath away. He wanted to curl up into a ball.

"I have you."

Instead he grit his teeth as burning sensation came on again. He couldn't see them, but he could feel it in his mind's eye; wounds closing, flesh rippling as his back knitted itself back together. He heard a whimper, words little more than garbled gibberish. An oddly pungent aroma filled the air, and he wrinkled his nose at the scent. Someone had soiled themselves. It wasn't him.

"Really?" he croaked the word, alarmed at just how hoarse his voice sounded. "Did you just piss yourself?"

"Your eyes are still recovering." the voice informed him, close enough to touch. "They should be back in three...two...one!"

All at once, the world swam back into focus. Blurry at first, then with increasing clarity, reality welcomed him back into the fold. He soon wished it hadn't.

With his sight restored, Naruto was blind no longer.

Small wonder he hadn't been able to see earlier. He'd overloaded his eyes. He found himself stood in the center of an operating theater, all white and blindingly bright. The harsh light from the ceiling didn't help. Neither did the blood he stood in. Red. So much red. It was everywhere. It spattered the walls, the ceiling and even himself, bits of bone and broken bits stuck in his hair.

His stomach lurched, gorge rising before he managed to master it.

This was his doing, he realized. He did this. He had killed them. Strangely enough, he couldn't bring himself to feel any guilt about it. They, whomever they were, had tried to kill him. There had been three of them. By the work of his hands, now there was but one; a lone man in mismatched armor regarding him, covered in the blood of his companions. He wore a white mask over his eyes, concealing his identity. Were those...ears? Atop his head? As the blond looked on he crawled toward the door with a mangled leg, trying to escape.

"White Fang." his erstwhile ally informed him. "They broke into the lab. I believe they were searching for you."

Him? What for? "Why me?" he muttered.

"I do not know why."

Well. There was one way to find out, wasn't there? He started forward, a grimace tearing across his face. His attacker saw it and turned bone white. The man's mouth worked wordlessly for a few moments before he found his voice; even then it was little more than a terrified keening cry.

"M-M-Monster!" the man gibbered, trying to raise his weapon.

Naruto batted it out of his hands and snapped it over his knee. The ruined halves sailed over his shoulder to join the mess behind him, producing an awful racket. The revived shinobi ignored it, reached down, and grabbed a fistful of the man's ruined jacket. In a single seamless motion he hauled him to his feet, leaving him dangling in the air. Gloved fingers scrabbled uselessly at his fist.

"Who sent you here?" he demanded.

The grunt spat in his face. "I'll never tell you!"

"Wrong answer!" Naruto moved cocked a fist with silent intent, producing an audible pop.

"Alright, alright!" his victim wailed. "I'll talk! It was a man with a mustache! He told us to come here! Gave us the codes and everything!"


For a moment, the man clammed up, fear overriding common sense. The sight of bloody clawed fingers left him babbling like a terrified child all over again. Naruto felt it all. Every negative emotion, his fear, his dread, his hatred for all things human. Terror overpowered it all and the words came crashing down.

"He sent us for you!" limp legs kicked out uselessly against his chest. "We were supposed to kill you!"

Something hardened deep inside him. "Wrong answer."

Naruto slammed him against the wall. Once. Twice. Two blows rendered the White Fang member -what the hell that was- a silent, stunned mess. A third put him under for good. The body went slack in his grasp, beaten into unconsciousness. Naruto dropped him and left him with his fellows. He'd live. There were more pressing concerns.

'Have to move. Have to get out of here. Too claustrophobic, too...

He made it all of five steps before the pain hit him again.

His knees buckled and he slammed a fist into the floor to catch himself. It wasn't enough. Now that the adrenaline had worn off, every injury came crashing back in a red tide; after so long being still, even the concept of standing threatened to sap his very soul. His throat closed and burning tears seared at his eyes, a wordless hiss fleeing from his lips. This was a deeper kind of pain. Something was wrong. Something was broken deep in his very being. He couldn't think. Couldn't breathe. Couldn't even move.

"Would you like me to numb it?"

