A/N: Long Covid is the bane of my life, sorry. Steady on, Neon...

The rest of Invincible may have been delayed, but I'm not...even if long Covid slowed me down a little.

...alright, it definitely slowed me down a lot more than once, but I'm back. At least now we're getting it (the show) back in March~!

With my sixteen year anniversary on this site finally here, I find myself reflecting on the little things in life. What was once a lazy pastime meant for me and a few friends really grew and evolved over time. There are days when I look back on the last fifteen years here and I wonder if anyone will remember me; if I made an impact, despite never making a single cent on any of these stories. Some days were happier than others, and some stories I enjoyed writing WAY too much; to the point where I'd stay up all night working on them.

And of course, there are times when I look to the future and wonder what will become of things when I'm gone.

Of course, I try not to dwell on the latter overmuch; I'm still alive and still writing. In an ideal world, I'd like to keep doing so for as long as I can. But old age is catching up to me and these days, the world is filled with so much madness and death. All this insanity around the world serves as a terrible example. Even before that, so many friends and fellow writers I once knew are gone, now. Will I still be here in twenty years? Ten? Five? Its a chilling thought. But for now, I'm still here, still writing.

As ever, I own no quotes, references, themes, or memes. Not a wit or a one! They're tributes to legends far greater than the little 'ol Neon.

So here we go. The fate of this story depends on you, the reader. Your feedback determines the fate of this tale, and many others.

I'm just a humble author trying to make his way in this wild, wicked world, one word at a time.

Once more, I own no quotes, references, or memes. Not a wit or a one. NOT! A! THING!

They're all tributes to legends far greater than little 'ol me. Disclaimer over.

Time and feedback will determine if this little ficlet remains a story.

Also a now -infamous - reference to a certain scene.

Because, you see...HERE IT COMES.

You all know of what I speak.

"And so it begins."

"No. Now...now it ends."

"You'd think so, wouldn't you?"

~?

Make Your Move

"Target in sight."

The sniper sighted his prey down the scope. Took a deep breath atop the rooftop now, grimaced as his finger tightened against the trigger. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale again. The "target" in question paid him little mind as he sauntered down the street; wasn't even aware that his life was about to come to an end.

Really, he almost felt sorry for the poor bastard.

At least it would be quick.

Painless, even.

It had taken him the better part of a WEEK to track Fire Shadow's movements and another one to set up besides. Naruto Uzumaki wasn't the sort to stay still for long, let alone. The man was always moving, always acting, always saving someone, somewhere, somehow. Of course he was. He was a big godsdamn hero.

Almost made him feel bad about this, really...

.

..

...almost, but not quite.

At the end of the day, a job was still a job; although this particular contract was on him, though, not the family. Probably for the best. He had his pride. Maybe that was pointless for a professional but he just knew better. Targeting a man's family might make them reckless, sure, but it also made them angry. An angry Supe was the last thing you wanted; because an angry hero was as like to kill you as take you in. You couldn't try again if you were dead now, could you?

The Sniper rather fancied his chances.

His "employer" had supplied him with special ammunition. Only three rounds, but three were all he needed.

One shot, one kill and he would be set for life. He could finally get out of this awful business after all these years, retire take his wife and daughter somewhere nice-

His earpiece crackled, thick with a heavy accent. "Take the shot."

"Affirmative."

He pulled the trigger.

The rifle bucked in his hands.

Fire Shadow pitched forward as the round impact his skull. His body struck the sidewalk...

.

..

...and dissolved into a harmless plume of so much white smoke.

Not a heartbeat later, the Sniper heard a new voice in his ear.

"Didya get him?"

Ice.

Cold.

Terror.

It felt as if his entire body froze where he lay prone. He couldn't move. Couldn't think. Breathing became a conscious effort on his part. In that instant he became keenly aware of so many things; not only the wildly frantic hammering of his heart, but the hand on his shoulder, but five firm fingers biting through the armor there, the dangerous digits digging into the flesh and bone, biting down in an inescapable grip.

"So they're sending assassins after me, now?" he could almost hear the smile in the blond's voice as that hand ground down against his collarbone, relentlessly crushing. "Can't say I'm surprised. Pretty sure you don't work for Cecil. Even he wouldn't be this stupid. Another country, then? I made an awful lot of enemies, but only a few of them would outright hire an assassin. How much does my head rate over in Europe these days? A billion? More? Do you even know?"

He let him go.

Fear gave away to anger and lent the Assassin enough strength to move, to sramble to his feet.

He ripped a pistol from his hip and whirled around, slamming the barrel at the blond's head.

A harsh crack filled the air...and missed.

"Really?" Fire Shadow's smile was wreathed with disdain now as his head swayed back into the path of the gun. "You thought that would work? Why don't you mail me the damn bullet!" A hand found his throat and swung him back into the very rooftop he'd just risen from. "Talk." His hand pressed down, grinding into his skull. Who hired you?"

Screw it. He was already dead; no point in going quietly. "...do your worse, hero. You won't get a damn word out of me."

Another shadow fell over him. "Buddy, words are about to be the least of your concerns."

Against his better judgement, the Sniper looked up.

He immediately wished he hadn't.

"Shiiiiit."

Ominman smiled down at him. It was not a nice smile.

"Need a hand?"

Naruto handed him over with a grin. "Be my guest."

Realization dawned and it was an ugly one indeed. "Nononowait!"

Omniman grabbed the screaming Sniper by the leg and rocketed up into the clouds.

Needless to say...

...he sang like a canary.


(.0.0.0.)


Jab.

"Thanks for the help, Nolan."

Hook.

"Don't mention it. What're friends for?"

Uppercut.

"Ow! That one stung."

Cross and counter.

"Want some help hunting that guy's employers down?"

A knee slammed into his back.

...you think I haven't already done so?

They grappled for a moment before a headbutt sent him reeling.

Nolan thumbed a line of blood from his nose. "How-right, shadow clones. Keep forgetting about those."

Silence followed his words.

Nolan broke it first despite the sucker punch, bless his black heart. "Kids are getting along well. Mark was asking after Eve again."

Every father instinct Naruto possessed came surging to the surface. He narrowly choked them back down, took a blow to the ribs, grunted and threw another roundhouse. "Was he, now?"

"They're getting awfully close these days...you wanna talk about it?"

His feelings on the matter were...complicated.

On one hand, he was pleased to see that Samantha and the kids were branching out and having a good childhood. But on the same wavelength he kinda wanted them to stay kids, ya know? Every parent probably felt the same way. He could already see the far flung future; her and Mark were probably gonna get married someday, although such a day was still far and away. Even her younger siblings were out there trying to make friends of their own. Joshua and the others as well. Someday, they'd grow up too.

How could he possibly say muster a response to that effect?

What word could possibly summarize his feelings? None.

So he threw another punch instead.

To his credit, Nolan managed to catch this one, twist his fist, and fling him over his shoulder. His back struck the earth and the soil cratered beneath his shoulders for miles in every given direction. Not bad. He was able to read his moves now. He caught the follow-up stomp with both hands, whirled, and flung him into a mountain, rendering it so much rubble.

"That all you got?"

Not at all, not by a long shot; Nolan was up in an instant, a streak of red-on-white barreling into him.

He caught one fist, then the other forcing a grapple between the two of the once more. Shame about the island, though; they were making a mess of it. Ah, well. At least this one was abandoned.

Pivoting in place, he spun and launched his old friend into the sky, sending him tumbling end over end, then flickered up after him. A hammerfist sent him careening back to earth twice as fast; soil sundered and tattered trees toppled like dominoes, further devastating the land. Outraged seagulls took the heavens, squawking angrily. He spared a moment of sympathy for disturbing their afternoon rest. Poor birdies...

Another clash sent his old ally hurtling into the clouds once more.

A moment passed.

Two seconds.

Three.

Strange, Nolan was taking an awfully long time to come down...

Naruto planted his feet and crackled his neck, grunting a little as it popped.

Sparring had become something of a habit for him over time; indeed Things had settled into something of a loose routine over the last two years; he'd come to treasure moments like these. They let him bleed of his and Kurama's aggression in a natural way, and if a few deserted islands were the price to pay...well, they could afford that.

His watch beeped.