"Yes." every breath was weak. "Please. Just make it stop."

A strange numbness settled over him, easing his agony. Not stopping allowing him to straightened his back and push

In the silence that followed he took a deep, shuddering breath to steady himself. But with silence came confusion, and with confusion, yet more questions. Where was he? How had wound up here? Why were people trying to kill him? Nothing made a lick of sense.

"Look," he licked dry, cracked lips. "Whoever you are...thanks for the assist. I woulda died without your help back there."

"Your gratitude is noted." now that he listened, the voice sounded rather like a young girl. "I am glad I could assist."

"Where are you?" he squinted against the harsh light. "I can't see you."

"No." came the denial. "I am here."

Naruto looked left. Naruto looked right. Naruto found nothing but empty air. "I don't see anyone. You using a radio or something?"

"I am not." another denial.

He gulped. "Then where the hell are ya?"

"I am a part of you, currently in your spinal column." his heart skipped a beat. "Now, I am sending nanites into your bloodstream to repair your injuries and alleviate the stress on your chakra coils."

A pang of fearful anger stabbed Naruto's hope in the heart. Panic flared. He stamped it down. No! Stop! Don't freak out. Fear was the enemy. This voice had helped him. That made it an ally, right? And apparently it was a part of him, too. Great. Nothing wrong with that. It didn't bother her. Nope. Not at all. Not a bit...IT BOTHERED HIM A LOT! He'd reach his share of books! He knew how this ended! Terror gibbered again and this time he found a good grip on it and throttled it into oblivion. Calm. Deep breaths. In. Out. Innn. Ouuut.

"You're inside me?" he had to speak slowly, lest he burst into hysteric laughter.

"Correct." Their reply was flat. "Does this distress you?"

A little, yeah! "Do you...have a name?"

...I am S.T.E.E.L."

He groaned. "What does that mean...?"

"It stands for Sentient Taskminded Empathetic Lifeform, at your service."

Somewhere, somewhen, somehow, Naruto's broken mind plucked humor from the jaws of despair.

...you're missing an "E" in there, somewhere." even then, he couldn't help but state the obvious. "You realize that, right?"

"You are correct." Had his guest -parasite?- possessed eyes, he suspected she would have rolled them. "I do not understand the acronym myself. Names seldom make sense in Atlas, I've found. Originally I was to be called SteelHeart, but Father disliked that name. Thus, S.T.E.E.L. was given to me as my moniker."

Atlas? The hell was an Atlas? "I'll...just call you Steel, then."

A pleased him. "Thank you. I prefer that name."

"Still doesn't tell me who you are or what you're doing here."

"My creator was Pietro Polendina." A pause followed when he didn't respond to the name. "I was designed by him to ensure and maintain your vital functions until such a time as you awoke. Your spine was broken. I did my best to repair it. Rest assured, Father was most thorough in my design. Nothing was left to chance. Have I succeeded in aiding you?"

Naruto bit down another surge of panic, looked away from the blood on his hands, and willed himself to breathe.

Well, he was alive. Big honking gaps in his memory and a lot of pain, but alive nonetheless. Surely that counted for something? Even if Kurama was gone. No. He couldn't be. Maybe the big bastard was just sleeping. He could still sense negative emotions. That had to mean something. It must mean something. To think otherwise threatened to send his already fragile psyche careening off a cliff.

"Yeah." he muttered. "Guess you did."

Did that voice just squeal? "Capital! I'm so glad I could assist you!"

A niggling worm of fear burrowed into his chest. "You're...not controlling me, right? Can you?"

"I cannot." Steel denied all his doubts with a happy chirrup. "Safeguards have been put in place. Even where I able to do so, I would not. Father would be cross with me." He felt a ghostly tap against his nose, more a phantom sensation than anything. "I was placed in your body to prevent your heart from shutting down, but I am here to learn as well."

Well. That sounded decidedly...less ominous than he thought.

"I wish to know what it means to be human." she confessed. "I asked for this."