"Aaaaand time." he thumbed his chin, cupped both hands on either side of his face and looked back to the clouds. "I gotta go! You good up there?!"

Nolan came crashing down like a falling star. Heh. Classic superhero landing.

Something had changed. His expression seemed almost...resigned.

"Naruto...

He paused, looking back. "You got something to say?"

Its just...no, nevermind." Nola closed his eyes, sighed, and shook his head. "Its not important. Same time next week?

He flicked him a thumb's up. "You know it."

Omni-man didn't need to be told twice; he sighed once and rocketed away.

Odd, though. He had the strangest feeling he'd wanted to say something just now. Meh, probably wasn't anything important.

His phone vibrated, reminding him of another, far more important task.

"Oops, almost forgot the groceries...gotta hit the bank, too...


(.0.0.0.)


"So that's the one."

"He is. What do you think?

"He'll do. After all, he looks...strong. I'll watch him a bit longer before I make my move.

Nolan heaved a heavy sigh and palmed his face to hide his expression.

There was a reason he'd lingered so long in the clouds, you see.

He hadn't expected this either. Their arrival was inevitable he knew; after all, merely a matter of time. He'd been the one to first send out that message so long ago. But even so, he'd wanted...he had hoped for more time than this. Maybe a few more years before someone bothered to take heed of his message and come down to Earth. He had orchestrated this, he had set things into motion

The matter was out of his hands, now.

Reinforcements had arrived.

Anissa was but the first...

.

..

...though whether she would be the first to triumph or fail remained to be seen.

"Do you think he likes it rough?" the newcomer considered the space where Naruto had been with a lascivious grin. "He doesn't strike me as the gentle type." one arm came up under her chin as the other curled about her waist. "I can see why he gave you so much trouble, old man."

So long as you don't do anything to jeopardize my position here.

"Please!" she scoffed at his rebuke. "The only thing I'm interested in right now is him."

Nolan fought down a rueful smile, if only just. Such arrogance. It would undoubtedly be her undoing.

She really had no idea, did she? Absolutely none at all. She'd see soon enough.

Still, he had to at least make an attempt to sell the ruse.

"Anissa, no. Be careful with him."

His warning fell on deaf ears; the newcomer paid him little heed.

The madwoman's gaze eyes lingered on Naruto's rapidly retreating form as she madwoman licked her lips. "Anissa, yes."

She rocketed after him with a laugh.

A moment passed. Then another.

Only then did Nolan sigh.

...foolish girl."


(.0.0.0.)


An explosion ripped through the city streets, sending civilians shrieking for cover.

Naruto leaped out the smoke, a paper bag tucked under one arm.

"Seriously?" he swept a hand through the smoke, scattering it. "Killcannon?! Can't a man run some errands in peace?! I thought you would've learned your lesson by now after my daughter picked you apart last time!"

Because it was the very same villain, much to his chagrin.

His bad bloody luck for running into him at the bank, he supposed. Naturally, he couldn't just let him go...

"That brat was yours?!" the lowlife's face twisted in a snarl. "Screw the money! Now I've got double the reason to kill you!"

"And there's the cliche line of the day." He dropped the bad, flickered forward, dodged another blast, and got right up in his face. "Ever been discombobulated before?"

"Disco-what?"

Twin palms slammed down on either side of the man's head, momentarily deafening him. He didn't give him time to recover or toss another quip at him. Body shot. Lungs. Liver. Chest. Groin. He went for the most painful points on the human body, hammering his fists in until he was satisfied;; until his adversary could barely speak, much less stand.

"Honestly!" he clicked his tongue as he regarded the stunned goon reeling before him like a drunkard at last call. "Villains these days. The ones in my generation knew better than all these killcannons and stabbity-stab-stabbers." Was that the name of a villain somewhere? Probably was. "I'm in a bit of a rush, so we'll make this quick!"

The brute unsteadily raised his cannon, slurring his words. "I had the same idea! Bring it, you old fossil!"

Naruto absolutely twitched.

Old?!

"Did you hear that?"

Right, gloves are coming off...

"Good." he offered Killcannon a pinched grin. "Then you shouldn't scream when I do this."

"Do whaaaaaaargh?!"