"I'm a bit of a bad example there." Naruto wrinkled his nose. "Wait, so this Pietro guy is really your da-

The doors slammed open, cutting him off.

Five individuals emerged and he whirled to meet them with a snarl. Sharp eyes took stock of them at once. Two girls. Three men, all of varying size and appearance. Military uniforms all, and didn't that just set him ill at ease? They looked as startled to see him as he did them. Or maybe that was just the blood an bits of brain in his hair-urk. Gag reflex. Don't think about it!

"Holy shit." one of the men whispered. "He made mincemeat out of them."

"Like looking at a damn blender." another whispered.

Naruto drew back. "Are they enemies?"

"Those are the Ace Ops and I...do not know." his erstwhile ally confessed, a rare note of hesitation threading into her voice. "This attack may have been limited to these three men, or its treachery may run deeper. They reacted quickly. That is all I can say. Just a moment. I'll hack into the database to ascertain their purpose here."

"Wait...what's a hack?"

"I do not have time to explain. You were unconscious for months after being thawed. I grew bored. I'll be but a moment."

And then she was gone.

It was a strangely disconcerting feeling, being left alone in the world again. Naruto wasn't sure he like dit.

One of the soldiers stepped forward, hands splayed to show himself unarmed. He took in brown hair, sharp green eyes and...was that a fishing rod on his back? Odd choice for a weapon, that. The man wore an easy smile, one tempered by anxiety. This man was afraid of him. Even if he did well to mask it, he sensed it all the same.

"Easy there, friend." Those jade eyes pierced him. "No need to be so tense. not your enemies. Just calm down."

"Friend?" Paranoia reared its ugly head in Naruto's heart and he reared back. "Friends don't hook friends to an operating table! Where the hell am I?!"

"That's classified." the short woman stepped up beside the first. "Come with us, asset."

Naruto stepped back. The man rounded on her with a hiss. "Harriet!"

"What does it matter, Clover?" she shrugged. "He's a nobody."

Any sense of relief Naruto might have felt evaporated in that moment. Resolve hardened in his heart. Asset. Even he knew the meaning of that word. Orochimaru used to call his test subjects that and while this "Clover" fellow didn't seem the sort, it drew all sorts of unfavorable comparisons. He should know. He'd seen some of those poor bastards. Bile burned in the back of his throat and his eyes flashed.

"Well, this Nobody is leaving." he declared, pushing past them. "Get out of my way."

Someone -Harriet!- grabbed at his elbow, stopping him short.

"And where do you think you're going?"

Anger unspooled in Narito's chest and he nearly struck her on the spot. Where was he going? He wanted to go home. He wanted a nice steaming bowl of ramen. He wanted to sink into his bed and pretend this was all just a bad dream; some mad work of fiction penned by a madman. But it wasn't and he couldn't and so he reeled himself back in. Slowly, purposefully, he drew his arm out of Harriet's grasp. She wasn't able to stop him, even as he turned to face her. Clover could've taken advantage of his exposed flank in that instant, could have struck at his back while he was distracted. He didn't. Thank the sage for small mercies.

"I am going to walk out that door." he stabbed a finger toward the blood-spattered frame and the three operatives guarding it. "Through you, if I have to."

It...did not get the reaction he wanted. Her eyes narrowed on his. "Oh? Think you're man enough, whiskers?"

His forehead slammed against hers. "More than you, that's for sure!"

"Harriet, for once in your life, shut up." Clover hissed.

The largest of them readied a hammer.

"Look, kid. We don't want a fight-

"Move," Naruto warned again, a dark undercurrent cutting into his voice, "Now. Or I'll make you move."

Weak though his body might be, his chakra reserves were still full to bursting. The ice had done nothing to take that from him. Maybe these uptight bastards wouldn't be so smug once they drowned in an ocean of shadow clones. Come hell or high water, he'd walk out of here. One way or another. Thus resolved, he took a stance and raised his hands, all but slamming his fingers together. A curious heat burned at the corners of his vision. He couldn't quite figure out what it was; save that it seemed to alarm those before him.

"W-What's wrong with his eyes?" the hammer-wielding woman asked. "Its almost like he's a mai-

A red filter snapped down over Naruto's vision, startling him before he could hear her complete that sentence.

"Threat assessment complete." Steel chirped in the back of his head. "I have returned. They were placed on standby here. Would you like to view my report?"

...yes?" he hazarded.

Something in the back of Naruto's battered brain twitched and he felt a wave of information crash down over him. He nearly drowned in it. His eyes twitched, struggling to process it all. Unbidden he felt his gaze lock onto one of the soldiers, the furthest one from the left.

"Marrow Amin." Steel informed him briskly as he gaze settled upon the seemingly harmless soldier. "Faunus. Weapon, Fetch. A versatile boomerang. He uses an immobilizing semblance. Cannot focus on multiple targets. Recommend immediate close combat before-

Naruto edged forward. It was the stone that set off an avalanche.


With a yelp, the faunus panicked and thrust a finger at him, that lone word cracking like thunder. His world froze. No. Not the world, Naruto realized. Him. He was the one frozen. Every muscle locked up at once, leaving him rigid where he stood. It was like being trapped in the ice all over again, but worse. He was a human statue, one aware of everyone and everything, every second of immobility. Primal panic bleated in his chest, blotting out all sense.

"Before that." Steel finished with a sigh. "Would you like to employ countermeasures?"

Naruto grit his teeth as the other four started towards him.

One of them pulled out restraints. "Yes!"

"There will be pain."

"Just do it!"

Agony spiked in Naruto's skull and quite suddenly, he found himself free. The faunus recoiled in surprise. An eerie heat began to burn in his eyes; he gave himself to it, flung his right hand out and pushed. There couldn't be any other word for it; the act was pure instinct. A wave of invisible force scattered them like leaves, ripped Marrow from his feet and slammed him into a wall with bonecrushing force. Something crackled over his body in a series of sparks as he fell forward. He did not rise again.

"Aura levels holding at five percent." the muted sound of clapping filled his head. "Target incapacitated. Well done."


Naruto reeled his hand back in, eyes wide. "Wait, was that...?"

"You rat bastard!" Harriet howled and dove at him in a bolt of light. "I'll have your head!"

"Harriet Bree." S.T.E.E.L. swooped in with more information. "Weapon of choice, Fast Knuckles. Speed semblance. May I suggest an intercept course?"

Cheeky bitch, calling him an asset. This time he felt a touch of confidence. "Hit me."

A confused pause followed. "I cannot do that-

"I meant yes, damnit!"

"Oh." another pause. "Please plant your feet, extend your arm, and lean to your right. Three degrees, please."

His body reacted accordingly. An oddly pale arm caught the operative by the throat, clotheslining her. That was all he had to do. Hariett's speed did the rest for him. A gurgle of surprise greeted him as she slammed into his outstretched limb; then her own momentum lifted her up into the air flipped her over his elbow and slammed her down into the floor. A second series of sparks flew through the air. Her eyes rolled back in her head as she slumped. She did not rise again, either.

"Aura levels at two percent. Operative Harriet has been knocked out."

"You'll pay for that!" the muscles woman surged forward, swinging her arm in a devastating arc at his head.

"Elm Ederne." sure enough, S.T.E.E.L. was quick to supply him as he dodged backward. "Weapon of Choice, Timber. Semblance, Aura Roots. I recommend-


Naruto missed the rest as Timber came down on his head with incredible force. Stars burst before his vision, snapping his head down, but only for a moment. He surged back up a heartbeat later, seizing her weapon in a clawed palm before she could pull it away. Clawed fingers bit down, buckling the metal. Around them him the ground fractured, forcing the other operatives back.

"Oh." For a moment, he thought he heard a note of surprise in S.T.E.E.L.'s voice just now. "Nevermind."

He flung Elm's weapon up into the air, and the woman with it as she foolishly held on. From there he raised an arm and caught her by the left boot. She cried out in surprise, but he didn't give her time for anything more than that. In a single seamless movement he spun and slammed her into the floor. Left. Right. Left again. A flick of his thereafter sent her screaming into the very same wall beside Marrow. She toppled out of it and lay across him, sprawled out in a stunned heap.