"THIS."

Killcannon's yelp warped into a wail of pain as he grabbed ahold of his flesh and blood arm, then twisted. It tore free in a shower of blood. The man yowled and swung his cannon around, only for him to tear that off too. In a maddened frenzy the wounded man tried to knee him in the groin. He struck like a snack and shattered the joint, mangling it horribly; from there a lazy kick swept his remaining leg and sent him sprawling to the street.

Three seconds. That was all it took to break him. Hmm. He'd gotten slower. It should've taken half that time to maul him.

"I'll just leave you here for Cecil." he waved a hand his way. "He's probably watching from somewhere anyway."

The wail of sirens in the distance confirmed his theory. Yup. Time to scarper before the cops came.

"Wait, wait, wait!" The villain cried at his feet "You can't leave me like this!"

"You're right." He turned back and stomped down, rendering his other leg into so much pulp. "There. Now there's no chance of you crawling away."

The brute garbled something that might've been a curse, but he didn't bother to hear it.

"Sorry, not sorry, got a dinner date!"


(.0.0.0.)


Very strong indeed.

Gods, she wanted him so badly.

He'd dismantled that fool like...like a Viltrumite.

A shame he wasn't one of them, but he would do.

Honestly, she was half-tempted to take him now, consequences be damned.

No, no, Anissa. Patience. Pouncing upon him now would be boring. She would slake her appetite soon enough...


(.0.0.0.)


...Polly?"

Naruto returned to an empty house-a helpful shadow clone informed him Even and the kids had been safely escorted to Mark's as planned-but even that news proved bittersweet; because he saw the tense look in the eyes of his doppelganger. He didn't need to ask what the problem; he already knew.

He could sense Polly upstairs in the bedroom readily enough; feel her vitals flickering.

His stomach sank even as few quick strides carried him up the stairs to her.

There she lay sprawled out on the bed, pretty as a picture.

She'd dolled herself up with makeup and chosen a little black number of a dress for their date...but...

.

..

...there was blood on her dress.

She granted him a weak smile. "I'm fine."

"You're not fine." he sat beside her. "Have you eaten anything today?"

Her silence was telling, as was her pained expression. "Don't tell the kids."

.

..

...do you want to die?"

It was a simple question with near galactic consequences. Yet he had to ask all the same. He sat by Polly's bedside, held her hand and awaited her answer.

On the surface she appeared calm, even healthy to the naked eye. He knew better. Saw deeper. Everything. Without him, she wouldn't even be alive right now. Devastating damage had been done to her body, her every organ was in dire need of repair and some were on the verge of outright collapse without constant care. Every day it took just a little longer to heal her. He could feel her slipping through his fingers.

Was that what she wanted?

To perish with pride and die as a human?

Did it mean that much to her? What was the point of pride if it got you killed?

She squeezed his hand and smiled at him, the same smile he'd first fallen for a lifetime before. "What do you think I want, dearest?

Well that was a proper loaded question, wasn't it? He said as much. "That a trick question or something?"

"No." He loved the way her eyes creased when she laughed, even now. "I won't lie, there are times when I wonder if it would better for me to give up-

His hands clamped down on hers. "Not an option."

"Hmhmmhmm." She hummed and laid her head back against the pillow. "So possessive. I don't dislike that about you."

You tease. Not gonna give me any hints?"

Her eyes met his, almost glowing in the low light. "I want to live with purpose." She lived her chin to look at him. "I won't accept anything less; I can't bear the idea of being a burden to you."

He burst to his feet. "You're not!"

"I AM!" Polly's subsequent shout startled him; that burst of energy seemed to take something from her; her shoulders slumped and the light almost seemed to dim in her eyes. "Maybe you don't want to admit it, but I am." her hands squeezed his, they were so weak that he wanted to weep. "As I am now, I'm a chain holding you back, an anchor weighing you down. You'll drown if you try to cling to me.

"Polly-

He immediately tried to refuse her and received a weak pinch on the arm for his troubles.

"I am." Her eyes recovered a flicker of their old fire for a moment. "All it takes is some psycho holding me hostage and they'll have you by the balls. At least the kids can defend themselves in a pinch." she looked askance with a bitter smile. "I can barely throw a punch. A stray bullet could take me out...