Like a proud announcer, his tagalong proudly declared her defeat. "Operative Bree has been immobilized. Aura at ten percent."

The last two, perhaps realizing the mistakes of their fellows, closed in on him together.

"Vine Zeki. "S.T.E.E.L.'s voice came quickly now as he backpedaled, fending them off with quick blows. "Weapon of choice, Thorn. He seldom uses it. Semblance, Aura Vines." A brief pause followed and then, "Clover Ebi. Weapon of choice, Deadliest Catch. Semblance, Good Fortune. I advise close combat for both-oryoucouldjustdothat."

He grabbed them both by the face the moment they got close enough and smashed their heads against one another. Once. Twice.

Aura crackled and they crumpled bonelessly at his feet.

Just like that, it was done.

Chest heaving, eyes wide, Naruto stood among the fallen.

"I...that was...how did we do that?" he rasped, flicking a bead of sweat from his brow. "We picked them apart like they were nothing. How...?"

"M' tired," Steel slurred the words. "Too much processing...sleep...

Without warning, her presence retreated from the forefront of Naruto's mind, leaving him alone with his thoughts once more.

Frightful prospect, that.

When he turned toward the door at last, he glimpsed his reflection in a glistening metal wall, one of the few left untouched in their conflict. What he saw there alarmed him. His face was not as he remembered; gaunt and pale from captivity, whiskered cheeks slightly faded. But despite that, he'd lost little of his muscle mass. Not a cause for concern, that. No, it was his eyes that frightened him.

"What in the blue hell is this?"

Violent violet flames fanned out from the edges of his gaze, lending him an almost demonic appearance. Actual! Flames! His eyes were on fire! Yet when he touched them he felt no heat. When he peered closer, his worst fears were confirmed. His eyes weren't simply burning; rather, they'd changed altogether. Gone were the sky blue orbs he was so found of; in their place where eyes he knew all too well. He'd seen them countless times, both in the face of ally and enemy alike.


"Well, shit." he whispered, touching one hand to his face. "How did I get these?"

S.T.E.E.L. had no answers for him.

Naruto blinked once. Twice. thrice. And yet those rippling orbs did not change. When he looked down he found strange silver lines threading through his flesh. They too, were strangely warm to the touch. For all his earlier weakness he felt strong. Powerful. Even his skin was strangely warm, almost as if something were heating it from within.

The hydraulic door opened again and he rounded on it with an exasperated hiss. "Not again!"

"Hello!" Glassy green eyes regarded him, set within a cherubic freckled face framed by long flame-colored hair. "How are you feeling?"

Violet eyes flicked over her.

Clad in olive green styled dress with a black hem and a white blouse, this girl looked utterly harmless. The rest of her outfit was much of the same, soft and gentle colors meant to please the eye. She even had a bow somewhere in there. He found himself relaxing just looking at her. Better yet, her smile didn't feel forced; in fact, now that he noticed it, he couldn't sense much of anything about her at all. Unfortunately for him, said smile faded when she saw the bodies.

"Did you...do this?" she asked.

Naruto raised his hands to ward off her attack.

"They attacked me." even to his ears the defense sounded weak. "I wanted to leave."

Imagine his surprise when she accepted it.

"Yes, we were informed of a break-in." Her head But why are the Ace Ops laying on the floor...?"

"They're...napping?" he offered.

"Oh." she blinked, and he felt guitly at once. "Well, I do hope they wake up soon. That's no place to sleep."

Was she really that naive? It was almost adorable. And worrying.

"Where am I?" he asked at last. "Who are you?"

"You are in the kingdom of Atlas." the girl was all too happy to answer. "Oh! And I am Penny!" she clasped both hands behind her back and sketched a quick bow before straightening. "Pleased to meet you. This is a secret laboratory sanctioned by General Ironwood. You were being kept here to recover while we studied you."