"The kids need their mother."

"They also need their father." Her counter proved swift. "You're stronger than me, you can protect them."

"Wait." Realization coiled around his heart, an ugly gnarled root threatening to choke him. "That's why you're so hesitant about this? Why you've been putting it off?"

"You said it yourself, didn't you?" she pressed a finger to his lips, silencing him. "That machine the Mauler Twins made...it duplicates consciousness. It doesn't transfer. Should we use it, there would be two of me walking around. As entertaining as that would be for awhile, and really kinky," she giggled a little behind her hand, "I think I would start to hate the other me after awhile. Seeing her hale, happy and healthy while I'm stuck in this ruined shell of a body, it would be too painful...

"We could take your brain, find a way to transfer-

"Would I even remember you? Would I still be me? Be honest, now."

He grimaced. "There's a small chance you might not."

...I see." She bit her lip.

"But its only a small chance! Less that one percent!

"Even so, I want you to be the best you can be. To be happy."

Easy for her to say! Frantic, he tried to steer the conversation to warmer waters. "That why you're so keen on that threesome with War Woman?"

"Hey!" she sputtered and slapped his arm with a giggle. "I like what I like!" She tried to continue, only for her laugh tt dissolved into a wrenching cough. "I know I don't have long." her hand batted away a thin red line from the corner of her mouth. "Have faith." both her hands cupped his cheek. "I'm sure we'll find a way."

"And if we don't?"

She laid her head against his shoulder. "Our story won't end here. I won't let it."

Why didn't she understand? "You say that like its simple, but it really isn't that easy, morals mean nothing if you're dying-

The door creaked open behind them and quite suddenly, all his own fears became the absolute least of his concerns. "...W-What?"

Damnit.

He pivoted a heartbeat too late, knowing exactly who he would find there.

Sure enough, Samantha Eve Uzumaki stood silhouetted in the door, eyes wide, a pillow clutched in her arms.

"Eve? When did you get back-

"You're dying." it wasn't a question this time. Something in her seemed to break as she said the words.

"I am." Polly gave her a small, sad smile. "Come here, sweetie."

Eve didn't need to be told twice; she vaulted the bed and all but dove into Polly's lap, practically squirming between the two of them. He couldn't even bring himself to be angry at her for the interruption; she was still so young and the idea of losing Polly must've terrified her; sage knew it horrified him. He despised this feeling, this powerlessness, the knowledge that words

"Don't tell your siblings," he cautioned her. "Joshua and the others wouldn't understand. We're still trying to fix this-no, we WILL fix this."

Polly's silence wounded him more than words; her nod did little to reassure him

Eve snuggled close with a desperate nod, trusting in them implicitly.

He and Polly held her tight; what else could they possibly do?

In that moment, Naruto finally made his decision.

He couldn't bear to lose this...he just couldn't.

One way or another, he would save his wife.

No matter the cost, nor the painful price.

Even if he had to sell his very soul.

So be it.

A/N: Aaaaaaaand scene.

I think we'll call it a day there.

Would you like weekly updates? Do let me know?

What chaos awaits? Who will live? Who will die?! Find out next time, on Apples and Atoms~!

Well? What say you? Do you want this to remain a story? Yes? No? Maybe so? Make yourselves heard! Really need to hear from you, here.

Once more, we're sticking with the "Embers" rule for this particular story, and others. If folks don't like this, it won't be continued. Meaning that if the story itself isn't popular? Well...I'll not continue it. I'm working two jobs -might need a third soon!- so I barely have time to write; as such, I cannot afford to write something folks don't enjoy.

So by all means, speak up! Your voice matters! Make yourself heard! As ever, reviews are the fuel that sustain me. Without them I cannot write a single word. Simple as that. Working nearly all hours of the day keep me absurdly busy, and I can't bring myself to write something folks don't like.

Aaaand there we go. As ever, reviews keep me alive. Without them, I cannot write. So...in the Immortal Words of Atlas...

...Review...Would You Kindly? Hope you enjoy the previews.

We've got some new ones and some are...intense.

They've been expanded and then some!