"You were...studying me...?" The last word escaped him in a weak croak of sound. "Why?"

"To learn from you, of course!" She chirruped, blissfully blind to his mounting anger. "No harm was done to your body, despite the insistence of Mr. Schnee." Her nose wrinkled adorably. "I do not like him. He wanted us to dissect you. The general refused."


Naruto wasn't sure he should be grateful at all. He could barely remember anything. Why did she remind him of the little sister he'd never had? No! Stop! Resist! Don't be distracted by the cute!

"I do hope you're comfortable." she continued, once again ignorant of his stress.

His frown deepened. "Why wouldn't I be...?"

"Your heart briefly stopped beating for some time just last month." Penny tilted her head a fraction to the right, and motion sent her hair swaying like a fiery curtain behind her back. "I was under the impression humans needed that organ to live." When he proved too shocked to continue, she bulled on with that chipper smile of hers. "Oh, but don't worry! We fixed yours." here at last, her brow furrowed. "Some additional implants were necessary, however."

...she is correct." Steel's voice returned at last. "I was a part of said implants at the time."

Naruto flailed his arms. "Did you make me a robot?!"

"Negative. You are very much a creature of flesh. However, some of your organs failed while comatose. As my sister said, some Cybernetic implants were required."

"Sister?" he said the word aloud without thinking.

Penny perked up. "Are you talking to S.T.E.E.L. by any chance? Can she communicate with you?"


By the log this was weird. "Yeah." he tapped his head. "She's pretty chatty."

He certainly felt...different. Stronger. Was that it, then? Had he simply been enhanced? He wasn't sure how to feel about that. His body was...well...his. Now he had a passenger and a number of strange modifications he didn't much understand. Thankfully he still possessed all his limbs; even if he did feel unseasonably warm. Not an unpleasant heat, just...warm. As if someone had lit a furnace deep inside his chest, leaving the heat to spread to the rest of his body, suffusing it with tingling heat.

Like it or not, he was different now. Greater shocks were yet to come.

"The implants tend to run a bit hot at times due to stress." Penny informed him, perhaps sensing his distress. "We're still working on that. He said humans may experience some discomfort."

"Wait." he paused, recalling her words. "Aren't you human?"

"R-Right." Penny hiccuped and looked away from him. "I'm human. Definitely a normal human girl. Certainly not a robot. Nothing to see here!"

On a whim, Naruto dug a fingernail down into his palm. Yup. Still bled red. That was something of a relief.

"Penny," a new voice called behind the door, "What's all the racket?"

Once more the door parted. Once more, Naruto tensed.

He needn't have worried.

Rather than a second hit squad or another group of unruly soldiers, he found himself face to face with someone altogether...less threatening.

No dangerous killer was this; but an elderly man with dark skin and short, balding white hair. He wears a green cap with oval-shaped glasses and red vest over a cream shirt with a pink bowtie. His dark mustard pants and leather boots match with his cap and red-brown belt. He didn't even walk, but rather sat astride a strange walking chair of some sort. It shuffled into the room now, its four movable legs slowly plodding forward to meet him.

A silver brow rose. But rather than sound the alarm, its owner merely sighed.

"My, my. You certainly don't do anything by half measures now, do you?

Just like that, the newcomer took one look at him and didn't deem him a threat. He didn't care for the ruined corpses -or the captive- scattered to the four corners of the room, nor did he express any outrage at the sight of the unconscious bodies of the Ace Ops sprawled about therein. If he felt threatened by the shirtless young man standing in the midst of them all, he did little to show it.

"Well, this is quite the pickle." he glanced down at Harriett and the rest. "I imagine they're going to be quite angry with you when they wake up."

Naruto released a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. His blazing eyes dimmed.

"Hello, father." Penny chirruped happily. "You look well."

"How's my girl treating you?"

"Well, Father."

A rueful smile plucked at the corner of Naruto's mouth.