Read at your own risk:

WARNING! WARNING! WARNING!

SPOILERS AWAIT YOU!

YE BE WARNED!

(Previews)

A building crumbled A child screamed and covered their face, desperate not to see the end of their life.

He raced their way. War Woman beat him to it.

Great. The last thing he needed was the Guardians.

"We need to talk.

"Do we? I have nothing to say...

He walked away, only for her to grab his wrist. "Not this time! Talk to me!

Blue eyes flitted down to her fingers, still gripping his arm. "Let go."

She didn't; of course she didn't, the stubborn girl.

"Not until you hear me out!"

"I'm warning you...


"I came to this world with a purpose, son. I'm practically the last of my kind. And as my eldest child, there are...certain things you should know."

Joshua listened, rapt with attention. "What things, dad?"

Naruto sighed. "Lemme tell you about chakra...


"Daaaaaad!"

"No buts! Eat your veggies, missy!"


"Unbelievable." Cecil flung down a sheaf of papers on his desk as Ferguson looked on. "Simply unbelievable.

"Sir...?"

"Just look at this!" if looks could kill, the news articles would be a pile of smoldering ashes and his desk with a good bit of the floor besides. "We've got heroes AND villains coming out the woodwork to speak in support of this guy. The media's eating it up. And we're the ones left holding the bag."

Of course they were! A family of six kidnapped and experimented on for twelve years. Who cared if that technically wasn't the truth? It was close enough, and if people loved a good tragedy, they loved a comeback story even more. He'd forgotten just how well-loved Fire Shadow had been by the people. This boded poorly for the GDA. Erickson might be dead-he hoped so, although that slimy worm always seemed to have a backup plan- yet his actions just might see everything they'd ever built run into the ground.

They had to turn things around. But how...?


"You must be Rex." The man stood before him, idly wiping blood from his hair. "Your boss had good things to say about you...before I popped his skull."

Ah, shit. That would explain all the blood then, wouldn't it? He looked like he'd gone through a blender.

The boy raised his hands. "Whoa, whoa! I don't want any trouble."

"No, son. No, you do not.


"Had enough?"

He planted a fist in the dirt and took a long, shuddering breath.

I don't care how fast you are. I don't care how strong you are, and I don't give a s**t how smart you are. I know your future. You don't live to see tomorrow.

Blood flew through the air.

Is this still fun?!" he slammed his fist down. "Are you enjoying yourself?! Having fun?! Well?! Answer me!


...what are you?

"Just a family man." he took a long sip from his mug. "Thula, was it? Run along now." his fingers flicked out in a shooing motion. "I'm not in the mood." A thought occurred to him and he cocked his head. "Unless you want to fight. It won't end well. That blade in your hair won't help you."

...I am not here to fight. I am here to talk."

"Go on, then." he took a long drink. "Talk. You have one minute."


"You look lonely. I can fix that."

Naruto pivoted in the air, annoyed to find someone behind him. "And you are?

...Anissa." the woman's grin only grew. "You're certainly strong for one of your kind. Exceptionally strong."

His brow furrowed. "One of my kind?"

Her fist slammed in at his face.

He caught it, wrenched her arm down and behind her back. From there, he glared at her shoulder over her. "Had enough?"

She had not; much to his surprise her grin only grew and she leaned into him, pressing her full figure against his chest. "Enough?" she tilted her head back to grin up at him, eyes bright, a wide smile wreathing her face. It almost made her look human. "Why would this be ever be enough?" He could feel her muscles straining against his, taut and excited. "You're impressive! Most impressive! I can see why you beat-

He whirled and tossed her upward with a vicious twist, sending her flying into the clouds. "You talk too much. Cool off in the atmosphere."

The moment he turned away, her feet barreled headlong into his back. "Then I'll speak another language!"

An elbow barreled down into her neck and plunged her into the ocean below. "Right back at ya!"

The water erupted and then Anissa was on him again, grinning like a madwoman.

"Yes, that's the way! HIT ME HARDER!"

EDIT: Hope this story brightened your day and made things better, even if only a little.

Looking forward to chatting with you all when I get back from work~!

May you have a great day and lots of luck!

Warm regards,

~Nz.

R&R~!