Despite his earlier assertion, this was all too surreal for him. His mind...well, it didn't quite break, but it didn't want to accept the reality before him. This had to be a dream. It just had to be. The alternative -that someone had frozen him for thousands of years, that Kurama was dead, that he'd been left with a new voice in his head- why, it was too much to bear. Perhaps that was a delusion on his part; some way for his mind to shield itself from all the horror he'd been through. He didn't know. Didn't care.

"She's mouthy." he said instead.

"I do hope you don't mind her intrusion." Pietro apologized profusely. "I had planned to give her a body once you were awake, but I was so busy repairing Penny at the time, then there was the matter with the blockade." he wrung his hands together fretfully. "Rest assured, what you're experiencing now was never meant to be a permanent solution. It doesn't have to be. She'll be out of your hair the moment you ask."

Naruto coughed. "Shouldn't you be panicking...?"

"Oh, I am on the inside." Pietro dabbed a piece of pale cloth against his clammy forehead. "Rest assured, I'm absolutely terrified. You've made quite the mess. You could probably snap me in half, and no one would be able to stop you. Possibly Penny, but who's to say?" And still, his gentle gaze conveyed none of the fear he surely felt. "But you won't attack us, will you? You're no murderer." Naruto looked away shamefaced and missed the ndt that followed. "If you were, Clover and his squad wouldn't be waking up and we wouldn't be having this conversation."

"Naturally." S.T.E.E.L. drove the final nail into his coffin. "Of course. As expected of the person I picked. I hope to learn well from your example in the future."

"Now then, allow me to be the first to greet you properly." Pietro Polendina offered him a weathered hand. "Welcome to the world, son."

Penny stepped in with a wide smile to clasp the other. Bright green eyes met his. "I hope we can be the best of friends!"

With a long suffering sigh, Naruto squeezed her fingers.

"Alright, alright. Not makin' any promises...

This was a right mess he'd gotten himself into, wasn't it? He must've cracked his head to have a dream like this. Terrorists, soldiers, robot girls...it sounded like something out of a madman's mind. Not something he had ever thought his poor psyche would ever conjure up. Once again, that delusion shielded him, blinding him to reality. The truth hurt. The light of knowledge proved too painful for him to endure. So he buried it instead in willful ignorance. Buried it deep, and prayed that it would stay there. Yup. Definitely a dream. And if this was a dream, well! He could do whatever he wanted.

So maybe...just maybe...he could enjoy it while it lasted. Just for now.

It wasn't as if the fate of the world was at stake or anything.

What could possibly go wrong?

A/N: Well, well, well.

Burning. Violet. Eyes. As in Maiden eyes. That shouldn't be possible. Gee, that's freaking ominous.

If anyone's seen Upgrade? Yup, this is taking certain cues from that. Not all, but some. For instance, S.T.E.E.L. is an adorkable little bugger, utterly harmless and designed to keep Naruto's body in a functional state for the time being.

None of those insidious vibes.

Yes, Naruto's presence here is a mystery and meant to stir up all sorts of questions. That's the point of this story. Mystery and intrigue, with hearty helpings of romance. Not gonna lie, it felt good to body the A.C.E. Ops here, but in the same vein I didn't enjoy it. Marrow has my respect, but that's as far as my kindness extends. Clover? Got himself killed being a fool. Harriett? Arrogant as all hell and nearly TORTURED a prisoner. Vine and Elm? Too stubborn and quick to follow orders.

As ever, reviews are the lifeblood that keep me and my team alive.

Without them we just wither away in the silence...

So In the Immortal Words of Atlas...

...Review, Would You Kindly?



Naruto snarled. "Mask."

S.T.E.E.L. answered immediately. "COPY."

"Wait." a hand rose." Doesn't that make you siblings?"

"Yes!" she chirruped. "Steel is my little sister!"

"Penny, she doesn't have a body."

"Not yet! Father's making her one!


"Penny, no...go away...m' sleeping here...

Winter regarded his hand like a serpent. "Why are you helping me?"

"Because you remind me of an old friend."

"Protectors of Mantle, eh? Has a nice ring to it."

"Idiot. I'm human. I can't BE hacked."

His fist slammed forward and his adversary knew no more.